Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Aesthetic Truth: Notes on Empress Eugénie - Previewed Franz Winterhalter Portrait Exhibition - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Franz X. Winterhalter, Empress Eugénie,
(Wedding Portrait
,) (Copy) oil on canvas

Eugénie produced the required male heir, with the Pope as god-father, then nagged her cheating husband into expanding the Empire..." (Inspired by Franz Winterhalter's portrait of Empress Eugénie, Virginia Billeaud Anderson discusses Eugénie's aesthetically elevated taste in fashion, jewels and decor, as well as her ambition.)

Aesthetic Truth: Notes on Empress Eugénie - Previewed Franz Winterhalter Portrait Exhibition, MFAH

I was invited to preview the exhibition High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and was stopped in my tracks by the artist's brushwork. Winterhalter’s rendering of fabric and frou-frou rivals Gainsborough’s. This guy paints flesh flawlessly. These days you're not supposed to care about technical skill, but one look at his handling of cream-colored satin in young Queen Victoria’s gown was all it took for me to wish that proficiency still mattered.

Four of the 45 portraits in High Society are of Empress Eugénie, who inspires this essay. I have been interested in Eugénie ever since the mid-1980s when I came upon her apartments in the Louvre. And recalled that her husband Napoleon III introduced France to avant-garde art when he established the Salon des Refusés to exhibit artworks rejected from the official Salon. Eugénie disliked the new art being shown, in fact she found Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, exhibited in the 1863 Refusés, scandalous and called it “obscene."

The odds were against the Spanish born Eugénie hooking Napoleon III because he believed the alliance was not politically advantageous. Eugénie's intelligence, however, Merimee and Stendhal were her intellectual companions, helped her overcome obstacles to marriage, some of which were formidable. Napoleon’s many mistresses for instance, or his habit, according to the charming writer Otto Friedrich, of using a “minister of pleasure” to procure sexual encounters. Hoochy-koochy man indeed, although Napoleon's priapic tendencies fell short of those of his exiled enemy Victor Hugo.

Worn down by Eugénie’s strategy of virtue and rejection,
only through the chapel, Sir,” Napoleon proposed, but only after Europe’s royal families refused his offers of dynastic marriage. Eugénie de Montijo’s noble family would have regarded Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s Corsican ancestry insufficiently aristocratic, straddled against her sister’s husband the Duke of Alba, but apparently Napoleon’s job as President of the French Republic and then its coup d’état-installed Emperor overcame defective lineage.

Having successfully anchored “the imperial libido” into holy matrimony, E
ugénie produced the required male heir, with the Pope as god-father, then nagged her cheating husband into expanding the Empire. Napoleon’s ill-conceived, exceedingly dumb 1870 declaration of war on Prussia “for the glory of France” resulted in his surrender and the return of the Republic. 
Eugénie was forced to flee  the angry mobs that stormed the Tuileries palace, and hide in her American dentist’s home, from which she snuck off to Deauville, then caught a yacht to England where she resided for life. Try to imagine Madame escaping disguised in an unbecoming carriage.

Detractors describe a haughty empty-headed woman who cared only for jewels and clothes, and was too pleased to rule France while her husband conducted war or was distracted by illness. Yet, she set standards. I'm interested in Eugénie’s elevated taste, her aesthetic truth.

Which begins with the ravishing
gowns recorded in the portraits. The Empress dictated Second Empire fashion rules, fashionable ladies naturally followed her lead. She helped innovate fashion by collaborating with haute couturier Charles Frederick Worth to replace stiff crinoline under-garments with a more sensual figure-hugging silhouette with bustle. These stylistic ingenuities were an important curatorial theme at the museum’s exhibition.

Even more memorable are her jewels. From the time she married in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and banked wedding gifts from the Emperor, Eugénie acquired an astonishing jewel collection. The pearl and diamond tiara and a six-strand pearl necklace that superbly frames Madame’s décolletage in Winterhalter’s 1853wedding” portrait are n
otable. Among her jewels displayed in the Louvre, I’m partial to the sapphire and diamond pieces, even if Eugénie favored emeralds because they enhanced her complexion. The Empress's love of emeralds is in fact documented in a May 1887 auction catalogue item description (the Republic sold Crown Jewels to subsidize the treasury) which references an emerald and diamond diadem “worn by the Royal Princess, and then by Empress Eugénie who particularly esteemed emeralds.”

The opulent gilded rooms in the Louvre reveal the Empress’ taste in interior design. Eugénie collected eighteenth-century Louis XVI furniture and decorative objects, some of which belonged to Antoinette, and mixed them with less grandiose, more comfortable contemporary Second Empire furniture. The eclectic blend of furniture paired with Rococo and Neo-classical stylistic architectural details has an intoxicating effect. Zola made bitchy comments about Second Empire bastardization of styles, but the young Proust was pleased to suck up to old hens who had been acquainted with Eugénie and ran salons in homes with Second Empire décor. Proust literarily described Odette’s arriviste drawing-room as “invaded by the eighteenth century.”

Napoleon III Apartments in the Louvre

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