Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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


"...obstacles to marriage such as Napoleon’s many mistresses, some formidable..."


Aesthetic Truth: Empress Eugénie - Franz Winterhalter Portrait Exhibition

I genuflected when I saw Franz Winterhalter's brushwork in High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (through August 14.)  Winterhalter’s rendering of fabric and frou-frou rivals Gainsborough’s, he paints flesh flawlessly.  One close look at this artist's handling of cream-colored satin in young Queen Victoria’s gown was all it took for me to regret that skill and proficiency no longer matter in brush work.

Among the 45 portraits in “High Society,” four are of Empress Eugénie, and it is she 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 exposed the public to avant-garde art by establishing the Salon des Refusés for the exhibition of artworks rejected from the official Salon.  Eugénie disliked the radical new art she saw in the Refusés, in her opinion Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” exhibited in the 1863 Refusés was scandalous, she called it “obscene."

The odds were against the Spanish born Eugénie hooking
Napoleon III, who felt the alliance was not politically advantageous. With Merimee and Stendhal however as intellectual companions, Eugénie's intelligence helped her to overcome obstacles to marriage such as Napoleon’s many mistresses, some formidable, as well as his habit, according to the charming writer Otto Friedrich, of using a “minister of pleasure” to procure sexual encounters. Although it’s been well documented that the Emperor’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 could hardly have regarded Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s Corsican ancestry sufficiently 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, the Pope was 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” unfortunately resulted in his surrender and the return of the Republic.  Ahead of angry mobs which stormed the Tuileries palace, Eugénie hid in her American dentist’s home, from which she escaped to Deauville, then caught a yacht to England where she resided for life.  Try to imagine Madame disguised and in an unbecoming carriage.

I’m interested in Eugénie’s taste for beautiful things.  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.  Their disdain does not negate her role in creating the beauty with which she surrounded herself.  I’m moved by that beauty.

Assessment of Eugénie’s aesthetic truth easily begins with the ravishing
gowns recorded in the portraits.  Unsurprisingly the Empress dictated Second Empire fashion rules, fashionable ladies naturally followed her lead, but she also innovated by collaborating with haute couturier Charles Frederick Worth to replace stiff crinoline under-garments with a more sensual figure-hugging silhouette with bustle, and these stylistic ingenuities were an important curatorial theme at the museum’s exhibition.

Her jewels caused my vapors.  From the time she married in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and banked wedding gifts from the Emperor, Eugénie had been acquiring an astonishing jewel collection.  Notable are the pearl and diamond tiara and a six-strand pearl necklace which superbly frames Madame’s décolletage in Winterhalter’s 1853wedding” portrait.  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.  Her 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’ inspiring 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 overall 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.”




Images: Franz X. Winterhalter, Empress Eugénie, (Wedding Portrait,) (Copy) oil on canvas
Napoleon III Apartments in the Louvre


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