Napoléon III et la reine Victoria. Une visite à l’Exposition Universelle de 1855.

Napoleon III and the Queen Victoria Compiègne, Musée national du Château, from 4 October 2008 to 19 January 2009.

1. Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873)
Portrait of the Queen Victoria, 1842
Oil on canvas - 133 x 97 cm
Versailles, musée national du château
Photo : RMN / Gérard Blot

Among the many exhibitions vying for the public’s attention in this particularly busy fall season, the one in Compiègne is without a doubt one of the best, spectacular as well as erudite, skillfully blending history and art history. It is accompanied by a rich catalogue of excellent essays though, once again, we regret that the objects in the illustrations do not present even the briefest of entries [1]. The excellent museography is also to be commended (ill. 4 and 7) as it does not bow to the fashion of dim lighting, except for the first room for obvious conservation reasons in the case of drawings and engravings. The very detailed signs reflect a very much appreciated pedagogical concern.

When Queen Victoria crossed the Channel in 1855 she was the first English sovereign to make an official visit to France since 1520. The event was thus of major importance and marked the permanent reconciliation of these two nations, already initiated under the reign of Louis-Philippe despite the affair of the Spanish princesses. The visit was a definite success, sealing the friendship between Napoleon III and Eugénie with Victoria and Albert, and setting off popular enthusiasm. During her stay in Paris, the queen attended the Exposition Universelle, the second one after that of London in 1851. She was a guest at many fêtes, visited Versailles, the Louvre and numerous other sights. Victoria even went to Napoleon’s tomb ! This rich historical context is remarkably described in the exhibition thanks to rarely known works, some of which come from the royal collections. The other section of the show is devoted to the Exposition Universelle and to the relations between French and English art, focusing on how France welcomed British artists.

Visitors are greeted by Queen Victoria herself in a portrait by Winterhalter (ill. 1). The work dates from 1842, a year before Victoria travelled to France for the first time to meet Louis-Philippe during a private visit. The relations between the French king and the queen of England are illustrated in watercolours by Eugène Lami and François-Marius Granet, while the interest of English artists in France during the Restauration and the Monarchie de Juillet is revealed notably with View of the château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye by Turner.
The Emperor and the Empress’ visit to Windsor in April of that same year is also evoked. At the same time, the Crimean war was violently being played out. This international context is described thanks to lithographs and photographic documents. Crimea was in fact the first war to be covered by the recently discovered medium.

2. William Wyld (1806-1889)
View of the château de Saint-Cloud, 1855
Watercolour and gouache - 32.2 x 46.5 cm
Windsor Castle, Royal Library
Photo : The Royal Collection

3. Jean-Baptiste-Fortuné de Fournier (1798-1864)
Bathroom of the Empress Eugénie in Saint-Cloud
Occupied by Queen Victoria
, 1855
Watercolour - 22 x 31 cm
Compiègne, Musée national du château
Photo : RMN

The arrival of photography seems to have intensified activity on the part of watercolour and lithograph artists, as if they felt threatened by the new technique. Thus Victoria’s visit is incredibly well-documented, each stage of the trip giving rise to dozens of representations. The choice of works is remarkable. Particularly striking is the View of the château de Saint-Cloud (ill. 2) where the artist, William Wyld, attempts to demonstrate the superior qualities of watercolour and gouache over those of photography, achieving a very precise and at the same time a very sensitive rendering, in color, of this château where Victoria stayed during her visit, today destroyed. Even the queen’s and Prince Albert’s apartments were represented in watercolour (ill. 3).
The Queen of England’s arrival in Saint-Cloud was illustrated in a large painting by Charles-Louis Müller, lost during the fire in the château. There is a beautiful study here of the general view (ill. 4) and several preparatory studies for the figures in the painting, all held in the Queen of England’s collection.

4. Charles-Louis Müller (1815-1892)
Arrival of H. M. the Queen to the Palais
de Saint-Cloud
, c. 1855
Oil and pencil on canvas - 73 x 59,7 cm
London, Buckingham Palace, Royal Collection
Photo : The Royal Collection

5. Exhibition Napoléion III and Victoria
Salle des Gardes
Château de Compiègne
Photo : D. Rykner

6. Jean Zuber & Cie
Eugène Ehrmann (1804-1896),
Glacial Sea
Painted paper - 240 x 269 cm
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs
Photo : D. Rykner

The Salle des Gardes presents a selection of art works exhibited at the Palais de l’Industrie during the Exposition universelle (ill. 5). Visitors can admire some examples of wallpaper including Glacial Sea from the Zuber house (ill. 6), part of an ensemble which evokes on a reduced scale the fashion for bourgeois interiors recalling the great panoramas painted during the first half of the century. This vision of the polar regions may also be related to the large paintings by François Biard of the arctic.
The furniture and art objects reflect the variety and originality in artistic production during that period, dominated largely by France and, to a lesser extent, England. Just like for architecture, furniture blends all of the styles from the past in an eclectic manner which becomes totally original. Among the works on display, only a jewelry case by Charon brothers (cabinetmakers) and Julien-Nicolas Rivart (marquetry artist), acquired by Compiègne in 2002, comes close to his models of Louis XVI style. Several other pieces of furniture however reveal the unlimited creativity of eclecticism, notably a Cabinet by Edouard Kresser and a Bonheur-du-jour (escritoire) by Alphonse Girous et Cie with vegetable décor which is almost Art Nouveau (ill. 7).

7. Alphonse Giroux & Cie
Bonheur-du-jour, 1855
141 x 91 x 64 cm
Compiègne, musée national du château
Photo : RMN / Franck Raux

8. Exhibition Napoléion III and Victoria
Hall of Columns
Château de Compiègne
Photo : D. Rykner

The hall of columns on the ground floor (ill. 8) is devoted to works exhibited at the Salon of 1855 which was part of the Exposition universelle, presenting a juxtaposition of art in France and England. The French selection offers notably the very beautiful Lehmann, The Desolation of the Ocean Nymphs, as well as paintings by Hippolyte Flandrin, Théodore Chassériau and Eugène Delacroix, in some cases studies of the larger paintings which could not travel here (The Lion Hunt by Chassériau) or are now destroyed (Ingres’ ceiling for City Hall). Prince Albert particularly appreciated one work, The Brawl by Ernest Meissonnier (ill. 9) which the Emperor purchased and then presented to him as a birthday gift.

9. Ernest Meissonnier (1815-1891)
The Brawl, 1855
Oil on panel - 44 x 56 cm
London, Royal Collection
Photo : The Royal Collection

10. John Gibson (1790-1866)
Hylas Abducted by the Nymphs,
Marble - 160 x 1194 x 71,.8 cm
London, Tate Gallery
Photo : D. Rykner

Public interest in the English painters is dampened by art critics who often pointed out their inability to produce great historical compositions. Genre scenes are indeed more numerous here. There are notably works by William Mulready (Choosing the Wedding Gown, The Brother and Sister) and Frederik Landseer although there are also corresponding French works, no less anecdotic in content, by Octave Penguilly-L’Haridon (The Gambling House) and The Brawl by Meissonier, mentioned above. English history is also present with Chaucer at the Court of Edward III by Ford Madox Brown. Joseph Noel Paton’s The Argument between Oberon and Titania represents Shakespearean subjects, as Millais’ Ophelia is not here. It would be judicious to refrain from making any generalities based on a reduced selection of works which can only give a partial idea of an exhibition which included several hundred paintings.
The visitor can also enjoy some sculptures scattered throughout the show, revealing notably the classical current pursued by English artists directly from Canova such as Hylas Abducted by the Nymphs by John Gibson (ill. 10).

Like many of the current exhibitions, Napoleon III et la reine Victoria has been dressed up with the label “European cultural season”, a laughable attempt to make the public think it was organized under the auspices of the French presidency of the European Union. A testimony to Franco-British friendship, this act of political recuperation could, for once, almost seem justified.

Curators : Emmanuel Starcky and Laure Chabanne, assisted by Caroline Lahaye.

Collective work, Napoléon III et la reine Victoria, une visite à l’Exposition universelle de 1855, Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2008, 272 p., 49 €. ISBN : 978-2-7118-5507-0.

Visitor Information : Château de Compiègne, Place du Général de Gaulle, 60200 Compiègne. Phone : +33 (0)3 44 38 47 02. Open daily, except Tuesday from 10.00 to 18.00 (last admission : 17.15). Rates (exhibition and museum) : 8.50 and 6.50 €.

Website of the Château de Compiègne

Didier Rykner, samedi 15 novembre 2008


[1] All the more frustrating as the catalogue does not refer back to the illustrations.

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