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SECOND EMPIRE FRENCH ANTIQUE FURNITURE & ART:  A time for Napoleonic redemption

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History has not been especially kind to Napoleon III. Neither have the French, who've never forgiven him for losing the Franco-Prussian War. Had that war ended differently, so might regard for Napoleon and his Second Empire be higher. Now comes a new appreciation for Second Empire Art in France under Napoleon III, a spectacular array of items that should go a long way toward restoring luster to Bonaparte's rule. The years from 1852 until 1870 were a period of ferment in French art and taste and the Imperial family made, in their own way, contributions to this aesthetic outburst that were considerable. In 1853, the novelist Theophile Gautier expressed concern about the confusion of the era when he observed that, "Today art has at its disposal only dead ideas, and formulas which no longer correspond to its needs. From this comes this uneasiness, this vagueness, this diffusion, this facility for passing from one extreme to another, this eclecticism, and the cosmopolitanism, this traveling in all possible worlds which leads from the Byzantine to the daguerreotype, from a far-fetched mannerism to a deliberate brutality."

While few objects reflect, when individually regarded, the disintegration of old values in the face of modern complexity or the presumed absence of forceful new principles to replace them, Gautier's sense of apprehension is central to an understanding of the aesthetic tenor of the period and the critical context within which these works were created. Napoleon himself made no serious pretense of trying to influence the era's artistic direction. Indeed, the Emperor never hid the fact that he had little appreciation for the arts in any form whatsoever. However, he did display a great interest in the technological advances of the day - the application of the new metal aluminum, for instance - and, when it served other purposes, he did turn his attention to artistic matters.

Such was the case when he decided, around 1860, to have the Imperial palaces completely refurnished. No doubt he also saw in this the opportunity to provide work for an entire sector of the economy - namely craftsmen in silk, trimmings, and cabinetry. Redecorating the palaces would assure work for several thousand craftsmen in the artistic trades. Despite the Emperor's lack of aesthetic appreciation, the Imperial couple often entertained certain artists and writers, and some - such as Prosper Merimee, author of ‘Carmen’, the painter Eugene Lami and the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux - were much closer to the throne, personally and professionally, than artists had ever been before.

2nd Empire French pieces range from a silver dressing table, aswarm with cupids and caryatids, designed by Emile Reiber in 1867, to the "Nicolle" jug, a porcelain pitcher whose handle is a sprightly nude figure, that was designed in 1862 by Joseph Nicolle; from an oak medal cabinet by E. Brandely and Charles-Guillaume Diehl with Emmanuel Fremiet's bas relief of Merovee (the Prankish king who once defeated Attila), to a graceful ewer by Baccarat. The entire range of the period's artistic production includes architectural drawings, decorative arts, sculpture, paintings, drawings and photography. And the results of the period are certainly impressive. Paris and Marseilles, which were completely transformed during this period, can accurately be called Second Empire cities - no small accomplishment in itself. If Napoleon III is blamed for the dream that was lost, he should be given credit for the gains that were won.

For the great architect and restorer Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, there was no doubt about the imperial splendor: "In France," he claimed, "perhaps no other government has shown a greater interest in the arts than that of the present. Within the space of a dozen years, more buildings have been constructed than since the time of Louis XIV." Quite a few of them were constructed by Viollet-le-Duc himself. Through his friend Prosper Merimee, who worked tirelessly to preserve historic buildings, he got the job of restoring the great Romanesque abbey at Vezelay. When Merimee first saw the abbey, on one of his inspection tours of historic monuments, it was almost a total ruin. He was reportedly even more appalled by the local food. Now the town has a number of excellent restaurants, and what amounts to a brand new twelfth-century church.

Vezelay was such a success that Viollet-le-Duc was flooded with commissions. At Carcassonne he built a whole new city, far grander than any real medieval town that has survived. He formed our idea of the Middle Ages, adding a steeple to Notre Dame in Paris, towers and a facade to the cathedral at Clermont-Ferrand. He rebuilt the chateau at Pierrefonds from a total ruin, but his new creation was too much for the Empress Eugenie.

Like Stanford White, Viollet-le-Duc liked to design the interiors as well as the structures. At Roquetaillade, north of Bordeaux, he created two almost identical double rooms, with paneled walls and coffered ceilings. The hanging armoire from the Rose Room in the exhibition is white and gold, though we think of Gothic, old or new, as dark. Even William Morris, the great English craftsman and designer, who converted all of Europe to medievalism, admitted that he was influenced by Viollet-le-Duc in this phase.

While Viollet-le-Duc's work stands for the medieval, ‘vieille’ France side, Albert-Ernest Carrier Belleuse recreated the brightness and vivaciousness of the ‘ancien regime’. He did a lot of work for jewelers and goldsmiths, and later for Minton and Sevres, but they did not have his scale. Perhaps Belleuse's finest creation was the sculptured decoration for the Marquise de Paiva's private hotel on the Champs Elysees, which was paid for by the Marquise's admirer Count Henckel von Donnersmarck. With its marble and malachite, its Olympian forest of gilded bronze, it is one of the masterpieces of the Second Empire. This inner sanctum of femininity is now occupied by the Travellers Club, which would probably have pleased La Paiva.

Carpeaux was as much of a court sculptor as the regime ever had. He is certainly well regarded in the current reappraisal of nineteenth-century sculpture. His portrait of Princess Mathilde, who had charge of literary affairs for the Imperial family, is an extraordinary mix of intimacy and commanding grace, while his ‘Dance’ group is the artistic triumph of the Empire's most typical monument, the Paris Opera. His most popular work was his standing figure of the ‘Prince Imperial mith His Dog Nero’ - even the dogs had Imperial names. Long after the fall of the Empire and the death of the prince, this statue was a best-seller in reproductions and reductions, and people bought it without the imperial title.

Even the cameos of this period were colossal. ‘The Apotheosis of Napoleon I’, commissioned from Adolphe David by Napoleon III, is the largest cameo of modern times, and the second largest in the world. As David wrote to Count Nieuwerkerke, the sculptor who was Director of National Museums and the lover of Princess Mathilde, "It is a monument such as one does in architecture, but even more durable." The Hope Cup, with enamel and gold sculptured decoration by Pierre Alexandre Schoenewerk, was cut from a jasper block weighing eighty pounds.

Christofle & Cie specialized in silverplate, so successfully that in 1867 it employed 1,418 people. When Maximilian set up housekeeping in Mexico he ordered a 4,938-piece service to outshine Napoleon Ill's in imperial splendor. Two hundred and thirty-eight of its pieces remain in the possession of Mexican museums.

Carlier's and Froment-Meurice's chased bronze cup is covered with enough sculpture for a fountain. The bowl of this imperial centerpiece was made out of several pieces of rock crystal whose joins were amazingly concealed by putti and twisting metal tendrils.

During the Second Empire, furniture was designed with equal abandon. When Eugenie became pregnant, the City of Paris claimed the honor of preparing a cradle. Baron Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine, had unlimited credit for the project from the municipal council, and he needed it. The cradle - made of rosewood, gilded siver, silver and painted enamels and fashioned, with a multiplicity of symbols, in the form of a boat - cost 750,000 francs (the equivalent of $1.5 million today), which must make it one of the world's most expensive pieces of furniture.

When you look into the empress's graceful and svelte cheval glass, you feel that you should be able to see what it so often saw, but there is nothing there. Sights are forever lost. This looking glass is light and airy, but much of the furniture is solid and dark Henri II. One of the more spectacular pieces in the massy mode is a Merovingian medal cabinet, a Gaulish piece in Romanesque style by Brandely, "a bold strange artist, an enterprising man with spontaneity," as he was described at the time. It is wonderful to have Eugenie's mirror, but it does not tell you half as much about the great interiors as some of the paintings in the exhibition. Gerome's ‘Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie at Fontainebleau, June 27, 1861’, makes one a guest and a participant, like Merimee, at an incredible spectacle. "Imagine a man as ugly as an ape, bedecked in gold brocade, wearing a picador's hat surmounted by a sort of gilt cone, crawling along on his elbows and knees and holding in both hands a vase containing the letters from his sovereign. At every moment the vase shook and the hat wobbled as though it was about to come off. The whole retinue advanced in the same way," Merimee wrote. The eighty portraits in the painting, made from drawings and from photographs by Gerome's friend Nadar, are overwhelmed by the great Renaissance room with its frescoes and stuccoed decorations.

2nd Empire also coincided with the golden age of photography, with a good run of Nadar, including Gautier. Sculptures include some of the most spectacular works such as Rodin's ‘Young Girl with Roses in Her Hair’, a work of genius, if genius is a capacity for surprise. But the hit is Cain's astounding ‘Vulture and Sphinx’. Though it was made in 1864, it seems to foretell the disaster that overwhelmed the dynasty and the country six years later.