The Pompeian house of Joseph Napoleon by Gustave Boulanger

The Pompeian house of Joseph Napoleon by Gustave Boulanger

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Rehearsal of the "Flute Player" and of the "Woman of Diomedes" with Prince Napoleon

© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / Daniel Arnaudet

Publication date: May 2016

Historical context

If the first excavations of the city of Pompeii, discovered in 1748, surprised and sometimes disappointed amateurs and artists such as Joseph-Marie Vien, those carried out in the XIXe century reveal a completely different dimension of the archaeological site.

In the XVIIIe century, scholars expect to discover large sculpted pieces such as the Laocoon. One of the foundational works on the city, titled The ruins of Pompeii, published by Richard Mazois with a text by the art historian Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, did not appear until 1819. The villa of Diomedes contains, for example, eighteen charred bodies, whose imprint of a woman's breast preserved today in the Museum of Naples.

This ultimately tragic and, for some, alluring common destiny ignites the imagination of many writers and gives Pompeii a special aura in the collective imagination, beyond the scope of archaeological excavations.

In 1855, Prince Joseph Charles Paul Napoleon, known as Plon-Plon, cousin of Napoleon III, decided to build a villa entirely inspired by those of Pompeii, to the tastes of his mistress, the tragedian Rachel, emblematic performer of several pieces by ancient theater. Some photographs and Gustave Boulanger's painting are the only vestiges of its splendor.

Image Analysis

On February 14, 1860, during the inauguration of the villa, in the presence of Napoleon III and his wife, Prince Napoleon organized parties in the antique style. Théophile Gautier takes part in it by creating a prologue in verse, The Wife of Diomedes, read by Mademoiselle Favart from the Théâtre-Français, and the play by Émile Augier, The Flute Player, is fully played.

In this painting, Gustave Boulanger, a Neo-Greek painter like Jean Léon Gérôme, therefore presents not a theatrical setting, but the interior of Joseph Napoleon's Pompeian house. At the Salon of 1855, the artist had already presented Rehearsal in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii (oil on canvas, St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum), making him one of the most suitable artists to represent the festivals of the emperor's cousin.

In this atrium, made up of Corinthian columns with shafts painted in red and yellow, there are figures dressed in ancient fashion and discussing art and literature. Théophile Gautier and Émile Augier are dressed in togas, while the actors have, more legitimately, put on their cothurnes. We can find Mademoiselle Favart and Madeleine Brohan, Got and Samson from the Comédie-Française, and Geffroy, portrayed realistically according to the critics of the time, including Théodore de Banville.

In addition to the representation of this rehearsal scene, which aims to be realistic, Boulanger above all scrupulously copied the architectural realization of this house. Despite the statue of Napoleon Ier, which recalls the descendants of the prince, the decorative elements of this piece constitute a formal homage to the patrician residences of Antiquity and were made by artists such as Gérôme and Sébastien Corun for the painted canvases, or Rossigneux for the furniture.


With good reason, a reviewer of the time saw this work as an architectural drawing. Indeed, despite its title and the action highlighted by Boulanger, the real stars of this work are neither the authors nor the actors famous in their time, but the architecture itself. It is precisely a matter of living the fantasy of a rediscovered Antiquity, and not of representing it through painting. This work has the power of evocation, and therefore of memory. It not only evokes Antiquity recreated by Hittorff, Normand or even Gérôme, who participated in the pictorial decoration of the atrium, but also the fantasy of time travel and homage to a time deemed ideal, pure and primitive. Gautier himself puts it this way: “Modern life has come to awaken ancient life. "

A dream born out of the imaginations of Rachel, Gautier and Prince Napoleon, this residence was sold in 1866 by the latter when he married Clotilde of Savoy and was exiled by his first cousin. Once exploited as a museum by Gautier and Houssaye, it quickly fell into ruins, thus joining the same fate as the villas of Pompeii.

  • neo-Greek
  • Napoleon III
  • antiquity
  • Gautier (Théophile)
  • architecture


GAUTIER Théophile, HOUSSAYE Arsène, COLIGNY Charles, The Pompeian palace: studies on the Greco-Roman house, former residence of Prince Napoleon, Paris, At the Pompey Palace, 1866.

MASCOLI Laura (dir.), Pompeii: works and consignments of French architects in the 19th century, cat. exp. (Paris, Naples, 1981), Paris, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 1981.

To cite this article

Saskia HANSELAAR, "The Pompeian house of Joseph Napoléon by Gustave Boulanger"

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