Napoleon III

Napoleon III

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© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Franz-Xaver Winterhalter painted this portrait of Napoleon III in 1857. It is the symbol of a newfound French grandeur.
It is therefore a serene sovereign, at the height of his power, of whom Winterhalter portrayed.

Image Analysis

The Emperor is shown in formal attire. He wears a black frock coat, with the rosette of the Legion of Honor on the buttonhole, a gray waistcoat with a watch chain and gray pants.
Although unsigned and little known, this portrait has always been attributed to Winterhalter. It was to be the counterpart of that of Empress Eugenie, entitled The Straw Hat, which also dates from 1857. The latter is slightly smaller, but also oval, and we find in these two works identical play of light, and the same rustic background. The idea of ​​this double commission was born when the painter was invited by the imperial couple to spend a week in Fontainebleau, at the end of November 1856.


There are very few portraits of Napoleon III painted by Winterhalter. The artist has much more often represented Empress Eugenie, of whom he was the favorite painter. When his first portrait of the Emperor - an official full-length portrait - was shown at the Exposition Universelle des Beaux-Arts in 1855, critics eloquently ignored him in order to exert their recrimination on the works dedicated to the Empress. , notably the famous composition Empress Eugenie surrounded by her ladies of honor. This 1857 portrait has not been the subject of any public exhibition and therefore has not been subjected to the perceptive gaze of art critics of the time.
According to Doctor Evans, a dentist to the Imperial Family, the Emperor was short, with a massive head, light brown hair and a waxed mustache. Winterhalter embellishes and flatters its model. Implementing an old trend, usual with him, he "corrects nature": Napoleon III here seems taller and straighter than he was in reality.
On the other hand, the sovereign's elegance, probably acquired through contact with the British gentry during his years of exile in England, is faithfully restored. Napoleon III had an English tailor, Henry Creed. “He was always dressed smartly, and we usually saw him in public, when he wasn't wearing the uniform, wearing a black frock coat. (Dr Evans: Memoirs, flight. I, 1905, p. 41).
As for the Emperor's face, it is expressionless and smooth. It does not reveal the personality of the model. He locks him in a dignified and serene reserve. This is a private portrait, which was not intended to be reproduced and disseminated. It is, of course, nicer and more endearing than the official portrait of 1854, of a grandiloquent majesty, but we are far from the image given of the sovereign Hippolyte Flandrin in his painting of 1861, where we subtly perceive the personality of the emperor despite the artificial nature of the pose and the decor.

  • Napoleon III
  • official portrait
  • Second Empire
  • Congress of Vienna
  • Crimean War
  • Legion of Honor
  • England


Jean TULARD (Dir) Dictionary of the Second Empire Paris, Fayard, 1995.Alain PLESSIS From the imperial festival to the federated wall Paris, Seuil, coll. "Point histoire", 1973. Collective "Should we rehabilitate Napoleon III?" " File History , n ° 211 June 1997 Collective Exhibition catalog: Franz-Xaver Winterhalter and the European Courts from 1830 to 1870 Museum of the Petit Palais, 1988.Dr EVANS Memories , flight. I1905, p. 41; Introduction, pp. 48-49 Wild, 1894, no.476.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "Napoleon III"

Video: Le règne bling-bling de Napoléon III