The (Second) Empire Strikes Back in the Must-See Show of Paris This Season

Napoléon III was a vain authoritarian who came to power in a wave of nationalist populism. His rule, marked by huge projects and garish tastes, ended very badly.

PARIS—For almost 150 years the French have tried to forget about Napoléon III and his "Second Empire." They will tell you it's because he led the country to disaster. But, really, it's because they don't want to remember how much they loved him before that happened.

In that respect, they're a little like the Germans with Hitler or the Italians with Mussolini or, until his recent rehabilitation at the hands of Vladimir Putin, the Russians with Stalin. But Napoléon III reigned long before any of those twentieth century tyrants, and as an example of authoritarian rule was much more nuanced.

He was a populist-nationalist elected president who declared himself emperor after arranging a coup. He stifled the press and jailed opponents. He waged wars around the world, but unlike the dictators a few decades later, he did not wage world wars.

Now by divine coincidence Napoléon III is being rediscovered in France just as the populist nationalism of Marine Le Pen threatens to turn the French government and the European Union upside down, and the election victory of Donald Trump in the United States has given huge impetus to “democratic” authoritarians around the globe.

At the end of September, the Orsay Museum opened a special exhibit dedicated to Napoléon III's "Spectaculaire Second Empire," and it has become the must-see show of the season.

After an hour or so wandering through its rooms full of famous paintings by Manet, Monet, Ingres, and Dégas, perusing rarely seen photographs of an emperor’s mistress, marveling at the over-the-top ornamentation of furniture, and ogling extraordinary crowns, tiaras, necklaces, pendants and pins—after all that, at this moment in political time one comes away pondering the history of that empire and thinking of paradigms that might fit the style and the substance of the new president of the United States.

There is no one-to-one equivalency, of course, but as if we were playing some Victorian parlor game, there are plenty of frivolous comparisons to be made.

One might begin with the question of interior décor. Napoléon III’s tastes were famously ornate, tending to red velvet, gold leaf, densely carved details, and the omnipresent “N” of the imperial seal.

Trump’s little Versailles in the sky atop his eponymous tower is also full of gilded furniture and crystal chandeliers, with frescoes on the ceiling, neo-classical 19th century artworks (“Apollo Led By Aurora”; “Eros and Psyche”; even a Renoir), and pillows embroidered with the imperial – er, Trump – family seal.

Napoléon III, formerly Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, spent much of his early life clinging to and building the brand of his uncle, the magnificent but defeated and deposed Napoléon I. Few others believed in him, but Louis-Napoléon was confident, just waiting for his own moment to come.

When an uprising against another monarch led to the creation of France’s Second Republic in 1848 and the holding of popular elections, Louis-Napoléon presented himself as a candidate for the national assembly, winning a seat, and in short order used his name recognition and national nostalgia to win election as president. But he was a virtual stranger to the French establishment. Even after he became president, he would say, “I do not know my friends, and my friends do not know me.” He had, indeed, an unusual circle of confidants, one of whom was an American: his dentist, Dr. Thomas W. Evans. (“He had extremely delicate teeth,” as Evans confided later.)

President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s policies are summed up nicely in the catalogue for the exhibition at the Orsay Museum. They were "a subtle game that mixed official trips and encounters with the people, presidential festivals and winning over the elites. He offered an acceptable and reassuring model for the wealthy. He knew how to fascinate the rest of the population.”

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After the coup, Napoléon III’s spectacular party-giving—an obsession with the “imperial celebration”—quickly grew legendary. The ancient Romans’ tradition of bread and circuses had nothing on him. And in 1853 when, aged 45, he married a 26-year-old Spanish countess, Eugénie de Montijo, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the whole country felt it was participating in a fairy-tale romance.

Backed by such popular approbation, the emperor quickly moved to contain, stifle and eliminate opposition. A brief uprising against his coup was met with brutal repression. He cracked down on the press and jailed many opponents while others, like the poet and novelist Victor Hugo, went into exile.

In the meantime, however, Napoléon III gave the prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, the power to remake Paris in one of the most impressive and enduring infrastructure projects of all time. Whole new boulevards were carved through the center of the city, opening the way for troops to move in times of unrest, outdoor cafés in times of peace—and also for enormous and profitable real estate speculation. In the process, Haussmann laid the foundations for what we think of now as the Belle Époque.

Napoléon III’s even grander infrastructure project was the Suez Canal, opened with much pomp and circumstance and palace building. One of the royal residences constructed for the visiting Empress Eugénie still stands in Cairo as the centerpiece of a Marriott Hotel.

Although the emperor and empress made much of their devotion to the Catholic faith, the sovereign’s love affairs were the talk of the town. His most famous mistress, the Countess of Castiglione was still in her teens, and he was 47, when they started their trysts. Known in her native country as “The Pearl of Italy,” she was considered one of the most beguiling (and some would say sinister) women of her time. Although married and a mother at the age of 18, she had been sent to Paris by her cousin, the Italian Count of Cavour, to forge a dangerous liaison with the emperor that might serve the interests of those trying to unify Italy. “Succeed by whatever means you wish,” he told her, “but succeed!”

As the monarch’s mistress, La Castiglione was introduced to the great statesmen of the day, including Prussia’s Count Otto von Bismarck, and as an influential figure of fashion she helped revolutionize the nascent art of photography, largely by commissioning remarkable images of herself. (Her much cuckolded husband eventually returned to Italy, bankrupted by her extravagances; she briefly did so as well, but returned to Paris in 1861 where, still in her twenties, she had a series of affairs with the rich and powerful.)

A distinctive decadence marked the Second Empire, from the Tuileries Palace to the back alleys of the rue Bréda haunted by ladies of the evening known as “les lorettes,” a name borrowed from the nearby church, Notre Dame de Lorette.

Early in Louis-Napoléon’s rule, someone suggested to him that it would be a great calamity for the French business world if Paris ever became as puritanical as London. He said that was one thing he definitely did not worry about.

This demi-monde was captured in novels by Alexandre Dumas fils, “a world,” as another French writer described it, “of those women who hold a middle place between the entirely venal and the entirely respectable of their sex.”

This was the era in which Gustave Flaubert wrote Salammbo and Madame Bovary, and Charles Baudelaire published Fleurs du Mal. Paul Verlaine also penned his early poems under the Second Empire, including many erotic ones, before his famous hook-up with the teenage Arthur Rimbaud a few year later.

Indeed, despite the political repression of Napoléon III’s first decade in power the arts flourished and evolved in dramatically new directions. The increasingly rich bourgeoisie had the money to pay for imaginative canvases to decorate their ever grander apartments, opening the way not only for many dreadful old-school painters, but for those like Manet and Monet who would change forever the way we understand their art.

One of the most striking attractions in the Orsay exhibit is Édouard Manet’s famous “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” in which two men sit near a picnic spread apparently uninterested as one woman bathes behind them in a slip and another, completely naked, sits next to them looking at the person who is looking at the canvas. The painting is part of the Orsay’s permanent collection, but presented here among other works of the time as they might have been hung in the competitions of the day, the radicalism it represented when it was first shown, in 1862, becomes readily apparent.

By then, in fact, the French were growing weary of their emperor’s celebrations, and wearier still of his many little wars, the motives for which became increasingly hard to discern. He tried to play the globe like a chessboard, involving himself in Italy’s endless conficts (not least at the urging of La Castiglione), and barely escaping multiple assassination attempts, including one by Italian terrorists who had been given asylum in Britain. The emperor and empress survived as if by a miracle after the detonation of bombs under and around their carriage as they drove to the opera.

Increasingly aware that his own people were restive, the emperor at first cracked down harder than ever before, but eventually tried to allow more freedoms and more opposition in parliament. At the same time, however, he tried to expand his imperial designs to embrace not just portions of Europe, but the entire nation of Mexico, where his troops installed a hapless Habsburg, Maximilian I, who eventually was overthrown and executed. In the middle of that adventure, Napoléon toyed with the idea of recognizing the Confederacy in the American Civil War, hoping it would support his Mexican gambit, but he backed away when Britain refused to do the same.

In 1870, afraid of the rising power of Prussia, Napoléon let himself be drawn into a war by Chancellor Bismarck, who defeated the French army at Sedan, where the emperor was captured along with many of his troops. The empress, her world collapsing around her, hid out with the royal dentist, Dr. Evans, and Paris became a battleground between the forces of the Commune, who burned the Tuileries Palace, and the loyal military that eventually slaughtered them without mercy. (La Castiglione moved into an apartment on Place Vendôme, where she banned mirrors, lest she see how she aged, and emerged only in the dark of night.)

One shouldn’t overstate the parallels of history and the present day, of course. One doesn’t imagine that Donald Trump will declare himself a monarch, even if some of his fans already are toasting "Emperor Trump." But the public’s taste for bread and circuses lives on, and it is always good to remember that while populist nationalists may bring widely supported authority and order in the short run, if they hang around too long, they almost always court disaster.