McQueen, Alison. Empress Eugenie and the Arts: Politics and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century.
Alison McQueen's rich and beautifully-illustrated study, Empress Eugenie and the Arts: Politics and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century, presents a revealing new look at the role played by Eugenia de Guzman, Napoleon III's Spanish-born consort, in the political and artistic realms of Second Empire France. Best known today for her staunch Catholicism and fashionable crinolines, Empress Eugenie has generally been relegated to the sidelines of cultural history as a latter-day Marie Antoinette: beautiful, foreign, modish and mistrusted. McQueen sets out to prove,
however, that the Empress was actively engaged in constructing a far more modern identity and "used art to define herself as empress, for the citizens of France and the international community" (4). Consulting a wide variety of archival texts, McQueen traces Eugenie's patronage of artists and causes from her marriage to the French emperor in 1853 until her death in 1920 and makes a compelling case for reading the empress as one of the more important female figures of the nineteenth century.
Chapter one, "Shaping a Nation-State: The Politics of Piety, Charity and Education," examines Eugenie's early attempts to construct her political persona through the support of public charities and imperial commissions that were in turn represented in print culture and the emerging mass media. Paintings and prints of her work with maternal societies, orphanages, nurseries, hospitals and prisons established Eugenie's efforts on behalf of France's most vulnerable citizens and solidified her position as the nation's matriarch while aligning her with progressive causes not often associated with imperial politics. While these charities might be considered conventionally "feminine" in their focus, McQueen insists on the empress's active agency in working for women's causes in a more political sense. Most notably, her life-long commitment "to improve the status of women through increased education and political autonomy" (10) is manifested throughout the Second Empire, from her work on the Fondation Eugene Napoleon (1853-1856), a boarding school for impoverished girls which she personally designed, oversaw and funded, to her collaborations with Victor Duruy on reforms for girls' instruction primaire, enseignement secondaire, and even a proposal for a women's medical school in Paris. As an advocate for social reform, Eugenie was an unexpectedly-powerful voice for progressive policies protecting women, children and the poor.
Chapter two, "Imperial Identities: The 'Ornament of the Throne,'" investigates the ways in which Eugenie's myriad portraits in various media presented a consciously-constructed persona both to the French and to the rest of the world. McQueen's analyses of this series of images highlights the transition from Dubufe's Portrait of Empress Eugenie (1853), which shows an unmistakably Spanish-looking subject with the medal of the Order of Maria Luisa draped across her breast, to the later Winterhalter portraits that emphasize pale porcelain skin and fashionable Parisian gowns. Where the widely-circulated public portraits present Eugenie as the idealized embodiment of the culture of luxury and consumption in Second Empire France, McQueen asks us to reconsider these representations of the empress in a "passive and decorative role" (97) by examining the fascinating private images that the empress herself commissioned in a variety of exotic costumes and poses. These paintings and photographs capture Eugenie en travestie performing Otherness in "Persian, Circassian, Algerian, and Spanish costumes, in the eighteenth-century styles of Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Watteau, and dressed as Queen Marie Antoinette and an Odalisque" (129), and give us a far more complex sense of the empress's understanding of and even resistance to her manufactured identity. In "Collecting an Imperial Persona: Collecting Practices and Intimate Spaces" (Chapter three), McQueen contends that "Eugenie was among the most important collectors of her time" (149) and used her patronage of French artists as yet another means "of attaining the public persona she sought to establish." Not surprisingly, as a collector Eugenie favored religious, literary, landscape and genre subjects, but as an influential taste-maker (who often loaned works to the Salons and Universal Expositions), Eugenie's active commitment to supporting female artists is again noteworthy. Indeed, during her second regency in 1865, the empress took the opportunity to bestow the Legion of Honor upon Rosa Bonheur, the first woman ever to receive this distinction; during her visit to Bonheur's studio, Empress Eugenie was quoted as saying "a mes yeux le genie n'a pas de sexe" (192).
Chapter four examines Eugenie's patronage of the visual arts within the context of "International Diplomacy and Transnationalism," including her collection of Asian art and her commission of a statue of Columbus for diplomatic exchange. Eugenie's role in France's disastrous Mexican venture is understood here through her commission of the Hispano-mauresque chapelle imperiale at Biarritz during the same period, while her failed effort to restore the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in collaboration with Queen Victoria and "an international network of female patrons" (257) stands as testimony to her ambitious desire to play a role as a political leader in her own right. The final chapter, "Family, Memory and Dynastic Nostalgia," addresses the backlash against Eugenie in vitriolic caricatures of the 1870s and the Empress's fifty-year exile in England after the fall of the Second Empire. McQueen's lively and readable text might have benefitted from more theoretical or critical analysis, but its strengths are such that Empress Eugenie and the Arts will serve as a wonderful resource for scholars of Second Empire art, history, politics and gender studies.
Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, University of Texas at Austin
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|Author:||Wettlaufer, Alexandra K.|
|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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