Skip to next element


What you didn’t know about Mathilde Bonaparte and the Impressionists

The most powerful woman in mid-19th-century France was loved and respected by many, but outsider artists usually weren’t among her fans.


Mathilde-Létizia Wilhelmine Bonaparte. Circa 1900.

Mathilde-Létizia Wilhelmine Bonaparte. Circa 1900. 

Napoleon Bonaparte, who’d proclaimed his family an imperial dynasty of France when he declared himself emperor in 1804, encouraged his siblings to procreate to maintain the imperial gene pool.


By the time he died in 1821, he had more than two dozen nieces and nephews — not counting the many born outside of wedlock. Of all these second-generation Bonapartes, however, only two became household names: Louis-Napoleon, who became emperor of the French from 1852-1870, and his cousin, Mathilde, who became the most influential woman in Paris during his 18-year-reign.

Family Tree

Family Tree of the House of Bonaparte. 1876.
Family Tree of the House of Bonaparte. 1876. 

Mathilde’s pedigree, however, went far beyond the French throne: she’d been married to one of Europe’s richest men, the Russian Anatoly Demidov. Though this union boosted her status in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where the newlyweds lived, Demidov was publicly abusive. After he slapped her at a ball, she left him and fled to Paris, stealing millions in jewelry, he claimed. (A Russian court found that she was justified in taking the jewels and further ordered that he annually pay her the vast sum of 200,000 francs.)
Before that, Mathilde had another love affair of note: at age 16, she’d briefly been engaged to her cousin, Louis-Napoleon, twelve years her senior, whom she still adored. Mathilde’s father Jerome had ended that engagement in 1836, however, after Louis-Napoleon’s first embarrassing attempt at overthrowing the king of France.
In an act of redemption, in 1848, Louis-Napoleon, then living in London, became the first elected president of France. Unmarried, he called on his cousin Mathilde to serve in the capacity of First Lady, entertaining heads of state and overseeing his soirees and balls.
With her father Jerome welcomed back to Paris and made a French marshal by President Louis-Napoleon, there was even talk that the two might finally wed — though by then Mathilde wasn’t interested. She was openly living with the handsome and imposing Count Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, a failed sculptor who was also separated from his spouse. They became the power couple of art in mid-19th-century Paris.

Princess Mathilde Bonaparte in a painting by Edouard Louis Dubufe. Circa 1861.
Princess Mathilde Bonaparte in a painting by Edouard Louis Dubufe. Circa 1861. Source.

The High Society Patron of the Arts

A Corner of the Salon in 1880 by Edouard Dantan.
A Corner of the Salon in 1880 by Edouard Dantan. Source.

In 1852, President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte declared that he was now Emperor Napoleon III. The Second French Empire elevated the status of Mathilde — now imperial Princess Mathilde — as well as that of her live-in lover Nieuwerkerke.


Mathilde was an art aficionado and a lover of literature who was skilled at hobnobbing with intellectuals and creative sorts, throwing intimate dinner parties attended by the likes of Louis Pasteur, Gustave Flaubert and Theophile Gautier, the leading art critic of Paris. She became famous for her weekly literary salons when even the emperor occasionally stopped by to discuss the leading books of the day.


Mathilde was also enamored of the Paris Salons, the jaw-dropping annual art and sculpture exhibitions, where, as a painter herself, she also showed her own works.

Arm-in-arm Ascent

Portrait du comte Emilien de Nieuwerkerke by Princesse Mathilde. Circa 1856 and 1857.


Portrait du comte Emilien de Nieuwerkerke by Princesse Mathilde. Circa 1856 and 1857. Source.

As Mathilde grew more powerful in the Second French Empire, so did Nieuwerkerke, whose career she greatly bolstered, continually lobbying her cousin, the emperor, to give her paramour influential positions. Despite his initial reservations about whether the sculptor was qualified to receive his endorsement, in 1849, Louis-Napoleon appointed Nieuwerkerke as director of the French national museums, including the Louvre. When Louis-Napoleon became Emperor Napoleon III in 1852, Nieuwerkerke’s title changed to director of imperial museums.


In these positions, Nieuwerkerke not only selected artwork for museums: but he also oversaw the Paris Salon, the make-or-break event for artists, which made him the most formidable figure in the entire French art world. The salons brought artists exposure before millions, and if awarded a medal, an artist’s lucrative career was guaranteed. If rejected from the salon — or worse, poorly reviewed there — artists suffered, in some cases having to repay those who had previously commissioned their work.


Nieuwerkerke’s tastes, like Mathilde’s, were conservative. It was said that Mathilde was the key person in all his artistic decisions, including his decisions about who won awards. He preferred historical works and portraits of heroic leaders, including Napoleon I, and was certainly not a fan of new movements springing up, be they the flicked-painted landscapes that captured nature en plein air favored by the likes of Monet and Pissarro, or the new realism, which captured the lives of peasants and streetwalkers.

Paintings by Rebels

L'homme à la houe by Jean-François Millet. 1860.
L'homme à la houe by Jean-François Millet. 1860. Source.

Upon seeing Jean-François Millet’s Man with a Hoe, a painting of a farmer in a field, Nieuwerkerke attacked it as “the painting of democrats” — a high insult in his book — whose work exalted “men who don’t change their underwear.” Not only did he dislike such art, he found it “repulsive.” The most influential art critics of the day — most dear friends of Mathilde — typically mirrored his opinions.


Whether because of Mathilde’s whispering in his ear or simply his inflated ego, Nieuwerkerke pushed through several reforms that further hurt artists, particularly those who were unknown.


In 1853, he changed the Paris Salon from a yearly event to a bi-annual exhibition in hopes of giving painters more time to produce works of quality, he said. He later changed the jury that selected the works for exhibition from artists to the elite government-appointed members of Academie of Beaux-Arts, who were more likely to be academics and nobles than creators themselves.


Christ as a Gardener by Edouard Manet. 1856. M.S. Rau.

Christ as a Gardener by Edouard Manet. 1856. M.S. Rau.

Artists like Manet, Monet and Pissarro saw their works rejected nearly every year in the first decade that Nieuwerkerke was in power. Nieuwerkerke’s changes were already provoking loud grumbling among French artists, some of whom took to protesting under his office windows at the Louvre. Despite these protests, in 1863 he was appointed superintendent of the Beaux Arts, which gave him even more room to impose his prosaic tastes.


Previously, artists had been able to submit as many works as they wished to the jury; in 1863, announced Nieuwerkerke, that they could submit only three pieces. This rankled even established artists such as Ernest Meissonier, who frequently exhibited as many as six works in the Salon.

The Artists Strike Back

Le Palais de l'Industrie III. Salons de peinture by Charles Gillot.
Le Palais de l'Industrie III. Salons de peinture by Charles Gillot. Source.

Along with Ernest Meissonier and Eugene Delacroix, hundreds of artists signed a petition protesting the changes, which was presented to Nieuwerkerke’s boss, the Minister of State, by Edouard Manet and Gustave Doré. Nieuwerkerke dismissed their concerns and proceeded with his plans, which led Meissonier to boycott the 1863 Salon.
That year, Nieuwerkerke’s academic, traditionalist standards were vigorously enforced as he urged the jury to be even more selective: of the more than 5,000 paintings submitted by 3,000 artists that year, a mere 2,000 were accepted in the Paris Salon of 1863. This news was met with fury, and newspapers prominently featured the fiery public debate.
So many complained that, to the chagrin of Mathilde and Nieuwerkerke, the emperor felt compelled to hold another exhibition, the Salon des Refusés — or the Exhibition of Rejects — where the works of Manet, Pissarro and Whistler were among those shown. Even though Nieuwerkerke tried to strangle publicity of the event, thousands showed up to take in the works of the rejects, and despite being ridiculed by most art critics, that exhibition legitimized and solidified the movements of these outsider artists.

Reactions to the Outsiders

Given the scandal surrounding the 1863 Salon, Nieuwerkerke was forced to walk back his previous changes. The Paris Salon, he soon announced, would return to being an annual exhibition. Additionally, in the 1864 Salon, artists were again part of the jury, which was instructed to be more open-minded. That year only a third of the artworks submitted were rejected and two works by Manet were exhibited.


Manet’s works, however, were harshly judged at the salon. Mathilde’s friend Gautier was particularly scornful of Manet, characterizing his work, Incident at the Bull Ring, as “completely unintelligible.”

Olympia by Manet. 1863.
Olympia by Manet. 1863. Source.

In the 1865 Salon, Manet exhibited Olympia, a realistic nude seen as so shocking that not only did it provoke Empress Eugenie to smack it with her fan, but it required guards to keep the masses from attacking it until it was rehung much higher. While some, including Emile Zola, regarded it as a masterpiece, Gautier dismissed the painting of a woman in bed as “a puny model stretched out on a sheet.”


Monet also was accepted into the Paris Salon that year with two well-reviewed seascapes, though in the more conservative Salon of 1867, his works were personally rejected by Nieuwerkerke. Monet was so dejected that shortly thereafter he tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Seine.


Throughout it all, Mathilde, Nieuwerkerke and the art critic Gautier, who became Mathilde’s personal librarian, remained unsupportive of the style that in 1874 would be dubbed Impressionism.

The Art of Home Décor

Although Mathilde’s influence was detrimental to most outsider artists, she was a generous patron of the arts to others. She bankrolled the production of a controversial play of the Goncourt Brothers — Henriette Maréchal — and widely instilled a trend of home beautification. A fan of Eugene Giraud, her painting teacher, and his brother Charles, she helped them to popularize paintings of the interiors of Parisian notables, including of her own home, and she ensured that her cousin’s government bought many of their works.


With her soirees and salons often captured in the writings of that era’s diarists and journalists, including Horace de Viel-Castel and the Goncourt Brothers, Mathilde, they record, was growing more anxious and less enamored of Nieuwerkerke, who was playing around on the side. In 1869, she finally kicked him out — and soon began a romance with another artist, Claudius Popelin.



The Dining Room of Princess Mathilde by Charles Giraud. The artist, a friend of Mathilde, painted nearly every room in her house.
The Dining Room of Princess Mathilde by Charles Giraud. The artist, a friend of Mathilde, painted nearly every room in her house. Source.


End of an Era

Marcel Proust in 1895.
Marcel Proust in 1895. Source.
In 1870, the Second French Empire came crashing down, after Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, losing the war in mere weeks. Nieuwerkerke lost his post, and Mathilde’s prominence within the government likewise evaporated with the emperor’s September 1870 surrender.
Nevertheless, in the decades that followed, Mathilde — who eventually married Popelin — continued her dinner parties and salons, the seat of the late critic Theophile Gautier now often filled by his same-named son. In her later years, she befriended Marcel Proust who was so intrigued by the last remaining Bonaparte of note — Louis-Napoleon had died in 1873 — that he implored her to write her memoirs, offering to serve as her secretary in the endeavor. Alas, she declined the offer.

Impressionists Rise

1882, Manet had become immensely popular, and that year he was awarded the Star of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Shortly thereafter, he received a congratulatory note from Nieuwerkerke, now living in Italy.
Manet responded via a mutual friend: "Tell him I appreciate his good wishes, but that he could have been the one to decorate me. He would have made my fortune and now it's too late to compensate for twenty lost years." Manet died several months later.
In January 1904, Princess Mathilde passed away in Paris, her salons and soirees after fifty years finally ended.
At the news of her death, the younger Theophile Gautier commented that “The death of the princess means more than an ordinary occasion for mourning; it is a historical event. Amid all the beautiful and noble things that are passing away shattered by time or by the hands and the evil passions of men, we may say that the disappearance of Mathilde’s salon tolls the knell for the end of a world.”


Sign up below to be the first to know about new acquisitions, exhibits, blogs and more.

back to top
back to top