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