In 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had the audacity — some might say hubris — to crown himself Emperor of France, just as his uncle had done half a century earlier. He took the title of Napoleon III.
French progressives such as author Victor Hugo despaired. They had just overthrown another king — this time the bumbling, pear-shaped Louis-Philippe of the House of Orleans. In the monarchy’s place, they had installed a republican style of government, and Louis-Napleon had successfully won the presidential campaign in 1848. But Louis-Napoleon had no intention of remaining a mere elected official. His lifelong dream was to reestablish the Bonaparte dynasty, and supposedly finish the work that his family had began during the French Revolution. To do that, he had to be not president, not king, but emperor. So only three years after his election, Louis-Napoleon engineered a coup d’etat to overthrow the Second Republic. After much bloodshed and rioting in the streets of Paris, Louis-Napoleon and his partisans won the day. The Bonaparte family was back in power.
Victor Hugo himself was forced into exile, where he wrote three damning indictments of the new regime: Napoleon Le Petit (Napoleon the Small), Histoire d’un crime (A History of a Crime), and his poetry collection Les Châtiments (The Punishments).
Victor Hugo, "Imperial Reveles" from Les Châtiments, 1852
Cheer, courtiers! round the banquet spread— The board that groans with shame and plate, Still fawning to the sham-crowned head That hopes front brazen turneth fate! Drink till the comer last is full, And never hear in revels' lull, Grim Vengeance forging arrows fleet, Whilst I gnaw at the crust Of Exile in the dust— But Honor makes it sweet! Ye cheaters in the tricksters' fane, Who dupe yourself and trickster-chief, In blazing cafés spend the gain, But draw the blind, lest at his thief Some fresh-made beggar gives a glance And interrupts with steel the dance! But let him toilsomely tramp by, As I myself afar Follow no gilded car In ways of Honesty. Ye troopers who shot mothers down, And marshals whose brave cannonade Broke infant arms and split the stone Where slumbered age and guileless maid— Though blood is in the cup you fill, Pretend it "rosy" wine, and still Hail Cannon "King!" and Steel the "Queen!" But I prefer to sup From Philip Sidney's cup— True soldier's draught serene. Oh, workmen, seen by me sublime, When from the tyrant wrenched ye peace, Can you be dazed by tinselled crime, And spy no wolf beneath the fleece? Build palaces where Fortunes feast, And bear your loads like well-trained beast, Though once such masters you made flee! But then, like me, you ate Food of a blessed fête— The bread of Liberty!
Why did the new emperor take the title Napoleon III? The reason was that Napoleon I’s infant son by Marie-Louise of Austria — his only legitimate heir — had technically reigned as Emperor of France for a few days after his father abdicated in 1814. After his father’s defeat at Waterloo, little Napoleon Jr. was sent to live with his mother at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. He died at 21. He never saw his father again.
“Le Grand Galopp de chemin de fer” by Emile Waldteufel (1837-1915), a popular dance music composer during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. A celebration of the railroads connecting Paris to the rest of the country. Translation: “The Railroad Galop”
“Minuit” (Midnight) by Emile Waldteufel. The chimes supposedly represent the clocks in the Tuileries ballroom striking midnight.
Now the leader of the Second Empire and ensconced in the grandeur of the Tuillieries Palace (the former Paris home of star-crossed predecessors Napoleon I and Louis XVI), Emperor Napoleon III started to refashion the old city of Paris into a modern, imperial city. He hired city planner Baron George-Eugene Haussmann to lay out grand boulevards and oversee the construction of beautiful new apartment buildings to line them. To accomplish this, Haussmann demolished huge swaths of the cramped medieval city, displacing thousands of residents. He also built several new lavish railway stations, which connected Paris to the rest of the country. Architect Hector-Martin Lefuel renovated both the royal residence at the Tuileries Palace and the Louvre museum, added grand new apartments in a neo-Baroque style. The crowning achievement of Napoleon III’s building program was the new opera house. Designed by Charles Garnier, the Paris Opera could seat 2,000 patrons in marbled, gilded splendor. The “Exposition Universelle de 1867” was arguably the high-water mark of the Second Empire — the world’s fair attracted nearly 10 million visitors from around the world. Although its purpose was to allow nations to exhibit their artistic and industrial achievements, its real goal was to showcase Paris as the cultural capital of the world.Its success inspired a group of Philadelphia businessmen to mount a similar grand world’s fair in Fairmount Park nine years later.
Napoleon III might have had superb taste in architecture, but he did not possess his uncle’s military genius. In 1870, he made the mistake of underestimating Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia. The Franco-Prussian War was sparked by disputes by succession to the Spanish throne and control of the Southern German states. This ill-advised war caused the Second Empire to collapse like a house of cards. German troops captured Emperor Napoleon II at the Battle of Sedan, and besieged the city of Paris itself, starving the residents into submission. In the mayhem that followed, Communard mobs burned down the Tuileries Palace, Hotel de Ville, and other symbols of imperial power. The Louvre itself almost burned down when flames spread from the adjoining Tuileries Palace. The incomplete Opera House was spared.
France’s humiliation at the hands of Prussia and Bismarck sowed the seeds of another, deadlier conflict — one that would engulf all of Europe — forty years later. As for the former Napoleon III: he was released from captivity and exiled to England, where he died a few years later. The Bonapartes were gone for good.
Despite the Second Empire’s wretched end, its grand aesthetic fascinated American architects and designers. Richard Morris Hunt, who studied at at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Lefuel in the 1840s, brought French formalism back to his American practice. The primary mentor of the young Frank Furness, Hunt designed mansions for wealthy Americans families such as the Vanderbilts — most notably the Breakers for Cornelius Vanderbilt II — as well as grand public buildings such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During Napoleon III’s reign, Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) trained an entire generation of American architects artists whose work would transform American culture: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Chester Holmes Aldrich, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Alexander Stirling Calder (son of the sculptor of the William Penn statue atop City Hall), and Thomas Hastings, to name a few. Paul Philippe Cret, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania and designer of the Parisian-style Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was also a Beaux-Arts graduate.
In the decade following the Civil War, Gilded Age Philadelphia threw Quaker modesty out the window. The city was richer than ever, with fortunes made in railroads, manufacturing, and (in the case of future streetcar plutocrat Peter Widener) provisioning the Union Army. The Union League, designed by John Fraser and completed in 1865, was perhaps the first large-scale Second Empire structure in the city. Housing developers caught the French bug, as well. Starting in the 1870s, row houses in Philadelphia adopted the mansard roof, a favorite architectural device of Second Empire architects. The term “mansard” was a corruption of Jules-Hardouin Mansart, a baroque architect who popularized the hipped gambrel roof during the reign of Louis XIV. This architectural device became a French trademark. It was not only used on royal palaces, but also on the apartment blocks built by Baron Haussmann in Paris during the 1850s and 60s. A wood-and-slate “mansard roof” not only made a house look more imposing on the outside, but also made the attic story habitable while minimizing construction costs. Because a mansard roof is set back from the cornice line, it use also allowed builders to comply with setback restrictions while maximizing rents.
The grandest testament to the Second Empire style’s cultural impact in Philadelphia is City Hall. In 1871, the same year as the fall of Napoleon III’s regime, Scottish-born architect John McArthur Jr. began construction of this grandiose and expensive essay in the Second Empire style. Modeled heavily on the Lefuel’s additions to the Louvre in Paris and smothered in allegorical statues, the stone structure took thirty years to complete, by which time it was out-of-step with the cleaner lines of the neoclassical style.
Although the largest municipal building in the world at the time of its opening in 1901, critics did not herald it as an American Louvre. Rather, it was greeted as a monument to hubris, corruption, and expensive bad taste.
Much like the excesses of Napoleon III’s regime three decades earlier. In the 1950s, city planner Edmund Bacon proposed tearing the vast edifice down, sparing only the clock tower, which was crowned by Alexander Stirling Calder’s statue of William Penn. Only the cost of demolition saved City Hall from destruction.
Jean-Bertrand Barrère, “Victor Hugo,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 12, 2014.
“The Project Gutenberg EBook of Poems, by Victor Hugo”