By Denis Pellerin
The latest book I have written, “L’Emp’reur, sa femme, le p’tit Prince” : The Imperial Family of France, Photography and the Stereoscope, is about the special relationship that existed between Napoleon III, the Empress Eugénie, their son and photography, including stereoscopic photography. The book is richly illustrated and contains over 100 stereo photographs, including from the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy, as well as from my own and other private and public archives. There also lots of other documents, cartes-de-visite, postcards, etc. The book comes with a Lite Owl. It is published in French but since it was originally written in English, anybody who buys it and is not fluent in the language of Molière can ask me for the English version of it (text and captions only). Just send me an email forwarding the order confirmation once you have purchased the book.
It will be released in May 2023 but can be pre-ordered from here at a discount : https://www.editions-entre2mers.com/ouvrage/lempreur-sa-femme-et-le-ptit-prince/
I guess I have a more personal connection to this book than to any other I have written so far. My path has crossed that of the imperial family on multiple occasions since I was born. My birthday coincides with the anniversary of the coronation of Napoleon I, of his victory at Austerlitz, of his nephew’s coup d’état in 1851 and of the latter’s accession to the dignity of Emperor in 1852; when I was a child we had pictures of the Napoleonic saga on the walls of some of the many houses we lived in and in the attic of one of them was a copy of the official portrait of the Empress Eugénie by Winterhalter; I lived in Ham, where Napoleon was incarcerated from 1840 to 1846, in Brest, which he visited in 1858, in Sedan where he surrendered his sword in 1870, and when I moved to Britain I realised I was only a few miles away from Saint Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, the final resting place of the imperial family. Last but not least, the photograph that hooked me on stereoscopy for the rest of my life represented one of the rooms at the Tuileries Palace with an equestrian portrait of the Emperor.
All these “coincidences” have kept alive my interest in Napoleon III and his family and when, after years of research, I found in short succession two copies of the very image that had sparked my interest in stereoscopy, I decided it was time to put pen to paper and write my own version of the story of Napoleon III, the Empress Eugénie and the Prince imperial.
Illustration 1-The stereo card that hooked me on stereoscopy for life, showing the Salon de la Paix at the Tuileries Palace, Paris, France. Author’s collection.
The first part of the title of this book is from a nursery rhyme which is still sung these days to teach French children the days of the week, but the work itself is about photography, stereoscopy, and how both media were used by Napoleon III to promote his regime and try and make himself and his family dear to the hearts of the French people. He succeeded for a while but after the fall of the Second Empire his successor, who happened to be a historian, re-wrote history and made sure Napoleon III played the part of villain. As French song-writer and performer Yves Duteil once said in one of his hits, “It is not what you do that matters, it is how you tell the story and present the facts”. The Second Empire has had bad press ever since it came to an end, even though it was a time of incredible developments, improvements and modernisation that made France what it is today.
Napoleon III himself was certainly not a saint but he was not the insensible and irresponsible monster some people have described him as. He was the first French president and also the last French monarch. He spoke several languages (French, German, English, and some Italian), had travelled quite a lot (he went to the States, Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, and Britain before he was elected president) and, unlike most modern politicians who are so separated from reality and from the man in the street, was genuinely interested in improving the living conditions of the working class. He even wrote a book called The Extinction of Pauperism and once described himself as a socialist. He had been an exile, a revolutionary, a prisoner, a fugitive, an asylum-seeker, and knew a thing or two about life’s hardships.
More importantly for the photo historian I am, he was very much aware of the incredible power of photography and was the first monarch ever to authorise the mass-production and diffusion of his stereoscopic portrait, taken at the time of his fiftieth birthday in 1858, but also that of his only son, born two years earlier, in 1856. He encouraged the publication of stereoscopic photographs of the imperial residences, some of which have been destroyed since and mostly survive through the stereoscope, and was also instrumental in the success of the carte-de-visite when he sat for Disdéri – alone but also with his wife and child – the day before he left to fight a war of independence in Italy. His reign coincides with the golden age of stereoscopy and of international exhibitions, of which there were two in London and two in Paris during the Second Empire. All four were captured for the stereoscope.
There are numerous photographic portraits of the imperial family, some of which were never sold for the stereoscope but happen to be stereoscopic. Researching and writing this book has been a fascinating journey, as always, and I do hope the readers will enjoy the stories, the illustrations and the information I have put together about the photographers for whom the imperial family sat separately or together.
Illustration 02 – The ex-Emperor Napoleon III by the London Stereoscopic Company. The photo was taken a couple of days after the arrival of the ex-captive in Britain. Author’s collection.
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