Baptism of the Imperial Prince

Baptism of the Imperial Prince

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Title: The Baptism of the Imperial Prince.

Author : COUTURE Thomas (1815 - 1879)

Creation date : 1856

Date shown: June 14, 1856

Dimensions: Height 480 - Width 790

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: National Museum of the Château de Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet web site

Picture reference: 89-000566 EE / C.71001

The Baptism of the Imperial Prince.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: May 2005

Historical context

When, on March 16, 1856, Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Napoléon, the long-awaited son of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, was born at the Tuileries in the Tuileries, the empire, restored for more than three years, seemed consolidated on its foundations and the future of the dynasty seems assured. France shines with the prestige of its military successes: its army has just covered itself with glory in Sebastopol, and the Paris Congress is, for Napoleon III, a resounding revenge on the Vienna Congress of 1815, which had removed the Bonapartes from power. . In 1856, France emerged as the undisputed arbiter of Europe.

Three years earlier, the emperor had married for love a beautiful Spanish woman, Eugenie de Montijo, the royal houses of Europe having refused to grant him the hand of a princess. The Empress gave birth to a stout, robust and well-built boy, which infuriated Prince Jerome Napoleon, the Emperor's cousin, who was thereby deprived of his rights to the crown.

From his birth, the Prince Imperial had his own house. It was made up of three ladies, all three widows of officers killed in Crimea: the housekeeper, Admiral Bruat, and the deputy housekeepers, Mesdames Bizot and de Brancion. Finally, an orderly officer, Xavier Uhlmann, was attached to him; he was not to leave him until his death and will always mark him with total devotion.

Two days after his birth, the Prince Imperial was waved in the Tuileries chapel. A sumptuous ceremony which made Napoleon III say: "This baptism is well worth a coronation", a direct allusion to the canvas of David representing the coronation of Napoleon.

Image Analysis

The commission for the painting to immortalize the baptism of the Prince Imperial fell to Thomas Couture, a verbal commission before it was officially confirmed on May 29, 1861.

The painter very quickly determined the form and spirit he intended to give to this monumental work, as evidenced by this article in The Artist of July 6, 1856: "M. Couture [...] proposes to combine in his painting the realities of history and the fictions of allegory. His painting will contain little more than four portraits, those of the Emperor, the Empress, the young Prince and Cardinal Patrizzi. In the upper part of the painting, we will see the sky half open and Napoleon I, led by the genius of France, descend towards the young representative of his dynasty. "Nevertheless, if this general outline has been respected - in particular the opposition, dear to Couture, between allegorical figures and real characters, actors and witnesses of the event - the number of portraits has increased considerably. Indeed, the painter intended to give the most faithful possible image of the personalities present at the ceremony, so that the members of the imperial family and the clergy are perfectly identifiable. The figuration of religious ceremonial did not escape this concern for accuracy. On the other hand, Couture deliberately eliminated the decor imagined by Viollet-le-Duc, decor consisting of blue panels dotted with stars for the vaults and purple hangings for the walls. His main objective was, as he himself explains in Workshop methods and interviews, to give the scene a symbolic significance: "This ceremony which receives the child into the bosom of the Church, if it is represented in a real way, will have only the touching sides of the great Christian unity; but you will notice that in this circumstance it is a prince who must continue a dynasty, it is a national hope. […] The nation sees a direct heir to a dynasty it has acclaimed, it sees in this child guarantees of order, strengthened by great memories. The presence of allegories in the upper part of the painting confirms the painter's desire to highlight the filiation of the child and the dynastic continuity that he embodies, a continuity that the Empire failed to establish and which remains one of the main goals of Napoleon III.

It is in the same spirit that he neglected to respect the original and protocol arrangement of the personalities who attended the ceremony. He chose to give the Empress a privileged and symbolic place. He isolated the sovereign in a halo of light, almost in the center of the canvas, highlighting the elegance of the silhouette and the pure line of the neck and shoulders. There again, he justified this bias in Workshop methods and interviews : "The Empress prays for her child ... Everything is erased in front of this maternity ... The little vanities disappear; well, let's cut them off to wrap this mother in a nun's halo. The emperor, meanwhile, is shown on the left, in the foreground. The head is not shown; perhaps it has been erased; several preliminary studies clearly show that the artist wanted to capture the particular features of the sovereign's face, revealing his personality, but the abandonment of the execution of the work did not allow him to achieve this goal.

As usual, Thomas Couture made many sketches and preparatory studies for the creation of this monumental painting. The Château de Compiègne retains no less than thirteen painted studies - which are in themselves true little masterpieces - and forty preparatory drawings, which allow one to imagine what this ambitious work could have been once completed.


At the start of the Second Empire, Achille Fould, Minister of State and Minister of the Emperor's Household, envisioned the creation of a museum "devoted especially to the glories of the New Empire". Artists chosen for their "deserved reputation" or for their particular competence in dealing with historical subjects were to perform a number of compositions divided into two categories: works depicting important civil events of the reign, and those highlighting the military victories of the new emperor. This is how it was thought to entrust the representation of the marriage of Napoleon III and Eugenie de Montijo to Winterhalter, but this was never requested.

It was then considered to entrust Thomas Couture with the realization of a work representing The Return of the Crimean Troops as well as the decoration of the Denon pavilion, in the context of the layout of the new Louvre. The painter himself proudly mentions these imperial commissions: “In 1856, I was given, as if by surprise, immense commissions, it was the painting of the baptism of the Prince Imperial, the return of the troops from Crimea, and the decoration of the Denon pavilion. at the Louvre, which in itself was a work as considerable as that of the Sistine Chapel. Never had a painter been at such a party. "

Unfortunately, none of these commands will find any real results. It seems that Couture never worked at Return of the Crimean troops. In 1861, not having received any directives as to the iconographic program of the Denon pavilion, the artist freely organized the decor in a preparatory project, notably including a composition in praise of the Empire, The Empire relies on the Church and the Army to defeat Anarchy, and placing there The Volunteer Enrollment of 1792. Finally, on the proposal of Hector-Martin Lefuel, architect of the Louvre, the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, Superintendent of Fine Arts, decided to entrust the execution of the decoration of the Denon pavilion to the painter Charles-Louis Müller (1815-1892). The withdrawal of this order was at the origin of Thomas Couture's final quarrel with the imperial administration. These dissensions prompted him to leave Paris and retire to Senlis, his birthplace. Above all, they made him "renounce the execution of the Baptism of the Prince Imperial", which therefore remained unfinished.

  • allegory
  • imperial dynasty
  • family
  • Empress Eugenie (Montijo de)
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • Napoleon III
  • Notre Dame de Paris
  • Imperial prince
  • Second Empire
  • Sevastopol


Jean TULARD (under the direction of), Dictionary of the Second Empire, Paris, Fayard, 1995.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The Baptism of the Imperial Prince"

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