Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Portrait Gallery: The Empress Eugénie


Behold: the Empress and her ladies, as seen by pre-eminent portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, who was in his way the Annie Leibovitz of the nineteenth century - he painted everyone from Queen Victoria (including a surprisingly racy "private" portrait for Prince Albert's eyes only) to Sarah Bernhardt, and lots and lots of the royal and less reputable ladies who flitted from court to court during the Second Empire and after.

I've long thought that one reason that that she wanted to marry Napoleon III was simply to simplify her life; her maiden name, after all, was Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox de Guzmán Portocarrero y Kirkpatrick, 18th Marchioness of Ardales, 18th Marchioness of Moya, 19th Countess of Teba, 10th Countess of Montijo and Countess of Ablitas. After all that, Eugénie, Empress of the French, must have seemed like a piece of cake.

I can, of course, turn any subject to Egypt in less than two sentences, and with Eugénie it's ridiculously easy, for she is still famous in Cairo as the reason that one of the city's historic palaces was built:

She was coming for the opening of the Suez Canal, you see, and there simply wasn't any place to put her. What's left of the Gezira Palace is now sandwiched in between the two enormous concrete towers of the Cairo Marriott, and the grand stairs down which she once glided in her trademark crinolines is a favorite spot for wedding photos. Her bedroom is where a branch of the Cairo Rotary meets weekly, and the bustling Omar Khayyam Casino (I kid you not) operates just down the hall.

Eugénie, by the bye, is one of three great ladies of the 1860s who hung on until after the First World War (although after 1870 she was Empress only in the most technical of senses); one other, Carlota of Mexico also lost her throne (not to mention her mind), and the third is Alexandra of England, who dithered on, deaf, flighty, and silly in the extreme, until 1924. She was, however, always quite civil to the exiled Empress, which I suppose is a point in her favor.

1 comment:

  1. ah....and of course, one of the great fashion icons.