Some spots are still available for this special event scheduled for Sunday, April 7th, 2013 at 2 PM at 92Y Tribeca, which will give participants the chance to immerse themselves in the mindset and the times of the fascinating man who created and led the French Second Empire.
This weekend I am in New York, speaking at Columbia University as part of the Urban History Association’s annual conference. I’ll be discussing the idea of cosmopolitanism as it relates to urban planning in the first years of the Second Empire (1852-1855). An excerpt of my talk appears below.
With all the great things to do in and around Paris, it is understandable that the Château de Compiègne remains relatively marginal in the visitor statistics. Nevertheless – especially for anyone interested in Napoleon III and the Second Empire – it is a very worthwhile outing.
I am in Washington D.C. these days, where one can see a few examples of “Second Empire style” architecture, most notably the Old Executive Office Building.
The “Second Empire style” enjoyed a great vogue in the U.S. in the 1860s and 1870s before becoming reviled. I understand that there was a similar enthusiasm in Melbourne, Australia and I know there are examples of the style in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, Canada.
I can well imagine that the images of the expanded Louvre, opened in 1857, and of the façade of the new Opéra de Paris, unveiled to the public during the World Exhibition of 1867, travelled around the world and caught the eye of architects looking for stylistic inspiration. As an aside, and as readers of my book will see, it is worth knowing that these stylistic devices did not even come close to characterizing the architectural production of the Second Empire years, which had a number of other, very different strands.
The part of all this that interests me the most is how very successful Second Empire France was at establishing itself as the reference of taste. In the 1870s, it seems, refinement was defined as all things French, not just in architecture, but in all facets of the art de vivre. Part of this, no doubt, is related to the sudden opening up of travel to France to whole American families in the 1850s and 1860s due to steam ships. It is clear that the French thought highly enough of themselves to proclaim their own superiority, as one can see from the commentary to the artistic part of the 1867 World Exhibition. And there is no doubt that there was a concerted effort to project French greatness as part of Napoleon III’s political and diplomatic program. Still, the success of these efforts and the impact they had so very far from the French shores is impressive.