The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Napoléon III

Napoléon III

A carte-de-visite portrait of Emperor Napoléon III (1808-1873).

Legend has it that photography is indebted to Napoléon III for the success of the carte-de-visite and the ‘Cartomania’ of the 1860s. Patented by Disdéri in 1854, the craze supposedly didn't take off until the Emperor, leading his army to war in Italy, made an impromptual stop in order to have his portrait taken in the new format at Disdéri's studio on the Boulevard des Italiens.

Unfortunately, the story is apocryphal. Research has shown that the French army did not pass down the Boulevard des Italiens on its way to the war, and furthermore, that it left Paris late in the evening when there was not enough natural light for any photographer to operate.

Photographed by Disdéri of Paris.

The physical defects and unheroic stature of Napoleon III could be minimized by the brushwork of a Winterhalter, but the photographer was placed in a more precarious position. According to the Goncourt brothers, who admittedly scorned everyone: ‘He walks, he advances slowly, with small steps that glide. There is something reptilian in his approach and something chameleonlike in his movements, sleepy and glacial, the eye small, lustreless, and the skin around it wrinkled and creased like the eyelids of a lizard.’ Proudhon was even less flattering: ‘This man is badly built and physically ugly. Legs very short and placed askew, so that he trots…the sides of his body unequal and unbalanced, one eye higher than the other, the forehead without majesty or intelligence, and the eye dead.’ Disdéri here disguises the reputed shortness of the Emperor’s legs by seating him in large armchair.


Code: 124093
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