The Apotheosis of Napoleon III

The Apotheosis of Napoleon III

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The Apotheosis of Napoleon III.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: November 2009


The Apotheosis of Napoleon III


Historical context

The development of scientific rationalism in the 18th century led to the decline of allegory in art. The pediments of town halls, courthouses, or the decoration of some religious buildings maintained here and there the memory of the genre, but the systematic repetition of a few major configurations was not enough to perpetuate the source of the allegorical discourse in the collective memory.

Image Analysis

This sketch by Cabasson can be divided into three registers.
In the central part of the work, Napoleon III is standing on a chariot with, at his side, France giving him her hand and holding the tricolor in her right hand. The chariot is led, on the left, by Athena and Héraclès. Athena wears the Attic helmet. She wears the round shield (hoplon) decorated in its center with gorgoneion. She holds a spear in her left hand. Heracles is clothed in the skin of the Nemean lion (leontè) and wears his club on his right shoulder. Their chariot is followed by the Allegories of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, three female figures. On the far right of this register, Justice is seated on a lion symbolizing Clemency. She holds a scale in her right hand and a scepter in her left hand. She is flanked by two young women: the Law on the left and, on the right, an allegorical figure who could be the Authority.
In the upper register, a winged Renown flies over the team. Above the Emperor, a Victory, holding an olive branch in her right hand, places a laurel wreath on the sovereign's head. At the top and on the left, two putti support the ballot box for universal suffrage. The one on the left brandishes the parchment on which is written the result: Napoleon III Emperor. The imperial eagle hovers above the whole while, in the cloud, the shadow of Napoleon I emerges from the light and salutes the procession by lifting his famous cocked hat; behind him, we can see the marshals of the Empire admitted to the paradise of the brave.
In the lower register, a central group is made up of Hermes, god of Commerce, identifiable with his caduceus, framed on the left by Abundance, which leans on the horn of Amalthea, and on the right by Demeter, goddess of Agriculture and Products of the Earth, which holds a sickle in his right hand and whose left arm rests on a sheaf of wheat. This group is surrounded, left and right, by putti. Below and to the left, two winged cupids bear the imperial arms.


We are here in the presence of a particularly rich and elaborate iconological discourse. Cabasson is clearly inspired by the decoration of Greek vases described in the catalog of the Hamilton collection engraved by Tischbein. His Apotheosis of Napoleon III is undoubtedly a transposition of the apotheosis of Heracles, an ancient hero whose fabulous exploits have earned him to join the divinities of Olympus and become an immortal among the gods.
The presence of Napoleon I in the image inscribes the reign of the nephew in the exact continuity of that of the uncle. The reign of Napoleon III derives its legitimacy from universal suffrage, since it is the fruit of the plebiscite of November 21 and 22, 1852, which led to the proclamation of the Empire on the following December 2. The olive branch that the Victory brandishes recalls the slogan of Napoleon III during the electoral campaign: " Empire is peace. »
The other allegorical figures place the reign under the sign of order and justice, economic prosperity and the development of the fine arts.
We cannot fail to compare this work by Cabasson with the sketch by Ingres representing The Apotheosis of Emperor Napoleon I, produced a year earlier, in 1853, and kept at the Carnavalet museum. This sketch was the preparatory sketch for the ceiling of the Emperor's Salon at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. Presented at the Universal Exhibition of 1855, this ceiling disappeared in the fire of 1871, during the Commune.

  • allegory
  • Napoleon iii
  • Second Empire
  • Universal suffrage


Napoleon III and the Côte-d'Or exhibition catalog, Dijon, 1968, n ° 25.Jean TULARD (dir.) Dictionary of the Second Empire Paris, Fayard, 1995.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The Apotheosis of Napoleon III"

Video: Napoléon III et la France épanouie


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