Saturday, 12 June 2021

Queen Victoria, Count Walewski and a Famous Painting

Napoleon at Fontainebleau, 31 March 1814 Paul Delaroche

There appear to be a number of versions of Delaroche's painting of Napoleon's first abdication. One has been in the Musée de l'Armée in Paris since 1954. (1) Another resides in the Royal Collection.

In 1852 the painting was viewed at Windsor by Alexandre Walewski (1810-1868), Napoleon's natural son, now French emissary to the Court of St James. Victoria entertained Walewski and his wife a few days after the British Government had officially recognised Louis Napoleon as Emperor of the French!

The Walewskis & Lord Malmesbury to dinner, the Count, sitting next to me. He was very amiable & talkative, speaking immediately, & in great admiration, of the fine picture we have here of Napoleon at Fontainebleau, by P. Delaroche. The Counts own likeness to Napoleon is very striking, & if there was a doubt of the relationship, the fact of his appearance is an infallible proof. (2)

Alexandre Walewski (1810-1858)

Queen Victoria got to know Walewski and his second wife very well. In the early year things were rather strained. She was concerned that Lord Palmerston had expressed his approval to Walewski of the coup in which Louis Napoleon had seized power, which cost Palmerston his job. She also refused to give her support to the proposed marriage of Napoleon III to her niece, Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg.

In her diary she commented on Walewski's lack of tact, and later described him as a rogue when he appeared to criticise Napoleon III, for whom after a rather hostile start, the Queen came to develop a surprisingly close attachment.(3) She also was very well aware of Walewski's relationship with the promiscuous actress Rachel, who had a few years earlier borne him a daughter:

The latter was full of awkward "mal à propas", being famous for want of tact. He is most anxious our Fleets should have an opportunity of acting together, — enquired after the Orléans family, — spoke of Rachel, whose former liaison with him is notorious! &c(4)

A year or two later, during the Crimean War,in which the two great enemies were for the first time allies, Victoria entertained Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, with whom she was to forge a long lasting friendship. The meeting was a great success, but Victoria could not help appreciate the irony of entertaining a nephew of Napoleon:

Then dancing began, I, dancing a Quadrille with the Emperor, Albert opposite, with the Empress. This was followed by a Reel, in which Vicky danced very nicely, then a Valse which the Emperor asked her to dance with him, & which frightened her very much, &c — Really to think of a Gd Daughter of George IIIrd, dancing with the nephew of our great enemy, the Empr Napoleon now my most firm Ally, in the Waterloo Gallery, — is incredible! And this Ally was only 6 years ago, an exile in England, poor, & not at all thought of! The Emperor led me in to supper & Albert, the Empress. Her manner is the most perfect thing I ever saw, so gentle, graceful & kind, & so modest & retiring. All was over by ½ p. 12. Vicky behaved extremely well, making beautiful curtseys & was much praised by the Emperor & Empress, about whom she raves.(5)
A few months later Victoria was in Paris, the first British monarch to go there for four centuries, and whilst there paid her respects before the tomb of the "Great Napoleon"!

1. The Musée de l'Armée version, was bought by the Liverpool industrialist John Naylor, and was for years part of the Naylor Collection in Wales. An article published by theNapoleon Foundation says it was bought and donated to the Museum by Francis Howard, the Founder of the Grosvenor Art Gallery in London, a European educated American, the great grandson of Benjamin Franklin.
2. Queen Victoria's Diary, 9th December 1852. DNA has now confirmed Victoria's judgement that Walewski did descend from the male Bonaparte line.
3. Diary, 10th June 1853, 4th September 1859.
4. Diary 10th June 1853.
5. Diary 17th April 1855.