Plon-Plon, A Bonaparte in red and gold

from 24/06/2023 to 02/10/2023
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Title in French “Plon-Plon, Un Bonaparte Rouge et Or”

Until 2 October 2023, the Palais Fesch/Musée des Beaux-Arts in Ajaccio (Corsica) is hosting an exhibition about Napoleon I’s nephew, Jérôme’s son, and Napoleon III’s turbulent cousin: Napoléon-Jérôme Bonaparte, le Prince Napoléon known as “Plon-Plon”.

► For this exhibition, the Fondation Napoléon is lending the plaster cast of the statue of Napoléon I legislator, a sculpture by Eugène Guillaume, from its collection. This antique-style sculpture was commissioned by Prince Napoleon for the residence known as the Maison Pompeienne, which Napoleon III’s cousin had built at 18 avenue Montaigne in Paris (inaugurated in 1860) before selling it six years later. The marble statue was lost in the Tuileries fire during the Paris Commune in 1871. The Pompeian House was demolished in 1891.

Plon-Plon, A Bonaparte in red and gold

After the exhibition devoted to Princess Mathilde in 2019, the Palais Fesch-musée des Beaux-Arts in Ajaccio is focusing on another major figure in the world of the arts during the Second Empire, namely Prince Napoleon (1822-1891), son of King Jérôme, brother of the Princess and cousin of Emperor Napoleon III.
Posterity has remembered him by the childhood nickname of “Plon-Plon”. He was undoubtedly the most reviled Bonaparte of his time, whom the “black legend” tried to portray as nothing more than a simple agitator with a dissolute lifestyle and scandalous affairs, a spoilt child who, on the steps of the throne, indulged in a posture of opposition. In reality, he tried – without always succeeding – to embody within the imperial family and in the face of reactionaries of all persuasions, a true republican and socialist political ideal, a radical Bonapartism faithful to the ideas of the Revolution, anti-slavery, anti-clerical, he believed in the progress of the arts and science, the principle of nationalities and the freedom of peoples.

Not without contradictions and compromises, Prince Napoleon used his position and the large financial endowment at his disposal to build up rich art collections and build mansions, support artists and gather the great minds of his time around him, and obtain certain positions in the arts system, which enabled him to assert his figure as an enlightened but somewhat rebellious “red prince” in relation to the other art lovers of the time.

To date, his role in French artistic life, and more specifically his patronage during the Second Empire, have never been the subject of an exhibition or even a specific study. The exhibition and its catalogue therefore present for the first time the modern art collection of the Prince bringing together some of the works that once belonged to him. In particular he was close to Ingres, a lover of Delacroix, Gérôme and even Courbet, and one of the first to buy works by Gustave Moreau. The exhibition will also look at his links with artists, actresses, writers and intellectuals (Sand, Dumas, Proudhon, Renan, etc.), and more broadly at his role in the life of artistic institutions under the Second Empire, notably as chairman of the commission for the first Universal Exhibition to be held in France in 1855.

A fervent defender of the ideals of the Revolution and safegaurd of his family history, and capitalizing on his striking resemblance to Napoleon I – his portraits bear witness to this – he assembled a very large collection of memorabilia and works of art from the revolutionary period and the Empire at the Palais-Royal. But it was above all as an archaeology enthusiast that he left his mark on the history of art, by having an astonishing “Pompeian villa” built on avenue Montaigne. A landmark in the history of nineteenth-century French architecture, this work of experimental archaeology in the heart of Paris was, for several years, the setting for an incredible collection of Greco-Roman and Egyptian antiques, as well as paintings by Gérôme, Boulanger, Cornu and others, sculptures by Cavelier and Guillaume, Sèvres porcelain, silverware by Christofle and the prince’s extensive library. Known from extensive photographic documentation, the villa was destroyed in 1891, the year of the prince’s death. Widely dispersed during his lifetime and after his death, these works of art, documents, objects, photographs, etc. will be reproduced in the exhibition catalogue and brought together for the first time at the Palais Fesch.

Finally, the exhibition will show how the Prince’s intellectual curiosity and Saint-Simonian ideals found expression during his many expeditions – undertaken for military, diplomatic or scientific reasons – throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and as far afield as the United States. From these journeys – he was undoubtedly the Bonaparte who travelled the most around the world in his time – the Prince brought back stories, photographs, ethnographic objects and natural samples, which he donated to the Natural History Museum and other institutions of learning.

Press kit | See some of the works on display

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