Carried on by her excitement, I turned into the dining room to find the gorgeous eyes of Empress Eugenie staring back at me. There, on the wall, was a magnificent print of one of the 19th Century's most famous group portraits, "Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting," by none other than Franz-Xaver Winterhalter.
"It's Eugenie!" I exclaimed to my startled friend, "the Empress of the French!!"
|The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
via Wikimedia Commons
Eugenie the woman was equally compelling. Born into the Spanish nobility, Eugenie de Montijo, was raised in Spain and in Paris and educated for a time in Britain. When the newly elected President of France, Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, met her for the first time, the middle-aged lech asked the 23-year-old beauty how to get to her. "Through the chapel, Sire," she declared. Already 41 and still unmarried, he had quite a reputation, and Eugenie wanted no part of it. But, he was in love and persistent.
Shortly after he staged a coup d'etat and became Emperor Napoleon III, however, Eugenie married him and became his Empress. Although her noble roots ran centuries deeper than his, many Frenchman felt that the non-royal Eugenie was too low in rank for the Emperor. Others saw the irony of the Bonaparte dynasty, which had been established just decades earlier, marrying the cream of Spanish society. While Eugenie's older sister inherited most of their father's long string of titles, Eugenie inherited some for herself, including 9th Countess of Teba. As for Napoleon, in his wedding speech, he declared, "I have preferred a woman whom I love and respect to a woman unknown to me, with whom an alliance would have had advantages mixed with sacrifices."
|Eugenie and her son
via Wikimedia Commons
Eugenie was considered one of the most beautiful women of her day. Both men and women were entranced by her. One American who visited the court wrote, "I was completely dazed by her loveliness and beauty. I can't imagine a more beautiful apparition than she was." But the Empress's beauty was more than just skin-deep. She was also renowned for her kindness and charity and personal bravery, even visiting cholera patients during rampant outbreaks. In the midst of the libidinous Parisiennes, Eugenie was a paragon of virtue. She surrounded herself with equally beautiful and virtuous ladies. Dressed simply when at home and "off duty," Eugenie realized the value of fashion in building not just her own public image but that of the Imperial Bonaparte Family. She partnered with the early forerunners of haute couture like Charles Frederick Worth and Louis Vuitton to create new styles -- including the dramatic transition to wide hoop skirts and then to figure-hugging bustles. Women around the world chose their styles, their colors and even their hairdos based on whatever the Empress of the French was wearing.
Absolutely everyone was in love with Eugenie including her own husband. Although he could not rely on the untouchable beauty in the bed chamber, she became a trusted adviser and representative for the emperor. Like a modern royal, she traveled throughout the country and abroad on official duties, even attending the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt and traveling as far afield as Sri Lanka. Not hidden at court like the royal women before her, she epitomized the public role that royal women of the next century would come to accept as their life. She was appointed regent several times including during the Franco-Prussian War while her husband and son were at the front. As the war deteriorated, so did things back in Paris. The Emperor was taken prisoner and Eugenie was alone when rioting broke out. She was able to flee the city with help from her dentist, and eventually getting across the Channel to England, where she was later joined by both of her Napoleons, her husband having had to renounce his crown.
|By W&D Downey
via Wikimedia Commons
Eugenie spent much of her widowhood in a villa on the French Riviera that she had built for herself, and she was a frequent hostess to European royalty. When World War I broke out, the now elderly Eugenie did what she could to help by funding hospitals in both England and France and by donating her personal yacht to the British Navy.
Eugenie died at the age of 94 during a visit back home to Spain in 1920, but her body was returned to England to be buried with the husband who had departed almost 50 years earlier. And, our memory of Eugenie was frozen even earlier in time, when she was the beautiful, young Empress surrounded by other pretty ladies posing for a painting before the century's most famous portraitist. From that painting, Eugenie lived on for decades. Unlike other iconic royal beauties (Marie Antoinette, Sissi of Austria, Diana), there was no tragic death for Eugenie. Rather, her tragedy was in a long life surrounded not by ladies, but by ghosts.
More about Eugenie:
Charles Frederick Worth, The Empress Eugenie and the Invention of Haute-Couture on Napoleon.org
Consort Profile: Empress Eugenie of France on The Mad Monarchist
The Daily Diadem on The Court Jeweller
The Dentist and the Empress on American Heritage
Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie on Historical Men and Women
Empress Eugenie on History's Women
Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch on Eragem
The Empress Eugenie in eighteenth-century costume on Gods and Foolish Grandeur
Empress Eugenie: Her Unique Sense of Fashion with Diamond Jewels on Baunat
The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting on Napoleon.org
Eugenie de Montijo, Empress of the French on Unofficial Royalty
Impress of an Empress on Independent.co.uk
L'Imperatrice Eugenie on Napoleon.org
Marie Antoinette and Eugenie on Versailles and More