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The Second Empire through the Lens of A.A.E. Disdéri The order of the portraits in this exhibition follows, as much as possible, the structure of Disdéri’s Catalogue No. 5, which he issued on 15 March 1861 under the title Publication des contemporains et sommités artistiques et littéraires. Some 512 names are given in the catalogue, grouped into 12 different categories, not counting the last three pages, which list some of the Algerian views issued by Disdéri in carte-de-visite format.
The twelve categories into which the portraits are grouped by and large adhere to the hierarchical structure of nineteenth-century society, the Imperial family being the first category given (7), followed by princes and princess of the imperial family (19). The next category, which is untitled, includes the pope and high-ranking prelates (15); then come foreign princes and princesses (41), ministers (12), marshals (11), admirals (16), generals (97), leading figures [sommités] (99), and artists (14). The next category groups writers, authors and composers together (43), while the last category, by the far the largest with 138 names, lists actors, opera singers, musicians, ballet dancers and all other performers under ‘dramatic artists.’ Within each category, the sitters are listed in alphabetical order.
The structured categorization of the portraits in Disdéri’s catalogue is the reason that some husbands and wives are not listed together in this exhibition. Count Walewski, for example, appears in the catalogue under ‘Ministers’ and Marshal Pelissier under ‘Marshals,’ while their wives both appear later in the catalogue under ‘Sommités.’
Of the cartes-de-visite chosen for this exhibition, only a handful don’t correspond to a name given in the catalogue, namely: the Disdéri self-portraits, Prince Victor Napoléon, Marquis of Douglas, Empress Carlotta of Mexico, Prince and Princess Metternich, Duchess of Sutherland, Baron James de Rothschild, the Annamite ambassadors, Abd el-Kader, Rosa Bonheur, the dancer Mlle Mercier and Henri de Lutteroth. Although at least one of these portraits was probably taken prior to the date the catalogue was published, the reason the others names don’t appear in the catalogue is almost certainly because they had not yet visited Disdéri’s studio.
Of those names that do appear in both the catalogue and the exhibition, since the catalogue is not illustrated there is no way of knowing if the portrait in the exhibition is the one which a customer would have received in 1861, or a different portrait, the result of a second or third sitting conducted at a later date. For example, the portrait of the Belgian soprano Marie Sax chosen for this exhibition shows her costumed for Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, but since this opera’s first performance wasn’t until 1865, this particular portrait of the singer would not have been available in 1861.
Some names and titles in the exhibition have been translated into English, while in other cases, the original French has been retained, ‘Comte de Persigny’ and ‘Duc de Gramont’ being preferable to the more awkward ‘Count of Persigny’ and ‘Duke of Gramont.’