by Michael Djordjevitch
This painting: by Gustave-Clarence Boulanger, called, The Rehearsal of 'The Flute Player' and 'The Wife of Diomedes'; completed in 1861, represents an event in the atrium of Prince Napoleon’s Pompeian house in Paris. The painting, on exhibit at the Musee D'Orsay, is now part of the collections of the Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon.
Prince Napoleon, Napoleon-Joseph Bonaparte, a cousin to the Emperor Napoleon III, had built a house in the Pompeian manner at 18 Avenue Montaine in Paris. This residence was a creation of the Architect, and Grand Prix de Rome winner, Alfred-Nicolas Normand, along with the celebrated painter Jean-Leon Gerome, and contained an Atrium with Impluvium, seen here, a Triclinium, and a Xystos, along with other elements inspired by Roman and Greek Antiquity.
This Scene captures a rehearsal, on a night in 1860, for the upcoming inauguration of the Villa, bringing together, among others, the critic and poet Theophile Gautier and the playwright Emile Augier, along with several actresses from the Theatre-Francais. The subsequent gala event, on the 14th of February, 1860, attended by the Emperor and his Court, would include several plays by Emile Augier and Alexandre Dumas. According to the published program for the performance, the venue "had been closed for repairs for 1800 years."
Boulanger was then asked by Prince Napoleon to copy his painting directly onto the wall of his home. Sadly, this lovely ensemble only survives through this painting, a number of renderings and drawings, and a few photographs. Vandalized during the Commune of 1871 the building was then demolished in its entirety in 1891.
Presiding over the Scene is a Statue, which, at a glance, could very much be that of the Emperor Augustus. However, a much closer look at the image, and the documentation, reveals it to be that of Napoleon I as Legislator, sculpted by Eugene Guillaume, and realized in 1859.
All the figures in this painting are clad in Roman clothing, and thus contribute to the sense that we are looking at a scene from Antiquity. However, the grouping of figures introduces a discordant note.
The two figures on the far left seem to be very much set apart, peering into our scene as if they had suddenly stumbled into an unexpected world. And, the two principal groups in the scene's center and right seem not to be aware of these two men.
Could it be that our two puzzled and agitated gentlemen, while sharing the same space of our rehearsing actors and their supporting friends do not, in fact, share the same time? It seems rather, that they are two actual Romans, time travelers, who, having stumbled into the mid-nineteenth century, are now puzzled by encountering so familiar a world.
This rendering by Normand represents the mosaic floor and Impluvium of the Atrium.
This, and the following two images by Normand record the Antechamber to our Atrium.
Our closing image is that of a watercolor by the Italian Painter Luigi Bazzani, entitled 'Maidens in a Classical Interior." It offers a reconstruction of a partially surviving Atrium revealed through the 19th century excavations of Pompeii.