Jean Georges Vibert (French, 1840–1902),
The King of Rome
oil on canvas on panel, 32½ x 47, 82.55 x 119.38 cm
Gift of Francis T. B. Martin, 1990.7
Born in Paris and trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Vibert won a medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1867. A volunteer in the French army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he was wounded at the Battle of Malmaison and received the Cross of the Legion of Honor for courageous conduct. Vibert gained great popularity with gently teasing depictions of high ecclesiastical officials, usually cardinals, in moments of leisure: reading, eating, or even blowing cigar smoke into the face of a parrot. He pursued a successful sideline as an actor and wrote articles on art for Century magazine. Vibert was also a founding member of the Société des Aquarellistes.
Few topics held such fascination for nineteenth-century French citizens as the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Polarized around Monarchists, Republicans, Bonapartists, and Socialists, French politics produced three revolutions, attempted and successful coups, and a short but bloody civil war that took the lives of 25,000 Parisians. Although passions had cooled by the time Vibert painted The King of Rome in 1900, his choice of subject matter was not entirely without risk. The story of Napoleon forcing the Pope to recognize his son as the King of Rome and, hence, heir to a new Holy Roman Empire, was only one episode in a long, tangled relationship between various French governments and the Holy See, a history well known to French viewers of the time. They also would have been familiar with portraits of the main players, not only the Pope and Emperor but also the members of each entourage, and would have scrutinized Vibert’s picture for his success in portraying these individuals in a well-documented situation. The specially made frame adds a final touch of imperial grandeur to the composition.