The Biard Research Project

Update: December 14, 2021

Francois Biard: Une soirée au Louvre chez le comte de Nieuwerkerke

"Count de Nieuwerkerke's social network in 1855"

--->>> click on the painting above to access the list of names (work in progress: 01-44 complete)
--->>> click here for an experimental force graph of the social interactions in this first group

Historic Social Networks
Managing our social networks plays a major role in our lives. Sometimes we forget that this didn't start when Mark Zuckerberg built "The facebook" website for Harvard students in 2003, but that this need is as old as our society. Our connections with close friends, family, and acqaintances are now easily displayed, updated, and enhanced on our smartphones. Before photography, invented in 1839, the only way to display the importance of your network was to commission a painting. This is why count Émile de Nieuwerkerke, superintendent of the world's most famous museums in Paris, asked Francois Biard late in 1851 to create a painting of his key social connections.
In this Biard research project website I describe my efforts to retrieve all the names in Biard's painting and their historic significance.

How this project started
In February 2015 I visited a Viollet-Le-Duc exposition at the Cité de L'Architecture museum in Paris. Architect Viollet-Le-Duc was one of the first who provided insight in medieval architecture. His thick volume "Encyclopédie Médiévale" has been a key guide for me in the restoration of my medieval houses.

At the exposition I purchased a Beaux Arts journal (hors-serie), dedicated to Viollet-Le-Duc. It contained the above image of a painting from 1855 by Francois Biard showing a group of influential men at the Louvre: "Une soirée [au Louvre] chez le comte de Nieuwerkerke". To my surprise I found composer Franz Liszt sitting amidst these people. Having researched Liszt and his romance with Caroline de Saint-Cricq in a previous sabbatical activity (see my website there could be no mistake to his identity.
His name wasn't in the list of thirty names that was provided in the journal, so I contacted the museum of Compiègne, home of the Biard painting, to verify. They responded with a research document (written by a curator in 2000) that showed the thirty names mentioned in the Beaux Arts document, but not Liszt.

I was excited to have discovered a new painting with Liszt in it, and decided to research it to get details about his presence in the painting and prepare notes for Liszt societies to which I occasionally contribute. I counted a total of eighty faces (including a few partial and blurry ones), so decided to spend some Sisyphus labor to verify the thirty familiar persons and see if I could trace any of the other fifty faces in the painting. It was a pleasant coincidence to find that Biard's painting was completed 100 years before my date of birth, so that merited the extra investment in time and effort.

Biard's painting, count de Nieuwerkerke, and his salon at the Louvre
Count Émilien de Nieuwerkerke was a French sculptor from Dutch descent (his grandfather, Willem van Nieuwkerk, being an illegitimate child of a prince of Orange). This highly ambitious, handsome ('le beau Batave'), and well-mannered person became the lover of princess Mathilde Bonaparte, cousin of the emperor. At the start of his publicly elected government in 1849, Napoleon appointed count de Nieuwerkerke superintendent of fine arts in the Louvre. In return for his support of Napoleon's coup in December 1851, de Nieuwerkerke was made responsible for the fine arts in the emperor's household, which effectively gave him full control over four museums: the Louvre, Luxembourg, Versailles, and Saint-Germain-en-Laye as well as all imperial art collections. This extremely influential man organized a weekly Salon in his apartment in the Louvre inviting politicians, painters, composers, writers, ambassadors, nobility, and other key members of society to enjoy lectures and music, thereby creating a strong social network of people who together decided on (re)structuring Paris, France and many other parts of the world.

Nieuwerkerke commissioned Francois Biard, late 1851, to create a painting of these events. Visiting many of these Friday evening salons, sketching invitees, and with suggestions by de Nieuwerkerke of the persons he wished to be depicted, Biard spent well over two years in compiling this painting with size 233 x 168 cm. It was presented at the great Paris Salon Exposition in the Spring of 1855.
Although the critics did not consider the painting of superior quality, it became important as a representation of life at the highest levels of French Society. It was in this salon in the Louvre that the boulevards of Paris as we know them today were conceived, where discoveries in the Middle East and African countries were shared, and art collections - nowadays part of trust funds and other foundations such as the Rothschild and Wallace foundations with value of billions - were established. It was the place where the first impressionistic salon was agreed, and the Statue of Liberty was suggested as gift to the young United States of America.

By identifying all these influential people in this painting, we open a new time-window into the fascinating days of the mid-19th century, when the foundation for the industrial society of the 20th century was laid and impressionist music and art commenced.

Research phase
I researched the persons in the painting on and off over a period of six months and succeeded to find candidates for nearly all of them. I contacted several subject matter expert organisations (e.g. the aforementioned foundations) and museums to verify the identity of the dozen persons that I felt less confident about and received enthusiastic responses allowing me to update my analysis, as well as invitations to present my findings. As always, identification of the last 10% of the persons on this painting took 90% of the time.
Recognizing faces for mobile phone or computer login purposes or indentiying people in a crowd is a standard software feature today. Unfortunately, a match can only be found if ample data is available. With photography invented only a dozen years before Biard started this painting, there were no easy sources to support the identification of these eighty persons. My research required a combination of comparisons with other paintings, pen-drawings, caricatures, newspaper lithographs, rejuvenation of persons in photographs taken many years later, and a major amount of logical analysis, detective work and lots of legwork to browse through many thousands of candidates. About 500,000 web searches were needed to complete this quest.

Next steps
In the coming year I will be updating the Biard painting page on this website with names and basic background data on each of these key influencers from the 1850's. This website can be used on-line and is designed for use (via touch-screen monitor) by museum visitors.

I have written descriptions of persons 1 up to 45 in the painting (visible when you click their heads). Key recent addition was count Horace de Viel Castel (#43). He wrote a diary with over 2,000 pages in which he decribed life at the elite level between 1851 and 1864. This interesting and amusing work includes descriptions of the vast majority of the persons depicted in Francois Biard's painting. Analysis of Viel Castel's diary, with close to 1,400 references to characters in the Biard painting took considerable time but has now been completed. Another 35 pieces to complete the puzzle...

Halfway 2018 I realized that this project was taking more time than expected so I decided to take a sabbatical of this sabbatical activity. At present I have completed several other business and personal projects and now I plan to spend 2022 to finish this Biard Research project. In case you are eager to learn more about persons in the painting that have not yet been described: feel free to drop me a mail.

In February 2020 I spent some time in Paris and meet historians in the Louvre to further research the location of de Nieuwerkerke's apartments, his salon (all located in sections of the Louvre that no longer exist) and study the works of art in Biard's painting such as the tapestries made by Giulio Romano. Unfortunately, the expert I met had no additional details other than what I already obtained in 2015 and had no information about architectural aspects so I will need to continue this research myself. Besides many other interesting data that I collected in Paris about persons in the painting I also picked up the Covid-19 virus in late February 2020. It was a mild version but triggered me to spend some sabbatical activity to contribute to an international forum of researchers in analyzing this new virus.

At present (December 2021) I am halfway the translation of some books (total 500,000 words) in Dutch and building a "mini-version" of this Biard painting dedicated to Rembrandt's 1643 masterpiece the Night Watch. Compared to Biard's painting this is a "piece of cake" with only some 30 characters of which many have been thoroughy researched. See my web pages on this ongoing interim project.

I will return to Biard's painting project early 2022.
For this project I am compiling information for a book about these celebrities: why are they in the painting, their activities, their social connections, a fair amount of gossip, mistresses, and other items to complete the image of count de Nieuwerkerke's famous soirées in the Louvre.

There's a good reason why the critics were not that pleased with this work of Biard when it was presented at the Salon in 1855: It received a significant modification during 1854, and several persons who were supposed to be in the painting were eliminated. Who were these people (one of them a lady!) and why are they not in the painting? I will provide the answers to these questions in the book.

Compiling data about each of these eighty persons from 19th century sources takes time. On average it takes about two weeks to add a condensed description of a new person to the website. My goal is not to copy or link to basic Wikipedia info but to provide insight why a person is in the painting and their connections to the other guests. The wealth of additional data that I've collected on only the first dozen characters already attributed to over several hundred pages, so completion of the book will not happen before the end of 2022.
I am also planning to expand on a graphic representation of the social connections between these eighty people. Possible solutions are data-driven-documents with scalable vector graphics such as d3.js, and Gephi. With some help of Stanford University a first experimental demo of the social connections between the first 42 persons in the painting is given HERE. Work is in progress...

Last but not least: together with the conservator of the Muséum of Compiègne, Mme Laure Chabanne, I plan to compile the basic details of the research and the findings into a publication for a French museum journal.

Target completion of this website is 'somewhere in 2022'. Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any suggestions or comments.

© Gert Nieveld, Amsterdam, June 2015 - December 2021