DEAR HELAINE AND JOE: I think I inherited an interesting item for which I would appreciate any professional advice you are able to provide. The item is a portrait of Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II. The painting is dated 1831 and is signed by Rudolf Hille of Vienna. My father bought this 12-by-14-inch piece in New York in 1960.
— R.W., Minneapolis
DEAR R.W.: He was born Napoleon Francois Joseph Charles Bonaparte on March 20, 1811, in Paris’ Tuileries Palace. His mother was Archduchess Marie Louise, and he was the only legitimate son of France’s Emperor Napoleon I.
He came to be known as “Franz” and was born prince imperial and king of Rome. He was the heir apparent to the French throne and for a brief 17 days in June and July 1815, he was the titular emperor of France. With the end of the first French Empire, Franz Bonaparte became the Duke of Reichstadt. But to his adherents (and perhaps in his own mind) he continued to be “His Imperial Majesty Emperor Napoleon II” until his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1832.
This painting, which we believe to be a watercolor, was done by Vienna artist Rudolf Hille, who was born in 1875 (44 years after the date on the painting). It is our opinion that the 1831 date signifies the year in which the subject was supposed to have looked the way he appears in the picture.
Hille’s death date is not known, but we must assume the portrait was painted sometime in the very late 19th century or early 20th century, and we feel it was based on one of several portraits of Napoleon II shown clutching his father’s sword with two military decorations on the left side of his chest. The somewhat romantic portrait by Moritz Daffinger and the standing image by Leopold Bucher come to mind.
Hille was known for painting watercolor panoramas of battle scenes, not for his portrait work. Perhaps Hille was paying tribute to a somewhat tragic figure who gained the nickname “L’Aiglon” — the eaglet — after his death. “Franz” Bonaparte yearned to follow in his famous father’s footsteps in battle but never got the chance.
As a young man, “Franz” was made colonel of the 60th Imperial Regiment by his grandfather, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Francis I, and given command of 200 men. Not yet 20 years old, the task is said to have exhausted the youthful Napoleon II. He died shortly thereafter. The story is both martial and tragic. That is perhaps why Hille chose to execute this image of a handsome yet doomed royal princeling.
Hille’s battle panoramas sell for between $1,000 and $2,000 on the European continent, but this atypical portrait would bring less. The Napoleon II lore and the romantic nature of the image add to the desirability, but the insurance replacement value is probably around $700 to $900.