Alfred Émilien O’Hara, Comte de Nieuwerkerke, born the 16th of April 1811 in Paris, was a glamorous and fascinating figure of the Second Empire, who played a key role in the building of the collection of Sir Richard Wallace. The son of King Charles X’s Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Charles de Nieuwerkerke (1789 – 1864), he trained as a sculptor with Marocchetti and enjoyed considerable professional success, exhibiting regularly at the Salon in the 1840’s. In 1832 he married Marie Tecla de Monttessuy (1811-1886), they had one child together who died young.
In 1845, Emilien de Nieuwerkerke met Princess Mathilde Bonaparte (cousin of the future Napoleon III and the wife of Prince Anatole Demidoff), she became his mistress for 25 years. Due to his relationship with the Princess Mathilde he became a member of the entourage of the future Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873), who made him Directeur des Musées Nationaux in 1849 and Superintendant des Beaux-Arts, in charge of all arts and museums affairs, in 1863. His nominations allowed him to oversee French culture, his achievements included the enrichment and diversification of collections; the opening of forty rooms in Le Louvre; the foundation of new museums and allowing public admission during the week to Le Louvre.
Nieuwerkerke became a great collector, the owner of one of the most outstanding private collections of arms and armour and of Renaissance works of art of its time. A well-known figure in Paris, he knew both the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Richard Wallace, who were also, intimate friends of the Emperor Napoleon III. After the calamitous defeat of France by the Prussian army in 1870 and the collapse of Napoleon III’s empire, Nieuwerkerke , seriously ill and fearing his arrest, decided to try and flee to Great Britain. He took a train by himself (his wife didn’t want to follow him), carrying with him the most important pieces of his collection. He was found unconscious in the train compartment and taken to Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme where friends of his the Princesses Marie Cantacuzène and her daughter Olga came on his request with a doctor to care for him. Together they moved to London hoping the South Kensington museum (now the V&A) would buy some selected masterpieces from Nieuwerkerke’s collection – they declined.
Nieuwerkerke soon found a buyer for the entire collection when Sir Richard Wallace agreed to buy the entire collection for 600,000 francs, paying half of the price in August 1871. Nieuwerkerke was greatly pleased that his collection would be kept together. The money he raised from selling his collection allowed him to move to Italy, where he bought the Villa Gattaiola, close to Lucca, in Tuscany. He lived there for the last 20 years of his life with the Princesses Cantacuzène who remained with him following his illness, they became his family. He died the 16 of January 1892 aged 80 years old and was buried in the cemetery at Lucca.
Princess Marie Cantacuzène (1821 – 1891) was born in Odessa to Baron Jean Francois Rainaud (1771 – 1835) and Marie Therese Adelaide de Corio (1796 – 1871). She married Prince Alexandre Cantacuzène (1816-1859), a cavalry captain in the Russian army. Together they had two children Rodia (1838 – 1859) and Olga (1843 – 1929).
In 1862 together with her daughter Olga she met Emilien de Nieuwerkerke. In 1870 Marie and Olga helped and protected Nieuwerkerke when he was ill and travelled with him to Great Britain. They remained with him, living with him at the Villa Gattaiola in Italy.
In 1876 Olga married Prince Lorenzo Altieri (1829 – 1899), they had a daughter Lodovica Guidotti, known to the family as Loda (1877 – 1939). Olga was Nieuwerkerke’s favourite muse; many of his works were based on her. In 1888 he made her his residuary legatee, on Nieuwerkerke’s death she inherited all his estate and continued to live at the Villa Gattaiola.