When Joachim Murat commissions this portrait to Baron Gérard circa 1811-12, he is at the peak of his glory. Brother-in-law to Napoleon since his marriage with Maria-Annunziata-Caroline Bonaparte, the Emperor’s youngest sister, in 1800, his advancement expanded well outside military circuits : maréchal d’Empire in 1804, grand-duke of Kleve and of Berg (1806-08), he was then king of Naples and of the Two Sicilies since August 1808.
Very popular by his subjects, Murat governed Naples with enthusiasm and modernized the realm by bringing the Code Civil, by creating a university and a naval school, by supporting industry and by enhancing security. Disagreements with Napoleon created tensions which pushed Murat to finally abandon the Command of the Great Army, weakened, in Russia in 1812, in order to return to Naples and stabilize him realm. The failure of his treaty with Austria and the fact that he was not recognized as legitimate sovereign by the allies during the “Première Restauration” led him to try and turn back to Napoleon during the Hundred Days – but he couldn’t. He tried using the Unification of Italy as strategy but the defeat of Tolentino destroyed all hopes. He fled to Corsica – but wishing to get his kingdom back, he disembarked in Pizzo, where the hostile population imprisoned him. He was shot on October 13th, 1815.
Our portrait is one of the most stunning representations of Joachim Murat, both for its great visual quality and for the painter’s talent to render very naturally the model’s charm and panache. He is standing up, in full length, in a sumptuous mantle doubled with ermine. He is holding the famous white feathered velvet hat, as all official in court should, sword to the belt and sceptre in his hand. The royal crown is right by him on a velvet cushion. Murat’s costume is painted with outstanding virtuosity, the matter is almost palpable and the details are executed with extreme meticulousness. The framing in mild da sotto in su gives Murat a majestic and stately aspect, that the painter enhances with the light on his figure, contrasting with the background. Gentle touches of light on Murat’s face, slightly turned and yet with blue eyes looking directly at the spectator allow to create a bond between the king and his subjects.
Our painting is certainly the first version painted by Gérard. Its quality, power, virtuosity and panache are characteristic of Gérard’s style. Another version exists, of lesser quality from our point of view. Measuring 215 x 130 cm, the other version belongs to Louise Murat’s descent, comtesse Rasponi, daughter of Joachim Murat. Shown in 1962 (n°97) at the Palazzo Reale, it is presented again in 2015 (n°31) in the exhibition Murat Re di Napoli, as “After François Gérard”. A crucial information is given in the painting's footnote from the Souvenirs d'enfance de la comtesse Rasponi fille de Joachim Murat, 1805-1815. Publiés par le comte Jean-Baptiste Spalletti, Paris, 1929, p. 73 : « [...] It's the costume in which Gérard presented him in the painting from which I have a copy in my red living room [...] ». Proving that the countess knew her family had a replica, and not the original work. The Museum of the Château de Versailles also keeps a replica after our painting (31 x 23cm, MV 4903, INV. 4795, illustrated in Claire Constans’ catalogue, op. cit. see fig. 3).
A variant is however noticeable on both replicas : a feathered helmet appears on the piece of furniture on the left of the composition. By lookink closely at our work, one can observe an important repaint in the shape of the helmet. This item was thus represented at first and was hidden later, possibly by Haro at the family’s request, during a restoration in 1867. It is probably still here, under the repaint.
Other magnificient portraits of Joachim Murat were executed by Gérard : Joachim Murat en uniforme de hussard, kept at the museum of the Château de Versailles (see fig. 1), the Portrait de Murat en maréchal de l'Empire, kept at the Musée de l’Armée, Paris (see fig. 2). Other famous painters also represented him : the baron Gros executed a monumental equestrian portrait in 1812, now kept at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
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