T he wide forehead, the kiss curls of pale hair formed into a widow’s peak, the full cheeks and tulip mouth. On face value, the evidence is convincing. For many years it has been presumed that Antonio Canova’s marble masterpiece The Infant St John the Baptist was originally conceived as a portrait of Napoleon’s son.
The Emperor’s heir, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, was a boy of many monikers: the grand titles of Prince Impérial and Roi de Rome (King of Rome) and the more casual sobriquet L’Aiglon (The Eaglet). And here, some believe, he has been promoted to a saint.
“The resemblance is striking,” observes Sotheby’s specialist Christopher Mason. This is key to the theory, for Napoleon’s looks – and by extension his son’s – were distinctive. Canova’s Saint John has profoundly Napoleonic features: “prominent forehead with broad temples, and light covering of hair terminating in centralised locks at the fringe.” This is the archetypal representation of the infant Roi de Rome as propagated by Francois Gérard’s eponymous painting of the prince of 1811.
There is a precedent to support the Roi de Rome hypothesis: Canova had renamed his portrait of Empress Marie Lousie as Concord to simply La Concordia. Some art historians remain unconvinced, however. Another theory suggests that the work is a portrait of Napoléon II as Romulus, the first king of Rome (this is supported by the presence of the lambskin, possibly a reference to the shepherd Faustulus, Romulus’s adoptive father).
The portrait was commissioned by the British banker and politician Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton. Sculpted in 1822, the last year of the sculptor’s life, the work was a final flourish, delivered at a point when the creator of The Three Graces was the most celebrated artist in the world.
Napoleon’s star had fallen years earlier, however. “The presumption is that Canova abandoned his portrait of the Roi de Rome at the time of Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, but converted the model into the Infant St John following Bonaparte’s exile to St Helena in 1815,” Mason explains. If true, it is perhaps the most extreme case of upcycling in art history.