Lot 38
  • 38

A GOLD-MOUNTED TORTOISESHELL PORTRAIT SNUFF BOX, PIERRE ANDRÉ MONTAUBAN, PARIS, 1806-1809 | A gold-mounted tortoiseshell portrait snuff box, Pierre André Montauban, Paris, 1806-1809

80,000 - 100,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Signée ISABEY
  • gold, tortoiseshell, ivory
  • box 2.6 x 9.2 x 5.6 cm., miniature 7.6 x 4.1 cm.
rectangular, the lid inset with a navette-shaped miniature of Joséphine, Empress of the French, by Jean Baptiste Isabey, signed: Isabey, circa 1807, wearing a purple velvet gown with puffed sleeves and a standing white lace collar, with a matching toque trimmed with lavender ostrich plumes, a gold chain hung with a miniature portrait of Napoléon across her shoulder and holding a letter announcing the victory at Austerlitz dated 2 December 1806, a Gothick background behind, the rectangular gold spandrel chased with neo-classical ornament, on a sablé ground, under glass, narrow blue enamel frame, gold mounts and thumbpiece, maker’s mark, bear’s head 3me titre, Paris 3me titre et grosse garantie for 1798-1809 PNA 1250MN 1250


Eugénie, Empress of the French (1826-1920);
Prince Victor Napoléon (1862-1926);
Prince Louis Napoléon (1914-1997)


Malmaison 2006, Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767–1855) portraitiste de l’Europe, Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau, 2006, cat. no. 63bis


Related literature Mme de Basily-Callimaki, J.-B. Isabey sa vie- son temps, Paris, 1909;

Napoléon Bonaparte, Correspondance Générale, V, Boulogne, Trafalgar, Austerlitz, 1805, Paris, 2008, letter 11144



Slight restoration to tortoiseshell on the right hand-side of the lid now re-opening at corner; predictable slight time wear on base; small losses to enamel frame. The miniature: spots of dusty dry mould particularly on lower part of dress (easily removable).This iconic box resonates with character and history.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

In this exceptional miniature by Isabey the artist evokes the moment Empress Joséphine received the letter from Napoléon announcing his victory at Austerlitz on 2 December 1806, perhaps the greatest achievement of the Grande Armée. For the sake of the pictorial narrative the artist has eschewed chronological accuracy. The empress is shown against a gothic backdrop, an allusion to Strasbourg where she had been staying just before the battle; however, when she received the emperor’s letter she had already left the city and was on her rain-soaked way to Munich. The letter she holds is dated the day of the battle, although Napoléon only wrote to her of his victory - ‘I have beaten the Russian and Austrian armies commanded by the two emperors’ - the day after, 3 December (Napoléon, vol. V, p. 873). As painter and draughtsman of His Majesty’s cabinet, Isabey fully understood his role as an eulogist of the imperial family. Isabey’s role in defining the imperial family’s image extended to the clothes they wore and is evident in this miniature. For the coronation in 1804 he was required to design costumes that bore no relationship with the immediate Bourbon past and so he looked back to the Renaissance as a source for inspiration. The lace collar and puffed sleeves of the velvet dress worn by the empress in this miniature derive from her coronation robes. Indeed, it is quite possible that Louis Hippolyte Leroy, the creator of the coronation gown and the empress’s favourite marchand de modes, was also responsible for this dress. Given the nature of the occasion represented it is fitting that the only jewellery worn by the empress is a gold chain hung with a miniature of Napoléon. This particular portrait, showing the emperor in the uniform of a colonel of the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, was created by Isabey (for a version of this miniature see Basily-Callimaki, p. 99).

By combining the gothic setting with a reimagined Renaissance dress, Isabey aligned himself with a group of contemporary artists who were painting romanticised historical subjects, le genre chevaleresque. Empress Joséphine was an early admirer of these ‘Troubadour’ paintings: in 1805 she acquired Valentine de Milan, exhibited by Fleury François Richard at the Salon of 1802, which depicted the velvet-robed subject in a gothic interior (The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg).

Given the allure of this Isabey portrait it is not surprising that in the nineteenth century it became a popular subject for engravers: Madame de Basily-Kallimaki lists no less than five versions (ibid., cat. nos. 52–56), see Fig. 1.

For information about the gold box maker Pierre André Montauban, see footnote to lot 34.