Lot 41
  • 41

A GOLD-MOUNTED TORTOISESHELL PORTRAIT SNUFF BOX, PIERRE ANDRÉ MONTAUBAN, PARIS, 1798-1809 | A gold-mounted tortoiseshell portrait snuff box, Pierre André Montauban, Paris, 1798-1809

15,000 - 25,000 GBP
23,750 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Miniature signée ISABEY
  • tortoiseshell, ivory, gold, human hair
of elongated oval form, the lid inset with a historicising portrait of Carlo Maria Buonaparte, by Jean Baptiste Isabey, signed: Isabey, circa 1805, with powdered hair en queue, wearing a plum-coloured coat and a lace jabot, gold spandrel within blue enamel border, maker's mark, bear's head 3me titre, Paris grosse garantie and 3me titre for 1798-1809, with a lock of fine, straight dark hair tied with blue silk ribbon and accompanying note MN 4235


According to family tradition, this box belonged to Empress Joséphine (1763-1814;

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

The note accompanying the lock of hair is inscribed: Cheveux de mon / fils Napoléon / dans la boîte / du portrait de / mon père

Catalogue Note

Carlo Maria Buonaparte (1746–85), the descendant of minor Tuscan nobility who had moved to Corsica in the sixteenth century, studied law at Pisa university before returning to Corsica to administer his family’s property following the death of his father. Although a sometime personal assistant to the Corsican nationalist Pasquale Paoli, Buonaparte embraced the new government established by the French following their acquisition of the island from Genoa. He fulfilled numerous official roles, among them deputy of the Nobility of Corsica at the French court in 1777 and Corsica’s representative at Versailles the following year. Ill-judged business ventures and profligate spending eroded his considerable inheritance, so that when he died, aged thirty-eight, he left his young widow in strained circumstances.

In 1806 Anne Louis Girodet de Roussy Trioson painted a full length portrait of Carlo Maria Buonaparte, father of Emperor Napoléon I (see fig. 1, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Palais Fesch, Ajaccio, inv. no. MNA839-1-1). Girodet was one of number of prominent artists - among them David, Ingres, Gérard and Lefèvre - commissioned to paint state portraits of the emperor, his consort and his siblings. These portraits, expressly intended to promulgate the magnificence of the imperial family, were often exhibited at the Salon where they received wide public exposure. What is notable about the Girodet commission, however, is that Carlo Buonaparte had died twenty-one years previously. While the sitter is depicted with powdered hair en queue, as was fashionable in the ancien régime, the gold embroidery on his coat is reminiscent of official uniforms of the empire period. Further, he stands in an unequivocally nineteenth century interior. Girodet’s portrait is a deft work of propaganda, past and present orchestrated carefully to glorify the Bonaparte dynasty.

To execute this painting Girodet must have been provided with a portrait of the sitter, today untraced. It is almost certain, given the overall similarities, that the same work was given to Isabey when he painted the present miniature. Interestingly, Isabey did not seek to update the portrait: the cut of the coat and its plum colour are both in keeping with the fashion of the early 1780s, which suggest that he did not vary far from the prototype. For a member of the family who remembered the sitter, this would have been an important consideration.

Although this portrait snuff box is neither in shape nor size the same as the box set with a miniature of Carlo Buonaparte’s wife, Letizia, (lot 42), it is noteworthy that they were both mounted in tortoiseshell boxes of elegant simplicity, by the same goldsmith and at the same date. Possibly they were planned to be part of an intimate portrait gallery, one to be enjoyed in privacy, away from the pomp of the court.

The box contains a lock of straight, fine, dark hair accompanied by a handwritten note stating that the hair belongs to 'my son Napoléon in the box with a portrait of my father'. Identification to which of the grandchildren of Carlo Buonaparte it refers, is not possible since several were called Napoléon.