In 1802, Antonio Canova, the most celebrated Neoclassical artist in Europe, was invited to Paris to complete a portrait of Napoleon in military dress (plaster cast versions of which exist in the Possagno Gipsoteca and the Accademia di San Luca in Rome). Napoleon had previously been in contact with the artist in 1797, after the French defeat of the Republic of Venice. He wrote to Canova offering to continue the sculptor’s pension which he normally received from Venice – a calculated move that would certainly ingratiate Canova to Napoleon. The artist was reluctant to depart for Paris and attempted to delay the journey, writing that poor travel conditions and ill health prevented him from travelling. However, as the safety of Rome and the Papal enclave depended on fulfilling the wishes of Napoleon, Canova left for Paris. Canova set to work immediately and the preliminary model of the portrait in terracotta was approved in 1803 and the monumental, heroic, full-length marble figure was completed in 1806.1
The present portrait depicts Napoleon in idealized form and echoes that of ancient Roman portraits. Indeed, one plaster example in the Museo Glauco Lombardi in Parma bears the inscription 'AVGUSTO' for Emperor Augustus. The monumental size of the portrait captures the emperor’s equally immense ambition and was likely conceived as a means of political propoganda. Until Canova’s death in 1822, the sculptor and his workshop produced many versions in marble and plaster, like the present piece. Numerous authorized portraits were also produced in the marble workshops at Carrara, established by Napoleon’s sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchia. This powerful image was disseminated throughout Europe chronicling Napoleon’s extraordinary confidence and strength.
Canova created portraits of other members of Napoleon’s family, including a full-length marble of his mother, Letizia Ramolino Bonaparte, Madame Mère, also at Chatsworth, and one of his son, the Roi de Rome, a version of which will be sold at Sotheby's London in July 2019. Throughout his career, Canova completed commissions for governments and collectors in both Europe and the United States, including a monumental statue of George Washington for North Carolina, 1817-21. The only remaining full-size image of that commission is the extraordinary plaster model which was recently exhibited at The Frick Collection, New York.2
1. G. Pavanello, L’ Opera completa del Canova, Milan 1976, nos 140-43, pp. 109-10.
2. Canova’s George Washington, X. F. Solomon et.al., exh. cat., The Frick Collection, New York, 23 May - 23 September 2018.
N. K. Kosareva in Antonio Canova, exh. cat., Correr Museum, Venice and Gipsoteca, Possagno, 22 March - 30 September 1992, pp. 306-307 no. 138;
C. M. S. Johns, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe, Berkeley-Los Angeles and London, 1998, pp. 88-122;
D. Allen, 'After a model by Antonio Canova, Bust of Napoleon,' Metropolitan Museum of Art website, 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/23976.
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