CARLO MARIA BUONAPARTE
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
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.
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