Canova's Infant St John: A lost Napoleonic portrait?
Canova’s reputation for iconic mythological groups belies his role as sculptor to the leading European powers and personalities of his age. Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned Canova to execute the audacious and monumental Napoleon as Peacemaker (Apsley House, London) between 1802 and 1806 in which the then Consul is represented as a triumphant general turned demigod. The artist was enlisted by Napoleon’s sister Paolina Borghese Bonaparte to sculpt her portrait in the guise of the goddess Venus Victrix between 1805 and 1808 (Galleria Borghese, Rome), and Canova created many of his most notable works for the Empress Josephine’s Château Malmaison which were subsequently removed by Tsar Alexander I to the Hermitage (Hebe (inv. no. N. sk. 18), Paris (inv. no. N. sk. 825), Helen (inv. no. N. sk. 826), Cupid and Psyche (inv. no. N. sk. 17), the Danzatrice (inv. no. N. sk. 18)). In the last years of the Empire, Canova was commissioned to create a monumental portrait of Napoleon’s second wife, the Empress Marie Louise as Concord, which was later simplified to La Concordia following Napoleon’s downfall (1809-1814; Museo Nazionale, Parma).
It has long been been presumed that the St John was originally conceived as a portrait of Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, Prince Impérial and Roi de Rome (King of Rome), styled L’Aiglon (The Eaglet) (refer to successive guides to the Museo Canova and Gipsoteca canoviana, Possagno: Bassi, 1957 and 1959, op. cit,; Guderzo, 2012, op. cit., and also Chappey, 2008 and 2009, op. cit.).
The resemblance is striking. St John has the same facial features, prominent forehead with broad temples, and light covering of hair terminating in centralised locks at the fringe, as can be seen in the archetypal representation of the infant Roi de Rome: Francois Gérard’s eponymous painting of the prince of 1811 (Versailles). Gerard’s portrait was widely disseminated in print form (see the 1813 etching in the British Museum, inv. no. 1868,0822.7392) and so, whilst Canova last visited Paris under the Empire in 1810, the year before L'Aiglon's birth, like most educated people living under Napoleon’s rule, he would have been familiar with the appearance of the heir to the most powerful throne in Europe. 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. Just as the sculptor had changed the subject of Empress Marie Louise as Concord simply to La Concordia following Napoleon's downfall, so too might he have converted a portrait of the child Roi de Rome to the Infant St John, a subject with greater universal appeal following Waterloo.
The identification as the Roi de Rome has been contested by Giuseppe Pavanello, Gérard Hubert and Daniela Gallo (op. cit.), who have pointed out a lack of contemporary documentary evidence to support the claim. However, given that Canova received important commissions to execute portraits of Napoleon and the Empress Marie Louise (as well as other members of the imperial family), surely it would have been inconsistent for the Emperor not to ask the greatest sculptor in Europe to carve a portrait of his son, whose birth was met with extensive official celebrations in 1811 and onto whom were pinned the hopes of dynastic succession?
In 1982 Andrea Busiri Vici published a small bust in the collections of the Liechtenstein collection as a rediscovered portrait of the Roi de Rome by Antonio Canova (it is inscribed: Roi de Rome / MDCCCXII / Canova / FECIT; op. cit., pp. 115-118; Canova's authorship nonetheless remains uncertain). Busiri Vici concluded that the bust is a fantasy portrait, since it lacks L'Aiglon's facial characteristics, a point that is explained by the fact that Canova had never met the Roi de Rome. This is, in fact, one of the main arguments employed by Gallo to contest the identification of the present model as the Roi de Rome: Canova wouldn't have known what the boy looked like. By 1813, however, Canova, like most people, would have been aware of L'Aiglon's appearance, since, as has already been outlined, Gérard's famous portrait was distributed in prints of that year. As such, despite not having ever met the Roi de Rome, as skilled an artist as Canova would certainly have been capable of executing a convincing likeness. The absence of contemporary documentation is perhaps explained by the chaos that descended upon Paris in 1814, when the imperial palaces were looted and much was lost. By the time Canova came to unveil the St John, the market for a portrait of Napoleon's son would have been limited and so the change of subject to the infant Baptist would have been a natural one.
The iconography: the Roi de Rome as Romulus, the first King of Rome
The presence of the lambskin, the single attribute in Canova's group, is significant since it links the Roi de Rome to Romulus, Rome's founder and first king. Together with his brother Remus, the infant Romulus was adopted by the shepherd Faustulus and was associated pastoral farming in Roman mythology. As Roi de Rome, L'Aiglon was explicitly associated with Roman iconography and symbolism throughout his early years: specifically the eagle, the wolf, the laurel wreath and the acronym SPQR (each of these are seen on objects made for the young prince; cf his flint-lock rifle now at Fontainebleau (inv. no. F1988-6)). Napoleon II frequently appears alongside Romulus and Remus in contemporary paintings and drawings, see for example the portrait medallion of L'Aiglon in crayon surmounted above a scene with the mythical founders of Rome suckling the she-wolf by Pierre Paul Prud'hon (reproduced in La pourpre et l'exil, op. cit., fig. 8, p. 35). The decision to cast L'Aiglon as Romulus would therefore have been a fitting extension of the existing metaphorical repertoire, particularly since it would have invented a visual lineage between the first King of Rome and his modern successor in the form of Napoleon's son. Such claims of families descending from mythical heroes were in fact common in Roman history: famously, the Julio-Claudian dynasty claimed to be descended from Aeneas.
This connection between the Roi de Rome and shepherds is made explicit in a drawing by Aimée Thibault, Le Roi de Rome, in which the young Napoleon II is seated upon a sheep, closely foreshadowing Canova's composition (cf. La pourpre et l'exil, op. cit., p. 74, no. 43). Despite the dearth of contemporary documentary evidence, an identification of the present sculpture as the Roi de Rome portrayed as Romulus can therefore not be excluded. This possibility is strengthened when it is considered that the title of Saint John the Baptist sits poorly with the iconography of Canova's group. St John is represented with a lambskin rather than his traditional camel skin, and the arrangement of the hands makes it impossible for the boy to hold a cross, as he does in an 1817 engraving of the model commissioned by Canova from Consorti. The exact positioning of the cross is again called into question by the presence of a hole beneath the boy's feet in the present marble, which suggests that the cross was placed differently to how it is arranged in prints. These inconsistencies fit awkwardly with the identification of the group as St John and strengthen the argument that Canova transformed the group from a portrait of the Roi de Rome to the infant Baptist.
The Infant St John and Canova's late religious works
Whether or not the present model began life as a Napoleonic portrait, by the time it was unveiled in 1817 the figure was formally identified as St John the Baptist or San Giovannino. Conversely, it therefore must also be viewed as fitting into the wider context of an interest in Christian subject matter which Canova developed in the latter part of his career. Whilst the sculptor had admittedly conceived the Repentent Magdalene in 1796 (as well as his Papal funerary and portrait commissions), it was not until the last decade of his life that he embarked on a series of epic religious subjects. The first of these was the remarkable and sadly uncompleted personification of Religion (see the plaster model in Possagno, no. 238) which he modelled in 1813. This was followed by the Reclining Magdalene for Lord Liverpool in 1819, Our Lady in 1817-1822, The Lamentation of Abel in 1820, and the Pietà in 1819-1821. The St John is a testament to this late interest in Christian subject matter towards the end of Canova’s life.
The two versions: the comte de Blacas and Alexander Baring
The earliest mention of Canova's St John is made in a letter, dated 19 October 1816, to Canova from the engraver Bernadino Consorti regarding a commission to produce an engraving of the model to be paid in four installments (the letters are transcribed in Honour, 2002, op. cit., p. 1202). The correspondence confirms that the fourth and final payment from Canova to Consorti was made on 14 April 1817, and so it has been assumed that the print was published shortly thereafter (refer Gallo, op. cit., p. 10; for the engraving refer Canova e l'incisione, op. cit., 1993, p. 236). Consorti's engraving was later used as the template for Henry Moses' illustration of the St John in Teotochi Albrizzi's 1821 Opere di scultura e di plastica di Antonio Canova.
The first marble version of the St John was executed in 1817 for the art collector Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852), whose wife Susan (1786-1859) was the daughter of William Beckford (1760-1844). However, the Duke never took collection of the marble, and it was acquired by Pierre-Jean-Casimir, comte de Blacas d'Aulps (later duc de Blacas) (1771-1839) (refer Honour, 1992, op. cit., p. 791, n. 1). Blacas had been grand-maître de la Garde-Robe du Roi in exile and was a favourite of Louis XVIII. By 1817 he was in Rome as French ambassador of the Holy See, in which role he signed the Concordat of 1817. Blacas appears to have seen the St John whilst on a visit to Canova's studio with the intent of finalising another commission made by the Marquise de Grollier (1741-1828) for an Ideal Head to be gifted to Quatremere de Quincy (Gallo, op. cit, p. 12). The question of the price of the St John caused Canova some anguish and, in a letter to Blacas from his architect Francois Mazoit, it is stated that the sculptor intends only to charge 500 sequins: a quarter of the cost of a full size statue (as quoted in Gallo, op. cit., p. 12).
The 1817 St John was taken by Blacas to France, where it remained until sold by Sotheby's Monaco on 22 June 1986, lot 485. This first version differs from the present marble principally in the arrangement of the lambskin, which has an elongated neck, the head almost trailing the floor. The legs lack hooves, as in the present version, and the lamb's head seems smaller. The figure appears to be near-identical in virtually every other respect.
The present marble is the second version and was one of the last sculptures carved by Canova at the end of his life, in 1822. It was commissioned by the banker Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton, a man of immense wealth, whose properties included the celebrated Grange Park and Stratton Park in Hampshire, and the now demolished palatial Bath House in London's Piccadilly. The acquisition of Canova's St John followed the purchase and lavish remodelling of The Grange and coincided with the commissioning of some of Thorvaldsen's most iconic works: Mercury about to kill Argus (1822; Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, inv. no. A873); Hebe (1822; Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, inv. no. A874) Ganymede offering the cup (1828; Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, inv. no. A854). Together with the St John, also in 1822, Baring acquired Canova's Lucretia d'Este (Pavanello, op. cit., p. 133, no. 346).
The St John was almost certainly at Bath House for much of the 19th century, along with Baring's other sculptural acquisitions, though unfortunately it is not specifically mentioned by Gustav Friedrich Waagen in the description of its interiors in his Treasures of Art in Great Britain of 1854 (op. cit.). Much of the collection was sent to The Grange in 1890 by Francis Baring, 5th Baron Ashburton, at the time he sold Bath House (Osborne, op. cit., p. 183). Canova's St John is recorded in a photograph of the staircase corridor circa 1910, standing atop a commode (Osborne, op. cit., p. 212). Its history thereafter is unknown, but it was likely sold when the Baring family put the estate up for sale in 1933.
Canova's Infant St John: A miracle of marble carving
The exquisite quality of the carving and the startling lifelike appearance of the skin of Canova's St John is conveyed in a description of the work by the sculptor's friend and biographer, Count Leopoldo Cicognara:
'The simple nature of the subject affording no scope
for the employment of the embellishments of art, the
sculptor has confined himself to the expression of the
pure and artless beauties which are proper to the age
of childhood. We particularly admire the execution
of his soft and fleshy limbs, which seem warmed and
animated with the vital fluid, and the double which is
formed in his body, by the curved posture in which he
sits, has all the softness and pliancy of nature. While
we contemplate this pleasing figure, we forget that it
is a work of art, and feel as if we were approaching
to caress a gentle and attractive child'
Count Leopoldo Cicognara discussing the Infant St John the Baptist in The Works of Antonio Canova in sculpture and modelling, London, 1849, vol. I.
Cicognara's description sums up Canova's brilliance at creating the illusion of warm human flesh from cold white marble. The sculptor's characteristic virtuoso finish is most evident in the exceptionally fine delineation of the hair, which immediately marks the sculpture out as autograph. According to Antonio d'Este (op. cit.), Canova passed away before the marble was completed. As was the case of Canova's Dirce made for King George IV (Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, inv. no. RCIN 2042), it is believed to have been completed in the sculptor's workshop by his assistants.
The Infant St John is one of the last works by Antonio Canova and was made for one of the greatest British patrons of the age, Alexander Baring. The tantalising possibility that it could represent a lost portrait of Napoleon's only son, the Roi de Rome, adds to the mythology of the work, whilst its official title places it within a corpus of major religious groups executed by the sculptor towards the end of his life. Canova marbles are exceptionally rare at auction and so the sale of the Infant St John represents a unique opportunity for collectors to acquire a museum quality work by one of the greatest artists ever to have lived.
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