Napoleonic Patronage: Canova and the Bonapartes

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Patron’s, either from the public or private spheres, commission the creation of works for a number of reasons: the work of art may be an assertion of status, commemorative or designed for civic purposes. The mentality? If you’re going to invest a large sum, it ought to make a statement on a grand scale, especially, one in marble. Set in stone for the ages, we’re going to pull back the curtain on two such sculptures from the Napoleonic era – starting with its self-styled leading man, Napoleon Bonapart (1769 – 1821) himself.


Self Portrait, Antonio Canova, 1792.

The napoleonic empire (1798 – 1821) established in France by Napoleon marked a new age which Napoleon wished to assert through his consolidation of power; this required strategic planning to craft a specific public image and showcase his standing as emperor. ‘Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker’, 1802-1806 by celebrated neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) demonstrates Napoleon, as patron’s, desire to establish his position through the arts.

By way of comparison, let’s turn to Camillo Borghese’s big spend. The husband of Pauline Bonaparte, sister to His Imperial Majesty, commissioned ‘Venus Victrix’, 1805 – 08, from the very same sculptor as his brother-in-law. Perhaps divinely inspired by his Italian heritage, Borghese’s motive was to immortalise Pauline’s image and to mark, in stone, her marriage into such an esteemed family.


Napoleon on His Imperial Throne, Jean-Auguste-Domnique-Ingres, 1805.

At the time of the commission for war-god Mars, Napoleon was the height of his power, whilst Canova was the most talented sculptor of the Western world: it was in the patron’s interest to be seen as collaborating with reputable persons, firstly to validate his claim to the title and secondly to create monumental works that would attest to his greatness and power. It was only through the mediation of dignitaries that Canova’s cooperation was negotiated, as the artist (quite rightly!) harboured a resentment towards Napoleon’s looting of Italian art.


Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, Canova, 1802 -1806.

‘Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker’ was commissioned to this end as a full-length sculpture, which Canova interpreted as a colossal heroic nude. Napoleon is shown in the guise of the Roman God of war, Mars, thus tying him to this great mythological figure. This also reflects a form of flattery towards the patron, by aggrandising his portrait. Canova raises the artistic standing of the commission, to outlive its role as propaganda and be to be on level with the coveted classical sculpture of ancient greece and antiquity. Napoleon did not intend for the sculpture to be positioned as a free-standing monument in a public square, but to be placed among a museum entrance setting as an indoor work of art. The classical allusions demonstrated in the sculpture’s association to heroism and the ideal physique of the male nude were conceived not only as a form of flattery towards the patron but also to serve Napoleon’s vision of himself championing the arts and being a prominent part of history.

‘Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker’ shows Napoleon as a semi-divine hero and conquerer with the strength to colonise and lead the people. By making Napoleon into a god of war, another of the patron’s motives at this stage would have been to celebrate his war career, indeed, he initially requested for the sculpture to be dressed in regimental uniform. However, by forbidding public access to the sculpture in 1811, the motive of propaganda becomes evident: Napoleon was displeased with the heroic nudity of the sculpture, which did not, by this stage did not align with his public image as hard-working statesman and ‘man of the people’.


Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix, Canova, 1805 – 1808.

Comparing this to ‘Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix’, we can see how image was considered as a governing motive for patrons. Canova sculpts Pauline Bonaparte semi-nude, life-size, reclining and highly idealised through the level of finish given to the piece. Modelled on the Venus of Urbino, it shows Pauline’s insistence on being depicted as a goddess, to be desired for her beautiful form over the initial instruction to show her fully-clothed as chaste goddess Diana. This demonstrates the level of creative input the patron had in ensuring that their image was shown to its best advantage, especially if it were to be looked upon in society. This sculpture was intended for a private audience (being revealed, rather brilliantly, from behind a curtain or turned by a secret mechanism), the motive here being to create sophisticated allusions to mythology that guests of the family would appreciate. Designed to be shown by candlelight through the translucent qualities of marble, the nude portrait was to be private as befitting a subject of high rank. Furthermore,the choice of showing Pauline as Venus reflects the Borghese’s mythical ancestry, as she married into this dynasty.


Pauline Bonaparte, Marie Guilhelmine Benoist, 1808.

The motive of Napoleon could be that of creating a cult of the personality through propaganda, using the grand tradition of sculpture to further his claim to legitimacy whilst Pauline Bonaparte as ‘Venus Victrix’ demonstrates a form of vanity in rank. Napoleon’s efforts as a muscle man and Pauline’s as a femme fatale read something as a school for scandal, leaving Napoleon embarrassed and Pauline, no doubt, delighted. 

Read about the ladies of the court of the Sun King here…
Discover the French taste for the Rococo…
Fancy a change of scenery? Journey to 17th Century Amsterdam here…

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, or, another other of the features, please do leave a comment – it would be lovely to hear from you!

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