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American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS)

Portrait Mythology: Antonio Canova's Portraits of the Bonapartes

Author(s): Christopher M. S. Johns
Source: Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 115-129
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press . Sponsor: American Society for
Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) .
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ChristopherM. S. Johns

"Ithas beensaid,thatif the bodywerenaked,the facewould be little

Portraits of significant individuals, the "players" of any given era,
provide unique insight into a vital conjunction of history and art. Working from the
assumption that people cared about the manner of their public presentation and that
an image could be employed by a patron to serve a specific agenda, it stands to reason
that much may be learned about the ideologies, the personal proclivities, and the
historical circumstances that combined to encourage the production of a portrait.
Highly programmatic portraits may approach the intensity of propaganda usually
attributed to textual materials, but a portrait's status as a work of art more or less
closely tied to inherited visual traditions sets it apart from the critical strategies developed for the study of texts. Thus, any convincing explanation of a politicized portrait
must draw deeply from both fields engaged by the image: history and art history. It is
this fundamental interdisciplinarity that has given recent scholarship a more profound
understanding of both art and history and has essentially redefined the role of visual
culture in ideological discourse from passive reflector to active participant, with enormous implications for both primary disciplines. This article will consider politicized
portraits of the Bonapartes by Antonio Canova both as works of art and as primary

M. S. JOHNSis AssociateProfessorof Art Historyin the
McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia and a Fellow of the
American Academy in Rome. He has served as advisory editor for EighteenthCentury Studies, and his book, Papal Art and Cultural Politics: Rome in the
Age of Clement XI, was published last year by Cambridge University Press.
Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 28, no. 1 (1994) Pp. 115-129.

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historical documents in an attempt to understand in a more sophisticated way the

visual and contextual functions of political portraiture in the Napoleonic period.
The representation of privileged individuals in the guise of mythological deities, demi-gods, and heroes was a salient feature of eighteenth-century portraiture, especially, but not exclusively, in France. These "mixed" portraits, which
challenged the traditional academic undervaluing of portraits vis-al-vis history painting in the long-established hierarchy of the genres, are characteristic of a more widespread phenomenon in eighteenth-century visual culture that sought to subvert, or at
least to reconfigure, the traditionally defined parameters of the various genres. This
significant development is also seen in the emergence of the fete galante of Antoine
Watteau, an invention so novel that a new genre had to be created for its reception
into the Academie Royale. Such portraits as Jean-Marc Nattier's Madame de Caumartin
as Hebe typify portrait mythology in Rococo France. As a lady of fashion, Caumartin
is revealed as an object of desire to the male principle associated with the eagle, Jupiter's
attribute. The sexual overtones of the elegant wine cup offered to the suspended bird
of prey are obvious, and the passive versus active mating postures are carefully gendered.
In this instance and in most images of this type, the mythological conceit maintains
the respectability of the object while placing it firmly into the "loves of Jupiter" tradition. Although usually associated with painting, portraiture cum mythology is also
seen in contemporary sculpture, as numerous busts and full-length figures by Augustin
Pajou, Jean-Jacques Caffieri, and Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, among others, readily
attest.2 Portrait mythology, however, was given its most politically engaged and influential impetus by the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova, whose mythologized representations of several members of the usurping Bonaparte dynasty redefined the genre
and did much to blur the remaining boundaries between history and portraiture. This
article will consider two celebrated mythological portraits by Canova of members of
the Imperial family, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (Figure 1) and Pauline Borghese
as Venus Victrix (Figure2), in the new context of portrait mythology in the Napoleonic
era. Such an investigation will, I believe, establish a political agenda for Canova and
his patrons that removed such images from the realm of aristocratic chic and positioned them in an ambiguous role in the political dialogue of contemporary Europe.
Like many artists of the neoclassical period, Canova found portraiture to be problematic. The great importance assigned to the sculptor's portraits of
Napoleon and his sister Pauline in the artist's ceuvre is rather surprising when one
considers the sculptor's oft-repeated aversion to the genre. Indeed, Pauline Borghese
as Venus Victrix may arguably be considered Canova's most celebrated work-it certainly is ubiquitous in introductory art history textbooks, and it was reproduced in
bisque porcelain ad nauseum during the Victorian period. When Canova executed
portraits of his own volition, they were always of individuals whom he admired and
liked and were always done in the bust format. His sensitively observed Pope Pius VII
Chiaramonti, executed as a token of esteem and given to the pontiff as a present, is a
characteristic example.3 Canova apparently shared the inherited prejudice that stigmatized portraiture for its lack of invenzione and preferred to work in the mythological subject that belonged to the realm of history, which he thought to be the proper
place for any serious artist. On a more profound level, Canova's reluctance to do
portraits from life may be connected to his absolute refusal ever to copy ancient sculp-

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FIGURE1. Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker,1803-1806.

London,ApsleyHouse. (Photo:author.)

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Portrait Mythology


tures, a practice he considered artisanal rather than artistic. After the French removal
of the Medici Venusfrom Florence for the Musee Napoleon, the Grand Duke of Tuscany
approached Canova about making a copy of the celebrated antiquity for the Uffizi.
The sculptor refused, citing his abhorrence of the copying procedure, and instead
offered to create a new version entirely of his own invention, a plan that eventually
led to the execution of the famed Venus Italica.4 Portraits form a very small percentage of the sculptor's prodigious production, and mythologized portraits are a small
minority even of these. Why, then, are his best-known Bonapartist portraits executed
in mythological guise? Or might not "disguise" be a more accurate description?
The traditional response to this question has been that in making
portraits with a mythological referent, Canova was attempting to elevate the work
beyond portraiture to approach the more exalted excellencies of history. The desire to
elevate portraiture in this manner is seen to advantage in the work of many of Canova's
contemporaries, a good example being SirJoshua Reynolds, whose Lady Sarah Bunbury
Sacrificing to the Three Graces is intentionally suggestive of mythology. Seen in a
positive light, such a painting is a savvy adaptation of the artist's intellectual preferences to the realities of British art patronage in the last decades of the eighteenth
century. In a less optimistic reading, Lady Sarah Bunbury could be interpreted as a
symptom of Reynolds's contempt for his own genre and as a symbol of frustrated
academic ambition.5 As the demand for portraits increased dramatically almost everywhere in Europe during the eighteenth century, and as portrait artists predictably
rose in social status and professional visibility, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile academic belief in the relative inferiority of portraiture with the financial success and increasing public reputation enjoyed by its practitioners. This is what led to
academic attempts to impose price ceilings on portraits, strictures designed to maintain the hegemony of history. Despite persisting prejudice, such artists as Rosalba
Carriera, Pompeo Batoni, Jean-Marc Nattier, and Thomas Gainsborough, to mention
only a few, rose to positions of prominence in the academic system; all were primarily,
if not exclusively, portrait painters. Such career paths would have been all but impossible for portrait specialists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Portrait mythology, then, was not only a compromise with the hierarchy of the genres but was also an
assertion of the inventive capacities and new-found confidence of portraitists. But to
return to the main question: Was the elevation of portraiture a central tenet of Canova's
agenda when he selected a mythological premise for his portrait statues of Napoleon
and Pauline? There is much evidence to indicate that it was not. I believe that Canova's
reasons were essentially political, a motivation that places him into a different context
from the majority of artists working in the mythological portrait genre.
Canova and many others in Italy, France, and elsewhere recognized
the negative effect that revolution had on public portrait sculpture. To be sure, revolutions and popular unrest usually affected public sculpture far more seriously than
painting, a phenomenon perhaps not so generally appreciated as it might be. The
colonial revolt in America destroyed a full-length statue of George III in New York
City, while the iconoclasm visited on Marxist-Leninist images in eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union has been depressingly documented on the evening news. Related to the practice of hanging or burning in effigy, portrait sculpture, when serving
a regimist agenda in its original conception, may become the focus of political vio-

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STUDIES 28 / 1

lence when the policies of the regime are discredited. Canova intuited this as much as
he articulated it, and the choice of mythological disguise for Napoleon and even for
Pauline was largely motivated by a wish to protect his works for posterity. There were
good reasons for so doing.
During the revolutionary upheavals in 1797 and 1798 in Venice
and Rome, the Venetian sculptor was profoundly shocked by the destruction of works
of art and other cultural properties. After the Treaty of Campoformio, in which France
ceded the Veneto to Austria in return for Lombardy, the French evacuation of Venice
was marred by widespread looting and iconoclasm. The Doge's archives, city churches,
and some private palaces were ransacked; the Arsenal was looted; and, most deplorably, the lion of Saint Mark and the bronze horses of the basilica were pulled down
and sent to Paris. As a final humiliation to the city, the ceremonial barge of the Doge,
the Bucintoro, was burned in order to retrieve its gold gilding.6 A year later it was
Rome's turn. French troops pillaged the Vatican and Quirinal palaces, and many library volumes were destroyed in order to remove the gold lettering from the bindings.
Church plate and vestments suffered appalling losses, the former melted down for
precious metals and the latter burnt for their gold and silver threads. All over the city,
the French toppled papal portrait statues, coats of arms, and commemorative plaques.
The most noteworthy loss was the statue of Ignatius of Loyola in the Gesiu,a magnificent life-size image of the saint, which had been executed in solid silver at the end of
seventeenth century by the French sculptor Pierre Legros. It was melted down for
specie. After the restoration of Pius VII and the revival of the Society of Jesus, Canova
was commissioned to make a silver-plate replica of the lost statue on Legros's original
designs. It is the only instance I know of in which he consented to make a copy.7 Thus,
Canova recognized the vulnerability of works of art, especially politically compromised public sculpture, and took positive steps to neutralize, as far as possible, the
politics of his Bonapartist portraits. Mythology was the camouflage.
Although the iconoclasm and random violence against works of art
in Italy were deplored by Canova, he also recognized the ideological underpinning of
such revolutionary action from his familiarity with state-supported image breaking.
The French Revolution had formed an immediate and compelling precedent that systematically attacked politically unpopular art, especially portraits, and it was ultimately a greater threat to monuments than isolated social upheavals. The widespread
destruction of royalist portrait sculpture and ecclesiastical imagery in all parts of France
was a source of deep concern to Canova and to many other artists. Prominent among
the losses was Edme Bouchardon's equestrian statue of Louis XV that formerly stood
in the Place Louis Quinze, a bronze statue known to Canova through an engraving.8
Significantly, Bouchardon was one of the few eighteenth-century sculptors whom
Canova admired. The destruction of dynastic monuments and the desecration of the
royal tombs at St. Denis profoundly shocked moderate European opinion, and the
decapitation of jamb figures representing the kings and queens of France on medieval
portals was widely associated with Revolutionary justice by the guillotine, an instrument in increasing use after 1791. Based on his first-hand experience of the destruction of art in Italy and his knowledge of government-sponsored iconoclasm in Revolutionary France, it seems reasonable to assume that the sculptor would take precautionary steps when creating images of so controversial a regime as that of the

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/ Portrait Mythology


Bonapartes. Indeed, the mythological or allegorical veneer used in all his full-length
portraits of the family was repeated in only one non-Imperial statue, the standing
King Ferdinand IV of Naples, depicted in a gender-bending role as Minerva. Quite
possibly, this suggests the artist thought that portrait statues of the Imperial family
might prove attractive targets for popular violence at some future date. Considering
recent events in France, Italy, and elsewhere, this was not a particularly remarkable
conclusion. Subsequent events proved Canova to have been prophetic.
Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker was the result of a portrait commission given to Canova by Napoleon in 1802, when the latter was still First Consul.9
The famous sculptor had first come to Napoleon's attention during the Italian campaigns of 1796-1797, when the victorious general wrote to Canova in highly flattering terms. It was Bonaparte who assured Canova of his protection and the inviolability of his Roman studio following the artist's flight from Rome after the overthrow of
the papal government of Pius VI in 1798. Despite these official blandishments, the
sculptor resisted French approaches, stating flatly that he could not cooperate with
the man or the government that had destroyed the independence of the Republic of
Venice. Another grievance of Canova, carefully nurtured, was the spoliation of the
masterpieces of the major northern and central Italian art collections, including those
of the ex-Doge and the Papacy. Napoleon was equally resolved to have Canova execute his portrait as a symbol of cultural ambition to crown political and military
achievement. The possession of Cupid and Psyche by the First Consul's brother-inlaw, Joachim Murat, purchased from Canova after the French war with Britain made
it impossible to deliver the sculpture to Colonel Campbell, its original patron, further
encouraged Napoleon's desire to obtain a work from the hand of the most celebrated
artist in Europe. For several months in 1802, Canova resisted the summons to Paris.
No excuse, however feeble, was uninvoked in the artist's attempt to avoid doing
Napoleon's portrait; poor health, too many commissions, inclement weather, and the
questionable conditions of the roads were all cited in turn. The real reasons were less
politically viable. In addition to a general aversion to portraiture, Canova was unenthusiastic about the French, whom he saw as violent and anticlerical. His patriotic
feelings as an Italian, though ambiguous, were pronounced, and he resented French
depredations in Italy and the jealousy of French artists and critics in Paris.10Finally, at
the urgent pleading of Cardinal Consalvi, the papal Secretary of State, and Pius VII,
who did not want to antagonize Napoleon during the negotiations for the Concordat,1"Canova agreed to go, arriving at the chateau of Fontainebleau in October for a
number of life sittings. The result was a bust portrait (Figure 3), now existing in
several versions, which was used as a model for the head of Napoleon as Mars.
Bonaparte was pleased with the bust modello, which the sculptor completed before
his return to Rome.
While in France for the sittings, Canova discussed his conceit for
the portrait statue and expressed his intention to present the modern Mars in the
"heroic altogether." Napoleon's initial reaction to the proposed nudity was negative;
he preferred to be represented in his regimental uniform. There were recent precedents in French full-length portrait sculpture for the commemoration of military heroes in modern dress, the most famous being Jean-Antoine Houdon's George Washington, executed for the state capitol building in Richmond, Virginia. Contemporary

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the lao novdfudi



28 /1



FIGURE3. Antonio Canova, Napoleon as First Consul, 1803. Florence,Palazzo

Pitti. (Photo:author.)

dressfor historicalsubjectsin paintinghad been popularizedin the previousgeneration by BenjaminWest'sDeath of GeneralWolfe,but Canova dismissedthis suggestion, arguingfor the authorityof the ancients in the use of nudity to immortalize
superiorachievement.In addition,the sculptorinsistedthat the sophisticationof the
conceptand the self-consciousappealto historythat Napoleon himselfdesiredcould
be achievedby the classic, universalqualitythat only nuditycould express. In rejecting moderndress,the sculptortold Bonapartethat "Godhimselfwould not have been
able to create a beautiful work of art if he had representedYour Majesty as you
are . ., dressedin the Frenchfashion."12After a great deal of persuasion,Napoleon
acquiescedto what he describedas the artist'ssupremeunderstanding.Bonaparte
lived to regretthe decision.
Canova beganthe modello for Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker
shortlyafterhe completedthe marbleportraithead, in early1803. The marblestatue's,
realizationwas to provea long andtiresomeprocess,as indicatedby complaintsabout

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JoHNs / Portrait Mythology


FIGURE4. Anne-LouisGirodet-Trioson,
OssianReceivingthe Shadesof Napoleon's
Officers, 1802. Malmaison,MuseeNational du Chateau.(Photo:author.)

unusual for the sculptor and seem not to have been at all assuaged by the stupendous
sum of 60,000 francs promised for the statue. The choice of Mars the Peacemaker as
the mythological concetto was Canova's, but his decision must have been influenced
by the recent peace treaties of Luneville in 1801 between France and Austria and of
Amiens in 1802, the year of the commission, that briefly halted the war with Britain.
To my knowledge, it has never been considered that the irenic references of Canova's
statue relate the work to another Napoleonic commission for his private residence at
the chateau de Malmaison of the same year: Anne-Louis Girodet's Ossian Receiving
the Shades of Napoleon's Officers (Figure 4). The suspended eagle and cock in Girodet's
picture refer to the cessation of hostilities between Austria and France, respectively,
and the reception of the fallen French officers by Ossian could also be interpreted as a
visualization of reconciliation. As Canova was a peace-loving conservative who shared
Pius VII's wish to prevent future wars, the choice of a pacifying Mars as a mythological referent to Napoleon was both logical and appropriate. There was discussion in
Rome about this conceit for the First Consul's portrait statue, however, even before
Canova accepted the commission. In a letter from the French ambassador Cacault in
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STUDIES 28 / 1

Rome to Talleyrand of 8 December 1801, the diplomat mentions the discussions about
the subject to Napoleon's chief minister: "Many diverse projects have been conceived
for the statue of Bonaparte. The idea of Canova of representing him in the guise of
Mars disarmed and peace-bringing is spoken of."'3 Cacault, who was in a position to
know, states that the conception was Canova's, and there seems to be little room for
doubt that such was indeed the case. But was a monument to the Napoleonic peace
the artist's sole motivation?
It may be argued that Canova's wish to present Napoleon as a nude
Roman god had a subversive subtext. Indeed, Lucien Bonaparte, in self-imposed exile
in Rome, told Canova when he saw the statue in the sculptor's studio that Mars
seemed more minatory than pacific. In a similar political vein, Lord Bristol supposedly quipped that he could not find England on Napoleon's globe.14 The political
component was closely related to the question of nudity and, significantly, to issues of
national taste and the reception of works of art. Although Italians had long been used
to representations of rulers in mythological guise and to nudity in public sculpture,
the French public was not so inured. The First Consul's initial squeamishness on the
question of nudity may have been partly motivated by an appreciation of French
inexperience of public sculpture in the buff, for he was certainly not lacking in personal vanity. Napoleon may have had in mind the objections made to a proposed
nude portrait monument to the slain General Desaix, a bronze standing monument
executed for the Place des Victoires by Claude Dejoux in 1805-1807.15 In any event,
EugZenede Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepson and Viceroy in Milan, did not hesitate to
commission a bronze replica of Canova's marble for the capital of the Kingdom of
Italy.16Although the bronze pedestrian statue's place of exhibition was the subject of
controversy, it does not seem to have been because of its nudity. It is still displayed in
the courtyard of the Brera Museum, a cultural institution directed by Canova's friend
Giuseppe Bossi, which had been established during the reign of Napoleon as King of
Italy. When Canova received the commission for the original Napoleon as Mars, it
had not been determined where in Paris the statue would be erected, but the ancient
sculpture gallery in the Musee Napoleon, where the spoils of Italy were on display,
seemed a likely place.17In addition to Canova's wish to have his work seen as a modern masterpiece among its ancient counterparts, might the artist not also have been
subtly parodying Napoleon, making him a contemporary, uncomfortable presence
among his subjects because of his nudity? Surely such a monument, with its pretensions to deified status and its connections to august artistic lineage, must have been
recognized as a rejection, in cultural terms, of the achievements of the Revolution.
The Napoleon as Mars was completed in 1806, but it did not reach
its destination for almost five years, after Canova's second visit to Paris in 1810 to
make a study for a portrait of the new Empress Marie Louise, in the guise of Concord.
The packing and shipment of the monument presented immense and expensive problems. The route over the Apennines and the Alps was judged too hazardous, but the
sea route from Ostia to Toulon and then by canal and river to Paris was dangerous,
due to possible storms and probable pursuit by the British fleet. Napoleon ultimately
ordered the work to be sent by water, but stipulated that the crate should be so placed
on the ship that it could be jettisoned in the event of enemy capture. The emperor's

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/ Portrait Mythology


extreme concern that the statue not fall into English hands possibly indicates continuing concern for the public reception of his portrait as a monumental nude. Safely
passing Genoa, Toulon, and Lyon, the sculpture reached Paris on the first day of

Long before the arrival of Napoleon as Mars in France, Canova, in

vatic fashion, correctly predicted a hostile reaction from the French critics. Always
hypersensitive to criticism, the sculptor wrote to his only French friend, Quatremere
de Quincy, on 29 November 1806, shortly after the completion of the sculpture. The
letter is defensive and uncharacteristically bitter, so much so that its author begged its
recipient to burn it after reading: "The statue of the Emperor will one day come to
Paris; it will be criticized without pity, and I know it: it will certainly have its defects,
above all the others it will have the disgrace of being modern and by an Italian."19 In
this missive, the sculptor isolated the two main objections to his art that he perceived
to be endemic in French criticism: first, that no modern work can be compared favorably with the canonical masterworks of ancient sculpture, and second, that French
chauvinism prevented Canova from enjoying the same degree of fame in France that
he had achieved elsewhere. Except for the Bonapartes, Canova never received a substantial commission from a French patron; at least, not one that he accepted. With
few exceptions, French artists were jealous of the favoritism shown an Italian artist by
the government and the dynasty. The aspersions cast on Napoleon as Mars must have
confirmed Canova's worst suspicions about French taste and the politicization of their
art patronage.
Of all the French critics, the one who really mattered was Napoand
must have felt the irony of the patron's rejection of a sculpture that
the artist had been less than enthusiastic about making. On 12 April 1811, the emperor finally came to see the statue and decreed its immediate banishment to storage,
specifically ordering that access be limited only to a handful of artists. Three weeks
later, Quatremere wrote again to Rome, suggesting that the political situation was
unfavorable to the public exhibition of the monument, doubtless hoping to assuage
the sensitive artist's feelings.20Napoleon, when directly confronted by the image, must
have realized that the changes that had taken place in his physical appearance during
the last nine years would preclude display, thus avoiding public scrutiny and possible
derision. A war-weary France was demanding a new image of its ruler as a statesman
and benevolent father, rather than as a superhuman warrior. In any event, he realized
that there was little political advantage to be gained by the work's exhibition, and the
statue became a source of embarrassment until its sale to the British government by
Louis XVIII. No work by "the new Phidias" had ever been treated in such a manner.
But the myth that Napoleon wished Canova to create with his chisel was the real
loser. After its acquisition from France, the Napoleon as Mars was presented by the
British government to the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, and it is still a
"captive" of the stair balusters in Apsley House.
While most observers in France blamed Canova for making the figure of Napoleon more like an athlete or a gladiator than a warrior deity, Quatremere,
Francois Gerard, and, somewhat surprisingly, Jacques-Louis David, were among its

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STUDIES 28 / 1

admirers.21 David had once advised young artists to avoid emulation of Canova because it would soften and ornamentalize their styles, so his unprompted tribute must
have been sincere. In a letter to Canova dated 27 June 1811, David wrote from Paris:

You have made a beautifulfigurerepresentingthe EmperorNapoleon, you have made for posterityall that a mortalcan make:the
calumnythat clingsto it disregard,allow to mediocrityits little habitualconsolation.The workis there,it representsthe EmperorNapoleon, and it is Canovawho has madeit. That is all thereis to be

Hostile reactions in Paris notwithstanding, the mythological disguise and the emphatic nudity of Napoleon as Mars did achieve one of Canova's
goals: critical reaction was almost entirely limited to aesthetic rather than to political
issues. The captious carped on various faults in the anatomy, and the usually dismissive critic Carl Ludwig Fernow, the Nordic Champion of Canova's arch-rival Bertel
Thorvaldsen, only mentioned the portrait, complimenting the likeness. It was as if
Napoleon were a disembodied afterthought to the Mars, as if Napoleon had placed
his head onto a pasteboard photographic strongman at a beach resort. In sum, mythology successfully triumphed over the political possibilities and helped limit discourse to artistic qualities. In separating aesthetics from politics, Canova departed
decisively from the traditions of patron-imposed iconographies and interpretations,
allowing meaning to devolve onto the artist. Although the monument was not a success for either the artist or the patron, it stands as a milestone in the reformulation of
the traditional relationship between the patron and the artist. In breaking with past
practice, Antonio Canova made a vital contribution to the development of modern

Canova's other major Bonapartist portrait, the reclining representation of the emperor's favorite sister, Pauline Borghese, was also conceptualized as a
marble nude in mythological guise, this time as Venus Victrix, holding the golden
apple of Paris as the winner of antiquity's most celebrated beauty pageant. Ostensibly
commissioned by Prince Camillo Borghese in 1804, in fact it was very much his wife's
project. Canova insisted on a mythological conceit as he had with Napoleon, and
suggested Diana, but Pauline declared that it must be Venus. As the most physically
attractive of Napoleon's sisters and as a woman who enjoyed a European reputation
for boudoir intrigue, perhaps she knew best. Pauline's social position and personal
charms made her, for a time, the unofficial queen of Rome, but her loud complaints
about her husband's impotence and her amorous adventures soon earned her the sobriquet "Messalina of the Empire."24 During the period of the statue's execution,
from 1804 to 1808, Pauline and Camillo became estranged, but it was he who became
the eventual proprietor of the monument. It seems more than coincidental that Prince
Borghese restricted access to the statue in the same way that his brother-in-law made
it very difficult for the curious to see his portrait by Canova. Could a nude depiction
of so famous a person also have been problematic for Borghese, or could there have
been a hint from his Imperial relation, who was always extremely sensitive about the
family's public image? It should be considered, however, that the Pauline Borghese as

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Portrait Mythology


Venus Victrix was to be a private work, while Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker was
to have a public function. The choice of nudity and the use of portrait mythology are
what inexorably connect the two statues. Like the Napoleon as Mars, Pauline as
Venus uses mythology to create ambiguity of interpretation, distancing the work from
political commitment. And if one looks for subversion in the statues executed for the
Bonapartes by Canova, the Herculean nudity of the Mars as an idealized body for the
slight, fleshy, and shortish Corsican has real possibilities, not to mention the oxymoronic
notion of Mars the peacemaker. Similarly, a woman with Pauline Borghese's reputation shown reclining in bed like a neoclassical Olympia might be seen as a type of
moral condemnation, even if the artist had, in this instance, been greatly encouraged
by the patron.
As an artist hypersensitive to criticism and almost neurotically obsessed with his contemporary fame and his place in art history, Antonio Canova was
infinitely more concerned with the physical safety and universal appeal of his statues
than he was in serving any patron's political agenda. This has been seen as evidence of
Canova's political neutrality or indifference, but this is untrue. Realizing the necessity
of working for the competing elites of Europe in order to increase his reputation and
to be continually employed in an impoverished and increasingly peripheralized Rome,
Canova understood the expediency of working even for Napoleon, whose policies he
usually found abhorrent. In his practice of working for many, he alienated few, a
tribute to his art and to his fame. It is also true that the artist at least partly understood the power of his position. As a cultural arbiter of unprecedented authority, he
comprehended art's ability to influence events and the artist's opportunity to become
a historical actor rather than a passive reflector of his patrons' ideologies. Leopoldo
Cicognara, one of Canova's biographers, recognized the artist's role in a letter to his
friend in Rome, dated 19 September 1812:
And, then, you are a true power in this world, and you do not know,
however, the force that you have, then perhaps you would be able to
make yourself more conspicuous. Notwithstanding, you have a glory
common to such extraordinary powers; namely, that of having made
a revolution in the arts like the military powers have made in politics.25

In the politically problematic realm of full-length portraiture of the

Bonapartes, Canova found mythology to be a useful tool to create interpretative ambiguity and to downplay the political aspect of the works, in large measure removing
such compromised objects from the arena of political discourse. In so doing, he exercised a degree of control over the meaning of his creations that was unprecedented
and that forever changed the relationship of the artist to the patron. In Canova's
Bonapartist images, portrait mythology came full circle. Its Rococo role had been to
increase the prestige of the sitter by association with a shared aristocratic cultural
heritage. Canova insisted on mythology as a genre all but unrelated to the aspirations
of his individual sitters.

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28 / 1

I wish to thank Fred Licht and Jane Gladstone for their help and encouragement in my continuing
work on Canova. I also thank Dorothy Johnson, Mary Sheriff, and the participants in the "Revisions of
Mythology" session at the 1994 ASECS meeting in Charleston for their comments. All translations are my
own, unless otherwise noted.
1. Peter Beckford, Familiar Letters from Italy to a Friend in England, (London, 1805), 2:105.
2. A well-known example by Pajou, The Princess of Hesse-Homburg as Minerva, of 1761, is conveniently illustrated in Michael Levey, Painting and Sculpture in France, 1700-1789 (New Haven: Yale
Univ. Press, 1993), 155.
3. For Canova's attitudes about portrait sculpture and for an illustration of Pope Pius VII, see Fred
Licht, Canova (New York: Abbeville Press, 1983), 120-25.
4. On the issue of copying, see Seymour Howard, "Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and the Origins of NeoClassic Sculpture," Art Quarterly 33 (1970): 120-33, with additional bibliography. For the Venus Italica,
see especially Hugh Honour, "Canova's Statues of Venus," Burlington Magazine 114 (1972): 658-70.
5. On Reynolds's notion of the elevation of portraiture and the Grand Manner, see Sir Joshua Reynolds,
Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959), xxxii-xxxv, with appropriate references to the individual discourses.
6. Among the losses were the splendid Gothic walnut choir stalls from Santa Maria dell'Orto, which
were used to make a bonfire for the French troops. Giovanni De Castro, Storia d'Italia dal 1799 al 1814,
2 vols. (Milan: F. Vallardi, 1907), 1:285-88.
7. For a contemporary account of the sack, see Richard Duppa, A Journal of the Most Remarkable
Occurrences that took place in Rome upon the Subversion of the Ecclesiastical Government, in 1798
(London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1799).
8. On the political engagement of portrait sculpture before the Revolution, see Jeffrey Merrick, "Politics on Pedestals: Royal Monuments in Eighteenth-Century France," French History 5 (1991): 234-64.
See also Stephen Rombouts, "Art as Propaganda in Eighteenth-Century France: The Paradox of Edme
Bouchardon's Louis XV," Eighteenth-Century Studies 27 (1993-94): 255-82. The engraving after the lost
statue is illustrated on page 258.
9. On the statue, see especially Ferdinand Boyer, "L'histoire du 'Napol6on colossal' de Canova,"
Revue des 1tudes Napoleoniennes (1940): 189-99; Hugh Honour, "Canova's 'Napoleon'," Apollo 98
(1973): 180-84; and Christopher M. S. Johns, "Canova's Portraits of Napoleon: Mixed Genre and the
Question of Nudity in Revolutionary Portraiture," The Consortium on Revolutionary Europe: Proceedings 1989, eds. Donald D. Horward and John C. Horgan (Tallahassee, Fla.: Institute on Napoleon and the
French Revolution, Florida State Uniersity, 1990), 368-82.
10. Andr6 Fugier, Napol6on et l'Italie (Paris: J. B. Janin, 1947), 275-77.
11. Gaetano Giucci, Storia della vita e del pontificato di Pio VII, 2 vols. (Rome: G. Chiassi, 1857),
12. Quoted in Jean Chatelain, Dominique Vivant Denon et le Louvre de Napoleon (Paris: Librairie
Academique Perrin, 1973), 143. The Director of the Mus6e Napol6on, Denon strongly encouraged Napoleon to allow the statue to be nude. Ironically, he later become one of Canova's bitterest enemies.
13. The letter bears the Revolutionary calendar date 17 frimaire, An 10. The French text reads: "II a
6t6 consu divers projets de la statue de Bonaparte. On a parl6 de l'id6e de Canova de le repr6senter sous la
figure de Mars d6sarm6 et pacificateur." Quoted in Anatole de Montaiglon and Jules Guiffrey, eds.,
Correspondance des Directeurs de l'Acade'mie de France a Rome avec les Surintendants des Batiments
publi6e d'apres les manuscrits des Archives Nationales, (Paris: Charavay Freres, 1887-1912), 17:336-37.
14. Boyer, 193-94. Lucien went on to question Canova's sincerity in agreeing to make the statue, asking how the artist could immortalize the destroyer of the Serene Republic, Canova's homeland. The sculptor answered that his signature on the base, "Canova da Venezia," said it all.

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15. For this monument and the issue of public nudity, see Horst W. Janson, "Observations on Nudity
in Neoclassical Art," 16 Studies (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1973), 191-92. The monument was melted
down during the Restoration and Louis XVIII ordered the bronze used for the restored monument to
Henri IV, which had been melted down during the Revolution.
16. For the Brera bronze replica, see Licht, 101-3, illustrated as Figures 69, 70, and 71.
17. It was suggested that the statue should be placed in the Senate, but in a letter of 15 April 1811 from
Vivant Denon to Canova (significantly written before Napoleon himself had seen the sculpture), the Director argued for exposition in the museum, probably in the Salle des Antiquit6s. The letter is quoted in
Ferdinand Boyer, "II y a deux cents ans naissait Canova," Revue des 1btudesitaliennes (1957): 230-35.
18. Marie-Louise Biver, "Le 'Napol6on' de Canova," La Revue des Deux Mondes (1 April 1963), 427.
19. "VerrAun giorno a Parigi la statuta dell'Imperatore; sara criticata senza pieta, e lo so: avra i suoi
difetti certamente, sopra gli altri avra la disgrazia di essere moderna e di un Italiano." Quoted by Ferdinand
Boyer, "Canova, sculpteur de Napol6on," in Le monde des arts en Italie et la France de la Revolution et de
l'Empire, Biblioteca di Studi Francesi, 4 (Turin: Societi Editrice Internazionale, 1969), 145.
20. A letter from Quatremere de Quincy, dated Passy-pres-Paris, 3 May 1811, to Canova, quoted in A.

Valmarana,ed., Letterescelte dell'ineditoepistolariodi Antonio Canova(Vicenza,1854), 69.

21. This is mentioned by most of Canova's early biographers, including Giovanni Rosini, Saggio sulla
vita e sulle opere di Antonio Canova, 2nd ed., (Pisa: N. Capurra, 1830), 42.

22. Lettereinedite tratte dagli autografiCanovianinel Museo Civico di Bassano,Nozze ChiminelliBonuzzi (Bassano, 1891), 7-8. Canova wrote a letter of thanks to David on 8 August 1811, acknowledging that such praise was not given lightly. The French text of David's letter reads: "Vous avez fait une belle
figure repr6sentant l'Empereur Napol6on. Vous avez fait pour la post6rit6 tout ce qu'un mortel pouvoit
faire: la calomnie s'y accroche, cela ne Vous regarde plus, laissez a la m6diocrite sa petite consolation
habituelle. L'ouvrage est la, il represente l'Empereur Napol6on, et c'est Canova qui l'a fait. C'est tout
dire." For more on the relationship between Napoleonic Europe's two most famous artists, see Hugh
Honour, "Canova and David," Apollo 96 (1972): 312-17.
23. Licht, 155.
24. Maurice Andrieux, Les Franqais a Rome (Paris: Fayard, 1968), 286-89. See also Licht, 130-43.
25. Cicognara's letter was written from Florence. Quoted in Leopoldo Cicognara, Lettere ad Antonio
Canova, ed. Gianni Venturi (Urbino: Argalii, 1973), 22. The Italian text reads: "E poi voi siete una vera
potenza in questo mondo, e non conoscete per6 la forza che avete, che forse potresti intuonar (sic) molto
piui d'alto. Null'ostante avete una gloria comune alle potenze straordinarie, quella cioe d'aver fatta una
rivoluzione nelle arti, come le potenze militare le fanno nella politica."

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