Frieze Masters: Virgin. Muse. Heroine.London
Josephine Bonaparte Crowning a Myrtle Tree, 1796
With frame: 125 x 100 cm (49 1/4 x 39 3/8 in.)
Commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796 from the artist.
Probably acquired in Italy in 1796–97 by John Henry Petty, Earl Wycombe, 2nd Marquess of Lansdowne (d. 1809), and probably by inheritance to his widow, The Dowager Marchioness of Lansdowne, née Maria Arabella Maddox (d. 1833).
Private collection, UK;
Christie’s, London, 29 October 1999, lot 102, as ‘Portrait of a lady’, where acquired by,
F. Mazzocca, Il Neoclassicismo in Italia, exh. cat. Palazzo Reale, Milan, 2002, no. XIII.21, pp. 509–10.
F. Mazzocca, L'ideale classico: arte in Italia tra neoclassicismo e romanticismo, Vicenza, 2002, pp. 165–66, 173.
J.M. Bruson and A. Forray-Carlier, Au Temps des Merveilleuses. La Société parisienne sous le Directoire et le Consulat, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, 2005, cat. 89, p. 88.
F. Leone, Andrea Appiani pittore di Napoleone, Milan, 2015, p. 64, pl. XLV.
S. Cordier, Napoleon: the Imperial Household, exh. cat. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 2018, p. 129.
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Il Neoclassicismo in Italia, 2 March–28 July 2002.
Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Au Temps des Merveilleuses. La Société parisienne sous le Directoire et le Consulat, 9 March–12 June 2005.
Château de Fontainebleau, Charles Percier: Architecture and Design in an Age of Revolutions, 18 March–19 June 2017, no. 5.
Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Napoleon: the Imperial Household, 3 February–6 May 2018.
Andrea Appiani’s graceful portrait of Josephine Bonaparte Crowning a Myrtle Tree was painted in the summer of 1796, following the arrival of the newly married future Empress in Italy. The canvas was conceived as a pendant to the first portrait of her husband by Appiani following the Battle of Lodi on 10 May 1796. To date, it is also the first known full-length portrait painted of Josephine.
The circumstances of the commission are recorded in a laudatory ode contained in an undated, but contemporary pamphlet entitled Ad Andrea Appiani egregio pittor Milanese in occasione di aver fatto I ritratti del Generale francese Bonaparte e della Cittadina sua sposa (To Andrea Appiani, famous Milanese painter, on the occasion of the creation of the portraits of General Napoleon and his wife, Josephine). The author was Angelo Petracchi, a Roman poet known by name of Eurindo Epirotico, who notes that once Appiani, whom he compared to Apelles and Raphael, had completed his image of Napoleon as the ‘new Belisarius,’ he turned his brush to ‘the one who made him madly in love.’ Josephine, he notes in verse, ‘is represented holding a crown in her hands, in which roses and lilies are woven with laurel and oak, and she crowns the myrtle with her wreath, as a sacrifice of love.’ Petracchi goes on to praise the ‘languorous’ beauty of the future Empress and especially notes ‘her Creole eyes, her sweet and plaintive eyes, almost irresistible, the chief desire of her many suitors.’
In the painting, Josephine is portrayed as a goddess of Love, simply and elegantly costumed in one of the loose muslin dresses she favoured, which also resonate with antique dress. In an ancient ritual sacrifice, she offers a wreath to a myrtle, a tree sacred to Venus. The wreath entwines pink and red roses, an allusion to one of Josephine’s middle names (Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie), and lilies, a traditional symbol of purity, along with oak and laurel leaves, emblems of her heroic husband. Blue forget-me-nots (in French, ne m’oubliez pas) mingle with the lovers’ floral motifs. Further flowers laced with symbolism bloom around the trunk of the myrtle tree, including sunflowers (denoting adoration, loyalty, and longevity), daisies (innocence and purity), asters (associated with Venus), and more lilies and forget-me-nots. Rendered with precision, the foliage is an apt tribute to a woman who would become an incredible collector of botanical specimens, the ‘imperatrice botaniste’ of Malmaison.
These symbols of union were most appropriate given the couple’s recent marriage, which took place on 9 March 1796. As Napoleon departed for Italy only two days later, they were also potent symbols of the couple’s recent reunion. The wedding itself had been a hasty one, performed with many irregularities, including the declaration of false birth dates to shorten the age difference between the couple: the bride was rejuvenated while the groom was given a few extra years. Yet in Appiani’s portraits, the couple could see themselves recast as heroic lovers, as Mars and Venus.
Indeed, references to ancient love stories can be found in the painting’s architectural setting and background landscape. Statues of the god of Love, Eros, and of Himeros, the god of unrequited love or sexual desire, preside over the scene from niches, while reliefs depicting Leda and the Swan and Europa and the Bull decorate the balustrade beyond which a Triumph of Amphitrite takes place on the water. The Triumph reinforces the work’s matrimonial themes and perhaps alludes to Josephine’s well-documented resistance to Napoleon’s pursuit of her before their marriage. Amphitrite, having fled Neptune’s advances, rides back to him, having been persuaded to become his bride. Europa, meanwhile, gave her name to a continent, and her son by Zeus, Minos, king of Crete, gave rise to the Minoan civilisation which marks the beginning of European history. This scene perhaps alludes to Napoleon’s ambitions for conquest, as well as his hope in the fecundity of his union with Josephine, as the birth of his son would secure his legacy and empire.
A preparatory drawing for the work, now in the collections of the Château de Malmaison, near Paris, shows Josephine on a slightly larger scale than she appears in the finished portrait, matching that of Napoleon in the Dalmeny House painting. It is tempting to hypothesise that Appiani reduced the scale of the figure of Josephine to accommodate the extensive iconographical program of the architectural and floral elements. Equally, the generalised facial features of Josephine in the drawing suggest that he began planning the work, perhaps at Napoleon’s behest, before ever meeting his sitter.
The pendant, Appiani’s Napoleon Bonaparte and the Genius of Victory (now Dalmeny House, collection of the Earl of Rosebery) celebrates the general’s conquest of Italy, commemorating the rise to power of this new arbiter of Europe’s destiny. The portrait of Josephine has a markedly different feel. While replete with symbols expressing the couple’s hopes for their union and their aspirations for the dynasty they might found, it also offers a joyous and romantic image of Napoleon’s beloved bride. Together, the paintings formed a slightly belated pair of nuptial portraits. The informality of the picture of Josephine, together with its magical atmosphere somewhere between history and myth, offers a glimpse of the sitter as bride and lover quite different from the many formal portraits which have become her most enduring images. Here, she is simply the beautiful woman beloved by the most powerful man in the world.
Andrea Appiani, arguably the chief exponent of Italian Neoclassical painting, was instrumental in fashioning Napoleon’s visual legacy in Italy. When Napoleon arrived in Milan in 1796 during the First Italian Campaign, he sat for a charcoal and chalk portrait drawing by the Milanese artist. The encounter was significant—the twenty-seven-year-old general was so pleased with his likeness that it led to Appiani being showered with honours, commissions, and opportunities for years to come. He was named ‘senior commissioner’, responsible for selecting Lombard and Venetian art for Paris, and a visit to the city in 1801 at Napoleon’s behest introduced him to the austere Neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David, which would have a decisive impact upon his style. In 1800, Appiani was invited to undertake a large cycle of frescoes glorifying Napoleon in the Sala delle Cariatidi in the Palazzo Reale in Milan. From the late 1790s to the 1810s he created many portraits of Bonaparte and his family members. Appiani received the title of ‘First Painter’ in 1805, the same year in which the artist painted his most famous portrait of Napoleon as King of Italy, known in several versions.
The portrait of Napoleon was purchased by John Henry Petty, Earl Wycombe soon after it was painted, during his travels in Northern Italy in the late 1790s. There was a brief window when the Whigs supported Napoleon and Wycombe brought the picture to champion Napoleon’s cause. It was sold after the death of his widow and entered the collection of the fifth Earl of Rosebery, an avid collector of artworks and objects related to Napoleon and has remained on display in Dalmeny House ever since. Wycombe almost certainly also purchased the painting of Josephine, which also travelled to England, and may have been sold by Wycombe’s widow in 1835. Napoleon was no longer in favour and given that the painting is unsigned it was misattributed to Pietro Benvenuti and listed as A Sybil, which would make this portrait the first of Josephine in Great Britain.
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