Recently rediscovered after two centuries of obscurity, but now widely studied, the present painting is startling for its candor and eroticism. In a darkened bedchamber, fitted out in a fantasy of ancient Roman décor, a handsome, dark-haired man in antique dress gravely contemplates the body of a voluptuous woman who languidly reclines asleep on a daybed. Enticingly curvaceous and fleshy, and entirely nude, except for a transparent shawl of gauze that barely conceals a dark thatch of pubic hair, she appears lost in a dream. A single, dramatic shaft of light illuminates the scene.
Permeated as it is by the high Greco-Roman style that was modish in Napoleonic France at the turn of the nineteenth century, the painting could easily be mistaken for a fashionable neoclassical illustration of a licentious tale by Ovid or Anacreon, albeit one executed to the most rigorous standards demanded by the Académie Royale. Its true subject, however, is more subversive of accepted decorum than it would even appear, as it was conceived as a loosely disguised, private portrait of Lucian Bonaparte, younger brother of Napoleon, future Emperor of France, and his mistress, Alexandrine de Bleschamp, who had been widowed only months earlier. Its author was Lucien Bonaparte’s close friend and confidante, Guillaume Guillon Lethière, a mixed-race artist who was one of the most brilliant and successful history painters working in France in the years immediately following the Revolution.
Lucien Bonaparte (1775-1840; fig. 1), third surviving son of Carlo Bonaparte and Letizia Ramolino – later known as Madame Mère -- and Napoleon’s junior by six years, was born in Corsica in 1775 and educated at a seminary in Aix-en-Provence. 14-years-old when the Revolution erupted in 1789, Lucien returned to Corsica and became an outspoken Corsican separatist, much to the dismay of Napoleon, who was then rising rapidly through the military ranks in mainland France. An ardent ally of Robespierre, Lucien removed himself hastily to France when the Terror ended in 1794 in a coup that brought down his idol and threatened his security. With his older brother’s extraordinary military triumphs on behalf of the new French Republic, Lucien’s political stature rose. In June 1798, he was elected deputy to the ruling Council of the 500; on 23 October 1799, he became its president. Less than three weeks later, in his new role as Council president, Lucien deflected a potentially disastrous attack on Napoleon into a vote of confidence, opening the way for the coup d’état that overthrew the Directory and installed his brother as First Consul on 10 November 1799. Whether Napoleon would have survived the day and continued his rise to absolute power without Lucien’s crucial intervention is uncertain. However, Lucien – a true Republican – had long harbored concerns about his brother’s ruthless quest for power, noting as early as 1792 that Napoleon seemed 'inclined to become a despot, and I think he would become one, were he a king'.
Napoleon rewarded his 25-year-old brother by appointing him Minister of the Interior, a role of immense power which came with a country house in Neuilly and an opulent hôtel particulièr in Paris. Notwithstanding this honor, Lucien’s faithfulness to maintaining the purity of the Revolution and his natural independence undermined Napoleon’s trust in him. Napoleon soon after removed him from office, appointing him instead ambassador to Spain, effectively neutralizing any potential threat from his brother by getting him out of Paris and out of his way. In fact, the demotion would prove liberating for Lucien, whose wife, Christine, had just died, leaving him grieving and bereft, with two young daughters to care for. In Madrid, he established himself as a skilled diplomat, negotiating a much-desired treaty between Spain and Portugal, and persuading Charles IV to hand over the Louisiana territories to Napoleon (who promptly sold them to the United States).
Lucien had travelled to Spain with an entourage that included the painters Jacques Sablet and Guillaume Guillon Lethière. He had met Lethière in Paris early in his tenure as Minister of the Interior, and the two had formed a fast and enduring friendship. Lucien described Lethière as an 'enthusiastic pupil of David – like him, all Greek, or all Roman'. Inviting Lethière to come with him to Spain, Lucien charged the artist to find important works of art for his growing collection. While in Madrid, Lucien developed a close relationship with Manuel Godoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, whose fabulous art collection he visited – perhaps in the company of Lethière – early in 1801. There he had the rare privilege of seeing Godoy’s greatest, and most private, treasure: Goya’s magnificent, life-sized portrait of Godoy’s mistress, Pepita Tudo, reclining, entirely nude, on a chaise, known today as the Nude Maja (c.1797; Prado; fig. 2). Goya’s masterpiece would become the inspiration for the present painting.
Guillaume Lethière (1760-1832) led a life every bit as remarkable as that of Lucien Bonaparte. He was born on the island of Guadeloupe, the illegitimate son of a white government official and a freed black slave. Although his real name was Guillon, as the third child of the family he called himself ‘Le Tiers’, ‘Lethiers’, and finally, from 1799, when officially recognized by his father, Lethière. While accompanying his father to France in 1774, he entered the studio of Jean Baptiste Descamps at the Academy in Rouen, where he won a prize for drawing in 1776. The following year he moved to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Royale, studying under Gabriel François Doyen and winning a first-class medal in July 1782. He competed for the Prix de Rome in 1784 and again the following year, by which time the influence of Jacques Louis David had superseded that of his teachers, and he embraced a full-throated neoclassicism. He lost the Grand Prix again in 1786 (competing against Girodet; see lot 749), but gained the attention of the Comte de Montmorin, a diplomat and friend of Louis XVI, who persuaded the Académie that Lethière was worthy of a Roman pension; he arrived in Rome shortly thereafter.
Having completed his training at the Palazzo Mancini, Lethière returned Paris in 1791 and started a successful teaching studio in competition to that of David. Interrupted by his year-long Spanish sojourn with Lucien, he reopened the workshop following his return to France in November 1801. Responding to a racist insult directed at him by an officer at the Café Militaire in Paris, the artist became embroiled in a fight with a group of soldiers, one of whom he killed, prompting the government to close his studio. Driven out of Paris, Lethière and his family roamed Europe until 1807, when, through the influence of Lucien Bonaparte, the artist was appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome. Ingres would be one of his pensionnaires, and the young artist produced a series of splendidly sympathetic portrait drawings of Lethière and all the members of his family. Removed from his post with the Restoration, Lethière reopened his studio in Paris. He was elected to the Institut in 1818 and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. Like Lucien, Lethière remained a life-long, committed Republican and in 1822 he made his last important painting, an allegory to celebrate the independence of Haiti, The Oath of the Ancestors (Cathedral, Port-au-Prince, Haiti), in which the generals Alexandre Pétion and Jean Jacques Dessalines are depicted swearing the oath of the union that led to the nation’s freedom.
In the spring of 1802, Lucien made his final appearances as a public figure, delivering two important speeches in Paris on religious freedom and on the creation of the Legion of Honor. The speeches were well-received, but already, aged 27 and distressed at the authoritarian regime that Napoleon was creating, Lucien sought to withdraw from public life and end his political and diplomatic career. He retreated to the estate of his friend, Alexandre de Laborde, in Méréville; on the night of his arrival, at a lively supper given by his host, he was introduced to Alexandrine Jouberthon, née de Bleschamp (1778-1855; fig. 3), a young woman whose wealthy, older husband, Hippolyte Jouberthon, was at the time working in Santo Domingo. Previously unknown notebooks written by Lucien and intended as chapters in his 1820 Mémoires (published in an expurgated and highly condensed form in 1833) -- only recently discovered by the authors Marcello Simonetta and Noga Arikha in the family archives of Alexandrine’s descendants near Perugia -- reveal with great candor this love-at-first-sight encounter.
Although Alexandrine was married, Lucien fell deeply and lastingly in love with her, and launched a clandestine courtship, made suddenly easier when the only obstacle in his path – her husband – died suddenly in Santo Domingo of yellow fever. Lucien and Alexandrine were thereafter inseparable. Napoleon, alerted by his spies to his brother’s affair, was outraged that Lucien had not sought his permission for the liaison and had thwarted the more politically advantageous matches he had intended for him. To keep the affair as discreet as possible, Lucien installed Alexandrine in a house next to his, and had a secret interconnecting passageway built between them, to which only he, Alexandrine, and his supportive mother had keys. It would have been in the autumn of 1802 that Lethière painted the present painting, certainly at Lucien’s request.
The painting is signed and dated on the lower left: “G.G. Le Thieres/ 1802”. On the frame of the daybed, the names of the lovers are inscribed in Greek letters: “?????????” (“Alexandra”) and “????????” (“Loukiano”), their entwined initials emblazoned together inside the far-right laurel embroidered on the wall. Within a cameo, painted on the bedframe between Alexandrine and Lucien, is a profile portrait of Napoleon beside a trident, a private joke referring to an episode several months earlier, when Napoleon railed violently against his brother from his bathtub, inadvertently splashing water and prompting Lucien to mockingly quote Virgil’s lines from the Aeneid about Neptune unleashing the fury of the ocean’s waters against the wind. The mischievous marble bust smiling down upon the scene from a high shelf upon which it sits is believed by Simonetta and Arikha to depict Lethière himself, recognizable by his frizzy hair. The pose of Alexandrine derives directly from one of the most famous surviving sculptures from Antiquity, the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican (fig. 4), a work that Lethière would have known from his years in Rome. However, her languorous carnality and unashamed nudity pay clear tribute to Goya’s Nude Maja which had made such a deep impression on both patron and painter a year earlier in Godoy’s private chambers.
Lucien is recorded as having owned another painting by Lethière depicting The Sleep of Venus, which was displayed in his picture gallery. It is today lost, but known from an engraving by Normand. In it, a sleeping Venus, in a pose close to that of Alexandrine in the present painting, reclines on a chaise longue, surrounded by flying cupids, nymphs and doves; the figure of Lucien is nowhere to be seen. Given that the present painting is a work of the greatest intimacy, immortalizing an illicit romance with potentially grave repercussions, it is perhaps not surprising that nothing documents its creation or presence in Lucien’s collection. Godoy, we know, kept the portrait of his nude mistress sequestered in a separate cabinet for his private pleasure, commissioning Goya to make an identical, clothed version of the painting – the Clothed Maja (c.1797; Prado) -- for his gallery. We might speculate that Lucien followed suit, commissioning the more decorous Sleep of Venus for public admiration that the present canvas could never be permitted.
As Simonetta and Arikha note, the autumn of 1802 provides a terminus post quem for the painting, as Alexandrine gave birth to the couple’s first child, Charles, only months later, in May 1803. Lucien and Alexandrine married in secret in Le Plessis the following day, 25 May 1803, to the fury of Napoleon, who never relinquished attempts to annul the union. The birth of Charles (in adulthood, a celebrated ornithologist), followed by nine other children, no doubt forced the permanent sequestration of the painting, which appears to have been rolled up and hidden, not to reappear for two centuries, when it was acquired in 2005 by the present owner at a small auction in Maine, its true identity long forgotten.
Permanently retired from public life and relentlessly hounded by his brother to divorce, Lucien, with Alexandrine and their children, eventually fled to Rome in 1804, placing themselves under the protection of Pope Pius VII. From that time onward, they led a peripatetic existence – although one cushioned by great wealth – first in a 17th-century palazzo near the Spanish Steps, where Lucien installed his art collection, which included paintings by Velazquez, Titian and Rubens; then to the 16th-century Villa Rufinella in Frascati; and, finally, to a villa at Canino. Lucien took up the study of archaeology and history, Alexandrine wrote poetry and raised their many children (fig. 5). Lucien died in 1840, at the age of 65, and was buried at Canino; Alexandrine survived him another fifteen years.