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In February-March 1813 Antonio Canova travelled down to Naples from Rome to visit Joachim Murat and his wife Caroline, sister of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The result of this meeting was a portrait of each in marble, the great sculptor’s favourite medium. The sculptor began this important work, creating models of the busts in plaster and then returning to the Eternal City to execute the marbles. These two busts were known to have been completed and prepared for shipping this same year 1813, but no further record has ever been made of them, and there has never been any confirmation that they were delivered to Joachim Murat from Canova’s workshop before Joachim’s execution in 1815.
The bust presented here has been hidden in the private collection of the direct descendants of the Murat family and was only recently discovered. It is here argued that the shipment was completed, and that the present bust was delivered to Joachim Murat as planned, and descended within his family until the present day. Canova’s portrait from life of Joachim Murat, executed in plaster in 1813, is the example now in the Gipsoteca Canoviana in Possagno (Inv. 81970) and it corresponds in every detail to the marble offered here.
This is therefore a discovery of the utmost importance both artistically and historically. Lost since the death of Joachim Murat in 1815, the bust is an exquisite record of a friendship between two of the great figures of Napoleonic Europe, the Emperor’s favourite artist and his favourite general, who became his brother-in-law.
Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
Antonio Canova was born in 1757 in the small northern Italian town of Possagno. His father, the stone cutter, Pietro Canova, died in 1781, at which point Antonio was entrusted to the care of his paternal grandfather, Pasino Canova. Pasino was also a stone cutter, owned a quarry, and specialized in the creation of altars decorated with statues and bas-reliefs in the late Baroque style. From a young age, Antonio Canova was exposed to drawing, architecture and sculpture, and created his own works from the age of nine. He worked under the auspices of the sculptor Torretti in Pagnano near Asolo, and from the age of 14 was the apprentice to sculptor Giuseppe Bernardi, also based in the same town. Upon the death of Bernardi in 1774, Canova joined the atelier of the former’s nephew, Giovanni Ferrari. In Venice, Canova was greatly influenced by works from Antiquity, especially those in the collection of Filippo Farsetti, for whom he created his first independent works (two Baskets of Fruit, 1774; Museo Correr, Venice). In 1775, Canova opened his own atelier and created his first independent figural works including Orpheus and Eurydice for Senator Giovanni Falier in 1776, and Daedalus and Icarus in 1779 for Procurator Pietro Pisani.
In 1779, Canova made his first voyage to Rome, where he would create his most important works. In the 1780s and ‘90s, Canova’s reputation went from strength to strength. The sculptor received important commissions of a varied nature, from the funerary monuments for Popes Clement XIII (1783-92) and Clement XIV (1783-87), to religious subjects, portraits and mythological figures inspired by Classical Antiquity.
In the first decade of the 19th century, Canova was the most celebrated artist in Europe, receiving commissions from sovereigns, princes, Popes and emperors from around the world. Canova also systematically reinforced his reputation by publishing engravings of his works and by keeping plaster casts of his final marble sculptures in his atelier.
In 1801, the Vatican acquired its first work by Canova, marking the beginning of a significant and close relationship between the sculptor and the Papal States. The following year, Canova collaborated with Pope Pius VII in the production of an edict on the conservation of works of art and monuments. In 1802, in gratitude for Canova’s collaboration and in recognition of his status, Pope Pius VII named him Inspector General of Antiquities and Fine Arts for the Papal States, a position once held by Raphael.
When the French occupied Rome in 1798, Canova returned to his hometown, Possagno, for two years. The arrival of Napoleon on the European political scene opened a period of immense artistic prosperity for Canova, during which he counted Bonaparte and his family – for whom he created many sculptures and busts between 1803 and 1809 – among his most important clients. However, it was Caroline and Joachim Murat who introduced Canova to France. Joachim travelled to the sculptor’s atelier in Rome in 1798 and acquired the marble group, Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss, and, probably in 1800 during a visit to Pope Pius VII, its pendant, Cupid and Psyche standing. When they installed these two groups in the Château de Villiers-la-Garenne, their property near Neuilly, the Murat family established Canova’s reputation in France.
After the fall of the Empire in 1815, voyages and commerce began anew across the continent. The last seven years of Canova’s life were largely dominated by commissions from British patrons. During the summer of 1815, Canova succeeded in repatriating to Italy the masterpieces of sculpture and painting which Napoleon had taken during his Italian campaign of 1796-99 (Cunial, op. cit., p. 51).
Antonio Canova is considered the greatest neoclassical sculptor of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was at the forefront of the movement of a new aesthetic of clear form and a renewed connection to the beauty of the human form, as inspired by classical antiquities. He was famed for his chiselling and for the high polish of his marble surfaces, which were as supple as real skin. Canova developed a new artistic style that was to become enormously influential; abandoning the Baroque tradition, Canova advocated archaeological neoclassicism of Grecian purity. Beginning with close observation, sketches and preparatory models, Canova captured subtle attitudes and appearances which manifested his yearning for a utopia where man-made works of beauty verged on the bizarre. Canova then channelled these ideas using Antique ideals, but creating new forms, first and foremost feminine, at once cold and voluptuous, gracious and languorous.
As can be seen in the present bust of Joachim Murat, Canova was particularly interested in facial expressions, and the form of the skull, which, according to the theories of physiognomy that were fashionable in the late eighteenth century, bespoke the character of the sitter. Canova’s sculptures exhibit a purity of line and quest for ideal beauty as well as the sculptor’s ‘vigorous and powerful technique’ of exceptional liveliness and expression. Canova’s sculptures attest to his ardent spirit, which was ever-open to romantic aspirations. A creator of great sensibility, Canova was strongly rooted in tradition, enamoured with the antique and ideal beauty, attentive to nature and in a constant search for beauty which transcended epochs.
Joachim Murat (1767-1815)
Joachim Murat’s career path was one of the most dazzling of all the Maréchaux of the Empire. Born into modest circumstances on 25 March 1767 – the son of an innkeeper of La Bastide-Fortunière in the Lot region – Joachim was the youngest of the family, and quickly oriented towards the priesthood. However, his expulsion from the seminary of Toulouse in 1787 deterred him from the religious life, and he was then engaged in the army, in the 12th regiment de chasseur à cheval of Champagne. Having attained the rank of maréchal des logis, he left the army in 1789, returned to Saint-Céré in his native Lot region, embraced the revolutionary ideals and participated in the celebration of the Federation of 14 July 1791 on the Champ de Mars in Paris.
From 1791, he returned to the army, and after a brief passage in the constitutional guard of Louis XVI, whom he critiqued for his lack of patriotism, he re-joined his former regiment and rapidly scaled the military echelons, becoming a maréchal des logis, sous-lieutenant, captaine aide de camp and, finally, chef d’escadron.
Murat’s first decisive meeting with the général de bridage, Napoléon, occurred on 5th October 1795 when the Convention was threatened by royalist insurrection. Napoleon was impressed by his abilities and made him his aide de camp. Murat subsequently partook in the principal military campaigns of the future Emperor. During the Italian campaign, Murat sojourned in Rome in 1797, when the Roman Republic was declared. Murat also participated in the Egyptian campaign at the celebrated battle of the Pyramids and at the battle of Aboukir, during which he succeeded in pushing back the Turks thanks to an audacious charge, and these successes won him a promotion to général de division. Murat was also part of the coup d’état of 18 and 19 Brumaire, during which the Conseil des Cinq-Cents was dissolved.
Meeting Caroline Bonaparte
Murat’s bravery and loyalty won him the hand in marriage of the third sister of the first Consul, Caroline Bonaparte (1782-1839), on 20 February 1800. Almost immediately after their marriage, Joachim Murat participated in the second Italian campaign, and then signed the peace accord with the King of Naples.
Murat played an important role in all the great Napoleonic battles against Prussia and Russia, including Austerlitz, Iéna, Stettin, and Eylau, in which he was recognized for his bravery, his audacious manoeuvres, his equestrian talents and his exceptional outfits. In 1806, on the heels of the brilliant campaigns in Germany, Murat became the grand-duc de Berg et de Clèves. Finally, he partook in the difficult Spanish campaign, and in the Madrilenian repressions.
King of Naples and Sicily
Murat’s destiny changed again when Napoléon named him King of Naples in the treaty of 15 July 1808. Once on the Neapolitan throne, Joachim Murat modernized the administration, abolished the feudal system and won the hearts of his subjects in a manner which surpassed his predecessors, through his direct manners, his presence on horseback and the splendour of his court. Murat also endeavoured to embellish the city of Naples and relaunched the archaeological digs at Herculaneum, discovered in 1738. Murat simultaneously asserted, with increasing vigour, his independence from Napoléon, which provoked tensions between them. Afterwards Murat signed a separate peace agreement with Austria after the defeat of the Imperial army at Leipzig in October 1813, which marked a rupture with Napoléon.
Murat, who had long depended on Italian nationalists, seized upon the sudden return of Napoleon from the Isle of Elba to provoke an uprising on the peninsula against the Austrian and English forces, thereby becoming a precursor of the Risorgimento. However, Murat was defeated at Tolentino, and forced to return to France. After the defeat at Waterloo – a battle in which Murat was not active – he left for Corsica, and he hoped to return to Italy. His despondent arrival at Pizzo in Calabria, however, did not go as planned, as he was met by a hostile population, who captured him. Murat was then imprisoned and condemned to death after a sham trial. At the moment of his execution on 13 October 1815, he showed great composure and uttered a celebrated phrase to the squad of executioners: “Soldiers, respect the face and aim at the heart…Fire!”
The Murats and the arts in France
On 15 January 1804, Murat was named governor of Paris, and he and his wife quickly became a very fashionable couple, receiving guests in their town home, the hôtel Thélusson or at their country property, the Château de Villiers. After the coronation of Napoléon on 2 December 1804, Murat received all the honours to which he was entitled as a Maréchal d’Empire. Caroline, in turn, received the title of Imperial Highness. On 6 August 1805, they purchased the hôtel de l’Elysée, the former residence of the Marquise de Pompadour. After considerable renovations, the Murats organised balls, receptions and memorable parties in the hôtel de l’Elysée, which also served as the home to part of their art collection.
To furnish their Parisian town home, Joachim and Caroline Murat commissioned an ensemble of furniture and works of art in the most fashionable styles of the day by its greatest artisans, including the cabinetmaker Jacob-Desmalter, the upholsterer Boulard and the bronzier Ravrio. The Murat salon, or the Silver boudoir, still extant, illustrate the couple’s refined taste. In addition, works by Veronese, Leonardo da Vinci, Guido Reni and Fra Bartolomeo, which are today still in the Palais de l’Elysée, completed their sumptuous interior decoration.
The Murats and the arts in Italy
When Murat was named King of Naples in 1808, he was required to leave his belongings to the Empire. Napoléon subsequently decided to transfer a considerable part of the Murats’ collection to Malmaison for the Empress Joséphine’s use. Caroline, however, had the opportunity to take a few of these works beforehand, and send them to Naples.
Once installed in the Palace of Naples, the royal couple developed their taste for the Antique, notably by considerably expanding the collection of Greek ceramics. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who stayed in Naples from February to May 1814 admired it and subsequently created his own collection of Antiquities. The Royal palace was decorated with pictures by Correggio – including Ecce Homo and the Education of Cupid – and by Sassoferrato. Decorating their residences with furniture largely of the Empire style, the couple further commissioned bronzes from Thomire and clocks from Bréguet. The other royal residences at Caserta, Capodimonte and Portici – Caroline’s favourite – were also decorated and furnished with the same discerning taste and refined eye.
The King and Queen of Naples also set in place ambitious artistic and cultural programmes for their kingdom. Murat undertook large-scale urban renewal projects including the construction of the Piazza del Plebiscito, the restoration of the Academy of Drawing, and the creation of a museum of natural history in 1811. The re-initiation of the archaeological digs at Pompei were, however, the most significant cultural project in which the Neapolitan monarchs engaged. Caroline frequently visited the site, was actively involved in the organisation of the dig, and proposed innovative improvements for the overall operation. Archival records mention a joint visit between Caroline Murat and Canova to the archaeological site at Pompei on 17 March 1813.
Naples became an indispensable destination for many international artists and collectors during the celebrated “Grand Tour.” In this spirit, the royal couple supported and commissioned works from numerous artists including the portraitist François Gérard, the landscape painters Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy, Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidault, and Benjamin Rolland, and the sculptor, Antonio Canova. Ingres painted a portrait of Caroline Murat in 1814, and Joachim purchased numerous works from the artist from 1809 including the Sleeping woman in Naples (whereabouts currently unknown) and La Grande Odalisque. After the death of Joachim Murat and the collapse of the Empire, Caroline was forced, for a second time, to abandon the entirety of her collection when going into exile.
Murat and Canova
Canova’s Cupid and Psyche and Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss was originally commissioned in 1787 by the Scottish Colonel John Campbell, the future Lord Cawdor. Because Campbell never paid for the commission, Canova sold these works in 1801 to Joachim Murat, who had admired them in the sculptor’s atelier in Rome in 1797.
The two groups were sent to France and shown in the gallery of the Château de Villiers-la-Garenne near Neuilly during the party Murats gave in honour of the First Consul at the beginning of April 1802. Canova’s masterpieces were there admired by Joséphine and the Bonaparte set. These acquisitions initiated an important and admirative relationship between the Murats and Canova, a rapport further reinforced in 1808 when the Murats acceded to the Neapolitan throne. The Murats were likely advised in their first acquisitions in Italy by François Cacault, the ambassador of the First Consul to Rome, or by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, pupil of David, and a collector in his own right.
In 1802, Napoléon commissioned Canova to create his portrait bust as Premier Consul, as well as one of his wife, the Empress Joséphine, the great taste maker of the Empire period, who would also become an important patron of the sculptor. Canova would go on to create numerous works for the Imperial family, whom he frequently represented in the antique style including Napoléon as Mars the Peacemaker and Pauline Borghese as Venus Victorious. Canova was heavily influenced by Antiquity in the production of his sculpture, his group Psyche and Cupid being directly derived from a painting in Pompeii representing a Faun surprising and embracing a bacchante. Canova, therefore, shared the Murat’s passion for the antique and was frequently present in Rome and, later, Naples.
Considering the depth of the relationship between the Murats and Antonio Canova, it is not surprising therefore, that they should decide to commission their own portraits from him in marble. Canova was invited to Naples and, during the course of February and March 1813, he executed these in plaster. As detailed above, Canova was to return to Rome to carve the marble versions which would then be sent to Joachim and Caroline. However, despite the fact that the compositions of the busts of the king and queen are recorded in the plasters held by the museum in Possagno, the location of the marbles was not known to modern art historians. Today, the marble bust of Queen Caroline remains unlocated. However, it is clear that the bust of the king at least was delivered to Joachim and has remained among the possessions of his direct descendants.
The portrait created by Canova is a powerful characterisation of one of Napoleonic Europe’s most charismatic soldiers and politicians. Murat’s pride is evident in the tilt of his chin, and his reputation as a dandy comes through in the luxuriantly rendered curls of hair. Canova has clearly gone to the greatest lengths to impress – and perhaps thank – one of his most important patrons by employing all his talent as a marble-carver. The minute attention to the deeply carved hair contrasts with the delicacy of the shallow relief decoration of his costume, and the passages of skin are polished to suggest a suppleness not normally associated with stone. That this bust should emerge after more than two hundred years in such a remarkable state of preservation is an extraordinary addition to the oeuvre of Europe’s most celebrated neo-classical sculptor.