Attributed to Charles Louis Corbet (1758-1808)
This important plaster bust of Napoleon is one of exceptionally few portraits of Napoleon made before his coup d’etat in 1799.
This important plaster bust of Napoleon is one of exceptionally few portraits of Napoleon made before his coup d’etat in 1799. In 1798, the sculptor Charles-Louis Corbet was commissioned by the revolutionary government to portray General Bonaparte from life. This first model was done in plaster, and exhibited at the Salon in July 1798, with the inscription “…fait d’après nature”. Napoleon must therefore have sat to Corbet before he departed for his ill-fated Egyptian campaign later that year.
The image of Napoleon seen here is markedly different from the short-haired, visually plain man seen as Emperor in, for example, the portraits of Jacques-Louis David. Corbet’s bust, like Antoine-Jean Gros’ 1801 portrait of Napoleon at the Bridge of the Arcole (Louvre), shows the young general as a consciously heroic, and even handsome man. The bust not only reflects Napoleon’s growing popularity in France at the time, after his brilliant victories in Italy, but may well have played a role in the creation of a personal cult around the future Emperor.
Corbet’s original plaster from the Salon of 1798 is presumed lost. A version was on the Paris art market in 1990 [Hubert & Ledoux-Lebard, p.25]. It must, however, have been a popular image of the Republic’s favourite general, for five versions of Corbet’s subsequent larger design are thought to be known, dated between about 1798-1800, and all in plaster. The larger design differs only from the 1798 plaster in showing Napoleon with a more elaborate tunic. The Conway sculpture library in the Courtauld Institute in London records just two versions, in the Musée du Versailles and the Musée Carnavalet, while Gerard Hubert and Guy Ledoux-Lebard’s book on Napoleon’s contemporary portraits mention three further examples; in the Musée de Malmaison, the Musée Massena, Nice, and in the Musée de Gand (Ghent), Belgium. Hubert and Ledoux-Lebard claim that the above examples are signed.
However, the version at Malmaison appears to be unsigned, like the present example. It is possible, given the plaster medium, that the busts were signed by Corbet on top of the original finish, and not inscribed, as is usually the case with bronze or terracotta busts. The present bust had been over-painted in the twentieth century with white household paint and this could thus have obscured any original signature. It has since been restored and the finish taken back, where possible, to the original layers. Conservation revealed that the present bust appears to have been left unpainted and ‘unstopped’ for some time after it was cast (that is, it effectively remained as an unfinished plaster straight from the casting process). This may account for the later attempts to ‘finish’ the bust with a layer of white paint.
Corbet’s contemporary plaster busts, of which the present version is thus a sixth recorded example, should not however be confused with the many later versions, often in bronze, made in the nineteenth century. It is also highly unlikely that the present plaster bust relates to Corbet’s proposal in May 1803 to create a series of 200 plaster busts after his (now lost) marble bust of Napoleon, if subscriptions could be raised. Corbet’s scheme most probably relates to his portrait of the by then short-haired Napoleon as First Consul, which he had exhibited in 1802, for it seems unlikely that the French government would have officially sanctioned a likeness of Napoleon that was five years out of date. The idea seems not to have been undertaken, for only one example of Corbet’s bust of Napoleon as First Consul is recorded, in the Palais de Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and in any case, Napoleon was Emperor by March 1804, and thus in need of an entirely updated iconography.