Portrait du général Bonaparte (Portrait of General Bonaparte), c. 1800
This life-sized bust was commissioned by the Directoire, which hailed Napoléon Bonaparte as a hero on his return from the Italian campaign in December 1797. He sat for an initial version in plaster before setting out for the Egypt campaign in May 1798; it was shown at the Paris Salon for the revolutionary year VI (i.e. 1798) as Portrait du général Buonaparte. This marble version dates from circa 1800.
Napoleon is shown in uniform, facing the viewer. The coat draped over his left shoulder is in the grand tradition of official portraiture. His features are rendered with a realist touch, matching contemporary descriptions of a thin face, hollow cheeks, jutting chin, and long hair tied at the nape of his neck with locks falling freely over his brow and temples. His gaze is intense. He is turning slightly to the left, as if someone has just called to him. The bust captures a man who is part timeless visionary, part military genius.
The bust, reflecting Napoleon’s rising popularity, is of particular interest since few portraits pre-dating the coup of 1799 survive. The Musée Carnavalet in Paris holds a plaster version dating from year VIII (i.e. late 1799) that is a copy of the original shown at the 1798 Salon. A third version is in the Musée Masséna in Nice. Bronze, terracotta, and painted pipe clay versions, scaled up or down, are also known, indicating that the work was widely copied in the nineteenth century. How this marble version came to be in the Lausanne collection remains a mystery.
Jules Houdoy, Études artistiques. Artistes inconnus des XIVe, XVe et XVIe siècles: Charles-Louis Corbet sculpteur, Paris, A. Aubry, 1877.