Canova Napoleon.jpg

WORKSHOP OF ANTONIO CANOVA (Possagno 1757 - 1822 Venice)

Bust of Napoleon Bonaparte

35 ¾ × 18 × 18 inches (90.8 × 45.7 × 45.7 cm)
c. 1810, plinth later

Galerie Patrice Bellanger, Paris (2006)
Private collection, Maryland


XXIIIe Biennale des Antiquaires, 15-24 September 2006, Grand Palais, Paris


G. Pavanello, L’opera complete del Canova, Milan, 1976, pp. 109-110 nos. 140-143

Nina K. Kosareva, in Antonio Canova, exh. cat., Correr Museum, Venice, and Gipsoteca, Possagno, 22 March-30 September 1992), Venice, 1992, pp. 306-307 no. 138

Christopher M. S. Johns, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1998, ch. 4, pp. 88-122

Denise Allen, “After a model by Antonio Canova, Bust of Napoleon,” Metropolitan Museum of Art website, 2015,

In 1802 Antonio Canova, the most famous sculptor in Europe, was summoned to Paris by Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France and the most powerful man in Europe, to model his portrait bust from life. Napoleon had previously been in contact with Canova in 1797, after the French defeat of the Serene Republic of Venice. Napoleon wrote Canova offering to continue the sculptor’s pension, which he normally received from Venice—a move that was certainly calculated to ingratiate Canova to Napoleon. Canova was reluctant to depart for Paris and attempted to delay the journey, writing that poor travel conditions and ill health prevented him from travelling. However, as the safety of Rome and the Papal enclave depended on fulfilling the wishes of Napoleon, Canova left for Paris.

Immediately after his arrival in October 1802, Canova modeled Napoleon’s portrait bust as first consul in clay. The following year, the sculptor began work on a monumental, heroic, full-length, nude marble statue of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1803-1806; fig. 1). The idea to portray Napoleon as Mars was Canova’s. Napoleon, who had initially wanted to be shown dressed in military uniform, ultimately rejected the sculpture, largely on the grounds of its nudity. In 1816 it was purchased by the British Government and given to the Duke of Wellington; it is now displayed at Apsley House, London, the residence of the Dukes of Wellington.


Fig. 1. Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1803-1806, Apsley House, London

Fig. 1. Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1803-1806, Apsley House, London

Despite Napoleon’s displeasure with the Napoleon as Mars, the colossal bust that Canova sculpted as a preparatory work for it, based on the bust he had made from life in 1802, became the model for one of the ruler’s most important and popular official portraits. Until his death in 1822, Canova and his workshop produced many versions in marble and plaster, including our bust. Numerous life sized and colossal examples were also produced in the marble workshop at Carrara, established by Napoleon’s younger sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, to reproduce imperial portraits. A colossal marble version, formerly displayed in Canova’s bedroom in his house in Rome, is in the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire, Chatsworth, Derbyshire; other marble examples are in the collections of the Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison; the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; and elsewhere.

Canova made portraits of other members of Napoleon’s family, including full-length, marble sculptures of his mother, Letizia Ramolino Bonaparte, Madame Mère (1804-1807, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth); his younger sister, Pauline Borghese as Venus Victorious, (1805-1808, Galleria Borghese, Rome); and his second wife, Marie-Louise as Concordia (1809-1814, Galleria Nazionale, Parma).

Classicizing in its features and initially conceived as an example of political propaganda, our bust of the young leader, who became Emperor of the French in 1804, recalls ancient portraits of Roman emperors. Its nobility and dignity exude confidence and strength and make this powerful portrait one of the most renowned of Napoleon’s images.

Antonio Canova was the son of a stone mason, Pietro Canova, and grandson of a sculptor and stonemason, Pasino Canova. Early in his life the young Canova exhibited a gift for carving in stone, which was recognized by the Venetian Senator Giovanni Falier. In 1768, thanks to Falier’s assistance, Antonio entered the atelier of Giuseppe Bernardi, known as Torretti (1664-1743), which was in Pagnano di Asolo. The relocation of the atelier to Venice provided the young Antonio with the opportunity to study drawing from life at the Accademia and after the antique casts in the collection located in the Palazzo Farsetti. Early commissions for the budding sculptor were provided for by Falier, which allowed Canova to open his first atelier in Venice in the cloister of Santo Stefano in 1775. 

Canova’s group Dedalus and Icarus (1777-1779)—now in the Museo Correr, Venice—was exhibited at the Fiera della Sensa in 1779. Its success earned Canova funding to travel to Rome in 1780, where he would live permanently. The Venetian colony in Rome—which included, amongst others, the family of Pope Clement XXIII Rezzonico—became a patron to Canova, providing the sculptor with lodging as well as commissions. Due to his successful achievements, Antonio was granted an annual stipend by the Venetian Senate, which provided him the funding to continue his work and studies in Rome. It was during this time that, in 1783, Canova became acquainted with the critic Antoine-Chryosthôme Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849).  Their encounter blossomed into a lifelong friendship.

Canova obtained many religious, public and private commissions during this period: for the basilica of St. Peter’s (a tomb for Clement XIII), for the English Colonel John Campbell (Cupid and Psyche, 1787-1794), amongst others. His artistic talent, both in composition and sensual representation of his subjects, became renowned, so much so that he was called the greatest modern sculptor by many throughout Europe. After Napoleon’s defeat of the Venetian Republic in 1798, Canova returned to his hometown of Possagno. He worked tirelessly to convince the Austrian rulers to restore his own state allowance.

In 1800, Canova was named to the Roman artists’ academy, the Accademia di San Luca. And in 1801, Pope Pius VII made Canova Knight of the Golden Spur and Artist Inspector General of Antiquities and the Fine Arts. This post awarded the sculptor oversight over the works of art in the Vatican museums, as well as the exportation of works from Rome. Canova worked tirelessly, yet diplomatically, to lobby European rulers for the return of looted works of art to Rome.

Throughout his prolific career, Canova completed commissions for governments and collectors in Europe and the United States (including a monumental statue of George Washington for the state of North Carolina, 1817-1821).  He died in Venice on 13 October 1822. Such was his fame throughout the Western World that his half-brother Giambattista Sartori, who had lived with him, acted as his secretary since 1800, and was his sole heir, moved all of Canova’s plasters, clay models and marbles from Rome to Possagno, where they could eventually be on view in the Gipsoteca next to the artist’s house, which was constructed between 1831 and 1836.