“Among all the warriors in the flower of their age,
You are the one whose prudence equaled courage,
Magnaminous Desaix, may this beautiful devotion to duty
Shine lasting luster on your fatal moment!”
François de Neufchateau, Hymn on Death on the occasion of Funerary Elogies to Desaix
“Sometime during the first months of the year 1813, Mr. de Polinière, a doctor recently established in Lyon and spending a day on the Quay of the Observance, noticed a beautiful country house with a yard in which several marble statues had been placed. He stopped in front of the gate to admire them, and seeing a man on the property whose appearance indicated that he was elderly and sickly, approached to inquire about the owner’s name. Chinard, whom he was addressing, identified himself and asked him to enter for a closer look. Mr. de Polinière eagerly accepted this invitation, admired the statues, paid many compliments to the artist for his talent.”
Amédée Salomon de la Chapelle, author of the first major study on the sculptor Joseph Chinard, probably received the description of works which were to be found in the garden next to the artist’s studio, at the corner of the Quay de l’Oberservance and the rise of the Greillon from this same Mr. de Polinière. Nonetheless, in order to establish as precise a list as possible of the sculptures, the Lyonnaise scholar also had to rely on some now lost family document. According to Salomon de la Chapelle, beautiful trees were planted in this garden, along with several pedestals on which were placed marble statues, among them antique divinities, plus “a Cardinal, Phocion, Homer, Gorgon, a Dying Gladiator, the portrait of Desaix, an imperial eagle spreading its 15 foot wide wings in vain.”
According to Vitry who wrote the catalogue for the monographic exhibition at the Louvre in 1909, Desaix’ bust and the eagle – which is not that of the Foscati Fountain in Marseille destroyed as far back as 1814 – were sold together to a private collector. However only the bust, which was in the collection of Alexandre Natanson, an important modern art collector, was included in the 1909 exhibition, catalogued under number 70, just after the colossal bust of the same Desaix which is conserved at Versailles.
A prominent figure, General Desaix had enormous impact on the Napoleonic era. Killed at age thirty-two after having secured a victory at Marengo on June 14th, 1800, Desaix was both one of the Consulate’s greatest war heros and its biggest regret. Struck full in the heart by a musket ball, Desaix died on the spot. The official version contained in the third report on the victory at Marengo dated July 15th attributed a phrase to him which was heavy with meaning and would be oft repeated throughout funeral services: “Go tell the First Consul that I die with the regret of not having done enough to live in posterity.”
The portrait of Desaix that emerges from the funereal elegies is moral and social, never physical. The Consulate made a point of celebrating his memory with every type of event and monument, ephemeral or not, which spurred the artists into ever increasing rivalry and ingeniosity. Mausoleum, fountain, quay, temporary monument at the Invalides, medal, paintings, sculpture: no general received as many signs of honor and estime as Desaix, be it on the part of the Tribunate, individuals, or government.
All of these works could not limit themselves to only allegories and attributes, but had to include the general’s portrait despite the lack of an effigy as reference. In fact, as opposed to Kleber with his mane, or Marceau with his long locks, Desaix’ image does not stand out for any particular physical feature. Only the drawing by André Dutertre during the campaign in Upper Egypt is considered today as realistic (Versailles, inv. MV 2441). Desaix’ physiognomy had nothing particularly prepossessing with his receding forehead, long nose, mustache hiding a harelip, and sloping shoulders which drew attention to a stooped silhouette while accentuating his total lack of presence.
The heroic soldier is quite different in Girodet’s 1802 painting for Malmaison entitled Ossian receiving the Ghosts of French Generals in his Aerial Palace (National Museum of the Château of Malmaison). In front of the others and welcomed by Ossian himself, a clean-shaven Desaix with lank romantic figure and Greek profile has his hair pulled tightly back in a club knot held with a ring. He wears a Division General uniform embroidered with oak leaves recommended by an August 7th, 1798 regulation, but in reality it seems he never had one made.
The transfiguration of the hero in Girodet’s painting is very close to the Portrait of Desaix made in 1801 by the Milanais, Andrea Appiani, who himself was inspired by the mortuary mask taken by Angelo Pizzi on the order of Lucien Bonaparte. The Italian sculptor was put in charge of realizing a marble bust destined for Desaix’ cenotaph in the Saint-Bernard hospice. Sculpture was in fact much more solicited than painting for commemorating the victor of Marengo, yet reflected the same perplexity on the part of artists faced with the general’s constantly shifting iconography. His face is not the same in a statue by Gois commissioned for the Senate Palace at Luxembourg, as in the large bronze monument by Dejoux erected on the Place des Victoires. No resemblance either between the bust which embellishes Percier and Fortin’s fountain, Place Dauphine, and that commissioned from Chinard to complete the Tuileries series of generals contemplated by Bonaparte by Pluviose 18th in the year VIII.
A former student at the Royal School of Drawing in Lyon, and then of the sculptor Barthelemy Blaise (1738-1819), Chinard was one of the most sought after sculptors during the Consulate and Empire, a “non-resident associate member” of the Institute since February 12th, 1796, and member of the academies of Lyon and of Carrara. In his Lyonnaise studio, the artist would produce portraits of a wide variety of personalities, ranging from notables and bourgeoisie to generals of the Empire (Leclerc, Cervoni) and the Imperial family. One of the greatest portraitists of his time, he did not like to repeat himself, and modified the appearance of his busts every time with an amazing faculty for inventiveness, while oscillating ceaselessly between realism in the rendering of the media and classical inspiration.
Commissioned as of 1800 but only completed in 1804, the marble bust of Desaix by Chinard was exhibited in the Salon in 1808 and received a mixed welcome from Denon who had known the general very well in Egypt. Concerned with a veristic portrayal, the sculptor had the mortuary mask brought from Italy, an act which met with Denon’s disapproval: “The artist who sculpted the marble did it only from the mask molded from his face after his death, and you would think that you are always seeing him at that fatal instant […] This distressing view is little suited for recalling the features of this hero crowned so many times with the laurels of Victory.” The Director of the Louvre hastened to communicate “the features which death had altered” to Dejoux.
Nothing indicates that this criticism implied the creation of another bust of Desaix and that it would be our marble. In all probability, he proceeded very differently for this one than for that of 1804. Several points corroborate both the attribution of this work to the Lyonnaise sculptor and its early date. First of all, as opposed to the colossal marble exhibited at the Salon, the one we present has the dimensions of the other busts destined for the Tuileries, even if Desaix’ name only appears in about 1803 on the list of sculptures requested by the Emperor. Furthermore, the presentation of our bust almost identically reproduces Chinard’s of Bonaparte as Premier Consul realized in 1802 which was perceived by contemporaries as particularly successful and eloquent, although with “little resemblance.” The same realistic costume can be found here in contrast to the extreme idealization of the face, similar precision in the rendering of the embroidery and the hair, a like willingness to conceal the abruptness of the sides by showing the bust as a herm. Two details in particular should be noted: the uniform button halfway through its opening, and the surprising dangling loop on the right side. The latter, which was thought to be a folded back end of a cross belt in the bust of Bonaparte (impossible), in fact comes from ancient Roman armor and corresponds to the leather strap which held together the back and the breastplate. Chinard places important symbols on this object: a lictor’s fasces in the portrait of the First Consul, a buckle in the form of a swan in that of Desaix. The swan could be an allusion to Desaux’ combats in the German Wars of 1793-1797, emphasized in Garat’s funeral elegy, unless it only evokes Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt.
A certain stiffness and attention more to mass than to tiny details seems to be explained by the fact that the work is unfinished, as can be seen in the unsculpted decoration of the scarf, the cross belt which remains only sketched in and the absence of final polishing. The exhibition which continued outside among other unfinished sculptures by Chinard accentuates this raw aspect of the marble.
The arrival of the mortuary mask requested from Appiani by September 1800, but only received later, was probably the reason why the artist abandoned this work to undertake a new bust. It is true that, as imagined by Chinard, Desaix’ face appears too idealized, with little resemblance, except for in the hairdo and beauty spot on the right cheek. The second bust would have been, by the way, more in tune with the Consulate’s taste, whereas the first was more indicative of Directorate ideas. On the one hand, a reference to Antiquity, the nude torso and ideal of a young hero, but the face marked by death and the lips half open. On the other, the Division General’s uniform, admirably executed, the hairdo with a Revolutionary clubknot done with surprising realism, in contrast to strong heroicizing of facial features and a simultaneously determined and dreamy gaze directed both at posterity and eternity.
Bibliography of the Work
Paul VITRY, Exposition d’œuvres du sculpteur Chinard de Lyon (1756-1813) au pavillon de Marsan (palais du Louvre), exh. cat. Paris, Museum of Decorative Arts, 1909-1910, p. 44, no 70.
Stanislas LAMI, Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l’école française, vol. I, 1898, p. 213 (“General Hoche(?) in Military Costume […] M. Paul Vitry observes, with reason, that it is perhaps a Bust of General Desaix.”)
Willy Günther SCHWARK, Die Porträtwerke Chinards, Berlin, 1937, p. 75, cat. 120 (as “Bust of a General, c. 1808.”)
Amédée SALOMON DE LA CHAPELLE, “Joseph Chinard, sculpteur. Sa vie et son œuvre,” Revue du Lyonnais, 1896, vol. XXII, p. 424.
J. BENOIT, “Une série de bustes de généraux et d’officiers morts sous la Révolution et l’Empire,” La Revue du Louvre, 1985, n° 1985-1, pp. 9-20.
Amédée SALOMON DE LA CHAPELLE, “Joseph Chinard, sculpteur. Sa vie et son œuvre,” Revue du Lyonnais, 1896, vol. XXII, pp. 77-98, 209-218, 272-291, 337-357, 412-442 ; 1897, vol. XXIII, pp. 37-52, 142-157.
Stanislas LAMI, Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l’école française, vol. I, 1898.
Annie Jourdan, “Bonaparte et Desaix, une amitié inscrite dans la pierre des monuments?,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 324, 2001, pp. 139-150.