We trace the remarkable connections between a gift from one revolutionary to another, a bust of Napoleon and a painting once thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci
Gilbert Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), embodied the idealistic zeal of his time, becoming a key figure in both the American and French Revolutions, and then a link between George Washington, father of the United States, and Simón Bolívar, liberator of Latin America.
At the request of the Washington family, on 13 October 1825 Lafayette sent to Bolívar a portrait of the President, a lock of Washington’s hair and a gold medal with his likeness. It was likely at this time that Lafayette sent this pair of French silver-mounted flintlock pistols, made by Nicolas-Noël Boutet of Versailles, as his personal gift to the younger revolutionary — who perhaps he saw as carrying on the torch he had, by then, put down.
Nearly 30 years earlier, Lafayette had returned to France after fighting in the American Revolutionary War. Having been appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard, his reputation later fell, and when the radical faction put out a warrant for his arrest in 1792, he fled over the border to the Austrian Netherlands where he was captured.
After five years of captivity, a mixture of diplomacy, the press, and personal appeals from his many sympathisers on both sides of the Atlantic led to Lafayette’s release, negotiated by a victorious young general named…
…Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1801, at the age of 32, Napoleon was approaching the apex of his extraordinary career when sculptor Joseph Chinard (1756-1813) created this portrait bust. The sitter had just returned a hero from his campaigns in Egypt, and had engineered a coup establishing himself as First Consul of the Republic.
These successes, and those preceding them, are emblazoned across Bonaparte’s chest. His sash is inscribed with the names of his various victorious battles, while his back collar reads VOILA LE FRUIT DE SON GENIE (‘This is the fruit of his genius’).
On 15 July 1801, Napoleon signed the Concordat, an agreement with Pope Pius VII which restored the Catholic Church’s religious privileges while keeping the lands seized by the Revolution. Taking an active part in the negotiations was a cleric by the name of…
… Joseph Fesch, who was Napoleon’s uncle. Fesch would be made a cardinal and later French ambassador to Rome, where he built a reputation as one of the greatest art collectors of the period. The Madonna of the Violets, originally attributed to Bernardino Luini, was one of the greatly admired paintings in his collection.
The work was later acquired by the Reverend Walter Davenport Bromley (1787-1863), whose collection of early Italian paintings at Wootton Hall was described as ‘one of the most distinguished… in England.’ When Reverend Bromley acquired the work it was attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, although later this was changed to a ‘Milanese Master of the Circle of Leonardo da Vinci’.
It was the scholar Wilhelm Suida who, in 1949, singled out Marco d’Oggiono as the author of The Madonna of the Violets. The artist, about whom little is known, appears to have already been working in Milan as a master with his own shop by 1487. By September 1490, according to further research by David Alan Brown, curator of Italian Painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, he was living with Leonardo. Indeed, this composition is deeply indebted to Leonardo’s pen-and-ink drawing of the The Virgin and Child with a cat of about 1480.
The Madonna of the Violets had been kept out of the public eye since it was exhibited in Milan in 1964 until its inclusion in the seminal Leonardo retrospective held at the National Gallery, London, in 2011-2012.