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How England first saw Bonaparte: a painting by Francesco Cossia commissioned by Maria Cosway in 1797 was the first true portrait of Napoleon to be seen in England. It was acquired by Sir John Soane, who, as Xavier F. Salomon and Christopher Woodward explain, juxtaposed it with a miniature by Isabey in a graphic comparison of the youthful hero with the tyrannical dicatator.

'On the 15 May 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan at the head of the young army that had just marched over the bridge at Lodi, and showed the world that after so many centuries, there was now a successor to Caesar and Alexander.' So Stendhal began The Charterhouse of Parma. A few weeks after the conquest of Milan, Napoleon was painted by Andrea Appiani (1754-1817). It was the first time he sat for a formal portrait.

Several years ago a fascinating exhibition at the Museo Napoleonico in Rome showed how the campaign in Italy created a personal iconography for Napoleon. (1) One picture was absent from the sequence of portraits exhibited, however: a small oil sketch by Francesco Cossia painted in the spring of 1797 (Fig. 2) and today in the Breakfast Room of Sir John Soane's Museum in London (Fig. 6). This is the most puzzling and least known of the portraits of Napoleon in Italy; it was reproduced for the first time only this year.


John Soane believed the artist to have been a man named Francesco Goma and the client to have been Josephine, whom Napoleon had married a year earlier. An early curator of his museum described it as 'an exceedingly early and interesting portrait, probably the earliest in existence'. (2) In fact, the artist's name was Francesco Cossia and he was probably the fifth artist--not the first--to be given a sitting by Napoleon. And the client was not Josephine but an artist in London: Maria Cosway. When a small box arrived at her house on Oxford Street in 1797 it was the first time anyone in Britain saw the face of the man who would become the country's greatest enemy.

In March 1796 the twenty-seven-year old Napoleon was appointed to the command of the 30,000 bedraggled and dispirited soldiers of the army of Italy. Over the next twelve months he overthrew and conquered the states of northern Italy, humiliated the papacy, and shattered a succession of armies dispatched from Austria. By April 1797 he was within ninety miles of Vienna and was halted only when the emperor sued for peace. It had been the most brilliant military campaign in Europe since antiquity. The British consul in Bologna reported that it is impossible to 'convey an adequate idea of the impression of terror and astonishment which accompanies the Republic's armies in their conquest of Italy; where they are venerated as a superior order of beings to whom nothing is impossible, and are looked upon in much the same way as the followers of Cortez were by the Mexicans'. (3)

After sitting for Appiani in Milan, Napoleon was drawn later that summer by Louis Lafitte (1770-1826) in Florence; (4) at the end of the year he was back in Milan and painted by, firstly, Louis Albert Bacler d'Albe (1761-1824) (5)--a painter of battle scenes--and, secondly, by the young Jean-Antoine Gros (1771-1835). Gros's depiction of Napoleon at the battle of Arcola (Fig. 3) was the first iconic picture of him, an image of patriotic heroism that would one day inspire Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Napoleon is depicted at the moment when he seized the tricolour and led his soldiers across a narrow wooden enemy bridge in the face of Austrian cannon.


Gros's experience, as described in a letter to his mother, is worth comparing to that of Cossia. The young pupil of David was introduced to Napoleon by Josephine. She and her husband assumed Gros wished to paint a battle scene. No, he replied, and requested the honour of a portrait. 'Napoleon inclined his head lightly and modestly', and Gros began to paint the following day. One could hardly call it a 'sitting', however: Napoleon was restless and 'it was necessary to resign myself to painting the character of his physiognomy, and after that, to try my hardest to give it the character of a portrait'. (6)

Cossia's encounter with Napoleon is described in a letter to a Signor Borghini--probably an art dealer--dated 17 March 1797 and placed inside the same box as the picture. (7) Three days earlier Napoleon had arrived in Verona, at the beginning of his climactic march on Vienna. Cossia presented a letter of introduction from Josephine and was invited to dine that night; he was told to bring his pencil as the General 'could not give me more than half an hour before and after dinner ... I answered, I could do it as well on canvass [sic] as on paper ... In little more than an hour, I was able to fix the physiognomy, and give it that thoughtful expression which you know is so striking in his countenance'. After dinner he asked to accompany Napoleon on his journey north, 'in order to improve the head, and give it a finished appearance'.

They stopped by the roadside for the night and 'I got up at sunrise, after having passed a sleepless night, from the noise of the horses, which were continually coming and going'. At breakfast the general was 'merry and affable' but the sitting was soon interrupted by the arrival of urgent dispatches. Napoleon marched towards Vienna, and the painter returned to Verona. He tells the story at such length, he explains, 'to pardon that I have not done better' to a lady 'who expected more and better from a Venetian painter'.

Like Gros, Cossia was not responding to an existing iconography; also like Gros, the sitting ended with an oil sketch of the face; unlike the Frenchman, he did not incorporate this into a heroic scene. The background was left empty and the smudginess of the portrait reflects the haste of the commission. In retrospect, however, the preciousness of this picture lies in its spontaneity and immediacy. After Napoleon returned to Paris in triumph later that year he became the daunting, elevated demi-god of hundreds of paintings and sculptures. The young man glimpsed in this sketch--his eyes engaging but not dazzling, his gaze as receptive as it is assertive--disappeared from view.

Soane interpreted the letter's scribbled signature as 'Goma' and, in consequence, the artist has never been identified. In addition, the fact that Cossia referred to the client only as 'a lady' led Soane to mistake a separate reference to Josephine as evidence that she was the client. It seems that he did not read a second letter with the shipment from a man named Francesco Ricardi in Milan. Writing on 26 March 1797, Ricardi describes 'Cossia' as a 'very well known painter ... who lives in Verona', at that time in Venetian territory. Unfortunately, Cossia disappeared into obscurity. However, Ricardi's letter reveals the identity of the mysterious lady client: it is addressed to 'A Madame Cosway/Londres'. (8)

Since the 1780s Maria Cosway and her husband, Richard, had been two of the most fashionable artists in the city; he was Principal Painter to the Prince of Wales and she was the hostess of a salon popular with younger royalty, emigres, politicians, artists and connoisseurs. (9) Stephen Lloyd has described her many points of contact with the Bonaparte family after she travelled to Paris in 1801 in order to copy for publication the pictures in the Louvre. She met Napoleon while copying David's celebrated portrait of him crossing the Alps; during the Peace of Amiens in 1802-1803 she gave British visitors tours of the art collection of his uncle Cardinal Fesch. However, the discovery of her letters to Milan in the winter of 1796-97 revealed an earlier chapter in the relationship.

In the late 1790s there were many British admirers of the young General Bonaparte. To Charles James Fox and his followers in the Whig party, to radicals such as Lord Wycombe, and to rebellious young writers such as Walter Savage Landor, Coleridge and Southey he was a hero. As if a second George Washington, he restored the balance of order and liberty in France itself, while in Italy he liberated the people from Catholic superstition and political despotism. (10) By the end of 1798 one magazine warned that he was the 'idol' of too many Britons at time of threatened invasion. (11)

What is exceptional about Cosway's commission is its date: it is the earliest recorded evidence of British admiration for Napoleon. Ricardi's letter of 26 March 1797 indicates that by that date she had already written three times to request a portrait. The earliest profile of this 'extraordinary' man was published in the liberal Monthly Magazine in May (12) and Fox's earliest praise came in August. (13)

Cosway was born in Italy to an English father and an Italian mother. Through her salon in London and her travels in Italy and France she had an international circle of friends. There were many people who could have told her about the young French general, therefore. However, Lloyd suggests that the most likely source of inspiration for the commission was her lover General Paoli, the Corsican patriot who was in exile in London but who had personally known the young Bonaparte. (14)

In his years at military academy, Napoleon was an outspoken admirer of Paoli, casting him as the hero of his early fiction and travelling to Corsica to support his struggle for independence. (15) The puzzle is that in 1793 the two men had quarrelled decisively over the future of the island. Paoli opposed direct rule from Paris but that summer Napoleon threw in his lot with the Convention. In a pamphlet published by the government, Supper at Beaucaire, Paoli described the policy of his former idol as 'ambitious and criminal'.

However, the Italian campaign may explain his change of attitude. Napoleon overthrew Paoli's bitter, lifelong enemy the state of Genoa, whose oligarchy had ruled Corsica for centuries before ceding it to France during the 1760s. Paoli is supposed to have exclaimed 'It is by the hand of a Corsican that Genoa has received the coup de grace!' It is also said that he celebrated the news of Napoleon's election as First Consul in 1800 by illuminating the windows of his house in Oxford Street. (16)

Cosway's picture was not only the earliest 'true' portrait of Napoleon recorded in Britain; it was also the first to be engraved for publication. (17) The earliest caricatures of Napoleon appeared in 1797 but these showed Napoleon as a stereotypical Jacobin, half-man and half-monster. (18) This generic sans cullotte is illustrated in a print published by Richard Newton in December 1797 (Fig. 4).


On 10 July 1797 John Shlunt of Piccadilly published the Cossia portrait in an engraving by Luigi Schiavonetti (Fig. 1). Schiavonetti was one of a family of engravers best known for their work on William Blake's edition of Blair's The Grave; in 1791 Richard Cosway had commissioned him to engrave his own drawing of Maria. (19) Presented with indistinct features, Schiavonetti has responded with his own interpretation of Bonaparte's eyes, nose, and mouth. Subsequently, as a comparison of the painting and engraving shows, the epaulette and the star on the General's collar were painted over. At some point the canvas was also transferred to a panel. (20)


When in 1830 John Soane published his first guidebook to his collection, the Cassia was displayed in its present location in the Breakfast Room. Exactly when, and how, it was acquired is not known. It is not recorded among the thirty-odd objects bought by Soane at the sales at Richard Cosway's death in 1821 and 1822, nor among the gifts made by Maria Cosway during their friendship in old age. However, Soane had been a regular visitor to their home in Stratford Place since 1801 and in more than two decades of friendship--and in a shared approach to collecting, as Lloyd describes--there would have been many opportunities for such an exchange; furthermore, Richard Cosway was a busy buyer and seller of pictures throughout his life. (21)

What is certain is that Soane's friends recognised his admiration for Napoleon. When Lady Beechey, the painter's wife, gave him a miniature of Bonaparte by Jean-Baptiste Isabey (Fig. 5) she wrote, 'no one, I am sure, will more highly prize it'. (22) His guidebook talked of 'that Great Man'. (23) He acquired portraits, medals, busts, a pistol said to have belonged to the emperor, books from the imperial library, and a gold ring containing a lock of his hair. (24)


But how can this be reconciled with Soane's success as an architect to the Establishment and also his undoubted patriotism? As an architect, his clients included William Pitt, the Bank of England, the Houses of Parliament, and the veterans at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. As a patriot, he served in the Bank of England's volunteer corps from the invasion scare of 1798 until the end of the wars (25) and in the draft of a lecture to be given at the Royal Academy described Napoleon as 'a merciless conqueror, an infuriated tyrant, a haughty usurper'. (26) Soane's lectures as professor of architecture at the Royal Academy were his most public recognition of Napoleon's merit: he illustrated the monumental reconstruction of Paris as a didactic contrast to the unplanned sprawl of speculators' London. Yet this, too, was in a spirit of patriotism: he wanted the city to out-pomp the Emperor in its commemoration of victories. (27)

It seems that Soane was able to see Napoleon as a military and political enemy at the same time as being fascinated by him as a man. In his private papers he recorded the news of Napoleon's death with the remark 'When shall we look upon his like again!' (28) To Soane's biographer Gillian Darley, Napoleon was so significant because he stood at the fault-line between Soane's two identities: the self-made professional driven by a sense of his own destiny on the one hand; on the other hand, the Romantic haunted by the flaws in human aspiration. 'Continually baffled by the gulf between his own expectations (in particular, of his genius) and reality, Soane sought empathy, rather than insight, from his literary or fictional heroes. Soane's own contradictions were mirrored in the puzzling conundrum offered by the personality and achievements of his fallen hero, Napoleon'. (29)

Three episodes in Soane's life as a traveller and collector shed further light on the context of the Cassia portrait in his highly autobiographical museum. The first is his sentimental attraction to Josephine. His companion on a visit to Paris in 1819 commented how 'we were both much interested in ... [those] things which once had the care and attention of Josephine'; (30) together they made the pilgrimage to her house at Malmaison. Believing her to have commissioned Cassia, it would have been easy to imagine the little picture to be a souvenir of the first year of their marriage.

Secondly, Soane acquired a collection of 140 medals issued by the Paris Mint between 1798 and 1815 to commemorate Napoleon's actions. They were Josephine's personal set, he believed, and commented 'that where the record of her husband thus given was connected with circumstances in her opinion ... indicative of blame ... [she] withdrew them from the rest, anxious to preserve unalloyed the glory she adored and the greatness she shared'. (31) Whether this is true or not, it illustrates how Soane recognised the necessity of editing Napoleon's curriculum vitae.

Finally, there is an intriguing letter of 1832 from a friend Dr William Somerville, (32) who on a visit to Paris was looking for places associated with 'the shade of Napoleon in his early days'. One house that Napoleon had visited frequently when he was a lonely, rootless cadet was now the home of Napoleon's former doctor, Baron Larrey. Invited inside, Somerville was shown an unfinished portrait of Napoleon 'at 32 years old [in 1801], when 1st-Consul, the face only finished, the drapery being only roughly laid in for the Costume ... therefore the better for being unfinished, the mouth absolutely living & the eyes especially darting fire. We were all fascinated to the spot.' It had been painted in a single sitting by two young pupils of David. Somerville commented to his wife, 'What would our friend Sir John give to be able to place this in his noble collection'. In the Louvre the next day they met J.M.W. Turner--a close friend of Soane--who visited to give a second opinion. It was the best likeness he had seen; Soane should offer 100 guineas. Soane did not buy the picture and it has never been identified. (33) However, it is significant that two of his friends identified the picture as suitable for his collection because of characteristics it could be said to share with the Cossia. Each owed its authenticity to being a rapid oil sketch in which only the face was finished. And each showed Napoleon in his prime.

In his Breakfast Room Soane displayed the Cossia side by side with the miniature by Isabey, which he understood to have been painted during the emperor's exile on Elba. The pale, heavy and ruminative face of a corrupted, fallen dictator is presented as a deliberate contrast with the earlier picture. Such a juxtaposition had already appeared in literature, as Simon Bainbridge has noted. (34) A poem by Sir Walter Scott compared the man who fled the battlefield of Waterloo with the hero on the bridges of Lodi and Arcola. In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley a character exclaims: 'Oh, in Italy he was as great as any Moses! He was the right thing there; fit to head and organise measures for the regeneration of nations. It puzzles me to this day how the conqueror of Lodi should have condescended to become an emperor, a vulgar and stupid humbug'. (35)

Soane turned his gaze towards the young Napoleon in order to understand the rise and fall of a man who Lord Rosebery was to call 'the great human problem'. (36) To the young hero, continued Rosebery--whose collection reflects the same search--'Nothing seemed impracticable, nothing illusory. Why should it? He had never failed'. (37) That is the Napoleon glimpsed in this picture.

The authors are indebted to Helen Dorey and Susan Palmer of Sir John Soane's Museum, and to David Alexander.

(1) Giulia Gorgone and Maria Elisa Tittoni (eds.), Da Montelnotte a Campoformio: la rapida marcia di Napoleone Bonaparte, exh. cat., Museo Napoleonico, Rome, 1997.

(2) Arthur Bolton in the 10th Edition of Sir John Soane, A Description of John Soane's House and Museum, London, 10th edition, 1920, p. 90.

(3) Letter to Lord Grenville, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 7 February 1797 (FO 7/15/94).

(4) See Gergone and Tittoni, op. cit., no. 41. The drawing is signed and dated 1796 but the authors note its retrospective glaze and make a convincing case for an actual date of several years later.

(5) Ibid., no. 40.

(6) The letter is quoted in A. Dayot, Napoleon Raconte par rimage, Paris, 1895, p. 39,

(7) Soane Archive/Spiers Box/Papers connected with purchase of Goma folder / No. 1. The translation was published in Soane's 1835 Description of the Museum. The translation was published in Sir John Soane, A Description of the House and Museum of Sir John Soane, London, 1835, p. 52.

(8) Ibid., no. 4.

(9) Stephen Lloyd, Richard and Maria Cosway, Edinburgh and London, 1995) p. 45.

(10) See Chapter I of Simon Bainbridge, Napoleon and the British Romantics, Cambridge, 1995, for the impact upon the Romantic writers.

(11) See Stuart Semmel, Napoleon and the British, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 21.

(12) Ibid.

(13) L.G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox, Oxford, 1992, p. 158.

(14) Written communication, 2003. Stephen Lloyd has been extremely generous in his comments towards this article.

(15) For the most interesting material see Christopher Frayling, Napoleon Wrote Fiction, Salisbury, 1972, pp. 113-15.

(16) The relationship is discussed in Peter Adam Thrasher, Pasquale Paoli, London, 1970, p. 336, although he emphasises its ambivalence. Paoli's remark is quoted in A Chuquet, La Jeunesse de Napoleon, Paris, 1899.

(17) The rival contender is the Appiani, but its whereabouts after being painted in Milan in June 1796--and, indeed, its original client--are not known, J.T. Smith published a print after the picture in 1800, when it was described as being in the collection of Lord Wycombe.

(18) See David Bindman, The Shadow of the Guillotine: British Artists and the French Revolution, London, 1989, no. 176, p. 182.

(19) See the entry by David Alexander in Jane Turner (ed.), Grove Dictionary of Art, vol. XVIII, London, 1996, pp. 85-86. Luigi was born in Bassano in 1765 and at the time he engraved the Cassia his address was 12 Michael's Place, Brompton.

(20) Cassia refers to a 'tela' in his letter, a very precise word for a canvas, but the portrait is today on a panel. To the naked eye it appears that it was originally painted upon canvas and that at a later stage it was cut and applied to a panel. At the very bottom of the picture there are little splashes of red paint; these could have been a signature, or an inscription, which may have been lost in this process.

(21) Lloyd, op. cit., pp. 78-80, discusses the extensive relationship between the two collections.

(22) Soane, op. cit. in n. 7 above, p. 52.

(23) Ibid.

(24) See Peter Thornton and Helen Dorey, A Miscellany of Objects at Sir John Seane's Museum, London, 1992, p. 123.

(25) Gillian Darley, John Seane: An Accidental Romantic, Yale, 1999, p.137.

(26) Quoted in David Watkin, Sir John Seane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures, Cambridge, 1996, p. 318.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Soane Archive. Miscellaneous extracts, Crude Hints &c relating to Architecture. J Scene 1818, fol. 155.

(29) Darley, op. cit., p. 314.

(30) Quoted in ibid., p. 104.

(31) Quoted by Helen Dorey in her discussion of the medals in Thornton and Dorey, ap. cit., pp. 104-105.

(32) Soane Archive/Spiers Box/Papers connected with purchase of Goma folder/no. 5, dated 28 September 1832. Sir William Somerville was a doctor at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, to which Soane was the architect.

(33) The portrait was begun by Baroness Larrey and completed by Girodet, a fellow pupil in David's studio.

(34) Bainbridge, op. cit., p. 66.

(35) Ibid.

(36) Lord Rosebery, Napoleon: The Last Phase, London, 1900, p. 226.

(37) Ibid., p.235.

Xavier F. Salomon has recently completed a doctorate at the Courtauld Institute, London, and is currently a curatorial fellow at the Frick Collection, New York.

Christopher Woodward is writing a book on British admirers of Napoleon, to be published by Chatto and Windus in 2006.
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Author:Salomon, Xavier F.; Woodward, Christopher
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Date:Oct 1, 2005
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