NEW YORK, NY.-
A portrait is a representation of a particular person. Seems like an obvious statement, right? But would you look at it as a 19th century propaganda tool? Not to bolster the strength of a country but dash the hopes of a political rival? Using a child?
We can trace portraiture to at least as far back as ancient Egypt, where it flourished. Paintings, sculptures and drawings until recently were the only way to record the appearance of a person and were often commissioned by their wealthy or powerful subjects. Portraits have always been more than just a record of a person. They have often been used to demonstrate power, importance, wealth, and beauty. Royal houses, government and tribal leaders, and of course woman of great beauty or consequence, have all used the power of portraiture to their benefit, but what about children? Where does child portraiture fit into this narrative? It would seem a strange idea in our current society to have a photograph commissioned to show how powerful a child of 5 of 6 years old is or, how wealthy they are.
This wasnt the case in earlier centuries. Children, particularly ones primed for ruling countries, were often portrayed as not only powerful and wealthy, but as mini-adults. We see this in paintings like our lovely Ludolf de Jongh, Portrait of a Boy Holding a Kestral. Here you find a charming young boy dressed as a wealthy adult, enjoying an adult hobby (falconry) and holding a sword. These are all distinctive symbols of power and it seems almost inane to portray this very young child as powerful. Although the identity or exact age of the boy is unknown, it is very clear what message the artist is looking to convey most likely at the direction of his family (and commissioners of the painting).
Children particularly of royal and aristocratic families were consistently portrayed as mini-adults because despite high birth rates, one in four babies died before they turned one. These children (and their portraits) were not real people so much as emblems of dynastic ambition for all to see. From the de Jongh in the 17th century right up through the 19th century this was a consistent theme of child portraiture.
This brings us to our beautiful depiction of a highly polarizing figure, a boy of 7. The story of Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte (1811 1832), the son of Napoleon is a difficult one. Napoleons son was once designated as ruler of half of Europe and regarded as The Hope of France. He was successively titled King of Rome, Prince of Parma, Napoleon II, and the Duke of Reichstadt, all by the age of 7. When this portrait was commissioned, his mother the Archduchess Marie Louise, daughter of the Habsburg Emperor Francis II of Austria, had already taken him and fled to Austria and the protection of the Habsburg court, never to return to France.
Franz, as he was called, was installed in Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, under the guardianship of his grandfather Emperor Francis II. The title of the Duke of Reichstadt was bestowed upon Franz in the attempt to sever all ties with his past and send a very clear message to the Bonapartists. It is logical for a portrait to have been executed marking the occasion. However, it is also likely that the Austrian Emperor wanted to send a very clear message to the Bonapartists - Franz is Austrian, not French! His costume, it has been suggested, is likely in keeping with his title as Duke and his leather gaiters appear to reflect the Habsburg double-headed eagle. He is caught in the midst of tremendous upheaval and his stance serves to underline the inner conflict felt by the two opposing factions that would govern his entire life. His left hand is a clenched fist that rests on his hip. Such posturing is standardly interpreted as a sign of hostility and assertiveness, mixed with anxiety and discomfort. It further projects an inner struggle, with an effort to harden oneself. The pout of his lips gives additional credence to the perceived conflict.
The story of this young boy is gloomy, separated not only from his father who, by all accounts, loved him dearly but also isolated in a country and world he had never known, often apart from his mother. But as we have already mentioned, this portrait painted by an Austrian painter in Austria has nothing to do with Franz the child. It is sending a message that he is part of the Austrian royal family and has completely denounced his French roots. Thus, this picture is not only historically significant, but is also a piece of Royal propaganda issued by the Austrian Royal house to show they were in control of The Hope of France. Maybe it is fitting that this portrait spent the longest amount of time in the family collection of one of the most notable Bonapartists, Colonel Aymar Olivier Le Harivel de Gonneville (1783 1872). In one way or another, the child came home.
Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts
By appointment only, New York, New York