Caroline Murat the ambitious

Caroline Murat the ambitious

Caroline Bonaparte and her eldest daughter Laetitia Joséphine

© RMN - Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / image RMN-GP

Publication date: October 2015

Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director

Historical context

The "hassle" of an official portrait

In 1807, the artistic talent of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was recognized throughout Europe. After having been the official painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette, the Revolution forced her to emigrate, before returning to France for the first time in 1801. Her notoriety then attracted her new commissions for portraits, including that of Caroline Murat.

Maria Annunziata Bonaparte, known as Caroline (1782-1839), wife of General Joachim Murat since 1800, obtains from her elder brother Napoleon the Grand Duchy of Berg and Cleves in 1806. It is therefore a 25-year-old Grand Duchess that painted Vigée Le Brun in 1807, an imperial princess who brilliantly received high society in her residence at the Élysée.

This portrait was commissioned by the director of the Museum (now the Louvre), Dominique Vivant Denon, on behalf of the emperor to adorn the gallery of Diana in the Tuileries Palace. The artist withdraws one thousand eight hundred francs, a sum that she estimates in her Briefs "Less than half of what [she] usually took for portraits of the same size."

Vigée Le Brun describes the creation of the work as an ordeal, as her model gave way to fashion, to the point of showing up in her studio dressed and hairstyle differently with each pose. The painter writes: "It would be impossible for me to describe all the annoyances, all the torments that I had to endure while making this portrait. "She concludes her description by mentioning that she had painted many princesses, but that none had kept her waiting, and by specifying:" The fact is that Madame Murat was completely unaware that accuracy is the politeness of kings, as Louis XIV said so well, who, in truth, was not an upstart ”(Memories, chapter XXXII). Vigée Le Brun will therefore not have built a privileged relationship with her model, as she was able to do with princesses with unblemished legitimacy in her eyes, first and foremost Marie-Antoinette. On the other hand, his work in no way reflects the “hassle” felt during its production. Here we find the talent that made it so successful and gave the art of portraiture its letters of nobility.

Image Analysis

The art of portraiture or the simulation of life

The painting is a double full-length portrait. Caroline Bonaparte is placed in the center of the composition, her daughter on her right in the same plane, a gallery opening onto a terrace and a garden to her left.

The child appears to be painted on the spot, both the admiring gaze she looks up at her mother and the parted lips announce an imminent word, retained by the discreet but authoritarian gesture exerted by Caroline Murat on her daughter's shoulder. The painter thus brings to life a portrait which, otherwise, would have been just a banal ceremonial portrait. The introduction by Caroline's eldest daughter, Laetitia Joséphine, then aged 5, is for Vigée Le Brun an element of balance "in the composition of the painting". Thanks to her, the portrait comes to life and the left part of the canvas fills up - and becomes lighter with the child's white dress -, thus responding to the occupation of the right part by the train of the dress and openness to nature.

Napoleon's sister stares at the viewer and involves them in the privacy of his family life. Her rich adornment - diadem with cameos (yielding in this to the tastes of the Empire), two-row pearl necklace, pendant earrings - enhances the delicate work of the dress, gold on a white background, while a train rouge completes the inscription of Maria Annunziata in the chromatic codes of the Napoleonic Empire.

The full-length portrait opens onto a terrace and a garden bathed in twilight light at the back right; it stands out in a palatial interior with refined decoration and without ornament, the fluted column in low relief referring to the classic symbolic attribute of power while accentuating the verticality of the work.


The woman behind the portrait: an ambitious Bonaparte

Under the garb of power, under the markings of motherhood, it is a capricious and ambitious young woman who asserts herself. The portrait that Vigée Le Brun paints in her Memories attests to this, as does his intriguing desire to participate in imperial glories by acquiring titles and lands.

Her attachment to fashion is clearly visible under Vigée Le Brun's brush, which delicately and precisely shows the rich texture of fabrics and patterns.

In 1808, the year following the creation of this painting, the Murat couple acceded to the royal crown of Naples, thus making their dream of sovereignty a reality. In Italy, Caroline takes advantage of the absences of her husband, solicited by the permanent state of war, to exercise power. It is distinguished by sumptuous parties and meddles in economic policy, not without success. His relations with the emperor strained over the years, to the point of foreseeing an alliance with Austria against France. The Napoleonic Empire nevertheless carried the kingdom of Naples in its fall in 1815, and Caroline, widowed after the execution of her husband, found refuge in Austria before ending her days in Florence in 1839. As for the child in the portrait , Laetitia, she married the Marquis Guido Taddeo Pepoli and died in 1859.

It is remarkable and striking that one of Caroline Bonaparte's best known and most flattering portraits, if not the most renowned, was made by an artist who had not been afraid to write a dependent portrait of her in her paintings. Remembering and painting her as a mother rather than the emancipated woman she wished to be.

This portrait does not inaugurate a series and remains the only commission from the artist from the Imperial Court, without being able to disentangle what relates to Vigée Le Brun's attachment to the Bourbons, his disappointment in the face of a "upstart" princess. or the dissatisfaction of the Bonapartes. However, we can detect the influence of this painting in the works of other artists, such as the double portrait of Hortense, queen of Holland, and of her son painted in 1807 by François Gérard - who in turn portrayed Caroline Murat and his children in 1808 - or in the one produced the following year by Jean-Baptiste Wicar of Marie-Julie Bonaparte and her daughters.

  • portrait
  • imperial dynasty
  • official portrait
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • Murat (Joachim)


BAILLIO Joseph, SALMON Xavier (dir.), Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, cat. exp. (Paris, New York, Ottawa, 2015-2016), Paris, Meeting of national museums - Grand Palais, 2015.BAUDUS Florence de, Caroline Bonaparte: sister of the emperor, queen of Naples, Paris, Perrin, 2014.HAROCHE-BOUZINAC Geneviève, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: story of a look, Paris, Flammarion, coll. "Grandes biographies", 2011. VIGÉE LE BRUN Élisabeth, Memories (1755-1842), text prepared, presented and annotated by HAROCHE-BOUZINAC Geneviève, Paris, Honoré Champion, coll. “Classics Champion: Literatures” (no 30), 2015.

To cite this article

Jean HUBAC, "Caroline Murat the ambitious"

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