Pauline Borghese, princess and muse

Pauline Borghese, princess and muse

  • Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, Duchess of Guastalla.

    LEFEVRE Robert (1755 - 1830)

  • Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese.

  • Pauline Borghese Bonaparte in Venus.

    CANOVA Antonio (1757 - 1822)

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Title: Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, Duchess of Guastalla.

Author : LEFEVRE Robert (1755 - 1830)

Creation date : 1806

Date shown: 1806

Dimensions: Height 216 - Width 215

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: National Museum of the Palace of Versailles (Versailles) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Picture reference: 87-000914 / MV7684

Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, Duchess of Guastalla.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

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Title: Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese.

Author :

Creation date : 1808

Date shown: 1808

Dimensions: Height 200 - Width 142

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: National Museum of the Château de Fontainebleau website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet / J. Schormans website

Picture reference: 82-001469 / MV5140

Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Schormans

To close

Title: Pauline Borghese Bonaparte in Venus.

Author : CANOVA Antonio (1757 - 1822)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 200

Technique and other indications: Made in 1804-1808. Commissioned by Camillo Borghese, second husband of Pauline Bonaparte.Marble.

Storage place: Galleria Borghese website

Contact copyright: © Archives Alinari, Florence, Dist RMN-Grand Palais / Fratelli Alinarisite web

Picture reference: 06-528666 / CAL-F-003444-0000; CAL-F-003448-0000

Pauline Borghese Bonaparte in Venus.

© Archives Alinari, Florence, Dist RMN-Grand Palais / Fratelli Alinari

Publication date: January 2009

Doctorate in Art History

Historical context

Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825), née Maria-Paoletta, is the second daughter of Charles Bonaparte and Letizia Ramolino. Although she did not show great marital fidelity, Pauline was deeply affected by the death of her husband a year later, during the yellow fever epidemic which was affecting a large part of the expeditionary force.

Long before adopting a marriage policy intended to federate the new Western Empire, Napoleon, obligingly assisted by his sister, made her an instrument of diplomatic conquest by marrying her to Prince Camille Borghese, head of one of the most great Roman families, in November 1803. The most beautiful victory which this one brings to Napoleon is particularly painful to him: it is that of the sale to the French State of its collection of antiquities, one of the oldest and of the most prestigious in Europe, in November 1807. But the rapprochement would only take place after the fall of the Empire, after Napoleon's sister had to give up hope of accompanying her in her exile.

Image Analysis

Considered during his lifetime as the best portrait painter after Gérard, Robert Lefèvre made a considerable number of official effigies of members of the imperial family in this capacity. His talent, however, more inconstant than that of his colleague, is sometimes stilted, his style descriptive, and his portraits less natural and less resembling than those of Gérard. Although somewhat naive in design, that of Pauline, commissioned in 1806 for a gallery of portraits of imperial princesses planned for the Château de Saint-Cloud, escapes this boring production by its composition: the affectionate gaze that the princess bears on the bust of a Napoleon with melancholy expression sketching a narration; it reflects the very real affection that brother and sister have for each other.

A pupil of David and wife of a Secretary General of the Ministry of the Interior, Madame Benoist benefited from the support given to all the deserving painters of the Empire and produced several portraits of Napoleon and dignitaries of the regime. But it was undoubtedly for her excellence in the representation of feminine grace that she was requested on several occasions by Princess Elisa. The portrait of his sister Pauline, which was intended for him and adorned the gallery of the Villa Marlia near Lucca, is a testimony to this. He wants to be resolutely more seductive and more gallant than that of Robert Lefèvre: the wise posture of Princess Borghese is tempered by a comely expression and a bewitching look, while her finery and her grand court dress, no less luxurious than those represented by Lefèvre, shine with more brilliance.

The amenities that Canova endowed with Pauline in her statue are of a completely different nature. Languorously stretched out on an antique bed, stripped bare and devoid of any ornament, she is represented as victorious Venus, the Paris apple in her hand. The first idealized portrait of a contemporary character designed by Canova, the work escapes all codes of official representation and has no antecedent in sculpture, neither ancient nor contemporary. Although Prince Borghese was the sponsor, the subject may have been prescribed by the vanity of the model, who refused the sculptor's first proposal to represent her as Diana. The fleshy effect, accentuated by a patina of slightly pinkish melted wax, made Pauline Borghese Bonaparte in Venus a universal embodiment of feminine sensuality and the object of worship by the aesthetes and writers of her century.


Pauline's great beauty earned her a special place in the Napoleonic galaxy. If she enjoys unreservedly the power that her physique and her charm allow her to wield over men, it is without other aim than to satisfy her desire for freedom. She does not renounce love affairs by submitting to Napoleon's matrimonial wishes. If she puts her person at the service of her brother's political plans, it is for lack of personal ambition, but above all because of an elective affinity comparable to that which Elisa shares with Lucien. Her need for exclusivity, which originated in the attentions that Napoleon lavished on her very early on, has also given rise to conflicts with Joséphine as well as with Marie-Louise, whom she feels a competitor. A stranger to the stakes of power and sincerely attached to her family, Pauline is a liaison between her brothers and sometimes succeeds in reconciling them. However, she is the only one, except Madame Mère, to share the Emperor's fate at the time of his fall, when the other Napoleonids cling to their crown. She accompanies him in exile to the island of Elba, sends him her diamonds when she thinks he is financially embarrassed upon his return, and wants to be by his side on Saint Helena. It was nevertheless in Florence, near her husband, with whom she had reconciled, that she died on June 9, 1825.

  • imperial dynasty
  • Italy
  • naked
  • alliance policy
  • official portrait


Kristina HERMANN-FIORE, “The Borghese collection sold at the Louvre”, in Napoleon, the Bonapartes and Italy (exhibition catalog: Ajaccio, Fesch museum), Ajaccio, 2001, p.60-74. Paul FLEURIOT de LANGLE, La Paolina, sister of Napoleon, Paris, 1944.Gilbert MARTINEAU, Napoleon and his family, IV: Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, Paris, 1986. Jean-Pierre SAMOYAULT and Colombe SAMOYAULT-VERLET, Fontainebleau castle. Napoleon I Museum. Napoleon and the imperial family 1804-1815, Paris, 1986. Jean TULARD, Napoleon dictionary, Fayard, Paris, 1999.

To cite this article

Mehdi KORCHANE, "Pauline Borghèse, princess and muse"

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