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April 23, 2019

Death Mask of Napoleon Bonaparte

Before the invention of photography it was common practice to make plaster or wax casts of the faces of famous people after they had died. Napoleon died on 5th May 1821, imprisoned on the island of St Helena at the age of 51.

François Carlo Antommarchi’s death mask of Napoléon (Musée de l'Armée, Paris)

After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon had been exiled to St. Helena, a tiny island in the South Atlantic. Here the British and their German, Austrian, Russian and Spanish allies hoped to keep the former Emperor from ever threatening European peace again.

There is controversy over who made the original cast of Napoleon’s features on the day following his death (6th May 1821). Some believe that it was Napoleon’s own doctor, Francois Carlo Antommarchi; others, that it was an army surgeon called Francis Burton. Probably more than one cast was made, as four original casts are said to exist today. In any event, numerous copies in bronze and marble appeared on the market as soon as the original casts reached Paris.

Napoleon’s original death mask was created on 7 May 1821, a day and a half after the former emperor died on the island of St. Helena at age 51. Surrounding his deathbed were doctors from France and the United Kingdom. Some historical accounts contend that Dr. François Carlo Antommarchi cast the original “parent mould”, which would later be used to reproduce bronze and additional plaster copies. Other records, however, indicate that Dr. Francis Burton, a surgeon attached to the British Army’s Sixty-Sixth Regiment at St. Helena, presided at the emperor’s autopsy and during that postmortem procedure cast the original mould. Antommarchi obtained from his British colleagues a secondary plaster mould from Burton’s original cast. With that second-generation mould, Antommarchi in France reportedly made further copies of the death mask in plaster as well as in bronze.

Yet another contention regarding the origins of the death mask and its copies is that Madame Bertrand, Napoleon’s attendant on St. Helena, allegedly stole part of the original cast, leaving Burton with only the ears and back of the head. The British doctor subsequently sued Bertrand to retrieve the cast, but failed to do so in court. A year later Madame Bertrand gave Antommarchi a copy of the mask, from which he had several copies made. One of those he sent to Lord Burghersh, the British envoy (representative) in Florence, asking him to pass it to the famous sculptor, Antonio Canova. Unfortunately Canova died before he had time to use the mask and instead the piece remained with Burghersh. The National Museums Liverpool version, cast by E. Quesnel, is thought to be a descendant of that mask.

Some people believe that Dr. Antommarchi lived in Cuba for a short period of time and contracted yellow fever. While there he lived on his cousin’s coffee plantation and became close to General Juan de Moya. Before Dr. Antommarchi died, he made General Moya a death mask from his mould. It is believed that the mask still resides in The Museum in Santiago de Cuba, province of Oriente, where there was a large group of French immigrants that established coffee plantations in the high mountains of the Sierra Maestra.

New Orleans authorities moved their death mask in 1853. During the tumult that accompanied the Civil War, the mask disappeared. A former city treasurer spotted the mask in 1866 as it was being hauled to the dump in a junk wagon. Rather than return the mask to the city, the treasurer took the mask home and put it on display there. Eventually Napoleon's death mask wound up in the Atlanta home of Captain William Greene Raoul, president of the Mexican National Railroad. Finally, in 1909, Napoleon’s death mask made its way back to New Orleans. Captain Raoul read a newspaper article about the missing mask and wrote to the mayor of its whereabouts. In exchange for suitable acknowledgement, Raoul agreed to donate the death mask to New Orleans. The mayor transferred the mask to the Louisiana State Museum that year.

So-called “Malmaison” death mask of Napoleon I. Plaster taken by Antommarchi (or possibly Burton or Arnott), given by Antommarchi’s descendants. Considered authentic and to be the original imprinting of Napoléon’s face after his death.

Francis Burton’s death mask of Napoléon.

Bronze mask of Napoleon I by Francis Burton, 1829.

Bronze mask of Napoleon I by Francis Burton, 1829.

Bronze death mask of Napoleon I. Modeled in 1821; cast in 1833.

Death mask of Napoleon I by Archibald Arnott, in wax, 1821. (Musee de Musée Masséna, Nice)

Death mask of Napoleon I by Archibald Arnott, in wax, 1821. (Musee de Musée Masséna, Nice)

Death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte made of plaster by Francesco Antommarchi on May 7, 1821. (Militärhistorischen Museum Wolkenstein, Schloßplatz 4, Wolkenstein)

Death mask of Napoleon I in 1937.



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