Corse-Grained Imagery

Yet another art discovery!  How many has it been this year alone?

A portrait of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, thought lost for two centuries, has turned up in New York. The painting, created by Jacques-Louis David in 1813 when Britain and Prussia were threatening to occupy France, shows Napoleon I pledging to defend the country from invasion, wearing his national guard uniform.  The portrait had been in the Borthwick-Norton family at their castle outside Edinburgh and was [bequeathed] to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1988. Thought to be a copy, the painting was sold in 2005 to a New York private collector for around £15,000 ($24,000, 18,000 euros).


The buyer had it cleaned, then asked French art expert Simon Lee from the University of Reading (UK) for his help in authenticating it.  “Although the painting is signed with David’s genuine signature, the cleaning revealed the word Rouget and the date 1813 appeared in the underpaint,” Lee said.  Georges Rouget was David’s assistant for almost 10 years, and had a role in putting images on the canvas. “Some collectors or museums might be put off by having two names on the canvas — but in many ways that is proof that it is an authentic product of David’s working process.”

Although Lunghu loves a juicy art forgery hoax, this particular episode seems to have a sonorous ring of actual authenticity. The work was in the collection of an ancient Scottish clan with a long history of royal military service and plunder:

Lord Borthwick is a title in the Peerage of Scotland. Tradition asserts that the progenitor of Clan Borthwick was Andreas, who accompanied the Saxon Edgar the Ætheling and his sister, Margaret, who was later queen and saint, to Scotland in 1067. However recent research has suggested that the Borthwicks may have come to Scotland with Julius Caesar’s roman legions.  Alexander Nisbet noted that “this family was dignified with the title of Lord Borthwick in the beginning of the reign of King James II,” which commenced in 1437.  Of the first Lord, Burke’s Peerage (1999) merely states: “knighted before his father in 1430; one of the magnates who according to contemporary records habitually plundered the Customs.”  The ancestral seat of the Borthwick family is Borthwick Castle in Midlothian.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous Borthwicks served in the British armed forces at home and abroad, including during the Napoleonic Wars. Certainly there would have been ample opportunity to have brought home a war trophy or two.  After all, the clan crest features the black head of a Moorish captive.  A mere portrait of Bony would have been a poor substitute, but perhaps the next best thing.


Fifteen works that make up the Borthwick-Norton collection were bequeathed to the Scottish government by Mrs Eva Sardinia Borthwick-Norton at the time of her death in 1988, in lieu of tax.  Mrs Borthwick-Norton stipulated in her will that the collection be exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy . The collection includes two Gainsborough portraits, Murillo’s The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, a portrait by Rubens and works by Albert Cuyp, Louis-Léopold Boilly, Nicolas Lancret and Jan van der Heyden.

Although no one is explicitly laying out this painting’s chain of custody, there don’t appear to be recent gaps in the provenance: always a good sign.  Lunghu predicts that the “New York private collector” will eventually seek to sell this premier example of  Jacques-Louis David’s 19c propaganda art to a deep-pocketed French museum such as the Louvre … or perhaps to an art aficionado with a Napoleonic complex.

An Interesting Twist

Note the coincidental(?) resemblance of the Borthwick clan crest to the emblem of Corsica’s separatist movement, the FLNC.  Is somebody making a statement?


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