Napoleon Bonaparte, Death Mask, after 1821
Copy after original mask executed by surregon Francis Burton
Plaster. 31,7 x 15,5 cm
Inventory number: L652
Works, relating to this work: Francis Burton, Napoleon's Death Mask, 1821, present owner unknownEnlarge photo
In Thorvaldsen’s day it was believed that the shape of the head reflected a person’s character, and the production of death masks was viewed as a science.
In 1833-34, the Corsican anatomist and pathologist François Antommarchi spread the message that he was the originator of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) death mask. When this reached the Irish town of Tuam, however, different information emerged. Tuam was the home of the late Francis Burton (1784-1828). People here maintained that Antommarchi gave up making the mask when he saw the poor quality of the plaster available. But Francis Burton succeeded in spite of the fact that, as a doctor in the 66th infantry regiment, he only had experience of casting e.g. arms and legs. However, Burton went away while the plaster mask was drying. In order to free the plaster mask from the head, threads were placed under the plaster when almost dry and drawn through it. The various parts of the mask were finally put together again. When Burton returned, part of the mask – the face as far back as the ears – had been cut away and removed. All that was left was the back of the head and the ears.
With the original mask as a model, a series of copies were made with a view to sale. These copies were made by Antommarchi with the help of the young Joseph William Rubidge (1802-27). Thorvaldsen found his copy useful when modelling the bust of Napoleon (inv. no. A252) about 1830.