Since the nineteenth century, “the affair of Napoleon’s death masks” has been one of the greatest mysteries or pseudo-mysteries to surround Napoleon I, both as an historical figure and within popular culture. The affair is extremely complicated: masks that are often highly different – both in terms of the material used and the face reproduced – suddenly appear beneath the Napoleonic media spotlight, often to disappear just as quickly into mysterious private collections. Only very rarely is it possible to put any critical weight on the fragmented historical sources that have come down to us. Reconstructing the history of these potentially authentic masks from their creation to the present day thus rests largely on supposition, or even simply on personal conviction.
A list of the principal masks makes distinction between three basic materials.
1. Masks in plaster (the largest category)
The original cast for a mask in plaster was made by Dr Burton, the English military doctor at the garrison of Saint Helena, on the evening of 7 May 1821, at the suggestion of Madame Bertrand. Dr Antommarchi, the Emperor’s private doctor, assisted in the process of taking the cast, which was done in several pieces. The majority of accounts agree that, overnight, one of the French figures (Antommarchi or Madame Bertrand) removed the central part of the cast (comprising the eyes, nose and mouth) without Burton’s permission. Compte Bertrand is supposed to have offered Dr Burton compensation for this loss, but the latter took offence, refused the offer, and tried in vain to win back his property by judicial means. This theory is rejected by Antommarchi’s descendants, who allege that Burton was in some way involved in the theft of the cast.
It is here that we enter into the great, nebulous debate about the masks. Every one of the masks listed below is presented as being either the first mask made from this cast, or the first mask made from an impression of this original cast (later destroyed), which is to say that they all claim to be the original. Some authors suggest (without providing any sources) that the painter Joseph William Rubidge had used his artistic knowledge to recreate the complete facial characteristics.
• The Azhémar-Antommarchi mask (from the family of Dr Antommarchi, the original or the very first copy?) (Musée de Malmaison)
• The mask given to Compte Bertrand known as the “Bertrand mask”(modelled on the Antommarchi original mask?) (Musée de Malmaison), sometimes referred to as the Malmaison mask
• The Antommarchi-Burghersh mask (modelled on the Bertrand mask?) (Musée de l’Armée, Invalides, Paris)
• The two masks entrusted to Pastor Boys, (one of which, the Sankey mask, is now held by the Maison Française at the University of Oxford)
• The first and second Gilley masks (Maison Bonaparte, Ajaccio)
• The Exeter mask (Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter)
• The RUSI mask (Royal United Service Institute Museum), later known as the Corso mask (now in an unknown American private collection)
• The “Lebendmaske” mask (Rollettmuseum, Baden, Austria)
• The masks conserved in South America by the descendants of Dr Antommarchi, who died in Santiago de Cuba in 1838 (masks identified at different points in Bogota [Colombia], Caracas [Venezuala], or Santiago de Cuba)
For a more detailed description of the plaster masks, see Chantal Prévot’s Inventory of the principal plaster death masks of Napoleon in public and private collections
2. A wax mask, reproduced in multiple versions
The first of these many versions was modelled by Dr. Arnott, an English military doctor, during the night of 5-6 May 1821. Chronologically, this is the very first impression of the deceased Napoleon’s features.
• The Arnott or Cannes version (in the Pardee Collection since 1932, on long-tem loan to the Musée Masséna, Nice)
• The Munich version (thought to be in a private collection in Germany)
• A mask at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg (which was confiscated during 1917 Russian Revolution, from the descendants of the second son of Eugène de Beauharnais, Maximilian de Beauharnais, 3rd Duke of Leuchtenberg, who was married to a Russian princess)
• The so-called Borella mask (which appeared in Italy which since 2021 is deposited at the Musée Caillebotte in Yerres in the Essonne region of France)
• A wax mask, of the “Antommarchi” type (that is, with a slim face) known as the “Noverraz mask”, named after the Swiss valet who was present on St Helena, which was found in 1949 in an attic and was likely moulded from an Antommarchi mask (Musée cantonal de Lausanne, Suisse)
3. And even a mask made of papier mâché!
• The papier mâché mask thought to belong to Comte Passolini (sometimes Pasolini)
Theories and controversies with the plaster masks
No one mask is universally supported, but according to most scholarship, the majority of which is in French (the controversy surrounding the masks is sharpest in France), two masks vie for primacy. The Azhémar-Antommarchi mask and the mask known as the Bertrand mask, (both held by the Musée de Malmaison) are cited as the closest examples to the first cast taken from Napoleon’s face.
The Azhémar-Antommarchi mask, in addition to its very interesting family provenance, that of the Doctor Antommarchi, despite gaps in traceability, appears less polished, less “finished” than other masks, which could make it one of the very first copies made back in Europe, in August 1821.
The Bertrand mask also has its supporters¸ in opposition to those of the Azhémar-Antommarchi mask, who consider the Bertrand example as the original mask made from the first “positive” impression (later destroyed) or even the first “positive” impression itself.
The Sankey and Boys masks are supposed to have belonged to Pastor Boys, who held a post on St Helena in 1821. The Sankey mask (named after the married name of one of the Reverend’s daughters) is held by the Maison Française of the University of Oxford. The second mask, known as the Boys mask, appeared at auction in London on 19 June 2013. These masks are often dismissed by the theories advanced in the literature on the masks. Is this because they are located in Britain and thus do not imply any French participation?
The first and second Gilley masks remain relatively unknown and little documented. They are supposed to have belonged to Hudson Lowe before becoming the property of Thomas Gilley, who had been posted to St Helena. One theory views these masks as the first two unsuccessful attempts, which were either given to or taken by the governor. Their journey to Corsica, where they are now conserved, is not documented in the mask literature.
The RUSI mask, which became the Corso mask in 1962 with the closure of the Royal United Service Institute Museum, appeared in 1939 in the collection of one Charles Adler, who had bought it from Louis-Charles de Bourbon (in fact William Reeve, an inhabitant of Kent) who was pretending to have acquired it from the Prince of Essling, who had firmly denied the presence of any such mask in his collections. It is cited by the proponents of the theory that the English substituted a different body for Napoleon’s, which runs to Napoleon having been buried in Westminster Abbey and Invalides being the tomb of Cipriani, the Emperor’s butler. The Antommarchi-Burghersh mask is thought, by these theorists, to show the emaciated features of Cipriani, who had died in 1818, was disinterred in 1821, and was reinterred in the tomb in Napoléon’s place, whilst the body of England’s most famous enemy was taken by order of the King to join the greatest celebrities of the British Isles right in the heart of London. The RUSI-Corso mask is supposed, by contrast, to be the real cast of Napoleon’s face, taken in St Helena, at a point in his life where his size and his face had become enormous. It came up for sale in 2004, and its current owner remains anonymous.
The Lebendmaske in the Rollettmuseum in Baden, Austria, is supposed to be a copy sent to Marie-Louise, who is thought to have given it to her private doctor.
The masks in materials other than plaster
Although no accounts record a moulding in wax of Napoleon’s face¸the Arnott mask and its copies have their defenders, who explain the great difference in facial features between these masks and the masks in plaster by the speed with which the wax moulding was taken, before the corpse had suffered the effects of the heat and humidity of the Longwood plateau.
As for the mask in papier mâché, it seems more likely to be something humorous than an object of historical veracity.
To look into this matter further:
WATSON (George Leo de St. M.), The Story of Napoleon’s Death Mask, Told From the Original Documents (London: John Lane, 1915).
[Key reference book for this affair and the question of « authorship », which demonstrates that only Dr. Burton executed the death mask, before this was stolen by Madame Bertrand for Dr. Antommarchi’s benefit. The author establishes a line of descent between 1821 and 1914 for this mask, and for its numerous copies]
JOUSSET (Jacques) and STADMÜLLER (Franz), “Considérations sur les masques mortuaires de Napoléon Ier [introduction de Jacques Jousset, suivi du texte de l’expertise du Professeur Dr Franz Stadmüller]”, La Science historique, new series, no. 3 (1954), 129-40.
[For Professor Stadmüller, the plaster Antommarchi mask and the wax Arnott mask present the same bone structure. He posits that the collapse of the facial features seen in a comparison of the two results from the 34-hour interval between the castings and the rapid decomposition of the body]
LINDEN (Louise), “Histoire des Masques de l’Empereur Napoléon Ier”, Souvenir napoléonien, no. 346 (1986), pp. 2–9.
[For this author, two masks are identical – the Burton-Antommarchi mask in plaster and the Arnott mask in wax – while the Sankey mask is a fake. She believes the Arnott mask, moulded during the night of 5–6 May, represents the unaltered features of the Emperor. The Burton-Antommarchi mask, on the other hand, was not moulded until 7 May once the body had begun to decompose in the heat, which thus explains the sagging of the flesh.]
BEAUCOUR (Fernand), “Masque mortuaire de Napoléon (le)”, in Dictionnaire Napoléon, edited by Jean Tulard (Paris: Fayard, 1999), vol. 2, pp. 285–87.
[This text relates in a precise manner the known facts about the moulding of the death mask, the controversy that surrounded it, and provides a list of known masks.]
MACE (Jacques), “Masques mortuaires de Napoléon”, in Dictionnaire historique de Sainte-Hélène (Paris: Tallandier, 2004), pp. 310–14.
[The author summarizes the events that took place at Longwood between 5 and 7 May concerning the moulding of the mask, and provides provenances for the different masks. He connects the controversy born in the 1970s with the controversy surrounding the alleged substitution of Napoléon’s body.]
(Translated by F. Whitlum-Cooper)
(This article was updated on 11 March 2021, additional translation by R Young)