Inscribed on the back of the painting : donné par M. Steuben/à Mad. Amable/Tastu/ le 14 février 1826. [Given by M.[onsieur] Steuben/ to Mad.[ame] Amable Tastu/ on 14 February 1826]
The artist Charles de Steuben, a pupil during the Empire period of David’s (let us not forget, that Jacques-Louis was once member of the Jacobin Comité de Salut Public…), appears to have been appreciative but critical of the no-longer Revolutionary general. He also seems to have had liberal leanings post-1815. Proof of this can perhaps be found in the praise of one of his paintings made by the recipient of the hat painting here, Madame Tastu.
Madame Amable Tastu (a pseudonym but basically the maiden name of Sabine Casimire Amable Voïart) was an author who published her first edition of Poésies in 1826, and in this she singles out for particular praise a portrait by Steuben of three Swiss liberals and the inspiration for her poem, “La liberté ou le serment des trois Suisses”.Sabine Casimire Amable Voïart. She cites the great talent of Steuben in the notes to her poem, “La liberté ou le serment des trois Suisses”, and indeed dedicates the poem to Steuben himself in Poésies, published in 1826, [p.337] Madame Tastu was a full-on romantic, and in her poems she nails her political and artistic colours to the mast, citing Victor Hugo, Lamartine, and Alfred de Vigny. One of her poems is a bitter lament and criticism related to the coronation of Charles X which occurred one year before publication of the collection. But she also appears to have had Bonapartist leanings. One of the poems in the Poésies collection of 1826 refers to a dedication in an album belonging to the Duchesse de Saint-Leu, in other words, Hortense de Beauharnais. In this mysterious poem, violets (the Bonapartist symbol of the Napoleonic return) grow at every step, and a sleeping child is given mystical gifts by fairies. And an antique roundel heads the poem with an inscription in Greek “Ortesia Basilissa” (Queen Hortense…). The fairies swear (in a conjuration) to make the female child wonderful in every way. She will be a queen. Hidden in this is a story of the infancy of Queen Hortense… Steuben was likewise clearly going through a Bonapartist phase, as he also painted during the same period (1825-1830), Napoleon’s death and the Emperor’s return from Elba.
Here in this more private, less public work, Steuben chose to epitomise Napoleon using the by-then famous but civilian late hat. The first of the eight hats seems to represent (deliberately?) obscurely the dark clouds of the Revolution (some, apparently later, captions say that it represents the Vendémiaire ‘whiff of grapeshot’). This leads to an evocation of Paris (Notre-Dame cathedral can clearly be seen, as can the windmills of Montmartre). Also in this part of the picture, Bonaparte’s star rises. Is this Vendémiaire in 1795 or simply an evocation of the Consulate? The next hat seems to represent Bonaparte overseas. It faces away from the viewer in France. Columns are clearly visible – is it Egypt or Italy? An obscure building forms the link between the third and fourth hats. That triumphant central fourth hat rests on what would appear to be peaceful olive branches (not victor’s laurels). Does this represent the peace of the Consulate? The peace after Austerlitz? The peace of Tilsit? The eagle (and Empire) clearly takes flight thereafter. The next hat stands proudly vertical for the years from Tilsit to 1811. The final hats clearly show the fire of Moscow (the hat has been knocked off his head), the retreat through the snow, and the waning star. And the thunderbolt of the Gods strikes down the army’s eagle, which lies next to the hat newly erect during the Hundred Days. The hubris of Waterloo is followed by exile on St Helena. The final hat is laid down upon the sea shore as if upon a bier.
By 1826, Napoleon has become synonymous in France with his hat. And by this dedication and gift to Madame Tastu, Steuben is giving form to a Bonapartist vision of Napoleon as a tragic hero, probably sealing a Bonapartist friendship.
Peter Hicks, 2017