"Madame la Mère de l'Empereur": Joseph Stieler's portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte's dignified, intelligent and modest mother.



Von NEUMEISTER-Experte Dr. Rainer Schuster

"Four days after Madame's death, the unsuspecting people of Rome flocked to St Peter's, which had just opened its wide portico and put on its splendid decorations of papal ceremonies to the sound of bells and gun salutes. People were celebrating the enthronement of a new pope and wanted to pay homage to the Holy Father, while a modest funeral carriage, followed by a few faithful and the poor, quietly left the black-covered Rinuccini Palace and [...] travelled across Piazza Venezia and the Corso to the church of Saint-Louis-des-Français. It was the funeral procession of the modest princess who [...] simply called herself, after her heart, Madame Mère. "1

Who was this "Madame Mère" who was given such a simple funeral? It was Napoleon Bonaparte's mother! Letizia Bonaparte was the mother of three kings, a queen, two princesses and Napoleon I. She lived through decisive years in European history, from the reign of King Louis XV of France to the year before the accession of Queen Victoria of England. Born into poor circumstances, she married at the age of 13 and was widowed at 34 after giving birth to twelve children, eight of whom survived.

Letizia was the centre of a family of eccentric character. Her maternal pride in Napoleon was clouded by constant concern for his safety and the premonition that his meteoric rise to power would be followed by an equally precipitous fall.

Letizia Ramolino was born in Ajaccio on 24 August 1750. She only received a rudimentary school education. She lost her father at the age of six and her mother soon married a captain in a Swiss regiment named Franz Fesch. Around the time of the birth of her half-brother Joseph (1763), who would later become her economic and spiritual counsellor, plans were already being made for the marriage of the 13-year-old city beauty. A student of jurisprudence, 18-year-old Carlo Bonaparte, was chosen and the wedding took place on 2 June 1764. Early on, both fought for Corsican independence, and after the French conquered the island in 1769, Bonaparte joined them.


For 20 years, Letizia dedicated herself to having children, sometimes with medical complications. When she became pregnant at the age of 14, she lost her first two children. This was not only an emotional blow for the young woman in a country where a woman's worth was measured by the number of children, especially sons. In 1768, she gave birth to Joseph, the first child to survive infancy. Her second son was Napoleon (called "Nabulione" by his mother), who was born nine days before her 19th birthday. By 1778, Letizia had given birth to three more children: Lucien, Elisa and Louis. When she was almost 30, she had her tenth child, Pauline, and 15 months later her eleventh, Carolina. The household was virtually overcrowded with children, a number of relatives and a nurse, and Letizia's talent for maintaining discipline was put to the test. The family's financial situation was difficult.

Her last child, Jérôme, was born ten days after her husband left Corsica to receive treatment for a long illness. The family would not see her husband and father again. Carlo Bonaparte died shortly after New Year 1785, aged just 39, leaving Letizia with eight children, five of whom were under the age of ten.

It was the second-born son Napoleon, the only child with a professional education, who was to determine the family's future. When the Bonapartes were categorised as "personae non gratae" by the Corsican nationalists in 1793, Letizia and her family fled into exile in France, where they lived in poverty - a humiliating experience that would shape them for the rest of their lives. Napoleon, meanwhile, made a career for himself: After the successful defence of Toulon, he was appointed brigadier general and given command of the army in Italy. At the age of 30, he was the ruler of France.

After Napoleon had himself crowned emperor in 1804, he continued to support his family financially and also provided his relatives with positions for which not all of them were fully suited. Out of loyalty to Corsica, he made his sister Elisa Princess of Piombino in 1805. In the following months, Joseph was appointed King of Naples, Louis King of Holland and Jérôme (now married to his second wife, Princess Katharina von Württemberg) King of Westphalia. The mother mistrusted the good fortune that her daughters and sons enjoyed during this time. On the occasion of Napoleon's imperial coronation, which she stayed away from, Letizia formulated the iconic sentence: "Pourvu que ça dure!" ("If only it would stay that way!").2 Her daughters refused to wear Joséphine's train for the coronation. But his family had not reckoned with Napoleon: Madame Mère would recognise herself four years later in David's famous depiction of the "Sacre". The artist certainly did not integrate the emperor's mother into the popular scene without Napoleon's knowledge ...


Letizia, who now bore the weighty title of "Madame la Mère de l'Empereur", impressed the European courts with her modesty (there was also talk of avarice) and dignity. She invested her newly acquired wealth wisely and tried to keep the unruly family together. There were a number of unhappy marriages and unions and illnesses in the family. Letizia had reservations about Napoleon's marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais, whose marriage remained childless, leading to divorce, and his second marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria (1791 - 1847). Marie-Louise finally gave birth to the hoped-for son and heir to the throne in 1811.

But Napoleon's star began to sink. Madame Mère accompanied Napoleon in his exile on Elba. For the first time in years, she was able to keep her descendants company and provide them with moral support. However, this was not to last, as Napoleon returned to Paris for 100 days. Almost all of Letizia's children attended the last family dinner before the debacle at Waterloo. Napoleon's tearful farewell to his mother is legendary.

In 1818, Letizia bought a 17th century palace in Italy to retire in. After the fall of Napoleon, Pope Pius VII had shown impressive magnanimity towards his relatives. No country had been prepared to take in the Corsican's family, especially Napoleon's mother. She was granted asylum in the Eternal City.

1781 Mainz  – 1858 München


Öl auf Leinwand.
64 × 54 cm

AUKTION 411 // LOT 645
SCHÄTZPREIS € 70.000  – 90.000

"I am truly the mother of all sorrows, and my only consolation is to know that the Holy Father has consigned the past to oblivion and to be mindful of all the kindness he has always shown to all the members of my family. We found support in the papal government and our gratitude will find no limits." With these words, Letizia describes her gratitude in a letter to Cardinal Secretary of State Ercole Consalvi.3

 She led a pious and contemplative life in Rome while she waited anxiously for news of Napoleon, who was now living in exile on St Helena. After receiving the news of his death on 22 July 1821, she surrounded herself with a "museum of memories". Six months before her own death at the age of 87, she dictated her memoirs, almost blind, in which she said of her own final years: "My life ended with the fall of the Emperor. From that moment on, I gave up everything forever."

Letizia Bonaparte died in Rome on 2 February 1836. The death of "Madame Mère" was announced by the bell of the Capitol. The Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen removed the death mask from the deceased. At the insistence of the foreign envoys in Rome, the Bonaparte family was forbidden to inscribe the words "Mater Imperatoris Francorum" on the sarcophagus. They had to make do with the inscription "Mater regum". The imperial coat of arms could be seen at the burial, with the initials "LRB" for Letizia Ramolino Bonaparte and the inscription "Mater Napoleonis".

She left 1,700,000 francs to be divided among her children, although her inheritance was probably at least twice that amount. When asked about her enormous wealth, Letizia had the foresight to say: "I have six or seven princes as children who will one day be in my pocket."  4 Letizia Bonaparte's body was transferred to Ajaccio in 1851 and buried in the imperial chapel in 1860.

Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis' favourable but also critical description of Letizia Bonaparte's physiognomy (see box) is confirmed in part by Joseph Stieler's portrait, painted three years earlier. A "portrait privé" in the classical sense, as the portrait is devoid of all jewellery, Letizia wears a relatively simple dress and a plain - albeit elegant - shawl. The only jewellery is her elaborate lace bonnet. This is how Madame Mère appeared in private: rather modest, reserved, turned towards people.


Joseph Stieler wrote in his fragmentary autobiography about the year 1811: "After a year's stay [in Rome] I had to make a journey [sic!] to N. [Naples], where I [...] painted portraits for the then K.M [King Murat]." 6 "On 9 May I went to Naples, taking 180 scudi with me, and on 22 August I returned with 160 Ducati ... I earned 50 louis d'or for the portrait of the [...] Queen." 7 The commission is also mentioned in the Munich press (albeit very briefly): "After completing [an altarpiece with a depiction of St Leonhard], Stieler made a trip to Naples, where he painted several portraits for King Mürat [sic! 8 The wife of his patron Joachim Murat, King of Naples from 1808 to 1815 as Joachim Napoléon I (Gioacchino Napoleone I), was Caroline Bonaparte (1782 - 1839), Napoleon's youngest sister and Letizia's last-born child.

It is not known who Joseph Stieler actually painted in Naples. However, this stay in Naples was the only opportunity in the artist's biography to deal with Letizia Bonaparte of all people.

In the Roman inventory of the estate of Letizia's half-brother, Cardinal Joseph Fesch (1763 - 1839), there is an interesting entry: "[N°] 3908 Quadro in tela alto piedi due, largo piede uno, e tre quarti rappresentante un Ritratto in mezza figura die madama Letizia scudi quin - dici" by an unknown artist. The painting was located in the Palazzo Falconieri in Rome, in the "Camera appresso detta la Toletta". 9 It is tempting to assume that it was the present portrait of Madame Mère because of its similar format. Moreover, Stieler's portrait is not signed, which could be the reason why it is listed in the Fesch inventory as a work by an unknown artist. The heir to the cardinal's collection was Joseph Bonaparte (1768 - 1844), as Joseph I King of Naples first from 1806 - 1808, then King of Spain from 1808 - 1813. Joseph Bonaparte had his uncle's collection auctioned off in 1843 - 1845. He kept 300 paintings in his own possession, apparently including the portrait of Letizia. This is not listed in the corresponding auction catalogues. In addition to two legitimate daughters, of whom only the first-born, Zenaïde Charlotte Julie (1801 - 1854) survived her father, Joseph Bonaparte, who called himself Comte de Survilliers after the fall of Napoleon, had an illegitimate daughter from the time of his exile in the United States: Caroline Charlotte (1822 - 1890). One of them would have come into possession of the portrait of Letizia Bonaparte after Joseph's death.

„Eine Schönheit ersten Ranges“

„Madame Mère muss in ihrer Jugend eine Schönheit ersten Ranges gewesen sein. Ihr Gesicht war gut modelliert, mit regelmäßigen Zügen […] Ihr Blick hatte immer etwas Hochmütiges und Strenges an sich. Aber die Schönheit ihrer Gesichtszüge verlor einen Teil ihrer Wirkung durch die dicke Schicht Farbe, die sie auf ihre Wangen auftrug. Das passte nicht zu ihrem Alter, das eine große Natürlichkeit der Hautfarbe verlangte. Zu viel Rouge verträgt sich nicht mit Falten. An gewöhnlichen Wochentagen war ihre Kleidung einfach, wenn auch kostbar. Gewöhnlich trug sie ein mit Blumen verziertes Häubchen. An Sonn- und Feiertagen, wenn sie in voller Montur in den Palast kam, trug sie eine Haube mit Federn. Bei diesen Gelegenheiten trug sie sehr feine Diamanten. Ich wusste nichts über ihren Haushalt: ich weiß, dass sie sehr religiös war und als sehr geizig galt. Wenn sie Französisch sprach, hatte sie einen sehr aus - geprägten italienischen Akzent. Sie sagte sehr wenig.“ 5

Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis (1788  – 1856), Mamelucke der kaiserlichen Garde, über die Physiognomie Letizia Bonapartes im Jahre 1814, als sie auf Elba weilte

1 Übersetzt nach Larrey, Félix Hippolyte Baron de, Madame Mère (Napoleonis Mater). Essai historique. Bd. 2. Paris 1892, S. 491 f.

2 Zitiert nach Müchler, Günter, Napoleon – Revolutionär auf dem Kaiserthron. Darmstadt 2019, S. 30.

3 Zitiert nach Nersinger, Ulrich, Aus der Geschichte des Kirchenstaates – Madame Mère und die Päpste, in: L’Osservatore Romano, 25. Juni 2021. Online abrufbar unter: www.osservatoreromano.va/de/news/2021-06/madame-mere-und-die-papste.html

4 Zitiert nach Müchler, Günter, Napoleon – Revolutionär auf dem Kaiserthron. Darmstadt 2019, S. 29.

5 Übersetzt nach: Napoleon – From the Tuileries to St. Helena. Personal recollections of the emperor’s second mameluke and valet, Louis Etienne St. Denis (known as Ali). New York 1922, S. 80.

6 Handschriftenabteilung der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München, Stieleriana. Autobiographie II. Wir danken Dr. Ulrike von Hase-Schmundt für die Überlassung ihrer Transkriptionen aus den Aufzeichnungen Stielers in der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek. Dem Gemälde wird eine Echtheitsbestätigung von Dr. Ulrike von Hase-Schmundt, München 20. Juli 2023, beigegeben. Das vorliegende Gemälde wird in die 2. Auflage des Werkverzeichnisses zum Schaffen Joseph Stielers aufgenommen.

7 Handschriftenabteilung der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München, Stieleriana, Abrechnungsheft 1805  – 1811.

8 Marggraff, Rudolph, Zur Erinnerung an Joseph Stieler und seine Zeit, in: Abendblatt zur Neuen MünchenerZeitung Nr. 144, 18. Juni 1858, S. 574.

9 Archivio di Stato, Roma, Italia (Notai Capitolini, ufficio 11, not. Augusto Apolloni, anno 1839, vol. 609, ff.37 –503), hier f. 264.