Artifact Corner: Napoleon Bust and Grand Tours

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at an early 19th century porcelain bust of Napoleon Bonaparte. This piece was most likely acquired by Frances Henrietta and her husband Henry Webb on their honeymoon in Europe. The two were married in the summer of 1832, and spent over a year traveling around Europe. They spent a good deal of time in France, and collected numerous items, and had them sent back to the States. So, this piece must have been made in either 1832 or earlier. It is an all white piece, with a clear glaze over the pottery. The piece is unsigned, and may have been made for the newly bustling tourist trade. Frances and Henry actually spent the night in a room that Napoleon stayed in, and they wrote about it in their journals, so this might be a souvenir from their stay. Taking an extended vacation in Europe and “traveling the continent,” was a well established practice by the 1830’s, and was often referred to as “The Grand Tour.” Let’s learn a bit more about the Grand Tour, and what someone going on it could expect.

A Grand Tour was the custom of a trip through Europe, with Italy as one of the key destinations, undertaken by upper-class young European men of sufficient means and rank (typically accompanied by a chaperone, such as a tutor or family member) when they had come of age. The practice became extremely common between the late 17th Century through the mid 19th Century. The idea of traveling for the sake of curiosity and learning was a novel idea in the late 17th century. Following the American Revolutionary War, many young wealthy Americans began partaking in this pilgrimage to the European continent. The value of the Grand Tour lay in its exposure to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent. In addition, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain musical pieces. It was viewed as a sort of finishing to a traditional education for well to do young people.

The itinerary for The Grand Tour varied, but the main stops were almost always Paris and Rome. Most travelers landed in France, either at the ports of Calais or Le Havre. Incidentally, Frances Henrietta and Henry Webb landed at Le Havre, a very busy port city in France in the 19th Century. From there, the traveler would likely head to Paris, where they could visit the art museums, learn French, fencing, riding, and dancing. One of the goals for spending time in Paris was to experience the sophisticated language and manners of French high society, including courtly behavior and fashion. After spending time in Paris it was time to head South, and towards Italy, and ultimately, Rome. The traveler would endure a difficult crossing over the Alps (such as at the Great St Bernard Pass), which required dismantling the carriage and larger luggage. It was a grueling passage, and not for the feint of heart. Many travelers would then spend time in Florence and Milan, exploring the Renaissance art and architecture. Then on to Rome, were the traveler could explore ancient ruins mingled with Medieval structures, and Renaissance and 19th Century architecture. On returning north, they would have to recross the Alps, but then would likely head for Vienna, Berlin, or Dresden, famous for their Universities and houses of learning. The average Grand Tour lasted anywhere from a few months to multiple years!

With this influx of people from England and the United States, a vibrant and thriving trade industry sprung up to meet the demand of travelers wanting reminders of their time on the continent. Many artisans started making slightly less expensive pieces, that were often unsigned, to sell quickly to tourists. And, not much has changed. Highly trafficked destinations are still filled with market stalls and stores loaded with knick knacks for people passing through. This piece is in great condition with minor chipping on the base. Given that it was shipped across the Atlantic in the early 1830’s, it looks pretty good. This is unique reminder of a practice that might seem pretty foreign to us today. We are so lucky to have this piece in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,