Is terracotta bust of Robespierre by Deseine (1792) legit? Why does it vary so much from portraits? Which bust or portrait do you think is most legit for the actual Robespierre's appearance?
Hiya, anon! Great question.
Deseine’s terracotta bust of Robespierre, today displayed in the Musée de la Révolution française at Vizille, is absolutely “legit” insofar as it was sculpted contemporaneously. In this it claims a degree of distinction; many of our surviving professional portraits of Robespierre, with the possible exception of Boilly’s 1782 portrait, are copies-of-copies rather than original depictions.
Deseine may have sculpted the terracotta bust as a ‘draft’ for a more detailed sculpture, which the artist proposed to donate to the Parisian Jacobin Club in December 1791. This plan was foiled when the Jacobins declined the offer; they had a prohibition against decorating their hall with the likenesses of living personages. Funny enough, Robespierre was present at this discussion, but appeared more interested in presenting his anti-war speech than in discussing the merits or detriments of the sculpture’s presentation.
I’d say we have reason to believe it to be a fair likeness. Aside from its legitimacy being enhanced (in my view) by its contemporaneous construction, Deseine was no neophyte and in 1791 had won a prize from the Jacobin Club for his sculpture of Mirabeau, which was said to be a “perfect likeness with expression and energy.” And while Robespierre doesn’t seem to have formally posed for the artist, Deseine regularly watched him at the Jacobin Club, so the legislator’s visage was probably familiar. Familiar subject, award-winning artist: this is probably a fairly accurate sculpture.
As to why it varies so much from the portraits: I don’t actually think it does to any significant extent. True, Deseine’s Robespierre possesses a more pointed chin and oval face than some other depictions but the core identifiers remain. Most every portrait of Robespierre portrays him as having high cheek bones and large forehead: both of which are present. The differences between this sculpture and the portraits seem primarily rooted in how sculpture is a separate medium from portraiture and by how the sculpture depicts Robespierre in midmovement whereas the portraits have Robespierre seated or otherwise stationary. I linked Robespierre: figure-reputation earlier, and it contains this excerpt from Philippe Bordes:
[The bust] maintains a middle position in between the relaxed portrait by Labille –Guiard and the emphatic pose that David had given him. This effigy is seductive, almost anxious, but it displays neither oratorical power…nor antique heroism. This lively bust belongs to the political universe of the Jacobin club rather than of the National Assembly.
I think that sums it up. Robespierre’s in a separate situation, a separate context, constructed via different material, but he is still Robespierre at his core (Ooh, is this a parallel with how people always see ‘contradictions’ in Robespierre’s political policy which can be accounted for with a simple analysis of the different political situation? No? I’m reaching? Okay.)
As for which portrait of Robespierre I feel is the most accurate – I don’t know, for certain, being that I’ve never met him. Labille-Guiard’s portrait is my favorite, although it is rather romanticized and I can’t hold it as the most accurate. But observe, once again, the cheekbones and forehead. It’s Robespierre. And it was praised at the Salon of its appearance whereas its rival, Boze’s portrait, was criticized for being too far from the point. So, hey, evidence in the negative! Robespierre did not look like this:
…Or maybe he did a little. Because this portrait of Boze’s has Robespierre standing more at an angle: and we can see that, from his flank, Robespierre looks rather angular. This falls in line with a great many contemporary engravings of Robespierre’s profile, which always look pointed in contrast to the consistent roundness of his frank stare. Look at this picture of Robespierre pumping blood out of a cup to see what I mean. (That’s a great sentence isn’t it?)
So, hey, to get to the root of this problem, let’s compare Robespierre’s portraits to what people wrote about his appearance:
“[Robespierre’s] appearance was commonplace. He was of medium height with broad shoulders and a rather small head. His hair was light, chestnut, his countenance oval, his skin moderately pitted with smallpox. His nose was small and short, his eyes blue and somewhat deep set.”
That’s not particularly useful. We’re looking for a small-headed guy who looks average and also has brown hair which will be powdered with the fashion…that is, like everyone else’s. Great.
But there weren’t too many descriptions that were any more useful, so forgive me for omitting them and using the above as a representative sample.
Except for Charlotte Robespierre, sister to Maximilien. Charlotte, who maintained that Delpech’s engraving was most similar to her brother:
That engraving appears to portray the same man, identified as Robespierre, in the Gerard sketch:
The expression is different but the sitter shares a wide forehead, round face, but also share cupid-bow lips and even the “sunken eyes” elsewhere referred to. Robespierre’s also not looking at us dead on and you can see, from his angle, how his face might appear to “flatten” in profile.
The sketch was also crafted from life as Robespierre appears to have sat for it.
But that was a sketch. You asked about portraits. And given that evidence, I think this portrait is likely the most “accurate” reflection of what Robespierre looked like:
Its painter is “Anonymous” but I have my suspicions that it really is just a portrait based on Gerard’s sketch, perhaps by Gerard himself or one of his students, which was never claimed due to the altering political climate.
The glasses are gone but — look at that cravat. The cravats are almost identical. This isn’t as firm an identifier as a fingerprint, but cravat-styles aren’t precisely made in conveyer lines. So I’m thinking one cravat was just translated into another portrait.
My theory is buffered by the similarity of expression, outfit, and positioning of the subject.