- Museum number
The death of Nero, a vaulted prison-like interior with the emperor in the foreground resting on one knee with a wound in his side, his secretary Epaphroditos to the left uncovering the wound to show it to a soldier approaching from the right
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, on paper prepared with a light brown wash
- Production date
- 1800-1803 (circa)
Height: 390 millimetres
Width: 518 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- This finished drawing was probably made by Hennequin to present his ideas for an unexecuted painting of the 'Death of Nero' commissioned by Lucien Bonaparte sometime around 1800-1803. Hennequin was one of the artists that Lucien commissioned as Minister of the Interior to paint ceiling decorations for the Louvre in 1800 (see Benoit pp. 57-9) and the ordering of the Nero picture probably followed on from that. It was never realised as Lucien was dispatched to Italy in 1803 by his older brother Napoleon who was angered by his unauthorised marriage to Alexandrine de Bleschamp, widow of the banker Hippolyte Jouberthon. The Nero painting is mentioned in the entry on Hennequin written by Johannes Immerzeel in his dictionary of artists published in Amsterdam in 1842, shortly after the death of the artist. According to this Hennequin's decision to leave France for Italy in 1806 was due to 'a confluence of unfortunate circumstances, including the cancellation of several important works such as the portrait commissioned by Napoleon of the Empress Josephine and another large painting ('The Death of Nero'), intended for Lucien Bonaparte, who fell into disgrace'.
Even before the marriage relations between the two brothers were strained due to Lucien's Jacobin sympathies (a political radicalism shared with Hennequin) that made him hostile to Napoleon's domination of power as First Consul. Hennequin's patron had played a pivotal role in the coup d'état of 18 -19 Brumaire (9-10 November 1799) that had brought Napoleon to power. After the faltering appearance of Napoleon before the Council of the Five Hundred it was Lucien who had rallied the grenadiers to support his brother, allegedly swearing to run him through if he ever betrayed revolutionary principles. The soldiers duly cleared the chamber and brought the government of the Directory to an end ushering Napoleon to power. Lucien's subsequent commissioning of a painting of Nero's suicide eloquently testifies to his disaffection with his brother's rule as the subject, inspired by the Roman historian Suetonius's 'Twelve Caesars', illustrates the fatal consequences for the emperor when his autocratic rule led to the Roman Senate declaring him an enemy of the state. Hennequin diverged from the text in not showing the emperor ending his life with a cut to the throat preferring a more decorous and entirely bloodless wound to his side which is about to be examined by the centurion sent by the Senate. The cowardliness of Nero in the text, forced to ask the assistance of his secretary Epaphroditos to hold the blade, is also not apparent in the drawing: the emperor stoically or perhaps angrily gazing at the centurion who comes to check that the wound is fatal. He also chose not to show the dagger, only the curved tip of a scabbard by the emperor's outstretched leg, perhaps because either the artist or his patron feared an overly graphic depiction of the scene might risk even further Napoleon's displeasure.
Hennequin had reason to temper his radicalism as he experienced imprisonment in Paris for five months in 1796-7, during which he made the drawing, now in the BM (1963,1214.14) of the British naval commander William Sidney Smith and his captured companions in the Temple prison. The present drawing shares in common with this earlier drawing the inclusion of a neo-classical stool of a fanciful form, as well as the steps leading to a doorway at the upper left corner.
Lit.: D. Coekelberghs and P. Loze, in exhib. cat., Ixelles, Musée Communal, 'Autour du Neo-Classicisme en Belgique 1770-1830', 1985, p. 139; J. Benoit, 'Philippe-Auguste Hennequin 1762-1833', Paris, 1994, no. 121
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2015 July-Sep, BM, 'Unity and Simplicity: Neoclassicism in Europe'.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933-45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number