Italy Attempts to Foil The Frick's 'Most Important Painting Purchase' in Decades

François Gérard, Portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese (circa 1810).
François Gérard, Portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese (circa 1810).
(Photo by Michael Bodycomb, courtesy of the Frick Collection.)

In December, New York's Frick Collection revealed that it had made its most important painting purchase since 1991. Now, the Italian government says it didn't realize that the painting's subject was a prince, and officials want to keep the painting in the country.

The Frick had announced its acquisition of "François-Pascal-Simon Gérard’s full-length portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese, a notable art patron and the brother-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte. Gérard (1770–1837) was one of the most significant French artists of the first half of the nineteenth century, and this stunning canvas will coalesce seamlessly with the museum’s holdings, which until now have not included his work." 

Camillo Borghese was born to one of the most important families of the Roman aristocracy. The family was known for its Napoleonic sympathies, and Camillo moved to Paris in 1796. In 1803 he married Napoleon’s favorite sister, Paolina Bonaparte (1780–1825). An 1814 inventory lists a portrait of the prince, likely this one, which has become the official and most famous image of him, and is understood from the iconography in the work to have been painted around 1810 in Paris.

Prince Camillo Borghese is set to go on view at the Frick in the fall 2018 as part of the exhibition Luigi Valadier: Splender in Eighteenth-Century Rome (October 31, 2018 through January 20, 2019).

The Art Newspaper reported last week: "Months after the Frick Collection in New York bought a vaunted 19th-century portrait by the French painter François Gérard, the Italian government has revoked the export licence it granted for the work and is seeking its return to Italy, a cultural official says."

The government became aware of “the importance of the painting for national patrimony as a rare and significant document of the Napoleonic era in Italy”, said Maria Vittoria Marini Clarelli, the head of the circulation department of the directorate-general of archaeology, fine art and landscape at the Italian culture ministry in Rome.

The export license for the portrait is now pending, according to some reports.

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