Biscuit porcelain, on blue and gold socle; height 16 ins; 41 cm; both bust and base with Sèvres markings; manufactured in 1892
Provenance: Private Collection, France
Kléber was born in Strasbourg, training in architecture, but eventually attending military school in Munich. From this education, he obtained a commission in the Austrian army, but resigned in 1783 on finding his humble birth hindered his chances for promotion. He volunteered for the French Army in 1791, and rose through the ranks, consistently showing much talent and emerging victorious throughout many campaigns. Despite these accolades he became increasingly angered at not being given similar acclaim as his peers – generals Hoche, Moreau and Pichegru – and rejected further offers of command. His belief in the ability of Napoleon Bonaparte swung him back into the fold when the young general asked him to join the expedition to Egypt in 1798.
Distinguishing himself during the campaign at Alexandria, El Arish, Jaffa, Acre and in independent command at Mt Tabor, where he held off vastly superior numbers, the expedition was ultimately to be his “Achilles heal”. Taking command of all French forces when Bonaparte returned to France in 1799, Kleber held together his isolated troops in the face of an increasingly hostile native population and a large Ottoman army. Seeing no hope of bringing his army back to France or of consolidating his conquests, he negotiated the convention of El-Arish in January 1800 with Commodore Sidney Smith, winning the right to an honorable evacuation of the French troops. When Admiral Lord Keith refused to ratify the terms, Kléber attacked the Turkish forces at Heliopolis; although he had only 10,000 men against 60,000 Turks, Kléber’s forces utterly defeated the Turkish troops on 20 March 1800. He then re-took Cairo, which had revolted against French rule, but was assassinated less than a month later by a Syrian student. Along with others Kléber was critical of Napoleon’s abandonment of his troops in the Middle East but, ever the master of events, Bonaparte’s reputation as a brilliant military commander remained intact.
Under the direction of Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847) the world famous Sèvres porcelain factory evolved in the 19th century as to what we know today. With the absence of Royal patronage and ownership the business had to reinvent itself. A reliance on eclecticism and historicism characterized much of the production and this bust is an excellent example of the popular objects that were produced during this time. The Sèvres sculptors were often influenced by artists work of the past and this bust of Kleber captures the essence of romantic energy and urgency that so characterized the work of late 18th century portrait painters who depicted the general. Increasingly difficult to find today, this bust was made in the late 19th century, along with others depicting Napoleonic generals and would have been a desirable and expensive furnishing piece at the time.