This Monday, after Small Press Expo, I spent the better part of a day at the National Gallery of Art on the Washington Mall. The National Gallery has the marble bust that Jean-Antoine Houdon carved of “Count” Cagliostro when the latter was a popular figure in France, in 1786 (see first image, above). Most well-known portraits of Cagliostro (including the engravings that were sold all over Europe during this period) were based on this bust, which shows Cagliostro, his collar untied, turning his eyes heavenward.

I felt I would be remiss if I did not make a close study of this portrait, as — it being a sculpture — it portrayed him from the rear as well as the front. In my graphic novel Spirits and Seekers: Cagliostro in Courland, I will have plenty of scenes in which I show him in 3/4 rear view, showing from the front (in midground) a person reacting to what Cagliostro is telling them.

At the Gallery, I drew 5 sketches of the bust. Alas, I did not think to raise up my phone to take photos of the bust from above, merely fretting about having left my camera behind. The bust is placed on a pedestal where Cagliostro’s head level would be about that of a person 6 feet or over. This is most likely a convention rather than a deliberate distortion, but as the historical Cagliostro was in all likelihood more like 5 foot 6 at most, my heroine, Elisa von der Recke, would be taller than he, looking down at him when they met in 1779. (Her exposé of him would be written in 1787.)

The Houdon bust does make one thing clear: by 1786, Cagliostro’s hairline had receded considerably. De Loutherbourg's caricatures of him (after the two had a falling-out) probably show him with a wig.

Another bit of information that I’m glad I got from the bust was that Cagliostro’s natural hair was quite wavy. It’s very hard to tell this from the widely-available photographs of the bust, as they are from the front or 3/4 views, and with his head tilted up, the side curls dominate. In 1786 he also wore his hair longer than most men of the era — even tied, it went about halfway down his ribcage.

There is a painting of Cagliostro on the French Wikipedia page about him that does not look very much like Houdon’s bust: he is shown with an underbite not evident from Houdon. Noplace on the Web can I find any credits for this painting that list the artist or date; I am tempted to chalk this up to people on the Web passing information around without attribution. If anyone can help me nail down the true source of this portrait, I would be very grateful.