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Joseph Bonaparte's American Retreat

(Article by TYSON STROUD Patricia ,  Patricia Tyson Stroud is the author of The Emperor of Nature: Charles-Lucien Bonaparte and His World (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2000) and The man who had been King: the American exile of Napoleon's brother Joseph (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2005). )

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An ornament to society (1) was the way Napoleon I (r. 1804-1815) described his older brother Joseph Bonaparte. Although this description had an edge to it, since Joseph Bonaparte had not been the ambitious ruler Napoleon had hoped for, it accurately forecast the nature of the older Bonaparte's life in the United States. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and subsequent surrender to the English aboard the HMS Bellerophon, Joseph Bonaparte set sail for exile in the new world, and for a life in which he and his art collection truly became ornaments to society.

In 1816 Joseph Bonaparte, the ex-king of Naples and of Spain, bought an estate called Point Breeze near Bordentown, New Jersey, twenty-five miles northeast of Philadelphia. There he built a grand house on a promontory overlooking the Delaware River. In time he bought up numerous contiguous farms, orchards, meadows, and wetlands, constructed twelve miles of carriage roads through his property, and dammed Crosswicks Creek, a tributary of the Delaware, to form a half-mile-long lake. Several islands in the lake were planted with rare trees and shrubs, and European swans glided about on the water's surface. Small swan-shaped pleasure boats were moored in a quiet cove.

Joseph Bonaparte's attributes stood him in good stead in his initial attempt to establish himself in the United States, where animosity to Napoleon was often quite strong. The banker Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), who became one of Bonaparte's closest friends in the United States, said that he was:
by far the most interesting stranger that I have ever known in this country. He is free and communicative and talks of all the great events and the great persons of his day with a frankness which assures you of his good nature as well as his veracity.(2)

Speaking about politics, Bonaparte told Biddle that his ideas were formed during the French Revolution and that he was a republican "more even than you Americans are. I did not wish the formation of the French Empire." (3) A French contemporary wrote in his memoirs:
As a private man, M. Joseph was very fine; he was intelligent and spirited [perhaps a discreet reference to his charm with women], he loved letters and arts; and to those excellent qualities was joined an amiable and loyal character.(4)

At Point Breeze, the comte de Survilliers, as Joseph Bonaparte called himself here, welcomed countless visitors, both the curious, who came to see his large collection of European paintings, and his friends and acquaintances. He entertained the leading men and women of his day, including the congressman and jurist Joseph Hopkinson (1770-1842), also a resident of Bordentown; Biddle, whose country estate Andalusia was just across the Delaware River; the English reformer and author Frances Wright (1795-1852) when she visited the United States; and Stephen Girard (1750-1831) of Philadelphia, a fellow Frenchman, a banker and shipping magnate, and at the time the richest man in the United States. Prominent politicians who partook of Bonaparte's hospitality included President John Quincy Adams; Henry Clay (1777-1852), Adams's secretary of state; and Daniel Webster (1782-1852).

Point Breeze was also a meeting place for exiled French generals, several of whom had served under Joseph Bonaparte when he was king of Spain. In 1824, when General Lafayette (1757-1834) made his triumphal tour of the United States, he visited Point Breeze twice, arriving aboard a sixteen-oared barge that was said to be a gift to Bonaparte from Girard.

Joseph's wife, Julie Clary Bonaparte, was the daughter of François Clary, a rich merchant in Marseilles, and his wife Rose. Julie Bonaparte was always in precarious health and feared ocean travel, which prevented her from joining her husband in the United States. Nevertheless, she allowed her two daughters, Zénaïde and Charlotte, to visit their father. Charlotte came in 1821 and Zénaïde arrived in 1823 with her husband and cousin, the naturalist Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857), the son of Joseph Bonaparte's younger brother Lucien (1775-1840). In the Summers, Joseph Bonaparte often travelled with his daughters and a large entourage to Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs and to his hunting lodge, all in northern New York State. He invariably  took gold plates for picnics in the woods and an elegant travelling toiletries case fitted with silver-topped jars, manicure tools, and a silver corkscrew.(5)

The first house that Bonaparte built at Point Breeze burned to the ground in 1820. However; much to his amazement and gratitude, the people of Bordentown rushed to the rescue, saving nearly all the paintings, engravings, sculpture, furniture, rugs, silver, books, linen, and jewels. Bonaparte at once began to rebuild, aided by the French master mason Theodore Mauroy Whom he had employed at Mortefontaine, his estate near Ermenonville north of Paris.(6)  He chose a site further back from the promontory where the first house had been. The view was not as spectacular but the situation decidedly was more comfortable, with far less exposure to the wind. All that was left of the old mansion was the belvedere from which to view sunsets that Bonaparte often compared to those of Venice. Above the entrance he had inscribed: "Non ignara mali, miseris succurere" (Not unaware of misfortune, I know to help the unfortunate).(7) Perhaps this was a constant reminder not to take for granted the opulence in which he lived.

The new house was patterned after his 1730 château in Prangins, Switzerland, with a central block and two perpendicular wings.(8)  Richly carved mahogany doors opened onto a spacious hall and staircase. To the left was the billiard room in which hung a version of the great painting of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps on a rearing white stallion by Jacques Louis David. This painting was ordered by Charles IV of Spain, and Bonaparte claimed it as his own after succeeding to that throne. On the other walls hung Two Lions and a Fawn by Frans Snyders (1579-1657) and Charles Joseph Natoire's La Toilette de Psyche.(9)  The furnishings included a massive desk in the  Empire style, a table with an Italian marble top, sofas and chairs with horsehair seats, and a billiard table. At the windows hung white muslin curtains bordered in green, an ample red and white patterned rug covered the floor, and from the ceiling hung four gilt-copper chandeliers.(10)

Reuben Haines (1786-1831), a friend of Bonaparte's son-in-law Charles Lucien Bonaparte, described the library as housing "the most splendid books I ever beheld."(11)  The collection, the largest in the country, numbered some eight thousand volumes at a time when the Library of Congress contained only sixty-five hundred volumes.(12)

In the grand salon, blue merino covered the chairs and sofas and served for curtains. Several large tables with black and gray marble tops and ornamented with bronze stood against the walls.(13) The intricately carved marble fireplace mantel (now in the Burlington Country Historical Society, Burlington, New Jersey) had been sent from Italy as a gift from Bonaparte's uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch (1763-1839). The clock on the mantel was a gift from Napoleon. The figure of Urania, the muse of astronomy, was inspired by an antique statue.(14)  A Gobelins carpet covered the floor. The paintings in this elegant room were mostly portraits of the imperial family by François Gérard: Napoleon in his grand court robes, Joseph Bonaparte as king of Spain wearing a mantle of green velvet edged with ermine, and a painting of Julie as queen of Naples with her two young daughters, which Napoleon commissioned in 1808 for his Salon de Famille at the palace of Saint-Cloud.

Across the hall was a room devoted entirely to statues of Bonaparte's family. They included bust of his father; Carlo Bonaparte (1746-1785), and brothers Louis (1778-1846) and Jérôme (1784-1860), all by Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850); a bust of his son-in-law Charles Lucien Bonaparte (who became one of the most famous ornithologists of the nineteenth century) by Raimondo Trentanove (1792-1832); and busts of Joseph Bonaparte's sisters Elisa Bacciochi (1777-1820) and Pauline Borghese by Antonio Canova. There was also a statue of Pauline as Venus Victrix, lying half naked on a couch. Two visiting Quaker ladies recorded their reaction to this statue as follows:
[Bonaparte] stood some time perfectly enraptured before [the statue], pointing out to us what a beautiful head Pauline had; what hair; what eyes, nose, mouth, chin; what a throat; what a neck; what arms; what a magnificent bust; what a foot-enumerating all her charms one after another, and demanding our opinion of them. Necessity made us philosophers, and we were obliged to show as much sang froid on the subject as himself; for it was impossible to turn away without our prudery's exciting more attention than would have been pleasant.(15)

A visitor to the house at one time wrote of the public rooms: "When all the doors were opened, the seven rooms, giving on to each other in a double line, produced a suite of great effect, above all in the evening when the apartments were brilliantly illuminated."(16)  The dining room contained a table that could seat twenty-four and was often set with the finest Sèvres porcelain. On gala evenings the guests were served by liveried waiters with moustaches and long beards-a striking anomaly  among American servants.(17)  Against the walls stood two spectacular pier tables ornamented with carved sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs inspired by Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. Wendy A. Cooper has written of these tables:
As exceptional examples of high-style Egyptian taste in America at that time, they were important pieces of furniture that may have influenced the demands of New York and Philadelphia patrons as they ordered furniture from cabinetmakers such as Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Joseph B. Barry, Michael Bouvier, and Anthony G. Quervelle.(18)

Between the windows in the dining room was a pair of magnificent porphyry vases given to Joseph Bonaparte by Charles XIV John, king of Sweden and Norway (r. 1818-1844), who was married to Julie Bonaparte's sister Désirée (1777-1860). On the buffet stood four gilt candelabra from the palace of Luxembourg, while on the walls were paintings of Napoleon's four great battles in Italy. The curtains were blue damask, and an immense Brussels carpet covered the floor.(19)

Joseph Bonaparte's apartment on the second floor, overlooking the garden, consisted of bedroom, dressing room, study, and "bathing-room". The same two Quaker women who visited Point Breeze in 1836 described his bedroom as having curtains, chair upholstery, and a bed canopy of light blue satin trimmed with silver. "Every room [of the suite] contained a mirror that reached from the ceiling to the ground", according to one of the ladies, and:
Over the bed hung a very splendid mirror, and another over the bath. The walls were covered with oil paintings, principally of young females, with less clothing about them than their originals would have found agreeable in our cold climate, and much less than we found agreeable when the count without ceremony, led us in front of them, and enumerated the beauties of the painting with the air of an accomplished amateur.(20

One of the paintings Bonaparte showed his straight-laced guests may have been Titian's Tarquin and Lucretia, depicting a mythological rape scene. The work appeared at auction six times between 1845 and 1911.(21)

Joseph Bonaparte loaned many of his works of art to the Pennsylvania for its annual exhibitions. At first, he was reluctant to lend David's Bonaparte Crossing the Alps because of its size and the difficulty of removing it from its frame in order to transport it,(22)  but his friend Joseph Hopkinson, the president of the academy, finally persuaded him, and the picture was displayed at the academy's annual exhibition every year from 1822 to 1829. There is no record that Tarquin and Lucretia was ever shown at the academy, perhaps to avoid offending the ladies of Philadelphia, who, in the early days of the academy, had separate visiting days in the interest of modesty.(23)

One painting that was neither displayed at Point Breeze, nor exhibited at the academy, was the portrait of Bonaparte's mistress Ann Savage and their two daughters, Caroline Charlotte and Pauline Josephe Anne.(24) Ann, known as Annette, was only eighteen when Bonaparte met her while buying a pair of suspenders at her mother's shop in Philadelphia. The sparkling young woman, who spoke French, was descended from a distinguished Virginia family, but her father had fallen on hard times. Bonaparte installed her at Bow Hill outside Trenton, New Jersey, an estate he rented from a friend.

The setting of the painting is no doubt Point Breeze, for the river in the right background is definitely the Delaware. It is interesting to compare this painting with Gérard's portrait of Julie Bonaparte and her two daughters, which is thought to be set on the grounds of the château of Mortefontaine.

As the former king of Spain, Bonaparte fashioned his garden at Point Breeze into a park resembling the one at the Escorial, Philip II's austere sixteenth-century palace northwest of Madrid. Carriage roads and bridle paths wound through stands of pine and oak, over stone bridges, and past rustic gazebos, benches, and strategically placed statuary. Reuben Haines described riding through the grounds with Charles Lucien and Zénaïde Bonaparte in a carriage:

Drawn by two Elegant Horses along the ever varying roads of the park amidst splendid Rhododendrons on the margin of the artificial lake on whose smooth surface gently glided the majestic European Swans. Stopping to visit the Aviary enlivened by the most beautiful English Pheasants, passing by alcoves ornamented with statues and busts of Parian marble, our course enlivened by the footsteps of the tame deer and the flight of the Woodcock, and when alighting stopping to admire the graceful form of two splendid Etruscan vases of Porphyry 3 ft. high & 2 in diameter presented by the Queen of Sweden.(25)

In the winter, when the lake was frozen, skaters were welcomed to Point Breeze, and Bonaparte's servants brought large baskets of oranges, rare treats from Florida and Spain, so that the ex-king could roll them along the ice for his visitors.(26)  At all times, the local children were allowed into the garden to ride the iron deer and lions like hobbyhorses and to play hide-and-seek amongst the marble gods and goddesses.(27)

For his daughter Zénaïde and her husband, Bonaparte built a three-story house beside the lake, with an underground passage to the mansion to use in inclement weather. Even this Lake House, as it was called, was filled with fine works of art. A Philadelphia visitor in 1826 wrote in his diary:
The Porter when we called there introduced us into a large & elegantly carpeted Parlour… the Walls hung round with large & expensive paintings by the great masters of Europe. The largest was the Escape of Europa [Rape of Europa] drawn in great spirit, but with little regard to female modesty.(28)

There is no doubt that Joseph Bonaparte was an "ornament" to the society in which he lived in the United States from 1815 to 1832, and then for two short visits from 1835 to 1836 and from 1837 to 1839. He charmed those he met with his fascinating ties to the great events of recent European History, his intelligent conversation, his regal way of life, and what most Americans at the time thought exotic taste, particularly in paintings and statuary. Bonaparte has also been called "one of the most significant catalysts in disseminating European culture and artistic knowledge to early nineteenth century Americans."(29)  His painting by David of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps, was copied by his neighbor in Bordentown, Charles B. Lawrence (c. 1790-c. 1864), who exhibited his copy in a Pennsylvania Academy exhibition in 1831.(30)  At the 1847 sale of Bonaparte's possessions held at Point Breeze, one of the works listed was The Nativity of Our Saviour (now known as Adoration of the Shepherds) by Anton Raphael Mengs. The catalogue states:
It would be useless to attempt a description of such a Painting, no pen could give an idea of its merits. The late owner with a view to encourage the Fine Arts in this country,, lent it for some time to the National Academies of New York and Philadelphia, where a great number of copies were made by young Artists, who profited by his Benevolence.(31)

Joseph Bonaparte died in Florence in 1844 with his faithful wife beside him. He bequeathed Point Breeze to his grandson Joseph Lucien Bonaparte (1824-1865), who sold it in 1847 to a Thomas Richards. Several years later; Richards sold it to Henry Beckett, formerly the British consul in Philadelphia.(32)  Beckett, a fervent Francophobe, tore down the mansion and built a house that was lost in a fire in 1985. It was then replaced by an institutional structure to house the Divine Word Seminary for the training of Roman Catholic missionary priests.


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 1) Quoted in Claude François, Baron de Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, ed. Napoleon Joseph, Baron de Méneval, and trans. Robert H. Sherard (New York, 1894), vol. 3, p. 304.
2) Edward Biddle, "Joseph Bonaparte as recorded in the Private Journal of Nicholas Biddle", Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 55, no. 14 (1931), p. 208.
3) Ibid., p. 219.
4) Mémoires de Stanislas de Girardin (Paris, 1858), vol. 2, p. 211, quoted in Le roi Joseph Bonaparte: Lettres d'exil inédites (Amérique-Angleterre-Italie) (1825-1844), ed. Hector Fleischmann (Librairie Charpentier et Fasquelle, Paris, 1912), p. 8.
5) William Chapman White, Adirondack Country, ed. Erskine Cadwell (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1954), p. 186.
6) Georges Bertin, Joseph Bonaparte en Amérique (Paris, 1893), p. 114.
7) Quoted ibid., p.108.
8) Patricia Tyson Stroud, The Emperor of Nature: Charles-Lucien Bonaparte and Hid World (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2000), p. 36.
9) Bertin, Joseph Bonaparte, p. 87.
10) Ibid.
11) Reuben Haines to Ann Haines, added to a letter from Jane Haines to Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Germantown, Pennsylvania, July 3, 1825 (Wyck Association Collection, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia).
12) Central Jersey Monthly, vol. 4 (March 1982), p. 26.
13) Bertin, Joseph Bonaparte, pp. 88-89.
14) Laura Capon et al., Il Museo napoleonico: Itinerario (Fratelli Palombi, Rome, 1986), p. 26.
15) "A Sketch of Joseph Buonaparte", Godey's Lady's Book, April 1845, p. 187.
16) Quoted in Bertin, Joseph Bonaparte, pp. 95-96.
17) James D. Magee, Bordentown, 1682-1932; An Illustrated Story of a Colonial Town (Bordentown Register, Bordentown, New Jersey, 1932), p. 78.
18) Wendy A. Cooper, Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840 (Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, and Abbeville Press, New York, 1993), p. 71.
19) Bertin, Joseph Bonaparte, pp. 94-95.
20) "A sketch of Joseph Bonaparte", p. 187.
21) Information on these auctions is by courtesy of David Scrase, curator of paintings, drawings, and prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England.
22) Joseph Bonaparte, Point Breeze, to [Joseph Hopkinson?], May 18, 1820 (Manuscript collection, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia).
23) Olivier W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (Rinehart, New York, 1949), p. 114.
24) The identity of the sitters in this portrait is the discovery of Francis James Dallet, former director of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and former archivist of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. In corresponding with a descendant of Caroline Charlotte, he was sent a photograph of a copy of the Bass Otis portrait, which he recognized at once as a painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Up to then it had been known as Portrait of a Lady with Her Two Children. He has kindly passed on this information to me.
25) See n. 11.
26) E.M. Woodward, Bonaparte's Park and the Murats (Trenton, New Jersey, 1879), p. 70.
27) Ibid.
28) John F. Watson, "Trip to Pennsbury & to Count Survilliers, 1826" (Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library, Winterthur, Delaware).
29) Cooper, Classical Taste in America, p. 68
30) The Annual Exhibition Record of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1807-1870, ed. Peter Hastings Falk (Sound View Press, Madison, Connecticut, 1988), vol. 1, p. 123.
31) Catalogue of Rare, Original Paintings, by the most renowned masters,… belonging to the Estate of the late Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, Ex-King of Spain, to be sold at his late residence, near Bordentown, by Antony J. Bleecker, Auctioneer, on Friday, June 25, 1847 at one o'clock P.M. [New York, 1847].
32) New Jersey: A Guide to Its Present and Past (Hastings House, New York, 1946), p. 212.



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