The astonishing story of Joseph Bonaparte in New Jersey

From New Jersey, we mainly know the casinos of Atlantic City, Newark airport or the coastal region made famous by a reality TV show with colorful protagonists. It is difficult to imagine the relationship with Napoleon, but it is historically proven: it is indeed in this small border state of Pennsylvania and the State of New York that Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte chose to live, two centuries ago, his exile.

If the emperor was never able to escape from the island of Saint Helena to join the United States, a hypothesis explored in the Shannon Selin’s historical fiction, his older brother thrived there for twenty years. The former King of Naples (1806 to 1808) and then of Spain (1808 to 1813) had carefully prepared his flight: the «rand intruder» driven out of Spain, who had found refuge in his Swiss castle of Prangins in 1813, dreamed of America. The following year, at the time of the Napoleon’s first abdication, he had felt the wind turn and invested part of his fortune across the Atlantic, playing on his connections to obtain French and American passports.

An influencer of the XIXe century

When he arrives in New York, Bonaparte keeps a low profile: what reception will the American government guarantee him? He moved into a discreet guesthouse and used pseudonyms, such as “Monsieur Bouchard” or the “Count of Survilliers”. James Madison, fourth president of the United States, finally refuses to meet him but grants him hospitality. Bonaparte rents a house in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) but quickly acquires an 85 hectare estate on the Delaware River, Point Breeze.

The former king sees broad: he gradually buys the surrounding land and his kingdom soon reaches 720 hectares. Passionate about gardening, he spent huge sums of money to create what would be considered one of America’s first landscaped gardens – and inspire others. As he had done in Prangins and in his castle of Mortefontaine in the Oise, Bonaparte has nature modeled to his liking: an artificial lake is dug, hundreds of imported trees, deer released, roads, buildings and bridges built. The result must have delighted him: in letters to his daughters, he describes the region as “the most beautiful country in the world”.

Painting of the estate by Charles B. Lawrence (between 1817 and 1820). | Art Institute of Chicago via Wikimedia

In 1820, the original house was destroyed by fire (miraculously, valuables, works of art and furniture were saved). Joseph Bonaparte took the opportunity to replace it with a veritable palace of over 3,500 square meters inspired by Mortefontaine and Prangins. The master builder chosen to supervise the titanic works is a cabinetmaker of French origin named Michel Bouvier, an ancestor of Jacqueline Kennedy.

Rubens in America

Bordentown, the small town where Point Breeze is located, is easily accessible from Philadelphia and New York. Steamboats dock at Point Breeze several times a day, pouring out their flood of distinguished visitors: politicians and letters, diplomats, members of high society… Bonaparte patiently recreates his court and extends his influence. President John Quincy Adams, his secretary of state Henry Clay where the Marquis de Lafayette are among the guests. Everyone admired the munificence of the place: Empire furniture by renowned cabinetmakers, a breathtaking library (with its 8,000 books, it surpassed that of the Congress), decorative objects and works of art make the reputation of Point Breeze, considered as “The most beautiful house in the United States after the White House”. Bonaparte lived there for more than twenty years, intermittently, before finally joining Europe in 1839.

Although he had to abandon many possessions in his flight, Joseph Bonaparte was not helpless: in his suitcases or in those of his faithful, European treasures arrived in America. There is no precise inventory of the booty of the “intruder king”, who took advantage of his position to plunder Spain, but he had to abandon hundreds when he lost it. battle of vitoria facing Wellington in 1813 (which, scarcely more scrupulous, brought back in Britain masterpieces and other war-captures to – one imagines – strong symbolic significance, such as the famous travel chamber pot in silver by Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte).

Joseph Bonaparte has assembled the largest collection of European art ever seen in America.

Fortunately, he had managed to save enough paintings to amaze the gallery: more than 150 paintings by Flemish, Italian, Spanish, French masters. Rubens, Titian, Snyders, Murillo, Rembrandt, Goya, Leonard de Vinci… It brings together the most important collection of European art ever seen in America, which will leave a strong impression on the taste of the time. One of the most emblematic was enthroned in the billiard room: the first version of the equestrian portrait painted by Jacques-Louis David of Joseph’s brother, The First Consul crossing the Alps at the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass (May 1800). This version (the only one representing Napoleon in a yellow coat, instead of red for the following ones) is today hanging on a wall of the Château de la Malmaison in France.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), The First Consul crossing the Alps at the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass (1800), Malmaison castle. | kb.dk pic via Wikimedia

The other works will be scattered, such as the sumptuous jewels of the Spanish Crown which had traveled illegally to the United States. Sold by Bonaparte to ensure his lifestyle or auctioned after his death (he died in Italy in 1844), these rarities have joined private collections, museums or even the White House. From the sumptuous dream of Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte, only ruins, a bridge and the gardener’s house remain: it is she who will welcome before the end of the year. the permanent collection, mainly made up of hundreds of letters, crockery, objects and furniture that belonged to Joseph Bonaparte and patiently collected by an American lawyer, Peter Tucci, for a quarter of a century.

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