I’ve been doing research into Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte―the ex-king of Naples and Spain―and his twenty-year stay in the United States. Along the way, I learned to my surprise that Jacques-Louis David’s grand painting of Napoleon’s coronation (see my recent blog) had visited the United States in 1826. That set me off investigating.
I knew that after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the Bourbon king’s restoration the painting belonged to the French state. Understandably, Napoleon’s regal competitors didn’t wish to display the glory of the “Upstart Emperor.” It wasn’t until 1838 that the Louvre once again exhibited Napoleon’s coronation painting.
So how was it that the great work traveled to the U.S. in 1826 five years after Napoleon’s death? Who would have risked its loss in such a perilous journey?
Thanks to the purchase of a book devoted to the painting (photo on the right), I found out. Its painter Jacques-Louis David, self-exiled in Brussels after Napoleon’s fall, had crafted a copy! Upset that “the original no longer exists as far as the public is concerned,” he sent his son Eugène to London and beyond to exhibit the copy of his great work. From 1826 to 1827, it traveled to New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
Did Joseph Bonaparte, who at the time lived in Bordentown, NJ and owned a residence in Philadelphia, view the work in which he and his then-deceased brother played such a glorious role? What memories that painting would have evoked in Joseph’s homesick mind! Indeed, during the momentous coronation, Napoleon had turned to his brother, saying, “If only our father could see us now.”
Yet, I haven’t found any mention that Joseph attended the Philadelphia exhibit. But I will keep looking (and imagining).
The copy of Le Sacre, as the French call David’s Coronation painting, now hangs in Versailles, where you may be sure I will visit it on my next trip to France.