Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Greatest Art Museum that Never Was

Finding a great art museum in Europe is not exactly difficult, there is one in almost every major city in Europe.  But there is one museum that just never quite came together, the magnificent Museo Josefino.

Immediately, of course, you are thinking:  “Joe who?”

If you are a regular reader, you probably know that I am referring to Joseph Napoleon.  After all, I’ve written about damn near every member of the family.  (Except Jerome-Napoleon Patterson Bonaparte, the great-grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.  The last of the American branch of the Bonaparte line was walking his dog in Central Park in 1943, when he tripped over the leash, cracked his skull open on the ground and died. Now, I’ve collected the entire set.)

There must have been something in the Bonaparte genes that just compelled them to gather art.  Of course, it was much easier since there is no proof that anyone in the family ever actually paid for the pieces in their collections.  Art is much, much cheaper on the midnight market after you apply the five-fingered discount.

Joseph was no exception, wherever he went, people just happily gave him priceless works of art, while the French Army just stood behind him cleaning their weapons.  After his younger brother had made him the French Ambassador to Rome, Joseph had quickly “borrowed” artworks from the Pope and had shipped them home to France.  Unfortunately, the ship sank and all that art was lost.  Joseph was good at collecting art, and spectacularly bad at holding onto it.

Before Joe had time to “borrow” a new boatload, his brother gave him a couple of small promotions, making his big brother, first, the King of Naples, then, King of Spain (this latter over the objections of almost no one—except the people of Spain, who were a little upset at having a Frenchman sitting on the Spanish throne.  They were also a little concerned that for some reason, the Pope had excommunicated Joseph.   (Maybe his Holiness was a little pissed at all the vacant walls around the Vatican?)

In Spain, Joseph began amassing his new collection, and none too soon, as Napoleon immediately ordered his older brother to promptly ship “50 masterpieces” to Paris. Napoleon was planning to completely revamp the Louvre, making it the new, larger, grander, and more magnificent Museé Napoléon.

Whereas Joseph could only steal art from one country at a time, his little brother (pun intended) could steal from multiple continents.  He had already looted Egypt, grabbing treasures like the Rosetta Stone.  (Which of course, the British promptly captured and took to England; museum building was a highly competitive international sport.)

As soon as he arrived in Spain, Joseph eagerly began gathering the art, but he had no intention of shipping any of the treasures north of the Pyrenees.  Stalling his brother repeatedly, Joseph was planning his own museum, the Museo Josefino.  To that end, he began gathering the art from the Escorial, from various churches and from the homes of the wealthy, storing his plunder in a damp, moldy warehouse near The Prado, which Joseph intended to rebuild and remake into his own future museum.

No one wanted the French in Spain, so it didn’t take long for the Spanish people, the Portuguese Army and the British Army to combine to move against the French Army in Spain.  By January, 1813, Napoleon, realizing that Madrid was lost, blamed the failure on his brother and ordered Joseph to retreat to Valladolid in order to hold on to Northern Spain.  Joseph—predictably—waited too late to retreat, in part because it took awhile to cut  the canvases from their wooden frames and pile them on top of carts.  One soldier reported that the supply train of the retreating army resembled a mobile brothel. 

The entire supply train was captured by the British, with most of the art becoming the property of the lucky soldiers who grabbed them.  Priceless treasures were smuggled out of Spain and found their way to the art market, where they sold for handsome prices.  The Rokeby Venus and the Arnolfini Portrait, ended up in England even though the British Army’s brass tried its best to find and return as many pieces of art to the Spanish government as possible.

There is clear evidence that some military units may not have tried very hard to return the artwork, however.  To this day, the 14th Light Dragoons entertain visitors at mess dinners with champagne served in King Joseph’s silver chamber pot.  As the inscription says the vessel was a gift from Napoleon, the unit proudly call themselves the Emperor’s Chambermaids.

Poor Joseph was able to flee with only the barest of necessities, abandoning all the artwork that was supposed to be the foundation of his museum.  Luckily, though, the “barest of necessities” included the crown jewels of Spain.  Diamonds—don’t leave home without them.

Several pockets full of jewels came in real handy for Joseph after his brother lost at Waterloo.  For some reason, the job market for ex-kings was rather limited.  Joseph even took out an ad in the London Times:  Position wanted.  King.  Can furnish my own crown.

So, where do ex-kings end up living?  In New Jersey.  On a large estate just north of Philadelphia, the former monarch lived a luxurious life, occasionally selling off the odd loose jewel or painting to gather enough cash to continue to live like….well, royalty.

Calling himself Comte de Survilliers, though his neighbors called him Mr. Bonaparte, the former king of Naples and Spain lived rather large.  He built a simple country mansion, complete with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a wine cellar, marble fireplace, crystal chandeliers, and long sweeping staircases.  The library was the largest in the nation, containing more volumes than the Library of Congress.

The grounds were just as elaborate.  An artificial lake stocked with imported swans, fountains, gazebos, and ten miles of landscaped carriage paths.  You know, s simple cabin in the country.

Joseph had managed to bring a surprising amount of treasure with him, but somehow forgot to bring his wife.  After twenty-five years in America, as his health declined, Joseph returned to Europe.  It was probably the shock of being reunited with his wife that killed him.

Though the Museo Josefino never quite got built, there are a few traces of it left.  When King Ferdinand was restored to the throne, he had piles of artwork to deal with, so he went ahead and used the building that Joseph had selected for his museum, The Prado.

Although Joseph’s 50,000 acre estate in New Jersey was eventually sold, along with most of the art in the interior, it was at the time of the sale, the largest collection of fine art in America—sort of an American version of the Museo Josefino.  Today, many of the works that formerly were displayed in his house are now part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

1 comment:

  1. What is it with European despots and artwork that makes thieves of respectable tyrants?