“Salut!: France Meets Philadelphia” is an informative, authoritative, and fun exploration of the French connection to the nearby City of Brotherly Love written by Temple University professors emeritus Lynn Miller (political science) and Therese Dolan (art history).
And while the city is close, the new Temple University Press book also shows how the French had a direct connection to regional culture, but more on that later.
Miller and Dolan quickly establish their argument. Through its first century, from the 1680s into the 1780s, Philadelphia was essentially a British colony chartered to William Penn. But the American Revolution pushed the leaders of both the city and the Revolution away from England to build alliances with the France.
“The diplomatic missions of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in Paris not only deepened their exposure to French Enlightenment ideas that would continue to shape the country’s ideas but also familiarized them with prominent artists and aesthetic traditions that would significantly impact late 18th century American art,” note the authors, who point out that many of the “iconic representations of our founding fathers” were done by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.
French financial support for the American Revolution and the active involvement of French figures like the charismatic Marquis de Lafayette additionally strengthen the bond with France and deepened the break from England.
The authors continue to note that while the French presence faded somewhat in the 19th century, “a number of individuals of French heritage contributed greatly to the intellectual and physical landscape of the city.” Included in that list is merchant and financier Stephen Girard; former aide-de-camp to Baron von Steuben and president of the American Philosophical Society Pierre Duponceau; master furniture maker (and great-great grandfather to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy) Michael Bouvier; and St. Augustine’s Church and the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul architect Napoleon LaBrun, and others.
Meanwhile, France became the choice for young Philadelphia artists who would become world figures themselves: Thomas Eakins, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Mary Cassatt. And French architects Paul Philippe Cret and Jacques Greber’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway brought a Parisian-style boulevard to the heart of the city.
It now connects the Second Empire-designed Philadelphia City Hall to the beaux arts-styled Philadelphia Art Museum and is home to two major collections of French art: the Barnes Foundation and the Rodin Museum.
The book is filled with insights and engaging stories — including Joseph Bonaparte’s arrival in Philadelphia and the impact of his decision to settle in Bordentown.
As Miller and Dolan note, “First (and conceivably the most refined) among the new wave of exiles was Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph (1768-1844), who had been the emperor’s instrument before his own fall. Napoleon had made him, first, king of Naples, then king of Spain. The latter was a throne Joseph held reluctantly — three times he tried to abdicate — until June 1813, when he fled to France from Spain after losing a battle against the Duke of Wellington . . .”
Once Joseph learned of Napoleon’s surrender, he set sail to American and arrived in New York.
“He chose Philadelphia as the place where he would establish himself. He contacted Stephen Girard, who found a spacious house for the exiled king to rent at Ninth and Locust streets. Over the next several years, Girard as was invaluable banker and adviser, transporting much of Bonaparte’s art and household furnishings across the Atlantic on his own ships.
“Bonaparte began to make plans for purchasing an estate where he might settle, live lavishly, and contribute his savior faire to American culture and manners. Over the next year or two, he created a country manor from property he purchased north of Philadelphia on the east bank of the Delaware River in Bordentown, New Jersey. Point Breeze, as it was named, lay almost opposite William Penn’s old planation, Pennsbury Manor, on the Pennsylvania side of the river.
“Before he bought this property and began extensive renovations there, the Count de Suvilliers leased one of the grandest mansions in the Philadelphia area as his temporary home. Lansdowne, in what is now Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, had been built by William Penn’s grandson John in 1773 when he served as Pennsylvania’s governor. Before the American Revolution, Penn and his wife made the greatest Middle Georgian house in the colonies Philadelphia’s social center. Bonaparte continued the tradition, entertaining other wellborn Frenchmen in exile and prominent Americans.
“Joseph moved to Point Breeze in Bordentown, and then built a new and much larger home, landscaping the extensive grounds into what became the first major picturesque landscape in America. He almost single-handedly revitalized the local economy employing so many from the Bordentown area to work on his property. Soon the estate was known locally as ‘Bonaparte’s Park.’ There, as in Philadelphia, the count entertained lavishly. Among the friendships he made . . . these Francophiles were among the city’s intellectual elite, active in the newly established Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the professional life of the city. Several were also members of the prestigious American Philosophical Society, to which Bonaparte himself was elected in 1823. Meanwhile, the count added parcels to his New Jersey property over the years until it contained some 1,800 acres. Even while he made Point Breeze his principle estate, Bonaparte soon rented another Philadelphia mansion from Stephen Girard for those moments when his activities took him to the city.”
As frequently noted in stories regarding Joseph Bonaparte, his Point Breeze mansion caught fire one night in 1820 when Bonaparte was away. Then “upon his return he discovered that neighbors had rushed into the burning house to salvage what they could of his treasures. He was so touched that he sent a letter to newspapers across the country that revealed both his gratitude and wonder at their selflessness: ‘This event has proved to me how much the inhabitants of Bordentown appreciate the interest I have always felt for them; and shows that men in general are good.’ He rebuilt on a different site and on a scale that rivaled the White House in size and grandeur. He enlisted Girard to ship his furnishings and paintings.”
The writers say he then ordered new furniture from a young Philadelphia cabinet maker, Michael Bouvier (1792-1874), “who was already creating furniture for Girard’s home on Water Street. Bouvier, a native of Pont-Saint-Esprit near Avignon, had been a soldier in Napoleon’s army who fled to America from France” after Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo. Interestingly Bouvier’s great-great granddaughter would show off a work Bouvier did for Bonaparte and that she possessed when she was married to President John F. Kennedy and hosted a celebrated television tour of the White House and its collection.
According to the writers, “Bonaparte’s rebuilt mansion contained in addition to an 8,000 book library — the largest in America — a picture gallery, state dining room, and grand staircase. An artificial lake and causeway were constructed. Beside the lake, Joseph had a house built for his daughter, Zenide, and her husband, Joseph’s nephew, Charles Lucian Bonaparte, who would soon make a name for himself as an ornithologist. The young couple joined her father at Point Breeze a year after their 1822 marriage in Europe.”
Also living at Point Breeze was Bonaparte’s other daughter, Charlotte, who had studied art with Jacque Louis David and created a series of artworks used for a French book of “Views of the New World.”
Concluding the Bonaparte portion of the book, Miller and Dolan note that “as he gathered ever more of his art collections at Point Breeze, he was generous in inviting the public to view it. He also loaned many of his paintings regularly to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as the behest of its president, Joseph Hopkinson (the Bordentown artist, poet, musician, and Declaration of Independence signer). His sociability generally won out over stern social disapproval of his sexual dalliances.”
But more important, they say, the count’s ability to “fit into democratic norms” encouraged others in the “confidence in the nation’s rightness of the nation’s experiment in democracy” and concludes with Bonaparte’s statement, “Every day that I pass in the hospitable land of the United States proves more clearly to me the excellence of republican institutions for America. Keep them, as a precious gift from heaven.”
The book in its own way is a gift for regional art and city lovers.
“Salut!: France Meets Philadelphia” by Lynn Miller and Therese Dolan, 400 pages, $40, Temple University Press.