Today's letter would not have been possible without the help of Alexandre Tissot-Demidoff, who provided us with the subject and all of the necessary materials. His original article was very detailed and we were forced to shorten it significantly. We tried not to alter the gist of the article, and hope we succeeded.
Alexandre Tissot Demidoff is extensively involved in promoting the educational cultural, and charitable institutions originally created by generations of Demidoffs in his capacity as European Representative of the International Demidoff Foundation. Alexandre was educated at the London School of Economics from 1983 to 1985 where he was a Reader in Russian Studies under Professors Dominic Lieven and Leonard Schapiro. Alexandre is a direct descendant of the Demidoffs of San Donato.
We are going to tell an interesting, but little known, story of the
19th century. It centers around Anatole Demidoff, one of the most famous
patrons of arts and art collectors of the time, a representative of the
Demidoff family, which was a dynasty of Russian industrialists (see their
page on our website), and Princess Mathilde, niece of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Demidoff, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1813, inherited the fabulous
wealth that had been amassed over the previous hundred years by his family
of iron masters and weapon suppliers to the Imperial armies, owners of
rich mines of iron ore, gems and semi-precious stones in the Urals and
Anatole Demidoff was educated in Europe, principally in Paris, and, as soon as his father, Nikolay Demidoff, died, he settled there firmly, expressing no wish to return to his homeland, and spending big sums of money on charity outside Russia. This, of course, aroused very strong antipathy on the part of the Tsar, Nicholas I. Even a very sufficient contribution to the study of Crimea and the south of Russia – Anatole organized and financed a serious scientific expedition to the lands and devoted the largest of the treatises, consisting of six volumes, to the Tsar himself – did not improve his attitude. On the contrary, the Tsar was irritated by the fact that all the members of the expedition were French.
In Paris and Italy, at his Villa San Donato, Anatole lived the extravagant life of a dandy, spending fortunes on expensive cloths, jewelry, multiple mistresses and all kinds of whims. Anatole would also establish himself in these early years as a connoisseur and fearless collector of ‘modern’ art, following in the footsteps of generations of his forebears. He was a passionate and knowledgeable patron of the painters of the Romantic Age including Paul Delaroche, Eugène Delacroix, Eugène Lami, and Auguste Raffet, among others. Anatole commissioned numerous paintings from Paul Delaroche including the influential Execution of Lady Jane Grey in 1834 that today is in the National Gallery in London. This painting, together with the Death of Poussin, by Francois Granet, which was acquired earlier in 1833, were the two most popular works at the Salon of 1834. Anatole instinctively gravitated to the giants of the Modern Romantic Art Movement: Eugène Delacroix, who was given a number of commissions, Richard Parkes Bonington, whose watercolours Anatole collected in large numbers, and Théodore Géricault, whose watercolours of horses was added to the collections (Noon 2003). Anatole also purchased at the most prominent auctions, such as the Duchess of Berry sale in 1837 where, with assistance from his close friend and important artist Auguste Raffet, he acquired thirteen Dutch and Flemish ‘Old Masters’. These included the masterpieces, The Swearing of the Oath of the Treaty of Munster by Gerard Ter Borch, today found at the National Gallery in London, and The Forest by Meindert Hobbema, among others by Jacob Van Ruysdael, Adrian Van Ostade, and Aelbert Cuyp.
However, unknown to Anatole, reports were reaching the Russian Court at St. Petersburg describing Anatole’s fascination with the Napoleonic Cult, articles in French newspapers about the Russian feudal system – which the Tsar did not want advertised –, and a lifestyle centered on extravagance rather than promoting Russian affairs. The Tsar Nicholas I and members of his Court responded with outrage to the growing stream of reports.
In 1839 with the help of the writer and journalist Jules Janin, his friend and a participant of the Southern Russia expedition, Anatole was invited to visit Jérôme Bonaparte, Prince de Montfort and the former King of Westphalia, the brother of Napoleon, now in exile at Villa di Quarto in Florence. Anatole, whose admiration of the Emperor was overwhelming, could not lose an opportunity to meet the relatives of the great man. He was enchanted by the young Princess Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904), Jérôme's daughter, who Jules noted was ‘in white and rose, without ambition, charming, inoffensive, beautiful, and gracious for her eighteen years, she received them like a young parisienne. After lunch, she danced like a simple italienne, she was gracious, naïve, and charming’ (Janin 1839, page 206). There was a fireworks display over the Arno River that evening. Jules and Anatole concluded that they had found not only a beautiful princess but one that was naïve, innocent, and timid. Their understanding of Mathilde’s character would prove incomplete and in parts false. She was, in fact, an ‘emancipated’ and independent young lady, whose 'best' traits were revealed after she married Anatole.
persuaded Anatole to consider marriage with Mathilde seriously – the Demidoffs
could strengthen their aristocratic status, because Jérôme,
though a 'fresh' noble himself, had been married to the Princess of Würtemberg,
a cousin of the Tsar. At the same time Anatole could become a member of
the Bonaparte family, whose head, Napoleon, was his idol (and remained
such all his life despite the scandalous quarrel with the living Bonapartes).
But it was not so easy for Anatole, if he was going to ask for Mathilde’s
hand he would first need to resolve seversl important obstacles, the most
significant of which was the Tsar's permission.
All the direct participants, Anatole, Mathilde and her father, were highly interested in the engagement. Anatole for the above mentioned reasons; Mathilde, because it was her chance to escape the bored and frustrated life in exile among her father's successive mistresses; Jérôme's main purpose was to sell off his daughter at the highest price, and the Russian 'Napoleon-admirer', with his crazy billions, suited him nicely.
Spendthrift and always insolvent Jérôme Bonaparte (1784-1860),
the youngest of Napoleon’s four brothers, typically receives harsh treatment
from even the earliest historians (Conservateur 1829). Fifteen years
separated him in age from Napoleon and of all the brothers it was only
Jérôme who had never known hard times. His early years
were dominated by the ascendancy of his brother and his ‘star’ to become
the most powerful man in Europe. Aged fifteen, Jérôme
came to live at the Tuileries with Napoleon and Josephine in 1799 following
the completion of his college courses. Napoleon was constantly frustrated
with the huge debts his young brother managed to accumulate immediately
after he settled the previous ones.
By 1840 Jérôme Bonaparte was as penniless as usual. He was unable to provide Mathilde with any kind of dowry and was using the pretext of his daughter’s upcoming marriage to raise money for himself never intending for them to form part of Mathilde’s dowry! A large price would have to be paid if Anatole expected to enter the family.
After very long and complicated negotiations a pre-nuptial agreement was signed.
It was agreed that Mathilde’s dowry totalled 290,000 French Francs of which FF 50,000 was composed of her personal jewellery, wardrobe, and musical instruments. The balance of FF 240,000 was payable in cash and was to be presented to her future husband and if unpaid to Anatole’s heir(s) without fail on demand and within a month of his death. In the event that Anatole’s death preceded Mathilde's an amount of FF 500,000 was payable to Anatole’s heir(s). At the time, a French Franc was a gold coin, about 1/4 of an ounce in weight. In present terms that is around 75 U.S. dollars – forming a collosal sum.
To make this arrangement even odder, Anatole was proclaimed the owner
of his wife’s ‘diamonds’, due to further machinations by Jérôme.
Although Jérôme agreed to provide the dowry he pleaded a lack
of cash. So to ensure that Jérôme kept his side of the
bargain Anatole agreed to pay off Jérôme’s debt and to raise
cash by purchasing relics of the Empire from Jérôme, to be
moved to his Villa di San Donato and his hotel in Paris. Anatole
purchased a statue of the Emperor for FF 11,000 and statues of Jérôme
and Madame Mère for FF 10,000 each. Jérôme then proceeded
to sell the jewels of Catherine of Wurtemberg, worth FF 1,000,000, to Anatole,
though they should have been the original contents of Mathilde’s dowry.
The future son-in-law not only upheld his agreed-upon obligations but was
also forced to galvanise and support the obligations of his future father-in-law
to prevent the wedding plans from collapsing. The sad situation in the
end was that Anatole’s generous aid for his future father-in-law went for
nought. Not one cent was ever contributed by Jérôme towards
Mathilde’s dowry. In addition to her wardrobe, furniture and musical instruments
what her father provided were two snuff boxes, an imperial eagle in silver,
and the sword of Francois I, taken by Napoleon’s troops during the Peninsular
War (Cars 1996).
Jérôme and family members received an annual pension of FF 118,000 from Anatole. Of this FF 24,000 was for the father, FF 6,000 for his son, FF 1,200 for Madame de Redding, Mathilde’s good friend and minder, and FF 85,000 for Mathilde. This deceit seeped into the foundation of the marriage and acted like poison to contribute towards its dissolution in six short years.
The marriage was celebrated on 3 November 1840 in both a Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic religious service. After mass, the countess Julie Clary, King Joseph’s estranged wife, presided over an elaborate lunch. Mathilde was resplendent in a white silk wedding gown from London, wearing her mother’s pearls and new jewellery with ‘Napoleonic’ motifs especially commissioned for the occasion by Anatole from Chaumet. Mathilde’s cousin and the son of Queen Hortense, Louis-Napoleon, wrote from his prison in the Fort of Ham to congratulate the newlyweds. They, of course, attempted to be in Paris in December on the occasion of the return of the Emperor’s remains, but Anatole was recalled to St. Petersburg instead to explain the confusing arrangements made with the Vatican on the religion of any children resulting from the marriage.
The newlyweds came to St. Petersburg in the March of 1841. The Tsar,
who strongly opposed the marriage but needed a good pretext to ruin it,
chose a clever line of behaviour. He was "charmed" by his cousin and the
Court distinguished her in all possible ways, while at the same time publicly
humiliating her husband. Young Mathilde was caught in the trap and visited
receptions to which her husband was not invited. Demidoff felt bitter about
his wife's ascendancy and soon returned to his unmarried style of life.
The Demidoffs' entry to Paris at last took place on 17 August 1841. While riding in the carriage to Anatole’s hotel, Mathilde overcome with emotion near the Arc d’Triomphe instinctively jumped out and kissed a startled French soldier in uniform on both cheeks. When they arrived at Anatole’s residence on 109 rue Saint Dominique at seven that evening Mathilde saw The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche hanging on the wall, among other commissioned modern works and ‘Old Masters’, together with Empire furniture purchased from King Jérôme. That night Mathilde did not sleep from excitement and the following day the couple visited Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides.
By the time the Demidoffs received the Tsar's permission to leave Russia, their marriage was already in trouble. First they attempted to maintain appearances in public. Both were guilty of adultery, but strangely enough, Mathilde was not prepared to bear the huge expenses of Anatole infidelities, rather than the fact of their existence. Once Mathilde stooped to insulting Anatole's mistress in public at a fancy-dress ball. Anatole, in his turn, did not find anything better to do than slap his wife across her face. After that he became "a monster", "a brutal savage" and so on in the eyes of the refined French public.
In September 1846 Mathilde, determined to separate from Anatole, fled
from his hotel with her lover, the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, taking back her
family jewelry, which her father had sold to Anatole, and corresponding
moral compensation from Anatole's family jewelry. In this moment
of crisis Mathilde turned for help to her cousin, Tsar Nicholas I.
She sent him correspondence explaining the basis of her momentous decision.
Tsar Nicholas was only glad to oblige.
Unfortunately, Anatole and his behavior were ‘blackened’ and most likely beyond all recognition in the correspondence. Anatole pleaded for Mathilde to return and, in co-ordination with his father-in-law offered her lodging at Jérôme’s residence. His personal letters to Mathilde were short on tact and understanding. Anatole lambasted her decision to move out of her lover’s residence and into a religious convent while she awaited the Czar’s instruction as “the most ridiculous combination of decisions of our times”. He also reminded Mathilde of her duty commenting that “her mother, who had been a Queen, had left a lasting legacy to the world after the loss of her throne, by steadfastly remaining attached to the destiny of her husband… and thus gaining the highest esteem and honour as a wife.” (Demidoff Fonds).
The Tsar, staying on a private visit to Florence, arranged the terms of their separation. Demidoff was ordered back to St. Petersburg, and Princess Mathilde was granted a very substantial alimony, which enabled her to settle in Paris with her lover.
The stolen diamonds would play an important part in the return of the Second Empire. In November 1848 Mathilde placed Anatole’s diamonds as collateral for a bank loan of FF 500,000 with the proceeds given to her cousin, Louis-Napoleon, in his bid to win the election for the Presidency of France. The Bonapartes were returned to power and Mathilde was elevated to the second most important lady of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. For his part, Anatole would never see the return of his diamonds, which were later sold at an auction in 1904, or restitution of the promised dowry. Although in the art world Demidoff provenance would come to signify the highest quality for collectors such as the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rothschilds, Anatole’s political contribution in the important events that returned the Bonapartes to power would remain untold in the historical record.
The story of Anatole and Mathilde begins as a fairy tale that goes horribly
wrong. In the beginning, they married for love, as Mathilde recounts
in her letters from this period. They shared a knowledgeable and
passionate interest in art and Anatole’s collections of Dutch Masters and
the Romantic Artists expanded with the influence of Mathilde. However,
the King of Westphalia’s inability to honour his obligation towards payment
of the dowry deeply embittered Anatole. This situation was compounded when
Jérôme used Mathilde to plead for additional money. Finally,
Anatole’s open and brash affair with Valentine was insupportable for the
independent and emancipated Mathilde. After the separation Anatole pursued
a vigorous, relentless, and open legal challenge against Mathilde to secure
the return of his property and the restitution of the dowry. The
Mathilde’s response, along with her circle of literary friends, was a series
of cruel and personal attacks in the media that to this day has unfairly
and negatively tainted Anatole and the contribution of the Demidoffs
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