Vincent Nolte: Reminiscences of an extraordinary businessman
A 19th-century businessman with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, Vincent Nolte had a long career on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a merchant, financier, caricaturist, medallion maker and writer. He made and lost more than one fortune, encountered Napoleon, Andrew Jackson, the Marquis de Lafayette, Queen Victoria and other luminaries, and left a highly entertaining book recounting his adventures.
Impressions of Napoleon
Vincent Nolte was born on November 21, 1779 in Leghorn (Livorno, Italy) to German parents. When Nolte was nine, the family moved to his father’s native Hamburg, where young Vincent received his education. In 1795, he returned to Leghorn to apprentice as a clerk in his uncle’s mercantile house. He was there when the French Revolutionary army invaded Italy, then under Austrian rule. In 1796, Nolte beheld the conquering General Napoleon Bonaparte in person:
I saw before me a diminutive, youthful-looking man in simple uniform; his complexion was pallid and of almost yellowish hue, and long sleek jet-black hair, like that of the Talapouche Indians of Florida, hung down over both ears. This was the victor of Arcola! … [A]round his mouth played a constant smile with which the rest of mankind had, evidently, nothing to do; for the cold, unsympathizing glance that looked out of his eyes showed that the mind was busied elsewhere. Never did I see such a look! It was the dull gaze of a mummy, only that a certain ray of intelligence revealed the inner soul, yet gave but a feeble reflection of light. (1)
Napoleon upbraided Nolte’s uncle for appearing in what he mistakenly perceived as a British uniform – an anecdote Nolte recounts to Félix Formento and François Guillemin as they ponder Napoleon’s intentions in Napoleon in America.
In 1797 Nolte returned to Hamburg to work for his father. In 1804, he took employment with a mercantile house in Nantes. Stopping in Paris en route to the new job, Nolte saw the freshly-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon holding a military review at the Place du Carrousel. He observed Napoleon
surrounded by a brilliant staff and uniforms of every description riding up and down through the ranks, then galloping swiftly outside the inner courtyard, in front of the ranks of cavalry ranged along there, amid the shouts of Vive l’Empereur, until his horse suddenly stumbled and fell, and he rolled on the earth, holding the reins of the bridle fast in his hand, but leaped to his feet in a moment, before even a part of his general staff, who came dashing up at full speed, could yield him any assistance. The newspapers observed profound silence in regard to this occurrence, but I must confess that, as I witnessed it, a thought of its ominous character impressed me at once. (2)
As you may have gathered, Nolte was no fan of Napoleon’s, particularly as he felt the Emperor mistreated Nolte’s friend, the French financier Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard.
A Trans-Atlantic businessman
In 1805 Nolte travelled to the United States as the agent of a commercial house in Amsterdam. He spent the next 35 years going between America and Europe, travelling widely in the United States and living there for years at a time, primarily in New Orleans. He was there during the War of 1812, and fought as a volunteer on the American side in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.
Later in 1815 Nolte was back in France, where he saw the Duke of Wellington.
[T]here was no one in all Paris that rode about more fearlessly than the Duke of Wellington: he showed himself everywhere, and usually in a simple blue overcoat, with the red English scarf around his waist, and the usual military chapeau on his head, decorated with a white and red plume. He was generally followed by a single orderly-sergeant on horseback. (3)
Nolte visited the battlefield of Waterloo nine months after the battle and, by fortunate chance, claimed to have as a guide the same peasant who had guided Napoleon.
Nolte returned to New Orleans in 1816 and started his own commercial house, which speculated in cotton, among other things. Though he was one of the loudest critics of the Laffite brothers during the height of their smuggling escapades, Nolte had few qualms about providing arms and munitions to filibustering expeditions to Texas. He was also the Prussian consul in New Orleans. In 1819 he bought a house at 710 Toulouse Street, now known as the Court of the Two Lions for the figures that crouch atop the gate posts at the courtyard entrance.
Around 1820 Nolte married Lisida Fevé, the daughter of a former French naval officer. He described his wife as “remarkable, not only for her rare beauty, but for good tact – that substitute for a powerful mind which good Nature grants to women.” (4) They had two sons, both of whom died in early adulthood, and three daughters, the youngest of whom died in infancy.
In 1824, Nolte accompanied General Lafayette on his voyage up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Natchez.
Where the houses were numerous…the boat would stop and the general would receive the deputations that came on board to greet him….Of course in most instances the speaker was more occupied in exhibiting his cleverness and oratorical talent than with the object of his mission or a desire to give pleasure to the hearer. And the good general had no remedy for this evil, but was compelled to listen attentively to the longest, stupidest, wordiest discourses possible. So soon as the infliction was brought to an end, he always had ready a few suitable and flattering words. The ease with which he performed this task greatly astonished me. I could not refrain one day from asking him how he managed always to reply to the most silly and idealess speeches. ‘My friend,’ he answered, ‘it is not hard. I listen with great attention until the speaker drops something that pleases me, or that gives opportunity for a repartee, and then I think about my reply and arrange it; but all the rest I do not hear a syllable – it all blows over me. (5)
In 1825 Nolte’s firm was caught out by a big drop in the price of cotton. In early 1826 he declared insolvency and had to liquidate his business to pay his creditors.
He returned to Europe in 1829 and was in Paris during the July 1830 revolution that unseated Charles X of France. Nolte obtained a contract to supply arms to the War Ministry of King Louis Philippe, but by 1834 was ruined in this business thanks to untrustworthy partners. He travelled to Italy, winding up on a steamer with Napoleon’s youngest brother Jerome and the Countess Camerata (Elisa Napoléone Baciocchi), daughter of Napoleon’s dead sister Elisa.
The Countess was a great lump of flesh, with her uncle’s face, only stupified. Jerome appeared to me exactly as the history of 1814 had described him, a man whose personal insignificance rendered the dignity he desired naturally impossible. (6)
Encountering Queen Victoria
Notwithstanding his business career, Nolte had artistic leanings from an early age and was fond of drawing caricatures. He was a friend of the French painter Paul Delaroche. In 1832, Nolte started a business with Delaroche and others that involved a new method of producing copper-plate engravings. He produced prints that reproduced rare medallions and bas-reliefs.
Now in London, Nolte’s next project was to make a medallion portrait of the young Queen Victoria based on sculptor Henry Weekes’ bust of her – the first of Victoria as Queen.
Weekes told me that when he began, the queen observed that most portrait painters drew her with her mouth open, which was not very becoming, and would he be so good as to shut it a little. Her majesty possesses what is called a ‘rabbit’s mouth;’ that is, the two front teeth project over the under lip. The queen was as positive in her wishes as a large mouthed French lady who once sat to Jarvis, and puzzled him by requesting him ‘to put a little mouse in her face.’ (7)
When Nolte came to present copies of his medallion to the Queen, he found her thus:
The door opened, and a young lady, with a couple of heavy locks fallen about her face, entered hastily, followed by the baroness and two ladies of honor. Yet it was not a hasty step, but rather a waddle, like that – I say it with reverence – of a duck. At the first glance, the uplifted dress permitted me to remark that her instep was not like that of the Venus de Medicis, but on the contrary, that her Majesty was flat-footed. (8)
Unrelated to the medallion, Nolte was imprisoned for debt in Queen’s Bench prison for three and a half months. He was released in time to see Victoria’s coronation procession, then returned to the United States in late 1838, resumed his role in the cotton business, and was briefly imprisoned for debt in New Orleans. In August 1839 he returned by steamer to Europe. One of his fellow passengers was Achille Murat, son of Napoleon’s sister Caroline.
Murat was a good-natured, jovial fellow, who had forgotten all about his princely youth and gave promise of being enormously fat. (9)
Nolte was thus back in Europe for the 1848 revolutions. Broke, he tried to better his circumstances by writing. He edited a free-trade journal in Hamburg, which had to close for want of means and subscribers. He published works including View of the Commercial World in 1846 and a revised edition of William Benecke’s System of Insurance (Hamburg, 1852). He also penned his memoirs, which were completed in May 1853 in German. The English translation – Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres; or, Reminiscences of a Merchant’s Life – was published in 1854.
A mix of fact and fiction, the memoirs exhibit Nolte’s vanity as well as his storytelling ability and acerbic wit. As you can see from the selections above, Nolte claimed to have been directly involved in almost all the extraordinary events of his time.
As a reviewer in The Athenaeum noted:
Here is a clerk – a financier – a merchant, whose life contains more of adventure, more of variety in scene and of change in fortune, more of intercourse with celebrated men and women, than falls to the lots of hundreds of those whom the world regards as occupying lofty and romantic places. Vincent Nolte, if he tells his story truly, has touched all extremes in life, – been one of the wealthiest and one of the poorest of men. He has been a poor clerk in a poor magazine at Leghorn, and a trusted partner in the house of one of the most princely firms in Europe. One day he is a commercial magnate…another day he is a wanderer and a beggar. Now he is closeted with a minister, and now he is writing squibs and translations for bread. He speculated in cotton, and lent money to the Pope. He intrigued with Opera girls, and mingle in the schemes of Nicholas Biddle. He spat venom at General Bonaparte, and played practical jokes with Audubon, the naturalist. He gave advice in money matters to the Austrian minister, Kübeck, and fought under General Jackson at New Orleans. He was the friend of Lafayette, and a commissary of Louis Philippe…. He was a ship-builder at Pittsburgh, and a prisoner in the Queen’s Bench in London. At New Orleans he received three ships laden with specie, – at Venice he was indebted to the monks for a crust. (10)
Another reviewer sardonically observed:
It was exceedingly improper on the part of Congress to declare war with Great Britain, just as Nolte had taken and furnished his house; but Lord bless you, Congress is always doing something. The fact is, that the war was declared, and our friend had only time to make a hundred thousand dollars or so, break a leg, arrange the affairs of the Bank of New Orleans, fight a duel…and arrange preliminaries for a second…when General Jackson came furiously down upon Louisiana and put a stop to all amusements. (11)
The Athenaeum concludes:
[It is] a volume full of anecdote and gossip, character and humour. Some of the stories are doubtful: many of the facts and figures are open to correction. But the amusing interest of the book is independent of the exactness of facts. (12)
I recommend it to you: https://archive.org/details/inbothhemispheres00noltrich.
Nolte died in 1856; I’m not sure where. He appears as a character in Anthony Adverse by William Hervey Allen (1933), which was made into a 1936 film starring Frederic March and Olivia de Havilland.
You might also enjoy:
- Vincent Nolte, Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres; or, Reminiscences of a Merchant’s Life (London, 1854), pp. 28-29.
- Ibid., p. 44.
- Ibid., p. 244.
- Ibid., p. 282.
- Ibid., p. 321.
- Ibid., p. 390.
- Ibid., p. 409.
- Ibid., p. 410.
- Ibid., p. 428.
- The Athenaeum, No. 1399, August 19, 1854, p. 1009.
- Donald MacLeod, “The History of a Cosmopolite,” Putnam’s Monthly, September 1854, p, 328.
- The Athenaeum, No. 1399, August 19, 1854, p. 1013.
Chance…has brought remarkable events, remarkable men and extraordinary business-combinations directly under my eyes, has kept my mental faculties in constant exercise and has made me acquainted …with a succession of distinguished personages.