Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David, 1821. Charlotte is on the left, behind Zénaïde. Painted in Brussels, the sisters are reading a letter from their father Joseph, who is in America.

The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David, 1821. Charlotte is on the left, behind Zénaïde. Painted in Brussels, the sisters are reading a letter from their father Joseph, who is in America.

Though not considered beautiful, Charlotte Bonaparte – the daughter of Napoleon’s brother Joseph – was intelligent and cultivated, with a romantic temperament. Known for her talent as an artist, Charlotte lived with her father in the United States for three years, where she drew and painted a number of landscapes. In Europe, she studied with Jacques-Louis David and with Louis-Léopold Robert, who killed himself when his passion for her was not requited. Constrained by Napoleon’s will to marry her cousin, Charlotte made the best of the situation, though her short marriage ended in sorrow. She herself died in sad circumstances at a relatively young age.

A Bonaparte princess

Charlotte Napoléone Bonaparte was born in Mortefontaine, France on October 31, 1802. She was the second child of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte and his wife Julie Clary. Charlotte’s sister Zénaïde had been born a year earlier. In appearance, Charlotte took after her mother: small and thin and not considered a beauty, though she did have lovely large, dark eyes. In temperament, she was more like her father, with a zest for life and a passion for art and literature.

Charlotte, who was known to her family as Lolotte, grew up at her father’s country estate in Mortefontaine and at the family’s house in Paris. Apart from spending three months in Naples in 1808, Charlotte, Zénaïde and Julie stayed in France while Joseph was king of Naples and then of Spain. Joseph adored his daughters and missed them. He also considered their dynastic possibilities. Joseph, who thought he should be recognized as Napoleon’s successor instead of his younger brother Louis’s eldest son, wrote to Julie from Naples on March 22, 1806:

If it would enter among the Emperor’s arrangements to marry Zénaide or Lolotte with Napoléon [Louis’s son, whom Napoleon wanted to adopt], instead of a stranger, I would be happy since, by adopting our nephew, the Emperor could amass on him all his affections without my honour being wounded…. It is more than likely that we will not have any boys: in that case, what would be more glorious for me than to centre all my affections on the same child, who would also become mine? I think you could say a few words to the Emperor about it, if he offers you the opportunity….

I would give all the empires in the world for a cuddle of my big Zénaïde and a cuddle of my little Lolotte. (1)

Charlotte Bonaparte was not yet 13 when her father escaped to the United States after Napoleon’s 1815 abdication. Julie and the girls remained in Paris until they, too, were forced into exile. They went first to Frankfurt, where they lived until 1820. They then moved to Brussels. Though life was not as luxurious as it had been, Charlotte – who started drawing lessons at an early age – had the good fortune to study in Brussels under Jacques-Louis David, considered to be one of the best painters of the time.

Countess of Survilliers

Joseph asked Julie to join him in America, or at least to send him one or both of their daughters. Though the bit about Louis Mailliard arriving with her is fictional, Charlotte’s appearance in the United States in Napoleon in America is not. Her ship docked in Philadelphia on December 21, 1821. An observer wrote:

The path to the carriage that awaited the princess was covered with a carpet. The dock was full of people anxious to see a princess in the flesh. She was very young, vivacious and, I believe, feeling free from the strict surveillance of her governess and of her devoted physician, Dr. Stokoe, exalted at the sight of the crowd. She took off the fur hat that she had worn during the crossing, to respond to the many greetings, and it fell out of her hands into the Delaware. She immediately took the captain’s from the bulwark and waved it. Then she put it on her head, where she kept it until arriving at the hotel.

The next day she returned to the ship…with a new hat for the captain, which she attempted herself to place on his head, telling him she would keep his as a souvenir of the cordial reception that the inhabitants of Philadelphia had given her, and of the incident that had deprived her of her own. (2)

She was also said to have been “quite captivated” by the captain’s good looks. (3)

As Joseph Bonaparte called himself the Count of Survilliers, Charlotte Bonaparte became known as the Countess of Survilliers. Joseph worried that life at his Point Breeze estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, would seem dull to a young person accustomed to living in Europe’s grand cities. He sought to keep Charlotte busy. He took her to upstate New York, where they visited Niagara Falls; to Ballston Spa, where they stayed at the Sans Souci Hotel; and to Schooley’s Mountain Spring in New Jersey, where they stayed at Belmont Hall.

Charlotte also dodged idleness thanks to her love of drawing and painting. Shortly after her arrival in the United States she wrote to her mother that she had painted a small landscape, her first one in oil – a view from her Point Breeze window. In the spring of 1822 she submitted a painting entitled “Landscape and Waterfall” to an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The following spring the Academy exhibited 10 of her drawings and, in 1824, two of her landscapes. In January 1823 Joseph commented in a letter to Julie that Charlotte worked all the time on her painting. (4) He often took her to the Athenaeum in Philadelphia.

Joseph and Charlotte received many visitors. Charlotte became good friends with one of Stephen Girard’s three orphaned nieces, Caroline, the sister of Henriette Lallemand. She was also friends with Joseph and Emily Hopkinson and their daughter Elizabeth. Charlotte was, apparently, oblivious to the fact that her father had a mistress (Annette Savage) living nearby, and that he had two young daughters in the United States: one of them (also named Charlotte) born, and another one killed, in a tragic accident at Point Breeze, during Charlotte’s stay there.

Joseph continued to be concerned about finding appropriate spouses for his daughters, the subject of much correspondence between him and Julie. Adhering to the instructions in Napoleon’s will that his nieces and nephews should marry amongst themselves to conserve the Bonaparte wealth, it was agreed that Zénaïde would marry her cousin Charles (the son of Lucien Bonaparte) and that Charlotte would marry her cousin Napoleon-Louis (the son of Louis). As shown in Napoleon in America, there was an effort on the part of Joseph’s mother Letizia and his sister Pauline to have Charlotte wed Jerome (Bo) Patterson Bonaparte, the son of Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme and his American-born first wife, Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson (more about them in future posts). However, as Napoleon had never recognized that marriage, or Bo’s credentials as a Bonaparte, Joseph did not fancy the idea. Joseph also considered and discarded the possibility of a marriage between Charlotte and one of his sister Caroline’s sons, Achille and Lucien Murat.

Return to Europe

In view of her impending marriage and of her mother’s poor health, Charlotte Bonaparte returned to Brussels in August 1824, after Zénaïde and Charles had come to stay with Joseph. She was accompanied by two of Joseph’s servants, who were charged with attending to the sale of Joseph’s château of Prangins in Switzerland to raise money for Charlotte’s dowry. Charlotte and Julie obtained passports to depart for Italy, where most of the Bonapartes were living.

On July 24, 1826 in Florence, Charlotte and Napoleon-Louis were married. Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, who was bitterly disappointed that her efforts to promote a union between Bo and Charlotte had come to naught, uncharitably wrote to her father from Florence in October:

Bo’s cousin Charlotte we found married to her other cousin, who, by all accounts, was forced by her perseverance into the match. The young man, they say, showed no small reluctance to marry this hideous little creature… They are living with his father near Florence, and she is said to be a vixen. (5)

The newlyweds divided their time between Florence, where Julie and Louis lived, and Rome, where Zénaïde and Charles had established themselves on their return from America. Pauline Bonaparte, who died in June 1825, had bequeathed the Villa Paolina to Napoleon-Louis, knowing he was going to marry Charlotte.

Napoleon-Louis was two years younger than his wife. At first Charlotte found him immature and he found her rather humourless, but they grew to love each other. Sadly, they did not have long to enjoy married life. On March 17, 1831, Napoleon-Louis died while fighting for the insurgents who were trying to drive the Austrians out of Italy. The official cause was listed as measles, but he may have suffered a bullet wound. Charlotte had disapproved of his revolutionary activities.

After her husband’s death, Charlotte lived with her mother at the Villa Serristori in Florence. In late 1832, she went to London to visit Joseph, who was temporarily living near Regent’s Park. She considering going back to America with him, but, as she was in poor health, decided against the Atlantic crossing. She returned to Florence in October 1833.

Love and death

Charlotte Bonaparte, self-portrait, 1834

Charlotte Bonaparte, self-portrait, 1834

Throughout her time in Europe, Charlotte Bonaparte continued to develop her artistic talents. In Rome, she studied drawing, painting and lithography with the Swiss artist Louis-Léopold Robert, a friend of her husband. Robert fell in love with Charlotte and they reputedly had a brief affair. Upon Napoleon-Louis’s death, Robert entertained hopes of marrying her. The fact that his passion was not reciprocated added to the woes that led him to commit suicide in Venice on March 20, 1835. Charlotte wrote to Robert’s brother:

It is with tears that I write you. How much I reproach myself for not having written him more at Venice, for not having encouraged him more to come to Florence! … I have many regrets…. I counted so much on the attachment of your excellent brother. (6)

Charlotte’s salon in Florence attracted a lively group of writers, poets and painters. Among the visitors Charlotte received there was a young, married Polish aristocrat, Count Potocki, who is said to have become her lover. In 1838 Charlotte became pregnant. To hide the pregnancy from her mother, she went to stay with Zénaïde and Charles in Rome.

Keen not to give birth where she was known, in February 1839 Charlotte sailed with her physician for Genoa, intending to have the baby there. A storm compelled the ship to land at Leghorn, from where they proceeded overland. With the bumping of the carriage, Charlotte began to hemorrhage. They stopped at Sarzana, where Charlotte underwent a caesarean section. The baby died shortly after birth. Soon after, on March 2, 1839 (probably in the night, as some sources say March 3), Charlotte herself died from loss of blood. She was 36 years old.

Julie was devastated. She remained in her room for a month, speaking to no one. In May she wrote:

In losing the adorable angel who has been taken from me, I lost all the charm and happiness of my life. (7)

Joseph, who was in Philadelphia, learned of Charlotte’s death in April. He was not told the true cause. His brother Jérôme wrote that she had died of an aneurysm. Charlotte’s will left 100,000 francs – the bulk of her estate – to her father. Zénaïde and Charles pleaded with Joseph to take only a third of this amount and to leave the remainder to their eight children. They argued that Charlotte had been very close to her nephews and nieces and wanted to do as much as possible for them. Zénaïde wrote:

Do not be astonished therefore, if I, who have never asked you for anything, entreat you to interpret my sister’s will in a manner more favorable for them. I know very well that what you inherit will, unhappily, one day be theirs, but above all it is now that we need the income from the capital. (8)

She added that Julie had already given her share to the children.

Charlotte’s remains were transported to Florence and entombed in the Basilica of Santa Croce. The inscription reads: “Here lies / Charlotte Napoléone Bonaparte / Worthy of her name / 1839.” Many of her drawings and watercolours are in the Museo Napoleonico in Rome. You can see some of Charlotte Bonaparte’s American drawings on the New York Public Library digital gallery.

You might also enjoy:

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American sister-in-law

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American nephew

Achille Murat, the Prince of Tallahassee

Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon’s spy?

  1. A. du Casse, ed., Mémoires et Correspondence Politique et Militaire du Roi Joseph, Volume 10, (Paris, 1854), pp. 400-402.
  2. Georges Bertin, Joseph Bonaparte en Amérique: 1815-1832 (Paris, 1893), pp. 258-259.
  3. M. Woodward, Bonaparte’s Park, and The Murats (Trenton, N.J., 1879), p. 78.
  4. Patricia Tyson Stroud, The Man Who Had Been King: The American Exile of Napoleon’s Brother Joseph (Philadelphia, 2005), p. 99.
  5. Eugène Lemoine Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York, 1879), p. 188.
  6. Joseph Bonaparte en Amérique, p. 272.
  7. Ibid., p. 279.
  8. The Man Who Had Been King, p. 195.

15 commments on “Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece”

  • Geoffrey says:

    Very interesting. Thank you.

  • Geoffrey says:

    You really ought to get the Museo Napoleonico catalogue. It is a wonderful work. Worth learning to read Italian for, if you can’t already, as I expect you can.
    Is it true she had one shoulder higher than the other?

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    I went to see the Museum in May 2014. It has a lot of interesting things on show and probably lots more in the archives or storerooms. A lot of lovely paintings, some well-known, others not at all. They have documentation in several languages, as far as I remember. In September 2014, on a trip to Florence, I visited the Church of Santa Croce where Charlotte is buried together with her mother. The Church is worth a visit, mainly to see the tombs of some of the great minds of Italy (Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini, Michelangelo,……).

  • Antonietta Angelica Zucconi says:

    Thanks a lot for your very interesting contribution. A little specification: the marriage of Charlotte and Napoleon Louis was celebrated on Monday, July 24, 1826 (cf. letter of Louis Napoleon to his mother Hortense, n. 135, 28 [but 25] july 1826, Archives Nationales de Paris 400 AP 27)

  • Anna Dubrowska says:

    Thank you for your interesting article! Just one correction: Lolotte was name of another Charlotte, Lucien Bonaparte’s daughter

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Anna. Glad you liked the article. Joseph’s Charlotte was also called Lolotte as an endearment by her family.

  • Joe Hauck says:

    I have a download of a sketch dated 1823 that was done by Charlotte. It is titled Vue de Lebanon. It is clearly a sketch of our town possibly done on a visit to the Stevens family.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That sounds lovely, Joe. I gather the sketch appears in Vues pittoresques de l’Amérique dessinées par la Comtesse Charlotte de Survillier (1824). The New York Public Library digital gallery (see link above) shows four of the drawings in the series, but unfortunately not the view of Lebanon. There’s a fuzzy reproduction of it here (p. 5): http://www.lebanontownship.net/newsletters/Spring07Newsletter.pdf.

      • Joe Hauck says:

        That’s it! Thanks for the lead. It was in a Rutgers “Woman in NJ Arts” exhibit. I believe she was visiting the Stevens and Livingston family who she knew from Robert’s time in Paris as our minister. I would like to use it in a publication.

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The young man, they say, showed no small reluctance to marry this hideous little creature… [S]he is said to be a vixen.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte