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The Laffite Portrait Proves the Authenticity of the Laffite Journal

December 1, 2015 in European History, general history, History, Louisiana History

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

At least part of the Jean Laffite journal collection at Sam Houston Regional Library at Liberty, Texas can be proven authentic through association with a portrait of Laffite never a part of the archives of Sam Houston because it was lost in a house fire in 1959 at Spartanburg, S.C.. This portrait, showing Jean Laffite standing on the deck of a ship with a cannon nearby, is dated 1804 and signed “Gros”___for Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, art advisor to Napoleon and painter-chronicler of the Emperor’s military triumphs.

Gros was a well-known and highly respected French artist who specialized in historical Napoleon portraits under the tutelage of artist Jacques-Louis David. Gros had been introduced to Bonaparte in 1796 by Napoleon’s sweetheart, Josephine, in Milan when he was away from France for safety’s sake after the French Revolution. He returned with the Napoleonic entourage and became a valued member of the group’s artistic corps. He specialized in romantic, Rubenesque portraits of various officers and vast, mural-size paintings that have been called spontaneous and free in brushwork, spacious in atmosphere, and smouldering in emotive color by twentieth century art critics. Gros’ artistic star soared with Napoleon’s own comet of fame, and slowly declined in brightness after the French emperor’s death in 1821. Called the first great romantic painter, Gros by age 64 suffered from personal dissatisfaction in his later career. In despair, he drowned himself in the Seine in 1835.

The portrait of Jean Laffite which Gros created only exists today in the form of a 4 x 5 inch black and white negative in the Laffite Collection at Sam Houston, a negative which was used by Stanley Clisby Arthur in 1952  as a frontispiece black and white photo in his Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover biographical book. Arthur had the photograph made during a visit to see the portrait, other paintings, and Laffite manuscript materials belonging to John A. Laffite, who was living in Kansas City, Mo., around 1950-51. The painting was on his living room wall, one of his KC neighbors recalled years later. Another black and white image of the same portrait was used as the frontispiece for the Vantage Press edition of The Journal of Jean Laffite, which John A. Laffite had privately published in 1958 after having the French journal translated to English.

Much controversy has ensued ever since among historians over the authenticity of the Laffite journal, and the Gros painting has been mostly overlooked through the years because it was lost, and because it appeared to be just a hastily done painting study, not a professional portrait.

(The Laffite journal and a few other holographic Laffite family materials escaped the house fire as they were in a trunk that was saved. All the paintings hanging in the house were destroyed. Strangely, even a part of the trunk’s contents was lost when they were caught in a fire at a radio and tv station in Spartanburg a feww months later in May 1960. The Laffite journal was in that second fire, and suffered fire damage along the edges, but survived intact. It and some of the other surviving parts of the Laffite Collection were sold by John A. Laffite in 1969 to collectors William Simpson and Johnny Jenkins of Houston for $15,000. Former Texas governor Price Daniel bought the lot in 1975 for $12,500, and donated all in 1978 to the newly created Sam Houston Regional Library.)

Everyone, including those in favor of the Journal’s authenticity, neglected to check on a simple way to assert the validity of the claim that the materials really were from famous New Orleans privateer Jean Laffite: all that needed to be done was to compare the Gros signature of the Laffite portrait to known Gros paintings of the same period. This seems simple, but until recently, it was not a quick thing to accomplish because Gros signatures were not easy to find to use for comparison purposes.

The majority of Gros paintings online are of small resolution, suitable for website galleries and web pages, but of utterly no use for checking the signature. This is especially true of some of Gros’ best known Napoleonic works, which are literally the size of walls. Even at high resolution, the signature on such works is often impossible to see. However, a few very high resolution scans of Gros art were examined, and signatures contemporaneous with 1804 were found. The Gros signature on the Battle of Aboukir painting (1806) at the Palace of Versailles is virtually the same as the signature on the Laffite portrait, and both signatures are found in the lower left corner of the artwork.

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting





Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait

Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait










Some may question this and say “well, it could have been a painting forgery”, but the evidence is very much against this. The first American exhibition of Gros’ paintings and portraits was held in 1955 at Seligmann Gallery in New York, and at the time, the vast majority of Gros’s artwork were only to be found in France, and most of those in Paris. The Laffite portrait photograph was made before 1952, and it shows a worn, damaged painting that is coming loose at the top from its frame backing. The photograph of the painting in the Journal of Jean Laffite shows it in an expensive heavy gilt frame compatible with the early 1800s period. Also, there is no record that John A. Laffite ever tried to sell this painting before it was lost in the fire, so there was no motive to even try to forge it. Additionally, not all Gros paintings are signed, and the ones which are signed often are difficult to make out.

The next question would be where and when was the Laffite portrait made? Laffite is wearing a long coat, so that would indicate cold weather, winter or early spring, or maybe late fall. Gros was living in Paris at the Convent Capuchin in 1804. The closest harbor would have been Le Havre. Laffite was possibly the “Captain Lafitte” of the La Soeur Cherie ship which arrived in New Orleans in April 1804 and stayed there through early August. Gros was busy most of 1804 with painting the 17 by 23 foot mural Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1804, held in September of that year in Paris. Gros was idle between September and Dec. 2, so if Laffite departed for France from New Orleans, he could have been at Le Havre by late September, and thus some time in the Fall of 1804 the portrait was created, probably in the space of a few hours. Gros received great honors for his Napoleon mural at the Salon of 1804, and was very popular for making portraits afterward, so it is quite significant that Laffite was able to commission him to do even the quick study shipboard painting. Even this sketch would have cost a hefty sum at the time, so it indicates Laffite was well off even when he was relatively young, in his early 20s. Also, he must have had some connection to Napoleon in order to even hire Gros. One possible clue is the extremely ornate presentation sword in scabbard that Laffite is holding. The portrait would seem to commemorate the occasion of getting the sword. Did Napoleon present it to Laffite? The answer, like the painting, is lost to history.

One way to verify a piece of art is to look into its provenance, or chronology of the ownership, custody or location of the historical artwork. The primary purpose is to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing its later history, custody and places of storage. A particular value in establishing provenance is in helping authenticate objects. The back of a painting, for instance, may include significant provenance information.

In the case of the Laffite portrait by Gros, since it was lost to fire, and no notes were made about what may or may not have been on the back of the artwork/frame, that particular information is lost, too. It is not known if the portrait sitter was identified on the back. In his book, Stanley Clisby Arthur said the painting was assumed by descendants to be Jean Laffite, as it was among other effects of the corsair preserved by one of his sons (presumably Jules Laffite, who died in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1920s). John A. Laffite, the owner of the painting in the late 1940s- 1950s, claimed to be the great-grandson of Jean Laffite and grandson of Jules Laffite, but genealogical data has not corroborated this. It is unknown exactly when or how John A. Laffite got the Laffite Gros portrait, other paintings, photographs, and Jean Laffite manuscript materials which are featured in Arthur’s Gentleman Rover book and the Vantage Press Journal of Jean Laffite book. All that is known about its ownership history is that he had the Gros portrait from about 1949 until its loss in 1959.

The fact that the Laffite portrait had a Gros signature identical to that on other Gros paintings fits with the timeline presented in the Laffite journal, as Jean says in it he was born in 1782, so would have been 22 years old in 1804 when the portrait was done. As the portrait dates to the right time period, its association with the Laffite journal and miscellaneous copybooks, family photographs, etc. lends more weight to their authenticity as well. They are most likely exactly what they appear to be: holographic manuscript materials written by Jean Laffite and members of his family.

John A. Laffite was a retired railroad employee who knew no French and could not read the Laffite journal, which is mostly in an archaic Creole French mixed with Spanish and a bit of English.

The content of the Laffite journal includes some historical items that were not known until recently, and the signatures in the journal closely match an authentic Jean Laffite signature on the Le Brave ship’s document which has been in federal custody since 1819.

Only the subject of the Gros portrait could have written the Laffite journal, and that person was Jean Laffite.




The Aurora Editor Snipes at Britain, Post War of 1812

September 30, 2014 in American History, European History, general history, History, Louisiana History

The Weekly Aurora of Philadelphia

The Weekly Aurora of Philadelphia

With one of those quill pens he so often had wielded to acidulously attack targets in his Weekly Aurora newspaper at Philadelphia, Editor William Duane  reflected at length in March 1815 about the Causes and Character of the Late War with Great Britain, in an exposition that flowed like a river of tiny type and took up three weeks’  worth of issues of his Jeffersonian Democrat newspaper, a publication which was widely read by both his admirers and his Federalist and British detractors. Duane included the British visit and offer to Jean Laffite in a portion of  this work, published March 28, 1815:

“Great Britain has violated the laws of humanity and honor, by seeking alliances, in the prosecution of war, with savages, pirates, and slaves.

…when the war was declared, the alliance of the British government with the Indians, was avowed, upon principles, the most novel, producing consequences the most dreadful_The savages were brought into the war, upon the ordinary footing of allies, without regard to the inhuman character of their warfare, which neither spares age nor sex, and which is more desperate towards the captive, at the stake, than even towards the combatant, in the field. It seemed to be a stipulation of the compact between the allies, that the British might imitate, but should not control the ferocity of the savages__While the British troops behold, without compunction, the tomahawk and the scalping knife, brandished against prisoners, old men and children, and even against pregnant women, and while they exultingly accept the bloody scalps of the slaughtered Americans; the Indian exploits in battle, are recounted and applauded by the British general orders. Rank and station are assigned to them, in the military movements of the Brtitish army, and the unhallowed league was ratified with appropriate emblems, by intertwining an American scalp with the decorations of the mace.

…the savage, who had never known the restraints of civilized life. and the pirate, who had broken the bonds of society, were alike the subjects of British conciliation and alliance, for the purposes of an unparalleled warfare. A horde of pirates and outlaws had formed a confederacy and establishment on the island of Barrataria, near the mouth of the river Mississippi. Will Europe believe, that the commander of the British forces, addressed the leader of the confederacy [Jean Laffite], from the neutral territory of Pensacola, “calling upon him, with his brave followers, to enter into the service of Great Britain, in which he should have the rank of captain; promising that lands should be given to them all, in proportion to their respective ranks, on a peace taking place; assuring them, that their property should be guaranteed, and their persons protected; and asking, in return, that they would cease all hostilities against Spain, or the allies of Great Britain, and place their ships and vessels, under the British commanding officer on the station, until the commander in chief’s pleasure should be known, with a guarantee of their fair value at all events?” There wanted only to exemplify the debasement of such an act, the occurrence, that the pirate should spurn the proffered alliance; and accordingily, Lafitte’s answer was indignantly given, by a delivery of the letter, containing the British proposition, to the American governor of Louisiana.

There were other sources, however, of support, which Great Britain was prompted by her vengeance to employ, in opposition to the plainest dictates of her own colonial policy. The events, which have extirpated, or dispersed, the white population of St. Domingo, are in the recollection of all men.Although British humanity might not shrink, from the infliction of similar calamities upon the southern states of America, the danger of that course, either as an incitement to a revolt, of the slaves in the British islands, or as a cause of retaliation, on the part of the United States, ought to have admonished her upon its adoption. Yet, in a formal proclamation issued by the commander in chief of his Brittanic majesty’s squadrons, upon the American station, the slaves of the American planters were invited to join the British standard, in a covert phraseology, that afforded but a slight veil for the real design. Thus, admiral Cochrane, reciting “that it had been represented to him, that many persons now resident in the United States, had expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom, with a view of entering into his majesty’s service, or of being received as free settlers into some of his majesty’s colonies,” proclaimed, that “all those who might be disposed to emigrate from the United States, would, with their families, be received on board his majesty’s ships or vessels of war, or at the military posts that might be established upon, or near, the coast of the United States, when they would have their choice of entering into his majesty’s sea or land forces, or of being sent as free settlers to the British possessions in North America, or the West Indies, where they would meet all due encouragement.” But even the negroes seem, in contempt, or disgust, to have resisted the solicitation: no rebellion, or massacre, ensued; and the allegation, often repeated, that in relation to those who were seduced, or forced, from the service of their masters, instances have occurred of some being afterwards transported to the British West India Islands, and there sold into slavery, for the benefit of the captors, remains without contradiction. So complicated an act of injustice, would demand the reprobation of mankind. And let the British government, which professes a just abhorrence of the African slave trade; which endeavors to impose, in that respect, restraints upon the domestic policy of France, Spain and Portugal, answer, if it can, the solemn charge, against their faith and their humanity.”

Duane took Great Britain to task for allying themselves with the “savage” Indians and their known depradations, then in having the lowness in character to try to associate with people some regarded as pirates, and, worst of all, trying to start a violent slave insurrection by promising the slaves their freedom for their help. For once, his exposition found friendly readers among most of  the general public of  the United States. Much of the lengthy opus was reprinted widely. The British, including his old arch-enemy journalist with a similar poison pen, William Cobbett, stayed silent on the matter. (By the spring of 1815, Duane and  Cobbett had reconciled and become friends after a bitter battle in print that had lasted for over 15 years).

The Aurora, once a powerful publication that could help sway presidential elections (Jefferson claimed it helped him gain office), had declined in its political pull by the time the War of 1812 ended. By late 1815, Duane published a letter to the editor from the same “pirate” he had disparaged in his exposition earlier that year: the mercurial newspaperman’s favor was as capricious as the wind.


William Duane and “Peter Porcupine,” the Epic Battle of the Word-Dueling Journalists




Napoleon’s Son – Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte

August 14, 2014 in European History, History

Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte – Great Expectations

With the birth of most children, there are all kinds of exciting possibilities and great expectations of what kind of person this new life will grow up to be. Sometimes a child comes into this world only with expectations upon the part of his parents and immediate family.  While for others the expectations of the world might prove to be like the weight of the world in the hands of a babe. Such, was the birth of Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, the only son of Napoleon Bonaparte.

He was expected to be the next ruler of France and for Napoléon II, no higher expectations were perhaps heaped upon one child than this little boy. Therein lies the problem — the trouble with great expectations are that they are merely expectations, and life has a way of turning expectations into figments of our imaginations, never-to-be in real life. I’m sure this was a lot like Napoleon Bonaparte’s own expectation that he’d conquer the world, something that proved to be beyond his grasp when it came down to the details.

Napoléon had promised his son, “It's All Yours."

Napoléon had promised his son, “It’s All Yours.”

Napoléon Francis Joseph Charles Bonaparte (aka Franz)

A little over two hundred years ago, Napoléon Francis Joseph Charles Bonaparte was born in the Palace of the Tuileries. It was assumed that he was destined to rule over a great empire. His mother was the Empress Marie Louise, a daughter of the Emperor of Austria. She was his father’s second wife, after he had divorced the Empress Joséphine.

The boy’s birth on March 20, 1811 was announced by the roaring salute of many guns. At the time, his birth was a great joy to the French nation, as well as his parents. So you would think that historically his life would be as well-known as that of his father.  However, this was not meant to be.

He was given the title of King of Rome, and his christening was a stately ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It seemed as though he had a great future before him.  It is a recorded fact that his father adored him, often spent time playing and talking with him as an infant. A doting father is not generally something most of us would think of when it comes to the Napoléon we’ve known through the retelling of history.

Yet, in the end he grew up without a mother’s love or a father’s care. His short life was pitifully lonely. His early death was a relief to most of the people. The few who thought of his existence at all have all passed away, and his name is scarcely mentioned in the teaching of history.


Napoléon Bonaparte and his son, who was called “Franz.”

Napoléon Bonaparte’s son, who was called “Franz.”


The Education of Napoléon’s Son

When Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte was a toddler, his father, Napoléon, was at the height of his power. Everyone thought that the little King of Rome, as his baby son was officially called, was sure to succeed him on the throne of France.  When Franz was only two and a half years old, his education was begun. He was given lessons almost before his baby lips could repeat the words that were taught him. It’s been claimed that at the age of three, he was fluent in French as any grown up.  It was said that by the age of nine, rather than having a child s vocabulary, he was able to converse with ease on an adult level. He later learned German, Italian, Greek, and Latin.

His father was determined that he should be well prepared for the great place in history that he was to fill. But, before the prince was three years old, Napoléon had been defeated by the bitter cold of the Russian winter.  All the countries in Europe had combined and conspired against him. He had fought and lost the Great Battle of the Nations at Leipzig. Even then, he might have kept his throne, if he had promised to be content with the kingdom of France, but this he refused to do so, ended up having everything was taken from him.  The legacy of Franz’s father would prove to be his most difficult lesson of all.


The education of Napolean's son Franz was a serious undertaking.

The education of Napolean’s son Franz was a serious undertaking.


The Destiny of Franz — Napoleon II

As the armies of the allies who had defeated the Emperor neared Paris, Marie Louise fled from the city, taking the young King of Rome with her. When his mother first fled with him from Paris, they had to leave most of their possessions behind. Being a child, Franz thought that Louis XVIII had stolen his toys. The toys were later forwarded, but all Napoléonic symbols which were decorated on every toy, had been stripped from them on orders of his maternal grandfather.

Napoléon never again saw the son of whom he was so proud and whom he loved so dearly. Napoléon, of course, was sent into exile on the Island of Elba in the Mediterranean, from which he would later escape.  Marie Louise who did not care for her husband any longer, made no effort to go to him, despite his loving pleas and commands that she do so. She was quite content to obey her father’s command that she should give up on her marriage and come home. She agreed, too, to give up the title of empress, and was made Duchess of Parma and two other small Italian states.

The title of King of Rome was taken from her son, and it was agreed that he was to succeed his mother, as Duke of Parama. His mother’s family wanted him to forget his French blood and his father.  In time, however, he would rebel and later say:

“If France called me, I would come.”

All of this was in 1814, and the next year it seemed for a time, as if he might be emperor of the French after all. Napoléon escaped from Elba.  He gathered a great army as he went and marched through France to Paris and turned out Louis XVIIII, the Bourbon king whom the allies had placed on the throne.

The boy all of France chose to forget.

The boy all of France chose to forget.

Denied His Place in History

But, the Emperor’s second reign lasted such a short period of time that it is called “The Hundred Days.” Napoléon’s defeat at Waterloo put an end to it forever, and lost for his son even his small dukedom. For after Napoléon had been banished to St. Helena, the little boy was given the title of Duke of Reichstadt by his grandfather. It was decided that he should never rule.

Meanwhile, his father continued to dictate specific instructions to his young son Napoléon II. Even though he’d named his son as his successor when he abdicated, no one was willing to recognize him as legitimate to the throne of France. This was despite the fact that at the time most French peasant households had pictures of him on their walls.  By this time, Marie Louise had gone to live in her duchy of Parma, but she did not take the little duke with her. From this time onward, he became a pawn in the game of European politics.

These efforts only made the great powers of Europe the more determined that no son of Napoléon should ever rule. Sometimes the great Austrian minister Metternich put forward his claims, and the other malcontents in Italy and in France used his name to stir up trouble. In November 1816, Marie Louise was informed that her son could not succeed to the duchy of Para. As he was not to succeed her, it was thought better that he should be left in Vienna with his grandfather, who undertook his education. His mother would only see him one more time, on his deathbed.

The Rest of Franz’s Short Life

He was brought up as an Austrian subject, instead of a French prince, and so all his French attendants were sent away. Even his nurse was eventually sent away. He was placed in the care of an Austrian gentleman, named Count Moritz von Dietrischtein, who was called his governor.

He was still so young that it was hoped that once he was surrounded by Germans, that he would forget all he had been told about his father. However, he never did forget who his father was.  Perhaps, it was because he had some faint recollection of the man who played with him in the old days in France. He certainly remembered the stories his nurse had told him of his father’s greatness. It was reported that he grew up to love his memory and liked to think of him.

Later, his many tutors found him a difficult pupil, especially at first. He was about ten years old when his father died. He was very obstinate and he did not wish to speak German. There were many outbursts of temper to be subdued. Happily, however, he became much attached and fond of Count Dietrishstein, who was a very kind man. He treated him with great wisdom and affection.

Young Franz would grow to be a little over six feet tall at the age of seventeen. As much as others wished him to not be like his father, he shared many mannerisms. In anger, he shared a look that Napoléon was famous for, and was a constant reminder to the Austrians of his father. Additionally, he was known to have walked just like his father, often with his hands behind his back when thinking, walking in a circle, with his head down.  He admired his father so much that he was delighted when he learned that his grandfather wished him to become a soldier. It was later another great day for him when he got his first uniform, though he was only made a corporal, for his tutors thought it better that he should be advanced slowly.

Learning to be a soldier was Franz Bonaparte's strongest wish.

Learning to be a soldier was Franz Bonaparte’s strongest wish.


Franz Will Face His Own Waterloo


He was a clever boy, but lazy, and promotion was held out as a reward for diligence in his studies. No pains were spared to provide him with good teachers and to train him to be not only a good soldier, but also great man. His youth though wasn’t a pleasant one, as he was seldom allowed outside the palace grounds, and could never be alone. There were only a handful of theatre or battalion regiment practices that he was able to attend under supervision.

The year before he died, it’s speculated that this lonely boy did know love, or at least infatuation. He secretly met a ballerina at a theatre one night. She invited him to her dressing room after her performance. Her name was Franziska (Fanny) Elssler, and she was just one year older than him.

He was carefully taught his profession.  All the soldiers were said to have looked forward to the time when he would command them, and perhaps lead them to victory. But their hopes were not to be realized, for already his days were numbered. In the spring of 1832, he fell ill with tuberculosis, and by July 22nd of that year, he was dead. When news of his death was heard in France, it caused but little mention. He was only twenty-one years old.

While much has been written about his father, and even his mother — there are very few references and details about the boy who might have been King of France — had history played out a different hand. He has been referred to in history books as the “the lifelong captive (but very much loved) of Habsburg empire.” Finally facing his own personal Waterloo in death, there was no denying his fate — he could not escape being a mostly forgotten footnote in history.

It’s seems almost ironic that all the hopes that Napoléon Bonaparte and others had invested in his son, were not what was to be his legacy.  Rather what has remained instead is Napoléon Civil Code concepts, Napoléon’s sale of the Louisiana Territory, and his defeat at Waterloo. Seems sort of prophetic that Napoléon himself said:

“There is no immortality, but the memory that is left in the minds of men.”

Perhaps the most ironic part of the tale of the sad life of Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, is another quote, that of his grandfather, who upon learning of his death was reported to have said:

“It was best for both of them that he was dead. Very sad life.”


Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte

Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte



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