Here’s the first thing you need to know about Anne Marguérite Joséphine Henriette Rouillé de Marigny, Baroness Hyde de Neuville besides her remarkable name: Napoleon himself was so struck by her courage that he decided not to execute her husband.
The Baroness is the subject of the New-York Historical exhibition Artist in Exile: The Visual Diary of Baroness Hyde de Neuville (on view starting Nov. 1). Featuring over 100 of her drawings and watercolors—44 of them newly discovered and many of them never before exhibited—it’s a reclamation of a pioneering artist who captured invaluable scenes of America in the 19th century, from the first accurate portrayals of Indigenous Americans to detailed street scenes of lower Manhattan. “Her works document architecture, people, customs, and landscapes that have vanished, subjects unique to her and undertaken by few contemporary artists—native or foreign, professional or amateur, male or female,” writes New-York Historical curator Roberta J.M. Olson in the Artist in Exile catalog. But where did she come from? And how did she end up becoming such a thorough chronicler of a young United States?
Known to close friends and family as Henriette, the baroness was born in 1771 in Sancerre, France, to an aristocratic mother and a wealthy father, and she came of age during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. A self-taught artist, the newly discovered cache acquired by New-York Historical reveal that she started drawing seriously around the age of 18. In 1794, she married Jean Guillaume Hide, whose royalist politics frequently forced him into hiding and landed him in prison, and the early years of their marriage were often spent on the run and fleeing government agents. (They eventually changed their last name to Hyde de Neuville.) In 1798,
they were both hiding out in Paris, with the baroness pretending to be the impoverished, widowed Madame Roger and Guillaume the mysterious workingman who would visit her a little too often for neighbors’ comfort. Once, when two suspicious-looking sentries approached them, the daring baroness opened an umbrella in their faces, giving her husband just enough time to flee.
In the early 1800s, the baron had to flee again, this time after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Napoleon. After several months spent living as fugitives in the south of France, the baroness took matters into her own hands, embarking on a perilous quest—accompanied only by her maid—following Napoleon in the wake of his battles across Germany and Austria to beg the Emperor for a pardon. In his Memoirs, her husband quotes Henriette’s descriptions of the dangers and deprivations encountered, including overturned carriages with broken axles, pillaged towns, and enemy skirmishes. “The brave and devoted woman had won the sympathy of all to whom she had recourse,” her husband would later write. Included on that list was the Emperor, who finally met with the baroness in Vienna and granted the baron exile in the United States. “You are a worthy woman,” Napoleon told her. “I am sorry I cannot grant you more.”
Throughout this time, the baroness continued her visual diary, painting watercolors of the Loire River and a young boy in Vienna. The work marked her development as an “artist-traveler” as Olson describes it, and she would get a whole New World to depict when the couple landed in New York City in 1807. The Neuvilles embarked on a grand tour of the Hudson Valley through Albany, across New York State, and on to Niagara Falls. The trip provided a bounty of subjects for the baroness, whose work from this time leaves a fascinating eyewitness record of people and places that otherwise would be lost, such as powerful portraits of first settlers and Indigenous Americans, and landscapes and buildings that no longer exist. For the next several years, the couple lived in New York City, playing a role in its vibrant cultural life, and also bought a country estate in New Jersey. The baron helped found the Economical School for French émigrés and impoverished students and both of them became friendly with founders of the fledgling New-York Historical Society, including DeWitt Clinton and Gouverneur Morris.
After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of King Louis XVIII, the Neuvilles returned to Europe—with some reluctance. (“America is our second country,” the baroness wrote to a friend.) After a secret diplomatic mission to Italy to warn rulers about Napoleon’s eminent escape from Elba and a short residence in France, they returned to the United States in 1816, this time in triumph instead of exile. The baron was the new Minister Plenipotentiary in the service of the King, and he and the baroness became the toast of Washington, hosting famous Saturday night suppers and becoming friends with former president James Madison and wife Dolley. John Quincy Adams’ wife Louisa was a particular fan, and her journal for 1818 includes an intriguing quote from the baroness expressing that her one wish was “to see an American Lady elected President.” The Neuvilles’ residence became an epicenter of Washington social life: When a delegation of Native American leaders from the Great Plains visited President James Monroe in 1821, they performed an “Indian War Dance” at the White House—a striking event that the baroness captured in a watercolor on view in Artist in Exile—and again at the Neuville house.
The Neuvilles eventually said adieu to America for good in 1822, and the baroness appears to have retired her watercolors and drafting materials soon after their return to France. But what a collection she left! With an innate, almost modern, egalitarianism, she had an eye like a photojournalist. Admiring the nobility of work, she captured scrubwomen, students, Osage warriors, chambermaids, Mexican sailors, the first Allegany County settler, Chinese travelers—and whoever else piqued her imagination—with equal amounts of curiosity and insight. Vive la differénce!
Discover the baroness’s work in person at the New-York Historical exhibition Artist in Exile: The Visual Diary of Baroness Hyde de Neuville, on view starting Nov. 1.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor