James Mayer de Rothschild - Biography

James Mayer de Rothschild (born Jakob Mayer Rothschild, 15 May 1792 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany; died 15 November 1868 in Paris, France) was a French banker and the original founder of the French branch of the Rothschild family.


James de Rothschild was the fifth son and youngest child of Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812). Mayer sent each of his five sons to a prominent European commercial centre in order to found branches of the family banking empire; de Rothschild therefore moved to Paris in 1811 and in 1817 expanded the family banking empire to the city, opening de Rothschild Frères. An advisor to two kings of France, he became the most powerful banker in the country and following the Napoleonic Wars, played a major role in financing the construction of railroads and the mining business that helped make France an industrial power. Along the way, he added to his fortune with investments in such things as the importation of tea and the purchase of a vineyard. A strong-willed and shrewd businessman, James de Rothschild amassed a fortune that made him one of the richest men in the world. Although his papers have never been disclosed, it is estimated that in today's money, James de Rothschild's personal fortune (not including the wealth of his other family members) may have been five times the fortune accumulated by Bill Gates.

In 1822 James de Rothschild, along with his four brothers, was bestowed the hereditary title of "Freiherr" (Baron) by Emperor Francis I of Austria. That same year he was appointed consul-general of the Austrian Empire, and in 1823 was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

On 11 July 1824 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, James de Rothschild married Betty Salomon von Rothschild (1805–1886), daughter of his brother, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild (1774–1855). They had the following children:

  • Charlotte (1825–99) married Nathaniel de Rothschild
  • Mayer Alphonse (1827–1905)
  • Gustave Samuel (1829–1911)
  • Salomon James (1835–64)
  • Edmond Benjamin (1845–1934)

King Louis XVIII refused to receive James' wife at court because she was not Christian. Thereafter Rothschild refused to do business with the king.

Following the July 1830 Revolution that saw King Louis-Philippe come to power, James de Rothschild put together a loan package to stabilize the finances of the new government, and in 1834 a second loan. In gratitude for his services to the French nation, Louis-Philippe elevated him to a grand officer of the Legion of Honor.

In 1817 James de Rothschild purchased Château Rothschild, Boulogne-Billancourt, where his children were born and reared. In 1838 he purchased from Charles Maurice de Talleyrand a large residence in Paris, at 2 rue Saint-Florentin on the Place de la Concorde. It remained in the family until 1950, when it was sold to the United States government; today it serves as the consular section of the American Embassy.

James de Rothschild and his sophisticated Viennese wife were at the center of Parisian culture. The chef for their lavish receptions was Antonin Carême [1]. They patronized major personalities in the arts, including Gioacchino Rossini, Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Delacroix, and Heinrich Heine. As an acknowledgment of the many years of patronage extended by Baron James and his wife Betty, in 1847 Chopin dedicated his Valse Op. 64, N° 2 in C sharp minor to their daughter Charlotte. In 1848 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted Betty de Rothschild's portrait.

In February 1848, King Louis Philippe of France was dethroned, to the temporary alarm of his friend James de Rothschild. Banking competitor Achille Fould was a friend of the new President of the French Republic, Napoleon III, and for a time it appeared the Rothchilds might lose government patronage and influence. However, despite some difficulties, the family business survived and prospered under the new regime.

In 1854 James de Rothschild commissioned the famous architect Joseph Paxton to build the Château de Ferrières in Ferrières-en-Brie, some 35 km east of Paris. The property remained the home of his inheriting male descendants until 1975, when Guy de Rothschild gifted it to the University of Paris.

In addition to his banking business, in 1868 James de Rothschild purchased Château Lafite, one of France's most outstanding vineyards. Located in the Bordeaux region, it is a business that remains in the family to this day.

Beyond his business activities, James de Rothschild made the first significant acquisitions for what became the French family's massive art collections. His art included Vermeer's 1668 work The Astronomer which remained in the family until it became the property of the Louvre in the 1970s. He also used his enormous wealth for philanthropic works and became a leader of the French Jewish community. James's contributions to France, along with those of his offspring can be found in many fields, including medicine and the arts.

Baron James de Rothschild died in 1868, just three months after purchasing the Chateau Lafite vineyard. According to the writings of his nephew Nathaniel, 4,000 people passed through the Drawing room, 6,000 people stood in the court yard and the streets from the Rue Laffitte to the Père Lachaise cemetery were lined with onlookers. James de Rothschild had remained active in business throughout his life, expanding his continental railway interests so successfully that by the time of his death, the capital of the Paris house exceeded that of his other family members. In his book, The House of Rothschild (vol. 2) : The World's Banker: 1849-1999, Niall Ferguson wrote that according to the records, in 1815 the asset base of the Paris house James Mayer de Rothschild founded amounted to £55,000; by 1852 the figure was £3,541,700 and just ten years after his death the Paris house was working from an asset base of £16,914,000.

Sons Alphonse and Gustave took control of the French business empire.


  • Baron James: The Rise of the French Rothschilds by Anka Muhlstein. Rizzoli International Publications (1983) ISBN 0-86565-028-4

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