June 15, 2014

The Empress "Joséphine"

Two hundred years after the death of France's only Empress, the legend of Joséphine Bonaparte continues to fascinate.

Born Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1763 to a sugar plantation owner on the island of Martinique, she emigrated to France in 1779 in order to marry the Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais and save her family from financial ruin.  Though the marriage was by all accounts an unhappy one, they produced two children, Eugène and Hortense, before Alexandre was guillotined during the Reign of Terror.  Rose, as she was then called, was herself imprisoned but was released shortly after his death.

Now a widow with two small children, she soon caught the eye of the Corsican Napoléon Bonaparte.  At this point he was a rising star in the French military and was soon completely smitten with this older woman.  Letters exchanged between the two show how quickly and deeply they fell in love, and they were married within a year.  Napoléon adored Joséphine, as he preferred to call her, and together they amassed power and wealth including her beloved country home Malmaison.

Pierre Joseph Petit "Vue du Château de Malmaison", 1801-1807

In the years following their marriage Napoléon engaged in military campaigns in Italy and Egypt and the spoils of war decorated their living quarters.  In 1804, in an elaborate ceremony in Notre Dame Cathedral, Napoléon crowned himself Emperor and his wife Empress.

Andrea Appiani, "Portrait de l'impératrice Joséphine", 1807

Sadly, the one thing that no victory or treasure or title could provide was a child.  Despite a very active love life, Joséphine could not conceive and Napoléon desperately needed an heir.  After years of trying and finally with great regret the couple divorced in 1810 and he quickly married Marie-Louise of Austria who promptly produced a son.  Joséphine retreated to Malmaison where she died of pneumonia while Napoléon was finally exiled to the island of Saint Helena where the last words to pass his lips were "France, armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine".

Charles Louis Corbet, "Buste de Générale Bonaparte", 1798-1799

But who was the woman behind the Emperor, really?  To commemorate the bicentennial of her death, the Musée de Luxembourg has mounted the first exhibition in France exclusively dedicated to Joséphine.   120 objects including paintings, jewelry, clothing, documents, furniture and musical instruments give visitors an unprecedented look into Joséphine's private and public persona's.

What we learn from this exhibition is that Joséphine was far more than just the wife of the Emperor.  Physically, she was rather average although her teeth were so bad that she rarely smiled.  She is said to have had a very beautiful speaking voice and to move with the grace of a dancer.  She was a charming and astute hostess, had a good eye for art and a curious mind.  She traveled extensively, was a style setter for both fashion and decoration, re-invigorated the silk and textile industry in Lyon, and created a botanical test garden with exotic plants and animals that was singular in Europe.  In fact, her rose collection was the largest at the time and was recorded in vivid detail by the painter Redouté.

Antoine Jean Gros, "Portrait de Joséphine", 1808-1809

Perhaps the most compelling fact we take away from this exhibition was the intense relationship she shared with Napoléon.  He adored her from the moment he laid eyes on her.  The time they were together was the best of his career and it was a heart wrenching but necessary decision to have to divorce.

The influence of Joséphine Bonaparte's contributions to French culture continue to this day and her descendents include many of the crowned heads of Europe.  An enduring legacy for a remarkable woman.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
"Portrait de l'impératrice Joséphine dans le parc de Malmaison", 1805-1809

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