Biographies & Memoirs


“The Most Beautiful Thing in the World”

As consuless, Josephine was writing letters, charming politicians, and conforming herself to fit Napoleon’s moods. But her heart was often miles away in Malmaison. While the first consul was reconfiguring the very foundations on which the country rested, his wife began major restructuring and renovation of her country estate. In January 1800, the two young architects Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine were called upon “to rebuild a badly constructed house which is falling into ruin and which was only built for a very ordinary person.”1

Percier and Fontaine kept a detailed notebook in which they recorded the modifications. This invaluable document gives a sense of the scale. Entire sections of the house were demolished and rebuilt. As always, Napoleon grumbled that his wife was spending too much money but did little to stop her. She attempted to create an interior decor imitating military tents, but Napoleon judged it unappealing. He dubbed a tent-shaped vestibule designed to house the domestic staff “a fairground tent fit only for showing animals.”2

Malmaison was to be primarily a home for entertaining, so in her renovations, everything was sacrificed to these spaces. Josephine spent thousands on the salon, the dining room, the gallery, and the billiard room on the ground floor. The architects remodeled them along classical lines with stucco columns and decorative panels, the best means of display for statues stolen from Italy. They created a music room, which Josephine decorated with her incredible collection of art. The renovated dining room was equipped with an ingenious underfloor heating system, and Louis Lafitte decorated it in Pompeian style. By July, Percier and Fontaine proudly noted, “the dining room, billiard room and vestibule are nearly finished. The First Consul, who is back again, is pleased with the changes.”3

Next to the dining room was another tentlike meeting room. Beyond this stood Napoleon’s office. Framed by imposing pillars (and a protruding kitchen pipe that severely annoyed the architects), the ceiling was decorated with a fresco of the figures of Minerva and Apollo and portraits of the hero. “Mme. Bonaparte desired to have paintings representing scenes from the general’s life,” Fontaine noted.4 Napoleon liked the paintings by Girodet and Gérard, especially since they were inspired by Ossian, the great ancient Gaelic bard. Ossian’s poems had taken Europe by storm after the Scots poet James Macpherson had published verses supposedly written by the bard, which he said he had found (in reality, the lines were written by Macpherson himself). Napoleon was less enamored by the pictures of him on the panels by Bidaut, Taunay, Dunouy, and Thibault, and he demanded their prompt removal. The whole home was a tribute to Napoleon, covered in Greek and Roman decorations and Egyptian trinkets. Josephine packed it full of heavy mahogany and gilt furniture made by Napoleon’s favorite, Maison Jacob. Everything was meant to give an aura of grandeur and opulence, and to underscore Napoleon’s message that he was a new force for good with connections to old traditions.

As with Percier and Fontaine, Napoleon’s patronage changed the lives of the Jacob brothers, the owners of the Maison Jacob atelier. The exquisite creations of their father, Georges Jacob, had adorned the royal palaces of the monarchs prior to the Revolution, and the aristocracy had all fought to buy his work. But after 1789 his workshop lay quiet. Under Thermidor, demand began to soar once more, and Georges’s younger son François took over, soon catching the attention of Barras and the directors. Josephine filled her home with his furniture, and by the time Napoleon was first consul, François Jacob had to tempt his father out of retirement to help with Napoleon’s demands for mahogany, gilt and bronze chairs, tables carved with his insignia, and chests and armoires so heavily laden with gold that they were wearing on the eye.

Despite Napoleon’s obsession with Versailles, in which bedrooms were public spaces as splendid as reception rooms, his home at Malmaison followed a bourgeois setup: Public rooms were resplendent and private rooms simple. Laure Junot, a regular guest at the château, was unimpressed, complaining, “Our apartments consisted of a bedroom, a cabinet and a room for our maid.” She also called the furniture “very plain.”5 Napoleon and Josephine didn’t mind; until the end of the consulate, they shared a bed under a fresco of clouds blowing across a blue sky in a simply furnished room.6

By 1802, the now-jaded Percier and Fontaine had done their work, and Malmaison had been transformed. Josephine turned her attentions to developing the grounds of her new home and buying more land. She had originally purchased a rather measly 150 acres, but by the end of her life, the land had increased more than ten times, with grounds stretching to the banks of the Seine. Percier and Fontaine created an area for sports and rebuilt the stables and outhouses. They erected extra buildings for staff and cottages for guests. Josephine had grand designs: She requested a pavilion and a roundabout to make it easier for dozens of coaches to attend at the same time. In 1801, after an attempt on Napoleon’s life, she added sentry posts.

Josephine longed to reproduce the lush landscape of Martinique in her home and bought books on horticulture as well as thousands of plants. “She wants us to work on the gardens, the waters, the conservatories,” Fontaine noted in 1800.7 He protested that her requirements were “without measure and without limits.”8 Josephine, transported by romantic desires for rolling hills and free-flowing beds of flowers, clashed with Fontaine, who preferred a classical layout. He was infuriated when she eventually hired the British gardener Howatson and then Jean-Marie Morel, both specialists in the jardin à l’anglaise, as she wished a wilder look for her grounds than Versailles.

On October 2, an alarmed Napoleon appointed a new superintendent for the gardens in an attempt to curb the expense. It was hopeless. Josephine had become a woman obsessed by plants. In a letter to her mother, she asked for “the trees and seeds of as many species as possible” (though Josephine had asked, her mother refused to come to France because she was a staunch royalist and was shocked by Napoleon’s desire to rule alone, but she agreed to send over plants). Josephine filled the gardens with orchids and exotic magnolia trees from St. Lucia and also exploited her husband’s empire by collecting seeds from his representatives all over the world, including Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

Josephine established connections with influential figures across the globe, sending off letters bursting with botanical knowledge and showcasing a meticulous attention to detail. The year she moved into Malmaison, she wrote to General Lefebvre, “I would therefore be delighted to receive some of the magnolias and the bushes which you possess in significant quantity. But I attach a condition: that is that you make use of me with the same freedom and that you demand from me just as unreservedly any of the plants which I possess which you desire.”9 She wrote to Monsieur Cazeaux in November 1803, playing on his “patriotic zeal” and asking for some of his plants and “seeds from America.”

I wish to multiply the production of plants from this continent in France, since its temperature is similar to our own. In order to achieve this goal, of which I have no doubt you will recognize the value, I am dedicating a section of the grounds adjoining Malmaison to a nursery. Exotic trees and bushes which thrive in our climate are cultivated here. The First Consul is observing the development of this establishment enthusiastically. It is a new source of prosperity for France.10

Josephine was presenting her garden as the glory of France. In a letter to the prefect Thibaudeau, she thanked him for the “wonderful collection” of seeds he had sent.

It brings me such inexpressible joy to see these foreign plants multiplying in my gardens. I hope that Malmaison will soon offer a model of good culture and that it will become a source of riches for the departments. It is to this end that I am growing a large quantity of trees and bushes from Australian and American territories. In 10 years time, I want every department to possess a collection of precious plants from my nurseries.11

Josephine delighted in exchanging seeds, ideas, and cuttings, pressing all the owners of fine gardens to give her the plants she desired.12

The grounds of Malmaison were her empire. As the botanist Étienne Pierre Ventenat wrote to her in the foreword to Le Jardin de la Malmaison in 1803, she had created “an impressive reminder of the conquests of your illustrious husband.”13 She had gathered “the rarest plants growing on French soil,” which had never before left “the deserts of Arabia or the burning deserts of Egypt.”14 She even bought from the enemy, spending her husband’s gold at the Hammersmith nursery Lee & Kennedy. “Some plants have arrived for you from London,” Napoleon wrote in 1801—only a few years after the Battle of the Nile.15 She begged the ambassador in Britain to see if the king would sell her some of his plants. Even in times of war with Britain, when the rest of Europe was blocked from trade, much to the detriment of their economies, Josephine still imported plants from Britain. Napoleon even allowed one nurseryman safe passage to bring over a particularly delicate tree.16

In 1800 he authorized the explorer Nicolas Baudin to undertake an expedition to Australia, instructing him to bring back plants and animals. He returned with thousands of treasures for the consuless, including hibiscus, mimosas, and other flowers from New South Wales and Tasmania, as well as eucalyptus trees. Josephine then wished for an expert in Australian horticulture and appointed Felix Delahaye, who had restored Marie Antoinette’s garden at Versailles and traveled with an expedition to southwest Australia in 1791 during which he collected two hundred plants.17 Malmaison became a little Australia, and all the sea captains were told to bring back flora for Josephine. In 1809 Napoleon sent over eight hundred plants and seeds from Schönbrunn in Austria.

“My garden is the most beautiful thing in the world,” Josephine said in 1813.18 Malmaison was a fiefdom of rare and exotic plants, many grown for the first time in Europe, some of which are now common in our gardens, including cactuses, rhododendrons, tulips, dahlias, and double jacinths. “There are so many rare plants from all parts of the world, that one might believe oneself to be in the tropics,” pronounced Comtesse Potocka.19 Josephine also cultivated roses and would eventually produce fifty varieties. She spent thousands on specimens and nurtured her own, using names that evoked beauty and sensuality, including cuisse de nymphe emue (or “thigh of an affected nymph”). She had an exceptional collection of heather and grew jasmine from her native Martinique. She spared no expense, once spending three thousand francs on a single bulb. By 1813, she could inform Eugène proudly that her grounds were “more visited by Parisians than my salon, since at this very moment that I am writing, I am told that there are at least 30 people walking in the garden.”20

Malmaison had something of the fairground or theme park atmosphere about it. In 1802 Josephine built an exotic orangery full of pineapples and other fruits, which she served at her table. The following year she bought a fleet of pretty cows and opened a dairy, staffed by a cowherd imported from Switzerland and a team of dairymaids in Swiss costume. Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon had been mocked and derided; now Josephine made one that was even grander and kitschier, even taking the bas-reliefs by Pierre Julien, along with the marbled furniture and porcelain from the Petit Trianon, to furnish it. Morel built a Swiss chalet on the edge of the Saint Cucufa pond as a house for the herders, with cattle sheds next door. Josephine delightedly served the butter, milk, and cheese at her table. In 1808 the king of Spain sent a present of two thousand prime merino sheep, and she set them wandering over her grounds. Parisian high society loved playing farm with Josephine, as they had with Marie Antoinette.

In 1805 Josephine opened her hothouse, designed by Jean-Thomas Thibault and Barthélemy Vignon. “Vast and magnificent,” as one visitor said, it was a 165-foot-long tropical paradise full of plants from around the world.21 Huge trees over fifteen feet tall touched the glass ceiling, and dahlia, amaryllis, and fruit trees perfumed the air. In the midst of it all was a bust of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His notions of freedom, emotion, and feeling were in absolute opposition to the stiffness of the consul and the mannered formality Napoleon desired—but in her hothouse and gardens, Josephine could be as romantic and liberated as she wished. In a letter to one of her gardeners, she wrote to say that she would like her bust of Rousseau to be displayed so that the tendrils of the surrounding plants would trail around his head.22 Rousseau, ornamented with greenery, was the king of her domain.

The biggest attraction of all was her zoo. Her animals roamed freely on the grounds at Malmaison, and it was the most exotic menagerie in Europe. Few ships arrived in France from foreign climes without an animal for Josephine. Kangaroos hopped around the verdant gardens, and emus nuzzled at the soil as the country neighbors gaped at Peruvian llamas. She had the first zebra in Europe, as well as a gnu, a chamois, and golden pheasants from China. Gazelles trotted around and nibbled from the hands of guests, and flying squirrels swooped through the trees. Talleyrand gave her a monkey who liked sealing letters with wax.

After surviving lengthy sea journeys, her animals flourished at Malmaison, unless Napoleon felt like using them for target practice (fortunately, he was a poor shot). Peacocks stalked the flower beds while her prized Australian black swans swam on Malmaison’s canal and lake. They were the first to be seen in Europe, and she was incredibly proud of them. Such were the spoils that came back from the 1800 Australian expedition that the Natural History Museum demanded a share, but the minister of the interior told them that Josephine came first.

Her most cherished animal was a female orangutan possessed of a remarkably sweet nature. The little lady strolled about the house fully dressed, and when anyone approached her, she pulled her coat over her legs and would “assume a modest, decent air to welcome the visitor.” She always ate at the table, using a knife and fork, and was particularly fond of nibbling on turnips. After dinner, she loved to cover her head with a napkin and then pull funny faces. When she fell ill and was put to bed, she lay with the cover drawn up to her chin and her arms outside it, completely hidden by the sleeves of the dressing gown. If anyone she knew came into the room, she greeted him with an appealing look, shaking her head gently and pressing his hand affectionately.23

Nowhere else in France, or indeed Europe, could one see a llama grazing or an orangutan eating turnips. Josephine’s visitors were delighted by the great forests, lawns, beautiful waterways, and long canal full of boats and black swans. The whole place was a museum of curiosities. Josephine also collected stuffed animals and birds and placed them in cabinets all over Malmaison.

Troupes of gardeners, landscapers, designers, botanists, and horticultural specialists followed Percier and Fontaine, throwing their hands up in dismay over the demands of the consuless. Louis-Martin Berthault, who began work there in 1807, best understood Josephine’s tastes. He created a temple of love, a monument to melancholy, a grotto made of rocks from Fontainebleau, and an ornamental lake with a statue of Napoleon at its center. Berthault positioned classical and Renaissance sculptures all around the park (perfect for the guests to play hide-and-seek). He also widened the river to create another lake and added a salon to the side of the huge greenhouse that housed Josephine’s tropical plants.

Decorated in the antique style, adorned with vases, and heated by wood-burning stoves, her “greenhouse” salon was an intimate place to talk with her guests. The centerpiece featured two “beautiful brèche violette marble columns, 12 feet in height, with gilt capitals and bases,” procured by the founder of the Musée des Monuments Français.24

Before long, Josephine became inseparable from her garden. Botanists even named plants after her: The Lapageria rosea, Josephinia Imperatricis, and Amaryllis Josephinae were all tributes to her. Trading on the idea of her garden as a reflection of her husband’s battles, she said that three of the plants she grew—lily of the Nile, Parma violets, and Damietta roses—were in honor of Napoleon’s military conquests.25 She planted a cedar tree on the property to commemorate the Battle of Marengo.

Creating a beautiful garden was often seen as the role of the consort. Maria Carolina, queen of Naples, had caused her British envoy, Sir William Hamilton, endless headaches in her quest for a truly British garden at her palace. But Josephine prided herself on knowing more about horticulture than Marie Antoinette or Catherine the Great, and she used portraiture to advertise her knowledge. In Baron François-Pascal-Simon Gérard’s watercolor An Allegory of Empress Josephine as Patroness of the Gardens at Malmaison(c. 1805–1807), she stands in front of Malmaison’s famous hothouse. Similarly, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s Empress Josephine at Malmaison (1805–1809) shows her looking relaxed and ethereal in the gardens, and it even depicts a Josephinia Imperatricis in the bottom right-hand corner. Eager to show off her excellence as a botanist, she took as her symbol the cornucopia, the icon of abundance, prosperity, good fortune, peace, and good government, and had it carved into many of her possessions.26The British caricatured her as an amateur botanist, with George Cruikshank producing The Imperial Botany, showing a bosomy Josephine displaying her sunflowers to the beau monde—all have faces of powerful men, and the Napoleon flower is much less healthy than the Wellington. The French snapped up pictures of her next to her plants and bought trinket cornucopias.

Josephine sought to publicize and record her gardens.27 She asked Pierre-Joseph Redouté, formerly Marie Antoinette’s drawing master, to produce 120 color plates in a two-volume work entitled The Garden of Malmaison (1803–1805), as well as eight volumes ofLiliaceous Plants (1802–1816) by the botanist Étienne-Pierre Ventenat. She gave away copies of the books in an attempt to promote her gardens, and encouraged Redouté to publish a survey of the roses in Malmaison. His Roses (1817–1824) would make her gardens famous after her death. She covered her bedroom walls with flower pictures by Redouté and used them to decorate a giant bed she bought in 1812.

The gardens were her pleasure and her consolation, but they were also an elaborate form of imperial propaganda, as well as her stake at immortality and a reflection of the quest for power that her husband conducted with her at his side. Her plants were also for her guests to admire, setting them at ease while they wandered the grounds, talked politics, planned love affairs. Josephine might have claimed for herself the position of supportive consort, and the role of the woman without intellect or political awareness, but it was an act: Few could have created such an imaginative and truly unique home. Informal, beautiful, welcoming, and all ease and grace on the surface, Malmaison was Josephine. As Napoleon observed: “Without you, Malmaison is too sad a place.”28

In the early days of the consulate, Malmaison was practically the seat of government. Josephine and Napoleon traveled to their country retreat whenever they could, and were always there for Saturday evening, all of Sunday, and part of Monday. After meetings held to decide the civil code and foreign policy, Josephine would host grand receptions and fabulous dinners. As a hostess, she meant, above all, for her guests to enjoy themselves. “We chose our hour of rising,” recalled Madame Junot.29 Breakfast was informal, around eleven at the earliest, and guests could spend the afternoons as they pleased, with music, reading, or games in the garden, or simply wandering the grounds, gossiping about politics. The company would gaze at the paintings and admire the incredible mosaic pictures from Florence, bronzes, and Sèvres vases in the reception rooms. At dinner, Josephine always provided a sumptuous spread, with her own butter, milk, fruits, and meat, the table decorated with flowers and candles softly illuminating the young faces of Napoleon’s court.

In the afternoons, Napoleon and Josephine would ride around in her barouche. “When I am outside in the fresh air my ideas take a higher direction,” Napoleon said. “I cannot understand how some men can work successfully if they are always inside, beside the fireplace, without communication with the sky.”30 Visitors to Malmaison often saw him working outside, papers on his lap. Talleyrand once arrived to find Napoleon had “established his office on one of the bowling greens.”

Everyone was seated on the grass which Napoleon did not mind in the least as he was wearing leather boots and kid breeches—and he is used to camping. But as for me in silk breeches and silk stockings—can you imagine me sitting on the lawn! I am full of rheumatism! What a man! It was as if he was in a camp!31

On warm summer evenings, Josephine would order dinner to be served outside, sometimes in tents to celebrate Napoleon’s victories.32 There would be hunts, and as Laure Permond, by then married to Junot, recalled, when Bonaparte “felt in the mood,” he would play games such as barre, “which he vastly enjoyed, taking off his coat and running like a hare.” The consul teased the animals, feeding the tame gazelle tobacco from his pouch and “encouraging it to run at us and the horrid animal tore our dresses and often our legs.”33 But his greatest pleasure was to see the younger ladies “running beneath the leafy arches of the trees, all dressed in white.” Nothing touched him like the sight of a graceful woman in a white gown.34

During the summer months, there were balls in the salons on Sundays, and guests in their finery spilled out onto the huge lawn of the property. There were concerts and games of blindman’s bluff, chess, backgammon, cards, billiards, and charades, which Napoleon hated losing. The company was young, fun-loving, wealthy, and life seemed full of possibility. Romantic liaisons were made under the trees, pursued beside the Greek statues, and broken by the lake of black swans.

“It was not difficult to be entertained,” Hortense remembered.35 On Wednesdays, forty or fifty guests would be invited to dinner, and a hundred and fifty came for a theatrical performance overseen by the consul. He would have his courtiers, friends, and relatives rehearsing for weeks, supervised the casting, and spent thousands of francs on costumes and props. The theater manager came over from the Théâtre-Français, and drama coaches were hired in the form of the established actors Talma, Michot, Fleury, and Mademoiselle Mars. As in royal courts throughout history, the family members took the important parts and the courtiers had to applaud them, no matter how bad they were. Fortunately, Hortense, who usually took the lead female roles, had a sweet voice and a facility for acting, unlike the rest. Bourrienne was given the longer parts on account of his good memory, Junot often played drunkards, and stolid Eugène was landed with the footmen roles. Lucien declared the whole lot of them poor, but Bonaparte was delighted by their performances, writing to Josephine while she was in Plombières to inform her that Hortense was playing Rosina in The Barber of Seville.36

Napoleon initially told Fontaine to create “a sort of portable theatre, which can be set up in the gallery at Malmaison, near the drawing-room.”37 Then he ordered “as economically as possible, a small hall, entirely isolated, in the direction of the farm.” It was not an economic design. Fontaine drew up a plan and an estimate, handed it to Bourrienne for a performer’s view, and settled on a circular form, the seats divided into sections, with a pit, a row of boxes, a gallery, an orchestra, two small foyers, and “a smaller theatre with no machinery for intimate plays.”38 On May 12, 1802, the architect recorded in his journal, “the theatre of Malmaison has been used for the first time.”39

The actors played in front of consuls, minsters, senators, and generals—and Napoleon. “He would be there in his box, close beside us, and followed us with his eyes and at the same time with a more or less mocking smile, which terrified us all,” recalled Laure Junot.40 “After the spectacle, there was a crowd in the ground floor apartments for brilliant refreshments.”41 The evenings ended at about midnight, when guests would clatter in their carriages back to Paris.

MALMAISON WAS JOSEPHINE’S crown, and Hortense, fresh from Madame Campan’s, was its jewel. As Napoleon wrote to his wife in Plombières, “your charming daughter does the honours of the house with perfection.”42 She had inherited her mother’s grace and elegance, along with her father’s magnificent looks. Unlike her mother, she read widely, wrote poetry, and played the piano well, particularly her favorite sonatas by Haydn and Mozart and pieces by Gluck and Dalayrac. So accomplished were her musical compositions—which included “Le Bon Chevalier”—that they were performed and appreciated in other salons.43 One of her compositions, “Va T’en Guerrier,” was even turned into a military march at Napoleon’s request.44

Josephine had been lazy at music, and Napoleon could no sooner play than stand on his head, but they encouraged Hortense and Eugène to perform. Hortense sang beautifully, putting great expression into the words, and her voice blossomed under the guidance of her Italian singing tutor, Signor Bonesi.45 Napoleon was always alert to improving his stepdaughter. On one occasion as she read aloud, he stopped her in midsentence and corrected her loudly.46 But most of the time she needed little coaching. She was also a talented artist and had benefited greatly from Isabey’s tutoring. On one occasion at Malmaison, Hortense failed to make an appearance at dinner. When Josephine went to her daughter’s room and found her drawing, she asked whether she was hoping to earn a living from her hobby. Astute for her age, Hortense replied: “Mama, in the century in which we are living, who is to say that that might not happen?”47

Everyone thought Hortense was destined for an auspicious marriage. Like Josephine, she was very affectionate and quite attached to her mother and brother. “She is really angelic in disposition,” thought Madame de Rémusat.48 She had inherited her mother’s talent for flirting. Madame Campan worried for her as she embarked on her new social life as Napoleon’s stepdaughter. She warned that it would be a “dangerous whirlwind,” since many people wished to be friends only “for their own advantage” because she was “the person of the moment, with an awe-inspiring title.”49 Madame Campan was right: Hortense was quickly surrounded by soldiers, ministers, and diplomats eager for her attentions. She fell in love with Napoleon’s former aide-de-camp, General Duroc. A romance blossomed—but Josephine had greater plans for her daughter, and Napoleon disliked the idea of such a powerful son-in-law. Napoleon declared that they could marry, with a dowry of five hundred thousand francs, but Duroc and she would have to leave for Toulon immediately after the wedding: “I do not want any sons-in-law in my house,” Napoleon said.50 Duroc refused to agree to the terms, and Josephine sent her despairing daughter back to the round of dancing and balls.

WHEN THEY WERE not entertaining, Josephine’s routine at Malmaison seldom varied: She would spend the day corresponding about plants, surveying the house and the grounds, receiving visitors, and dining alone with Napoleon in the evening. He neglected his work to walk around the property and supervise the improvements, and amused himself by calculating the income from the grounds, including even the vegetables in the kitchen garden. “That’s not bad,” he said, looking at the profit of 8,000 francs, “but one needs a yearly income of 30,000 francs to live here.”51

“Napoleon loved Malmaison with a passion!” said one visitor.52 “Nowhere, except on the battlefield, have I seen Bonaparte happier than in the gardens at Malmaison,” wrote Bourrienne.53 The consul looked forward to his weekends there as eagerly as “a schoolboy to his holidays.”54 In a world where he was always afraid of uprisings or rebels hungering for his blood, the consul felt safe in Josephine’s palace. Even when he was seriously entertaining plans to leave her, he still thought fondly of Malmaison. In August 1809, while in Austria, he wrote, “the pleasures of Malmaison, the beautiful greenhouses, the beautiful gardens cause the absent to be forgotten.”55

If the gardens were Josephine’s display case for exotic and rare plants, the house was her frame for the art she purchased at a cost of millions. She had the pictures, statues, and mosaics that Napoleon had taken for her during his campaigns, some so exquisite that it was little wonder many had been locked up in the secret closet of the pope. And even during the period of the Directory, she was an influential patron. From 1799, she had amassed over 450 paintings, drawings, and miniatures. By the time she died, there were more than three thousand objets d’art at Malmaison (including works by old masters and contemporary artists, sculpture, furniture, and other decorative objects). Josephine became one of the most important collectors of her age.

On a personal level, she loved the chase of collecting. Her gallery featured the finest paintings in Europe, taken by the brute force of her husband. “I would have respected Mme. Bonaparte more if she had simply said all these works of art were taken by force at the end of a sword,” said Madame de la Tour du Pin. 56

Catherine the Great had amassed art as an aggressive strategy, creating a collection that saluted Russia’s power and wealth. With every painting she took from a vassal state, an enemy, or a rival, she proved her country’s magnitude. Famous French consorts previously patronized French artists, from Watteau and Boucher, beloved of Madame du Pompadour, to the Sèvres porcelain admired by Marie Antoinette. Josephine saw herself as the patroness of an empire. As the wife of Napoleon, she knew it was her role to create a fabulous art collection to showcase his power. The collection was also testimony to her independence, dedication, and negotiating skills.

She kept up with trends in the art world and subscribed to a variety of journals. She used the most knowledgeable advisers in France, such as Dominique Vivant de Denon, director of the Musée Napoléon; the archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir; the curator and merchant restorer Guillaume Constantin; and the artists Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Jean-Baptiste Isabey, and Lancelot Turpin de Crissé. Crissé even became her chamberlain. She made the careers of many artists. “How many she helped! How many received her support!” said her maid, Mademoiselle Avrillion.57 Once she had bought their works, commissions from Napoleon often followed, and everybody at court wished to use the same painters as Josephine.58 The consuless did not always pay her bills. She asked Antoine Hamelin, who was in Rome, to spend a hundred thousand francs on art for her, suggesting he could spend more if he saw items he liked. Two years later, he was still plaintively asking for his money.

Josephine owned great works from Italy, many French pieces, a good haul of Dutch and Flemish canvases, and a few by Spanish and German painters. She had pictures by Rembrandt, Rubens, Metsu, Van Dyck, Ruysdael, Poussin, Lorrain, Bellini, Correggio, Raphael, da Vinci, Titian, Veronese, and a number of marbles, bronzes, mosaics, and antique vases from Egypt. She had family portraits, historical subjects, works inspired by Napoleon’s military conquests, scenes from everyday life and mythology, still lifes, and animal paintings. One of the most significant additions to her gallery—Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross—came from the collection of the Hesse-Cassel family following the battle of Jena in 1806 (the owners had tried to hide the art in a woodshed, but Napoleon’s soldiers hunted it out).

The one glaring absence in her assortment was British paintings. Napoleon simply would not allow it—London plants were bad enough.

Josephine initially planned to hang her paintings in the salon de musique (sometimes called the galerie française). She soon ran out of space. In 1806 Berthault designed a gallery of at least sixty-five feet in length; its construction was completed in 1808. She threw a ball to celebrate the opening of the most magnificent room in all Malmaison. It was, said one visitor, “so well built, so well painted and with such taste, so perfectly lighted from above, so well proportioned that one could not hope to see a more beautiful room.”59 Two glass doors led to a huge double archway, and works lined the walls, with vases and bronzes arranged over the tables, alongside busts of Napoleon and herself.60

Mme. Bonaparte was a ruthless collector, yet the works she was most drawn to, as in her garden, were often romantic or sentimental about nature and rustic life, rather than congratulatory of Napoleon. She had emotive paintings by popular female artists and more than thirty troubadour paintings—small, highly finished portraits of courtly love, such as François Fleury Richard’s Valentine of Milan Mourning the Death of Her Husband, the Duc d’Orléans (1802). Displayed at the Paris Salon of 1802, it reflected a craze for the medieval style that was all the rage. One reviewer called it a “triumph of marital love,” and Josephine snapped it up.61

She adored all things medieval, borrowing the look for her costume, collecting volumes on medieval culture, and subscribing to Le Journal des Troubadours.62 She who had sold her favors for security spent hours staring at troubadour portraits, wrapped up in their notions of courtly tribute and men and women sacrificing themselves for love.

Many artists produced portrait busts of Josephine, and she especially loved the work of Antonio Canova, one of the most talented—if artistically conservative—sculptors of the day.63 She became his primary French patron and commissioned five works by him between 1802 and 1814.64 In 1804 the incorrigible Pauline Bonaparte tried to seize his attention by turning up in Rome and suggesting he sculpt her as a naked Venus—“There was a perfectly good fire in the studio,” she said, hoping to see her statue famous across Europe.

In 1803 Josephine received a shipment of precious objects from the recent excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, a gift from King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies. In 1809 Napoleon helped grow this collection even further by ordering 180 Greek vases to be sent by his sister Caroline and her husband, Murat, recently installed as king and queen of Naples. Josephine filled the rooms with the ancient vessels and placed amphoras across the grounds and statues in the theater.

THE EARLY YEARS of the consulate at Malmaison were a golden time for Josephine. She had something that was truly hers, and she surrounded herself with the things she loved. Her home was an escape from the stiff etiquette of the Tuileries, a respite from the vultures circling to destroy her. She was a leader of style, a woman emulated and discussed, her every move charted. Her collection made her an arbiter of cultural taste. Men found her fascinating, women envied her. And yet despite the success of Malmaison, there was one man who found her increasingly resistible. The first consul had begun taking mistresses.

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