Guest Post by William Ellis-Rees – ‘Empress Josephine and the creation of Malmaison’

We would once again like to welcome back to our blog, Classics teacher and author of  The Elephant of Exeter Change: A Tale of Cruelty and Confinement in Georgian LondonWilliam Ellis-Rees.

William’s guest post this time has as its subject, Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Josephine is of course extraordinarily famous, and many biographies of her have appeared over the years.  However, William’s research has unearthed a curious story which does not appear in the standard works, and which sheds light on a fascinating corner of her life. His fascinating book tells more about her obsession with the collecting of animals and plants, Josephine in the Mountains: The curious story of the Empress’s journey from Paris to the Alps.

For most visitors to Paris, the château of Malmaison will not be high on their list of must-sees.  There are perhaps more obvious attractions: museums and churches, the Seine and its bridges, the grand boulevards and the romantic back-streets.

Vue du château de Malmaison (façade sur le parc) by Pierre-Joseph Petit. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.
Vue du château de Malmaison (façade sur le parc) by Pierre-Joseph Petit. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.

But Malmaison, bought by Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine in 1799, is for those who make the pilgrimage to the outskirts of the city quite simply fascinating.  I first fell under its spell many years ago when I embarked on extensive researches into its history, and I still find that it has the power to evoke the atmosphere of the Consulate and the First Empire.  The château is crammed with images of Napoleon’s military exploits, and the furniture and furnishings showcase the opulent decorative style he made fashionable.

Design for the library at Malmaison in Recueil de Décorations Intérieures by Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine.
Design for the library at Malmaison in Recueil de Décorations Intérieures by Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine.

But above all it is Josephine’s role in this particular story — a role made possible by her ambition and energy — that gives Malmaison its special appeal.

Plants and animals 

Josephine, who is not always remembered in the most favourable light, was, in fact, a very considerable connoisseur of landscaped gardens.

Josephine as botanist by Robert Lefèvre. Museo Napoleonico, Rome.
Josephine as botanist by Robert Lefèvre. Museo Napoleonico, Rome.

She employed a succession of designers to lay out the park of Malmaison in the ‘English’ style, which called for purling streams, follies and toy farms and apparently natural arrangements of trees and plants.

The ‘English’ garden at Malmaison by Auguste-Siméon Garneray. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.
The ‘English’ garden at Malmaison by Auguste-Siméon Garneray. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.

Josephine was in her element.  She used her influence and wealth to turn Malmaison into the centre of an extensive scientific network, along which plants flowed into Paris from the furthest corners of the earth, and then, once acclimatised in her magnificent glasshouses, out to municipal gardens in every region of France.

The Great Glasshouse at Malmaison by Auguste-Siméon Garneray. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.
The Great Glasshouse at Malmaison by Auguste-Siméon Garneray. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.

She collected animals, too, and her exotic creatures turned the park into something not unlike an Old Master’s vision of the Garden of Eden.

New Holland  

Josephine’s interest in natural history found triumphant expression in her patronage of the 1800 expedition to Australia, which Europeans then called New Holland.

Headed notepaper used by Nicolas Baudin. Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre, France.
Headed notepaper used by Nicolas Baudin. Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre, France.

The expedition, sailing in two ships, was led by a seasoned captain, Nicolas Baudin, but he clashed with members of the scientific team — the mariner and the intellectual were not obvious travelling companions!  Although the voyage was arduous, New Holland proved to be a land of almost magical beauty, and the ships carried back to France a rich haul of exciting new plants and animals.  These had been earmarked for the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, but Josephine was quick to claim her share.  And so it was that the glasshouses at Malmaison boasted numerous New Holland species.  So it was, too, that black swans floated on the ‘English’ river, and kangaroos hopped about their enclosure in the park.

New Holland animals and plants at Malmaison depicted in frontispiece of Atlas du Voyage aux Terres Australes by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit.
New Holland animals and plants at Malmaison depicted in frontispiece of Atlas du Voyage aux Terres Australes by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit.

Journey to the mountains

Josephine shared with many of her contemporaries a passion for mountain landscapes — she built a Swiss chalet at Malmaison and kept a herd of Swiss cows — and in 1810 she set off for the Alps.  She had only recently been divorced by Napoleon, and her journey to the mountains may be seen as in some sense deeply personal, and maybe even as a spiritual process of self-discovery.  Given the circumstances — she had been rejected in favour of the powerfully connected Marie Louise — Josephine must strike us as a rather forlorn figure.  Even so, she travelled with a graceful entourage and was fêted along the way.

Josephine picnicking with her companions at Servoz in the Chamonix valley by Lancelot-Théodore Turpin de Crissé. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.
Josephine picnicking with her companions at Servoz in the Chamonix valley by Lancelot-Théodore Turpin de Crissé. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.

One day a young man by the name of Joseph-Louis Bonjean was introduced to her.  What happened as a result of this meeting is an intriguing story, and, if you want to find out more, I would urge you read my recently published Josephine in the Mountains!

The Mer de Glace in the Chamonix valley by Lancelot-Théodore Turpin de Crissé. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.
The Mer de Glace in the Chamonix valley by Lancelot-Théodore Turpin de Crissé. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France.

Conclusion

Suffice it to say here that for one of the two travellers, the illustrious Josephine and the humble Bonjean, nothing was ever the same again.  As one might expect, they later went their separate ways, but, as I show in my book, Bonjean’s name was not entirely lost.  What we have here is perhaps not the obvious story of Josephine.  My concern is not principally her rise to prominence, nor her marriage to and her divorce from Napoleon.  My story is about another — the other — Josephine.

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Guest Post: Grace’s French Counterpart, Juliette Récamier

We are delighted to welcome a new guest to our blog, Stew Ross. Stew is a retired commercial banker who embarked on writing books more than five years ago. He enjoys writing about important and interesting historical events of Paris and its time periods. He takes his readers around Paris on defined walks to visit the buildings, places, and sites that were important to the theme of the book. Stew is currently working on two books covering the Nazi occupation of Paris between 1940 and 1944 (Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters?). These books will follow his first four books—two volumes each—Where Did They Put the Guillotine? A Walking Tour of Revolutionary Paris and Where Did They Burn the Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? A Walking Tour of Medieval Paris (click here to find out more). Stew hopes you will visit his blog at www.stewross.com as well as follow him on Twitter and Facebook. So, now over to Stew…

I’m honored to have been asked by Sarah and Joanne to write a piece for their blog site. Although I first learned of Grace Dalrymple Elliott (1754–1823) through an article in the BBC History Magazine, it was Sarah and Joanne’s book, An Infamous Mistress which provided me an expanded view into Grace’s life and in particular, her activities during the French Revolution.

Portrait of Grace Elliott. Oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough (c.1782). Frick Collection. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Grace Elliott. Oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough (c.1782). Frick Collection. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.

GRACE AND JULIETTE

I would like to introduce you to Juliette Récamier (1777–1849). Although twenty-three years younger than Grace, Madame Récamier had many things in common with Mrs. Elliott—although I’m not quite sure the term “courtesan” would apply to Juliette as it did for Grace. Similar to Grace, Juliette married an older man (by 30-years) and suffered a loveless and unconsummated marriage (he was rumored to have been her biological father). Each of them moved about effortlessly in the upper echelons of society but died virtually penniless. Both of these women were so gorgeous that famous artists clamored to paint their portraits.

Portrait of Madame Juliette Récamier. Oil painting by Antoine-Jean Gros (1825). Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Madame Juliette Récamier. Oil painting by Antoine-Jean Gros (1825). Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.

JULIETTE

Juliette Bernard was born into the family of Jean Bernard, King Louis XVI’s counselor and receiver of finance. Her mother ran one of the most sought after salons in Paris and it was there, at the age of fifteen, that she was introduced to and ultimately married the 42-year-old banker Jacques-Rose Récamier. By the time Juliette had turned eighteen, Marie Antoinette had heard of her beauty and sent for her. Unlike Grace, Mme Récamier hid her loveless marriage and divorce was not an option. Reportedly, she remained a virgin until the age of forty-two.

It is a wonder that Juliette’s husband escaped the blade of Madame Guillotine during the French Revolution. It seems his friendship with the revolutionary Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès (1753–1824) allowed M. Récamier to keep his head.

When Juliette was twenty-one, M. Récamier purchased the former residence of the king’s finance minister, Jacques Necker. Located on Rue du Mont-Blanc—today 7 rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin—the mansion would serve as the site for Juliette’s luxurious balls, receptions, and most important, her salon.

Bust of Juliette Récamier. Photo by Philippe Alès (2012). Musée des Beaux-arts of Lyon, France. PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.
Bust of Juliette Récamier. Photo by Philippe Alès (2012). Musée des Beaux-arts of Lyon, France. PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

POST-REVOLUTION: NAPOLÉON

Besides her exquisite beauty, Juliette was well known for her Paris salon and as one of the city’s leaders of fashion. Her salon was extremely fashionable with discussions centered on politics and literary interests. Her circle of friends included Lucien Bonaparte (Napoléon’s brother), Mme Germaine de Staël, François-René de Chateaubriand, various foreign princes, and many famous contemporaries during the time of the Empire and first Restoration.

Juliette turned down an invitation to be lady-in-waiting for Napoléon’s wife, Joséphine. Coupled with her strong friendship with Mme Staël, Napoléon ordered Juliette to be exiled along with Mme Staël, a fervent monarchist and outspoken opponent of Napoléon and the Empire—Juliette moved to Italy whereas Germaine took up residence in Switzerland.

Juliette returned to Paris after Napoléon was sent into his exile (turn about is fair play?). She continued to receive visitors at her apartment located at 16 rue de Sèvres (the building was demolished in the early 20th-century).

Portrait of Madame Récamier. Oil painting by François Gérard (1805). Musée Carnavalet. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Madame Récamier. Oil painting by François Gérard (1805). Musée Carnavalet. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.

Juliette Récamier died of cholera and is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre. We will visit Juliette’s grave in my seventh book Where Did They Bury Jim Morrison the Lizard King? A Walking Tour of Curious Paris Cemeteries.

THE RÉCAMIER SOFA

One of the legacies Juliette left us with is the Récamier sofa. She is lounging on the sofa in Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of her. The original Récamier sofa can be seen at the Louvre. As you view the painting at the top of the post, notice Juliette is not wearing any slippers or shoes. When David introduced the painting to the general public there was a huge scandal over her being presented barefoot.

The Original Récamier Recliner used in David’s Portrait of Mme Récamier. Photo by anonymous (date unknown). Original recliner located in the Louvre Museum. Wikimedia.
The Original Récamier Recliner used in David’s Portrait of Mme Récamier. Photo by anonymous (date unknown). Original recliner located in the Louvre Museum. Wikimedia.

 

Copyright © 2017 Stew Ross

Featured Image

Portrait de Juliette Récamier. Oil painting by Jacques-Louis David (1800). Louvre Museum. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.