The lady was quite a missus. Born into a family which owned a sugar plantation on the little island of Martinique, she was, in 1804, crowned Empress of France, and her name was Josephine.
She was christened Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie but her husband renamed her Josephine after they married in 1796. The diminutive Corsican changed his name as well from Napoleone Buonaparte, to Napoleon Bonaparte, aspiring to be accepted by French society as one of their own.
At the time of their first meeting, Josephine was known as Rose de Beauharnais, a widow with two children, whose husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, had been guillotined during the Revolution. She was the mistress of politically powerful Paul Barras, who encouraged the marriage between Rose and Napoleone, eager to rid himself of the enormous financial cost of keeping his mistress in the style to which she was accustomed.
With not much more than a couple of new names and two kids, Eugene and Hortense to support, the newlyweds embarked upon their tempestuous marriage. Napoleon forged ahead with his plan to become the Ruler of Everything, step by step, devouring each dominion he desired to possess, until in the end, it was his undoing.
In the early stages of their life together, Josephine made the ill-fortuned mistake of becoming less and less discreet about having taken a lover, Hippolyte Charles. When the news finally reached Bonaparte, it was only after prostrating herself at his feet with many tears and pleadings for forgiveness, that he allowed her to remain in their abode.
From that time on, the bonds of trust were forever broken. Napoleon, having received a crushing and humiliating blow at the hands of his beloved wife, perhaps lost his belief in true love and began to embark upon his own conquest of females.
Bonaparte ascended in power and status, exhibiting great strength of character and ferocious ambition while taking advantage of the succession of weak regimes following the banishment of the monarchy during the French Revolution. On December 2, 1804,this little man of humble beginnings crowned himself Emperor of France in the great cathedral, Notre- Dame de Paris and then crowned Josephine, Empress. Pope Pius VII traveled here from Rome and officiated at this ceremony, reluctantly.
Knowing the value of great p.r., Napoleon had the renowned painter, Jacques-Louis David attend the coronation and commissioned him to paint the scene, depicting it in all its glory. Today we can view this 500 square foot masterpiece called, The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre-Dame at the Musee du Louvre, a canvas, stunning enough to warrant a trip to the museum in and of itself.
In the year 1799, after three years of marriage and during the time her husband was off waging his Egyptian campaign, Josephine, ever ready to demonstrate her propensity for extravagance, bought herself a chateau outside of Paris, called Malmaison.
At first Bonaparte was decidedly aggravated by his wife’s capricious purchase.
But Josephine had a love of everything beautiful and decorated the place to perfection.
Madame Bonaparte also had a keen interest in the field of botany and created magnificent park-like grounds and gardens, while undertaking construction of the largest hot house/conservatory in France. In this greenhouse Josephine grew many rare species of plants, brought to her by ship from all corners of the world. She introduced to France the first purple magnolias, camelias, dahlias and cultivated 250 species of roses.
The famed artist, Redoute, was named official flower painter and published a book of his work called, Le Jardin de Malmaison. Roaming the park were assorted rare wildlife including ostriches, black swans, emus and kangaroos. Parrots pleased her greatly.
Josephine was delighted and never happier, when her husband finally embraced the estate, partially running his empire from this small but stately palace, and many happy days were spent there, entertaining dignitaries, hosting balls and galas.
After the coronation and installation of Napoleon as ruler of France, Josephine was forced to abide by new rules. Her every move was guarded and life at Court became constricted and tedious.
First at the Luxembourg Petit Palais and then at the Palais des Tuileries, Empress Josephine was becoming increasingly perturbed regarding her husband’s relentless pursuit of power and domination. She did not hesitate to share with him her concerns for his future, should he continue upon this ruthless, obsessive path.
Meanwhile, the inability of Josephine to conceive a child, an heir to the Bonaparte throne, was becoming very irksome to the Emperor. Although he acted quite fatherly towards Eugene and Hortense, Josephine’s children from her former marriage, they were not of his blood. Napoleon declared his intent to divorce Josephine in 1809 and Life as Consort to the Emperor began to unravel.
Just after the papers were signed in December of 1809, Josephine was evicted from the palace, took up residence in her beloved chateau, Malmaison, and lived there until she died from an unknown malady, in May of 1814.
Napoleon, having married Maria Louise of Austria, did come and visit Josephine at Malmaison, and did continue to correspond with her, as feelings of remorse and longing for the companionship of the woman who helped him rise to power, were continuing to haunt him. Although he sired an heir, nothing could prevent him from hurtling towards his destiny of de-throned monarch.
While the Emperor was living in exile on the island of Elba, he happened to read of Josephines’s death, in an outdated periodical. It was a crushing piece of news. After his escape from the island in 1815, Napoleon once again visited Malmaison, accompanied by Hortense, to spend a few moments by the bed in which the former Empress passed away. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” must have echoed throughout the now hushed corridors as memories of what must have seemed like another lifetime, went swirling round.
And one more time, after his final, decisive defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon arrived at Malmaison, in full military dress, requesting permission of the provisional government, to lead an army in defense of Paris. But it was not to be. Escape from France by coach to the coast, and then by boat to America was foiled and Napoleon lived out the rest of his days as prisoner on the British island of Saint Helena.
Behind the chateau de Malmaison there is a tree, which the Bonapartes planted after a victorious campaign in Italy. It is called the Cedar of Marengo.
As it grew, so did the glory of its proprietor. Ah, the stories it could tell about the hero of his day, his happy family and the idyllic passage of time at the lovely chateau outside of Paris.
Then come years of quietude and neglect, and lastly, we catch a glimpse of the wretched, defeated self-proclaimed Emperor pacing the halls in his tall boots and taking leave of the place in a carriage bound for exile.
Musee National du Chateau de Malmaison
Avenue du Chateau de Malmaison
92 500 Rueil-Malmaison
RER: Line A Grand Arche de la Defense, then Bus 258 to the chateau
The Tomb of Josephine and her Daughter, Queen Hortense:
The Church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul
Town of Reuil-Malmaison