Saturday, October 24, 2015

Josephine’s Last Dance


She swept an uncouth, power-hungry general off his feet and married him. She became his empress when he proclaimed himself emperor. Later, the heir-obsessed emperor dumped her for a younger lady. Finally, she dazzled a dashing young czar who had trounced her former husband in battle. While enjoying a stroll with the young czar she caught a bad cold which turned into pneumonia, and passed away a few days later after giving a ball in his honor.

This trio consists of Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), Napoleon Bonaparte’s beloved first wife; Emperor Napoleon (1769-1821); and Russian Czar Alexander I (1777-1225), Empress Catherine’s favorite grandson.


                            Josephine de Beauharnais Bonaparte

“A story of friendship, war and art” was the theme of the blockbuster exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (March 28-November 8, 2015). This blogger very much enjoyed the exhibition which pores over an unconventional relationship and casts a different light on these well-known figures. French visitors who still unconditionally worship Napoleon may have been taken aback by this exhibition.

In today’s parlance, Josephine would be a survivor, a socially-savvy trendsetter, a networker, a jetsetter, a style icon, a shopaholic and a serial debtor. Her aristocratic origins were enough to get her into a dreadful jail during the revolution where she narrowly escaped the guillotine. Freshly widowed, she met Bonaparte in a post-revolution soirée. Contrary to her predecessor, Queen Marie-Antoinette, also a notorious born-to-shop lady, the French had a soft spot for the charming Marie Joseph Rose, a Créole born in the Caribbean island of Martinique. In spite of her spendthrift lifestyle, Josephine (a name coined by Bonaparte) remained very popular with the people. Napoleon scolded her for overspending, but because of his unquestionable love and possibly his gratitude for having used her network of friends to advance his career, he kept paying her debts. She was a consummate and eclectic collector; tropical birds and plants, clothing, accessories, jewels, furniture, paintings and sculptures found their way into her exquisite Chateau de la Malmaison near Paris. Among her art collection were items which had been previously looted by her husband during his victorious military campaigns.

alexandre         notso    

    Dashing Alexander I                                            Napoleon,   less so

In 2014, to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of Josephine’s death, a major exhibition was organized in Paris. It focused on her exquisite tastes and charmed life. In addition to being a savvy art collector, Josephine contributed to the promotion of tropical botany in her Malmaison gardens. On the other hand, the Amsterdam exhibit explored the rapport between Alexandre I, Napoleon and Josephine through Dutch and Russian angles.

Holland had been conquered by Napoleon and was ruled by his brother Louis who was married to Hortense, Josephine’s daughter. In 1807, Napoleon and Alexander established a friendship. Admiration was mutual, but five years later the young czar became Napoleon’s nemesis. By crushing his Grande Armée on the frozen Russian plains he inflicted on the French Emperor his worse defeat. Approximately 30,000 Dutch soldiers took part in Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign, very few survived in spite of the Dutch bridge-making talents which saved the Grande Armée from total destruction. Records indicate that between June 1812 and February 1813 a million people died from both sides.

Napoleon was subsequently forced to abdicate during the spring of 1814, and France was occupied by foreign armies. Alexander marched his troops in triumph into Paris. Still an admirer of the wretched emperor, the francophone and Francophile czar prevented his allies from dismembering France. Alexander was 36, unhappily married and with a long-term mistress. How could he not resist paying a visit to Josephine, a woman renown for her charm and good taste, an ancient régime aristocrat, a revolution survivor and the great love of his archenemy? Alexander spent the whole spring in Paris and visited Josephine several times in the Malmaison until the fateful ball in his honor.

Alexander was captivated by a woman 14 year his senior. They became very friendly. It was springtime in Paris, love was in the air, and a little romance was probably welcome. However in this troubled period, Josephine needed more a protector than a lover. Alexander did his best to cheer up Josephine and alley her anxieties about her future and that of her two children, Eugène and Hortense. Being Josephine, her financial concerns were also high on her list of worries. The smitten young czar assured her of his unconditional devotion and even invited her to move to St Petersburg.

As a self-made woman, Josephine attracted the curiosity of France’s new rulers; she became the toast of the occupied town, the king of Prussia paid her a visit, as well as countless princes and dignitaries from the occupying armies. Even the new king of France, the brother of the beheaded king Louis XVI, sent his respects. She lavishly upgraded her wardrobe to shine at the ball she gave in Alexander’s honor which she regarded as the highlight of her social reemergence. A few days later, on May 29, 1814 she died of pneumonia. Alexander was heartbroken and grief-stricken having lost an “angel of goodness”.

As can be expected, Josephine left substantial debt. True to his word, Alexander purchased parts of Josephine’s art collection to refund her creditors. These arts pieces can now be seen at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg. Eugène and Hortense, who was infatuated with Alexander received an allowance and were able to keep their titles and privileges. Most extraordinarily, Eugène’s children married into royal families.

Josephine continues to fascinate people, as the two popular museum exhibits make clear. She also inspired countless films, biographies, and novels. Since no additional information on her life has been unearthed, the most recent biographies are even reinventing her!


                   Alexander I, Josephine, Eugene and Hortense.

Her fabled rose gardens in Malmaison are still a source of inspiration for garden lovers. Her superb jewels and tiaras grace many royal heads.


                 Swedish Queen Silvia with Josephine’s cameo tiara.

Contrary to the two men who played a crucial role in her life, Josephine lives on. The emperor and the czar left no reigning heirs, but Josephine is the direct ancestor of all the European royal families except that of Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Felipe VI of Spain. This is the impressive legacy of a little girl who was frolicking with slave children on the beaches of a tiny Caribbean island. A true rags to riches fairy tale.


This blog is dedicated to my friend J.M.M. who accompanied me to the Paris Exhibit.