Should you find yourself looking for a delightful way to pass a spring afternoon, might I suggest visiting Joséphine at the Musée du Luxembourg. The exhibition is short and sweet, giving you a glimpse of the life and influence of the first wife of Napoléon, via Empire-waisted gowns and bee-encrusted objects.
Joséphine’s story is anything but dull.
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in Martinique in 1763. This lady of many names (known as ‘Rose’) moved to Paris at the age of 16 for a strategic yet unhappy marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais. Come the Reign of Terror in 1794, she spent several months in prison, a happier fate than her husband who was guillotined.
Life was not easy for the widowed Rose. Her situation precarious, she was mistress to several politicians who were in positions to help her and her two children.
Enter Napoléon. The young general, six years younger than Rose, was ambitious and needed a rich wife. He quickly fell deeply in love with the 32 year old widow, as seen in a letter from 1795:
I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.
Five months later, Napoléon married Rose, giving her the name ‘Joséphine’.
Joséphine was not initially impressed by Bonaparte, describing him as "silent and awkward with women, passionate and lively, though altogether strange in all his person."
Days after the marriage, Napoléon went to Italy to command the French army. Not only did Joséphine refuse to follow him, she continued to (as the exhibition app so delicately put it) “grant her favors to other men”. Nappers was not a happy camper when he heard rumors of this, writing to her:
I don’t love you anymore; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a vile, mean, beastly slut. You don’t write to me at all; you don’t love your husband; you know how happy your letters make him, and you don’t write him six lines of nonsense…
Soon, I hope, I will be holding you in my arms; then I will cover you with a million hot kisses, burning like the equator.
Napoléon never loved her with the same zeal after this ordeal, and he felt free to have his own mistresses. Joséphine, however, began to admire Napoléon and stopped taking lovers.
In 1804, the Empire was declared; Napoléon and Joséphine were crowned Emperor and Empress.
Trouble was brewing; Joséphine was not producing any heirs for Napoléon. The Emperor thought it might be his fault, until he impregnated one of his mistresses in 1806. In November 1809, he informed his wife that he would be divorcing her “in the interest of France”. A secretary in the next room heard screams.
Joséphine spent the next years at her dear Château de Malmaison, collecting art and cultivating an impressive rose garden. In May 1814, she went on a stroll in her garden and caught a cold. Four days later, she was dead.
Napoléon was exiled in Elba at the time; and, when he learned of her death, he spent two days locked in his room, refusing any company. He would wear a locket filled with violets from her garden for the rest of his life.
The exhibition doesn’t enter into very many gory details of Joséphine’s tumultuous love life. It is too polite for that. But the objects presented are fabulous, enough please any fan of the First Empire. I expected to see gorgeous gowns, jewels, portraits and fine china, and I was not disappointed.
But my favorite parts of the exhibition were the unexpected elements, like the gold bees embossed on the spine of the bound divorce documents and the diamond bees in a pair of Joséphine's earrings, a chair from Malmaison held up by swans and Joséphine’s kidskin boots lined with sable and decorated with taffeta ribbons and gold thread.
The exhibition takes advantage of its location in the midst of the Jardin du Luxembourg with a mini tour of the gardens, available as a booklet. You can stroll through the freshly blooming park looking for specimens of Joséphine’s favorite trees. And maybe a bee or two.
Joséphine at the Musée du Luxembourg (until June 29, 2014)
Address: 19 Rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris ∣ Métro: Saint-Sulpice (line 4) or Mabillon (line 10) ∣ Opening hours: Every day from 10am to 7:30pm, open until 10pm on Monday