Josephine bought Malmaison in April 1799 while Napoleon was on campaign in Egypt. The property was a run-down country château, seven miles west of central Paris, with some 150 acres of surrounding woods and meadows. Although General Bonaparte was furious at the price tag of well over 300,000 francs, he soon found in Malmaison a very congenial home, where he and Josephine spent the happiest days of their fourteen-year marriage.
From 1800 to 1802, when Napoleon was First Consul, Malmaison became, together with the Tuileries, the seat of government. Josephine undertook extensive renovations of Malmaison, spending a fortune to enlarge and furnish the chateau and turn the garden into one of the most beautiful and unusual in all of Europe. Needing additional space, the young architects Percier and Fontaine added a small pavilion to serve as a waiting room. Tent-shaped and built of cast iron and glass, it opened into a vestibule with stucco columns resembling the atrium of a Roman villa. To the right of the vestibule there were a billiard room, the principal salon (Salon Doré), and a music room with notable pieces from Josephine’s art collection. On the left were a dining room in the style of ancient Pompeii, the famous tent-shaped council room, and a library that also served as the First Consul’s office. On the second floor were the private quarters, where following the bourgeois custom, Napoleon and Josephine shared a bedroom.
The Council Room, where the First Consul met with his ministers, was such a triumph that it became widely imitated. Everything in this room evokes Napoleon’s campaign tents: lances and fasces supporting the ceiling, gilt bronze poles topped with eagles, and tabourets made to resemble folding campaign seats. Some of the Consulate’s enduring legacies were discussed here, notably among them the Code Civil, the Légion d’Honneur and the sale of the Louisiana territories. Josephine conceived the theme and supervised every aspect of furbishing Malmaison and was so fond of the results that she made no major changes before her divorce in 1809.
Passionate about horticulture, Josephine sought out rare flowers from around the world, and brought exotic species never before grown in France. Even while at war with France, the British Navy issued safe conducts for her flowers.”I wish that Malmaison may soon become the source of riches for all,” Josephine wrote.
Among the additions Josephine built in Malmaison were an orangery and a greenhouse, where she cultivated nearly 200 plants new to France. But above all, Josephine loved roses. She not only had every known variety, but her gardeners also created new ones. The tea rose, the ancestor of most modern roses, was developed at Malmaison. The château’s rose collection became world-renowned and at one point included some 250 varieties. Except for a few bushes planted in the park, roses were grown and kept in pots, and exposed in the gardens during the blooming season in May and June. To record her rare plants, Josephine commissioned the then foremost botanical illustrator, the Belgian artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759 – 1840), and engaged Etienne-Pierre Ventenat, librarian of the Pantheon in Paris, to write accompanying plant descriptions. They produced three exquisite books of watercolors that that were made into engravings still eagerly sought by collectors. Venternat died in 1808, and the text on roses was undertaken by Claude-Antoine Thory.
Josephine also imported exotic birds and animals that roamed freely on the grounds of Malmaison. They included kangaroos, emus, zebras, sheep, gazelles, ostriches, chamois, antelopes and llamas, and even a tame female orangutan that was occasionally allowed at the table. A bevy of black swans from Australia, never before seen in Europe, swam gracefully at Malmaison’s pond. Inside, colorful caged birds greeted visitors with cacophonous sounds, driving out any semblance of formality or protocol.
In spite of its charm and luxurious furnishings, Malmaison was relatively small, inconveniently located, and lacking in the grandeur that later became a hallmark of the Empire. Yet it was here that Napoleon felt most relaxed, taking time off from affairs of state to stroll through the beautiful gardens with his beloved Josephine, to play blind man’s buff with young guests, and to attend performances at the château’s small theatre.
After Napoleon reluctantly divorced Josephine in 1809 owing to her inability to produce an heir, she retained the title of Empress, an annual pension of 3 million francs, and extensive properties, including Malmaison. She remained popular among the French people and on good terms with Napoleon, who often visited her at Malmaison. Josephine spent most of her remaining years here, caring for her roses and swans and making further architectural improvements and art acquisitions.
Josephine died in 1814 in her eagle-topped canopied bed decorated with gilded wooden swans while Napoleon was in exile in Elba. Upon learning the news from an old newspaper, as his valet Marchand reported, Napoleon “appeared grievously stricken, shutting himself up in his private apartments and seeing no one except his Grand Marshal.”
In his memoirs, dictated during his exile in St. Helena, Napoleon referred to Josephine’s death as “one of the most acute griefs of that fatal year of 1814.”
After his return from Elba, Napoleon visited Malmaison with Josephine’s daughter Hortense and spent some time alone in the room where she had died. Two months later, after his defeat at Waterloo, he went to Malmaison again, where he spent five of his last days on French soil.
An Imperial Jubilee
In September 2012 Rueil-Malmaison held a “1er Jubilé Imperial,” a week-long celebration to bring back to life the golden age the town had known when Napoleon and Josephine made their home there during the halcyon days of their marriage. The zenith of the celebrations was the Bal de l’Impératrice, which took place at the château on September 14 at a lavish dinner-dance hosted by Rueil’s mayor, Patrick Ollier. Below are some of the highlights of a magical evening and an unforgettable imperial celebration.
Liveried footmen welcomed the guests at the gates, who then proceeded along the torch-lit avenue leading to the château. Inside, everyone mingled and wandered through the rooms, admiring the lavish furnishings, the rich art work, the bold use of color in the walls, the superb Empire gowns of the ladies and the brilliant plumage of the regimental uniforms.
Everyone then proceeded to a splendid tent erected behind the château, and was offered champagne and hors-d’oeuvres while waiting for dinner.
After the guests were seated at the festive tables, their Imperial Majesties and their court made a grand entrance, and dinner was served to the strains of Schubert played by a chamber music ensemble in period costume. The sumptuous four course menu was selected for historical accuracy. Foie gras en feuilletée, sturgeon, rack of lamb, dessert, each was a delight to the eyes and to the palate. The fine selection of wines included the Emperor’s favorite, Gevrey Chambertin (bien sûr!).
Dinner was followed by a quadrille demonstration and the opening of the ball by their majesties. The evening ended with the guests mingling and re-visiting the precious art work and furnishings until the midnight hour struck and, as in Cinderella, the magic stopped.
The next morning there was a reception at the Mairie (City Hall) followed by a full day of festivities presided over by Napoleon and Josephine. Three special areas had been set up: the Espace Bonaparte in the heart of Rueil for a reconstruction of scenes of daily life under the Consulate and the Empire, complete with shops, townspeople and artisans in period costume; the Espace Austerlitz, devoted to military reenactments, including an encampment with the participation of over 200 members of Napoleonic infantry and cavalry regiments; and best of all, the Espace Joséphine, at the château and grounds of Malmaison, which provided the ideal venue for showcasing the exquisite taste of the empress and life at the imperial court. The afternoon events included the christening of a new commemorative rose and a military concert at the Place du Marché, featuring a dozen marching bands in full uniform from all over France.
Such splendid and historically well informed festivities required the expertise and efforts of numerous people under the guidance of Bernard Chevalier, former curator of the museums of Malmaison and Bois-Préau. Cristina Barreto-Lancaster lent her unparalleled expertise in Napoleonic fashion to the costumes. Prince Charles-Napoléon, president of the European Federation of Napoleonic Cities, lent active support to the initiative and participated in all major events. Mark Schneider of Williamsburg, Virginia, in splendid uniform, was thoroughly convincing as Napoleon.