Friday, 22 August 2014

Napoleon's soft spot - Malmaison

Here's a quick diversion from Provence to somewhere closer to Paris. It's definitely worth a visit. Back to Provence next post... promise...

Originally a seventeenth century chateau, the National Museum of the Chateau de Malmaison was bought by Josephine Bonaparte in 1799. She was Napoleon 1er's first wife. Originally from Martinique, she married Count Alexandre de Beauharnais in 1779. The couple had two children, Eugene and Hortense but the Revolution took the head of the very rich count.

Josephine became one of the leaders of the Directory and thus came into contact with General Bonaparte who married her in 1796. Napoleon formally adopted her two children; Hortense is the ancestor to many current heads in Western Europe.

Napoleon crowned her Empress himself, at his coronation and all might have been well if the older Josephine had given Napoleon an heir. Unfortunately she didn't so a divorce took place in 1809. She kept her title of Empress and her house of Malmaison with its enormous grounds. In 1814 she became friendly with Tsar Alexander I of Russia who visited her just before her death.

She died in 1814 of a sore throat, in the rose bed in the photo, surrounded by luxury as she had lived. Some of the property's renovations were incomplete after her death.

Napoleon often spent time here in this idyllic spot, having council meetings and relaxing with picnics and indoor games with the aristocracy. In 1815 he visited Malmaison for the last time, on his way to permanent exile on Saint-Helene. Perhaps he shed a tear for a woman who had cared for him but who had been jettisoned for expediency.

His second wife didn't follow him to exile. She had already taken their son to Austria. That son, Napoleon II died young there of tuberculosis. He may have been better off on the island of Sainte-Helene with a bit of sea breeze and his adoring father. Oh well.

The park is only six hectares these days but was considerably bigger in Josephine's day, indeed, the size of a town. Most of the 'lawns' are mowed only twice a year, leaving them wild as they were in 1814. The rose garden that she loved is being renovated, but this season has been so wet the roses are suffering mildew.

The furnishings on display are some of those that were used by Napoleon and Josephine - sold but returned to what is now a museum. Others are from the same period. Special items include the Austerlitz table, and the Empress's bedroom in old rose colours. She seems to have had a thing for swans, throughout the house.

Napoleon's  council room is decorated like an army campaign tent- quite extraordinary. You can see a portrait of Josephine on the wall in the photo. The furniture, paintings, rugs and beds are all first class and in good condition. The couple certainly lived well when not at the Tuileries or Fontainebleau.

Napoleon's office and library are interesting to view. He worked at this desk. The room has a hidden staircase to his upstairs apartments. What struck me was how VERY Napoleonic it all is. Sounds funny to say it so, but I've seen many French pieces of furniture from this period but what's here is definitely the best. The use of eagles, Egyptian motifs is everywhere.

Malmaison is just on the outskirts of Paris so it's quite doable as a tourist visit, but I suspect most tourists don't know about it. Most visitors seem to be French. It's closed on Tuesdays, like most French monuments. Good news- there's an audioguide and brochure available in English. Photos are permitted WITHOUT FLASH.

Want to see his swords, famous paintings, billiard room, the music room, dinner service, Prince Eugene's bed, portraits of Napoleon (soon got porky after marriage)? It's all here. 


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