Many tourists traveling to Paris look for a dose of sugar coated history by heading to the Palace of Versailles or the Palace of Fontainebleau. Both famous residences are dripping with opulent eye candy, but there is a hidden gem waiting patiently to be unwrapped by those interested in the private residence of one of Frances’ most famous couples. Malmaison, the country home of the Emperor and Empress of France, Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte.
Walking up to the chateau you’re consumed with aisles of roses and cone shaped topiaries. Even on the rain soaked day I arrived, the roses brought life to the surroundings. At its height, there were 250
different varieties of roses planted by the Empress and her gardeners. To say Josephine loved flowers is an understatement. It seems fitting the Empresses’ middle name would be Rose. Thirty years after the Empress’ death, a Russian Grand Duke named a rose in honor of Josephine called, “Souvenir de la Malmaison”. Today there are several floral scented perfumes bearing the Empress’s name. The day I went to Malmaison I had the pleasure of discovering a perfume made from an assortment of roses from Josephine’s garden.
Walking into the home felt oddly comfortable. Computers and telephones were replaced with writing desks and books. The space felt lived in. While much of the original furniture was auctioned off after Josephine’s death in 1814, the house is filled with period pieces, some original and many which came from the apartment she and Napoleon had in the Tuileries Palace. Every room holds reminders of the famous residents, like the Imperial bumblebee and eagle, the monogrammed letters “J” and “N”,and their numerous portraits. Most of the paintings on the walls are from the Empresses’ private collection. Many were given to her as gifts from Napoleon. Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques- Louis David resides within Malmaison. Originally commissioned by Charles IV, king of Spain to symbolize unity between the two countries, Napoleon was so touched by the king’s gesture, he requested three additional versions. There are details that may be missed at first glance, like the rocks in the lower left corner. If you look closely, you’ll see the names of Hannibal and KAROLVS MAGNVS IMP (Charlemagne), two other generals that crossed the Alps previous to Napoleon. This painting is a wonderful representation of how Napoleon viewed himself, larger than life.
Napoleon’s mahogany study leaves me almost speechless. At one time there were over 40,000 leather bound books lining the walls. More than 500 have been found and placed back upon the shelves. The original volumes bear the embossed emblem, “BP” for Bonaparte. Hidden behind mirrors is a private staircase leading up to the Emperor’s apartment. Everything in the study is scholarly, like the paintings of Homer and Voltaire and the medallions of Apollo and Minerva. Even after the couple’s divorce in 1809, Josephine was adamant that nothing change in her husband’s study.
Upstairs I found myself at a standstill within the Empress's Bedchamber. The room mimics a luxurious tent. Rich ruby red fabrics drape the walls. The focal point is a golden canopy bed topped with the Imperial eagle. It was here that Josephine died in 1814, four days after catching a cold while on a walk in the gardens of Malmaison with the Tsar of Russia. It is said her last word before dying was “Bonaparte”. Napoleon chose to visit Malmaison for two days after his escape from Elba. Even though he was no longer married to Josephine, he wanted to pay respect to the memory of his first wife before embarking on another military campaign, Waterloo.
Unfortunately the second floor was not open when I toured Malmaison. Had it been, I would have seen an assortment of clothing worn not only by the Empress, but would have also seen original pieces from her court’s attire. The second floor also has the “Train Room”. This space is dedicated to the lavishly long robes worn by Josephine’s court. Documented inventory shows the Empress at one time had 49 elaborate trains. She was known to select the colors for her train based solely on the furniture and wall coverings of the area she was attending. Josephine was notorious for her extravagant spending.
Last was a visit to the “Carriage Pavilion” on the grounds of Malmaison. There are two pieces of history you won’t want to miss: a remnant on wheels from the Battle of Waterloo, the carriage used by the Emperor, seized by the Prussian army on June 18th, 1815; and the hearse used on St. Helena for the Emperor’s funeral.
My daughter pointed out something unique before leaving. She guided me over to a beautiful painting just off the entrance. It wasn’t the painting’s beauty that caught her eye; it was the
location, perched on an easel in the corner of the room. What made the painting so spectacular was the fact this portrait of a family stood exactly where it was painted. You could see the fireplace in the background, the ornately painted walls, and the gold and crystal chandelier hanging above. With the exception of the subjects in the portrait, over 200 years later, nothing had changed within the room.
Time may not stand still, but I think in the case of Malmaison, if Josephine and Napoleon were to walk through the door, they would feel right at home too.