Page 12, 3rd August 2007

3rd August 2007
Page 12
Page 12, 3rd August 2007 — No expense spared for Napoleon's wife

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Organisations: Russia SOMERSET HOUSE
Locations: St Petersburg, Paris


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No expense spared for Napoleon's wife

Christopher Lloyd France in Russia


The Château de Malmaison to the west of Paris is one of the most romantic places in the world. It was the home of Napoleon and his first wife Josephine de Beauharnais during his time as First Consul and his first years as emperor from 1804. After their divorce in 1806 Josephine was allowed to live there in enforced retirement, but in considerable style, until her death eight years later (aged 50). Following his defeat at Waterloo Napoleon went specially to see Malmaison for one last time before leaving for St Helena. The house and grounds symbolised for him the affection he retained for "the kindest and best of women". Although Josephine as empress presided for a short time over the great palaces previously associated with French monarchy, none was equal in her eyes to Malmaison. Now a museum devoted to the Napoleonic era, it was originally a shared passion ("an lieu de &tires") and, in its final form, very much Josephine's private creation. It is her taste for the arts and her patronage that the current exhibition (France in Russia: Empress Josephine's Malmaison Collection) at the Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House explores. The results, as so often in this location, are only moderately successful, even though some magnificent works of art are included.

The Château at Malmaison was acquired by Napoleon and Josephine in a ruinous state in 1799. It was renovated by C Percier and P FL Fontaine in the severe neo-classical style favoured by Napoleon (the design of the principal entrance, for example, was based on a military tent), but the interiors were gradually softened over the years by Josephine. The grounds were re-landscaped for her in the English style and included a magnificent garden famous for its roses, greenhouses full of exotic botanical specimens and a menagerie. While Josephine was alive, no expense was spared.

Part of the magic of Malmaison is that its heyday was so short-lived. Its decline was, for the most part, due to the huge debts accumulated by its owner and inherited by the two children from her first marriage. The link with Tsar Alexander I was established by Josephine herself and it was he, and later his brother Tsar Nicholas I, who secured a number of works of art for Russia through her family Although the bulk of Josephine's collection is now in St Petersburg, both her generosity and the chaotic circumstances in Paris after Napoleon's downfall led to other dispersals. Malmaison itself remained in private hands and was first opened to the public in 1867, and finally given to the nation in 1903 in a state of disrepair. Some items of a more personal nature (including a court dress and a pair of slippers) have been lent from the Château, giving added poignancy to the standard portraits by F Gerard and F Massot. A selection of letters demonstrates Josephine's concern for every aspect of life at Malmaison. Accompanying watercolours and prints, as well as a set of photographs made for a publication in 1908, are especially evocative.

Josephine's collection of pictures was greatly celebrated in her own time. It was shown principally in a specially built Grande Galerie (now destroyed), comprising 350 items. A small proportion of the collection was technically looted from the Landgraves (rulers) of Hesse-Cassel after the Battle of Jena, and in many respects Josephine's ambitions as a collector anticipated the Musee Napoleon established in the Louvre. Paintings by Luini, Schedoni, Claude, Ribera. Tethers and Metsu represent this aspect of the collection, including the magnificent Wolfhound by Paulus Potter. However, it should not be forgotten that she also acquired directly from artists and dealers, as well as specially conarnissioning works such as those in the historicising "troubadour" style, the taste for which she pioneered.

The two highlights of the exhibition — outright masterpieces in fact — are Antonio Canova's Dancer (one of four works she owned by Europe's leading sculptor), with its breathtaking balletic pose and incredibly sensual carving, and the Gonzaga Cameo, which was part of an extensive group of antiquities owned by Josephine. She gave the cameo. which was described by Rubens as the most perfect example of the art, to Tsar Alexander I shortly before her death. Porcelain was another interest and there are 22 pieces (out of 213) on display from the dessert service specially commissioned from the Paris factory of Dill and Guerhard, with many of the picture plates decorated with images from Josephine's own collection.

Malmaison will never be reconstituted as it once was, and imagination therefore plays a key part in our appreciation of it. Until early November, however, it is possible for us to experience at first hand this fascinating episode in the history of taste. Here are works of art that once fell under the gaze of one of the greatest figures in European history, but were also much loved by a woman who, according to Canova, exercised "exquisite and enlightened judgment".

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