Design & Décor, People, Places & Spaces, Travel Notes

Malmaison, Josephine and Napoleon’s Hideaway

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A mere seven miles from the center of Paris (and yet seemingly a hundred), is a petit “chateau” associated with a romantic period in French history. Malmaison was the home of Josephine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and a gift she gave herself to while away her days while he was on his campaigns.

Upon his return, the general and his bride hired the architects Percier and Fontaine to tend to this building so badly in need of renovation. Once Malmaison had been restored, the architects deployed a clever detail that actually added a design note to the fairly unimpressive facade…columns that support statues and urns to camouflage the buttresses required to support the walls after the extensive work.

Hinting at the magic to be found within its interiors, the entrance to Malamison is a painted metal, tentlike enclosure at the front door;

the effect is carried further with a striped fabric tented ceiling in the vestibule.

Black and white tiles give a sense of continuity in the reception rooms of the first floor (feature image above). As a counterpoint, elegant examples of the quasi-military Greek, Roman, and Egyptian–influenced style that became known as Empire are rendered in the most exquisite paintwork, with colors that contribute to the sense of being in a “jewel box.” From walls (stunning examples of the Pompeian style),

to ceilings and arches.

As you move through the rooms, you become aware of why this old chateau became the archetype of Consular style. Amusingly, Napoleon Bonaparte’s impatience and tastes forced the architects and decorators to find solutions to renovate both quickly and at little cost; fortunately, the simplicity of the layout of Malmaison did not require the types of rich fabrics that were used at other chateaus in this region. In some cases, cotton was an acceptable and charming substitution

while formal fabrics, rather than paint, add to the desired effects.

Surely the richest of Malmaison’s decor, and the most significant transformation during the renovation stage, was Josephine’s bedchamber. While traveling in Italy, she had requested that her bedchamber be “refreshed.” Imagine her joy when she returned to this view…the room was given the shape of an almost circular tent thanks to a red sheet enhanced with golden embroidery that was hung on the walls (Napoleon’s was, surprisingly, modest in comparison).

Malmaison is known not just for its furnishings and paintwork; it is also a repository of elegant examples of that early 1800s period…selected porcelains, portraits, paintings, and china

and interesting momentos from Napoleon’s war campaigns (here, a handsome chest that traveled with him, containing all his personal necessities, from toiletries to dining).

Josephine left an enduring legacy in the horticultural world with a stated goal to create “the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation…I wish that Malmaison may soon become the source of riches for all [of France]”. While collecting rare and exotic plants, roses were her passion. She grew some 250 varieties, collecting them from around the world (as well as her former home of Martinique). Fortunately, many of her roses were captured in watercolors and engravings by the famous botanical artist of his day, Belgian Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840) Pierre Redoute.

Malmaison played a large part in the brief and turbulent relationship of Josephine and Napoleon. Purchsed by Josephine just 3 years after they were married, in 1804 Napoleon crowned himself, and Josephine, Emperor and Empress of France; for 2 years the estate was the seat of the French Gov’t. (along with the Tuileries) but always a personal retreat for the general. Despite their divorce in 1809, Malmaison was Napoleon‘s last residence in France at the end of the Hundred Days in 1815.

After many trials and tribulations, the (now smaller) estate was donated to France in 1904. From private mansion to Imperial palace to state museum, Malmaison has endured…and is worthy of a stop on your next trip to Paris.

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About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

6 thoughts on “Malmaison, Josephine and Napoleon’s Hideaway

  1. Who knew that Josephine would be such devotee of “tent living”? What a remarkable tour through that charming chateau you have given us with your ever discerning eye, Bettie.

  2. What a visionary she was (and, her tradesmen!!!) Wonderfully exquisite to this day. franki

  3. Loved visiting Malmaison. It’s apparent that they both loved it, and found it a refuge. It’s a reflection of Josephine’s warmth and great charm. Not to put too fine a point upon it, but the plural of chateau is chateaux. Thanks for sharing, Bettie. Always look forward to your posts.

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