Friend or Foe, all the countries of Europe and those in their orbit followed the trends started in France. The decor, landscaping, and rose garden created at Malmaison by Josephine (1763-1814) and Napoleon (1768-1821) made it the archetype of the Empire style. Josephine purchased the small country chateau, just a few miles outside Paris, in April 1799, while Napoleon was still in Egypt. The chateau was three stories tall with a slate roof. Malmaison dated from the early eighteenth century and was gloomy and run-down. As Napoleon's wife, Josephine recieved an allowance of 40,000 francs once a year from Joseph Bonaparte. She owed 300,000 francs for the run down chateau. Refurbishing the house and grounds was beyond the means of the new owner. Napoleon returned in October to discover that Josephine had been unfaithful. A dreadful scene followed, but in the end Napoleon forgave her and discharged the debts for the house. Napoleon, his star on the rise, hired Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, the two most fashionable architects of the day, to redecorate Malmaison.
The result was an appealing blend of the classical and the warlike. Percier and Fontaine were devoted to the styles of ancient Rome brought into vogue by the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the relics unearthed there. They proposed to surround the triumphant General with a decor reminiscent of a Roman Caesar mixed with a more contemporary military look. The idea met with Napoleon's wholehearted approval. As the work progressed Napoleon found the 3 million francs in bills difficult to swallow, but the enchanting blend of the grand and the cozy won the approval of all.
As First consul Napoleon ran the French government, Malmaison lacked a large waiting room for the many officials Napoleon dealt with each day. Percier and Fontaine solved the problem with a charming little pavilion of cast iron and glass in the shape of a tent attached to the entrance of the house. On the outside, it was painted to appear as if it were made of striped fabric, while on the inside the windows and walls were draped with actual material. The result is light, cheerful, and in keeping with the residence of a general.
The tent theme was continued in the Council Room, where the First Consul met with his ministers. The walls and tent shaped ceiling of the room were covered with fabric striped in yellow, off-white and black. A black and gold faux-bronze balustrade with lion's heads ran around the lower part of the walls. The doors were flanked with mahogany and gilt bronze poles topped with eagles. The door panels were painted with trophies on a dark ground. The room was such a triumph that it was immediately imitated throughout Europe.
An austere Roman theme reigned in the vestibule under the four faux-marble columns defining an atrium-like space, which was also used as a salon. The neoclassical theme was continued in the dining room and the library.
A tent-like theme is returned to in Josephine's round bedroom. A circle of painted sky is revealed at the top of the faux tent. Gilt-wood poles hold up the lushly draped red silk "tent". The poles lead the eye up to a frieze with gold motifs in abstract loops, spirals, and circles on a red ground. The carpet is cream with red, gold, and royal blue decorations. The amazing bed has a canopy topped with a great golden eagle and bordered in red and gold. The bed curtains are cream with gold border embroidery on the outside and lined with a curtain of cream with gold flowers. The golden bed, designed by Jacob Desmalter, is flanked at the head with swans and at the foot by brimming cornucopias. A portable writing desk which adds to the illusion that the room is part of a military camp. Draperies are pulled back to reveal the white marble fireplace and the over mirror. The room is warm and rich in appearance.
Malmaison became one of the most visited and copied houses of the time, but the grounds were famous in their own right. The fashion for the English Landscape Garden had reached France in the 1780's. Hills dotted with woods particularly along the crest to accentuate the rolling quality of the land, lakes, and carefully placed pavilions and grottoes were part of the look. Berthault landscaped 300 choice acres near the river Seine. The rest of the land was planted in vineyards and wheat fields. Napoleon later added the woods of Butard to the estate bringing the whole to 4,500 acres. Josephine had landscape and woods at Malmaison, together with a bevy of swans. She went a step farther, because she loved flowers she gathered all that was rare and beautiful. The British Navy even issued safe conducts for her flowers. Most of all Josephine loved roses. She had almost every know species growing in her gardens. Her gardeners also created new ones. The tea rose, which is in the parentage of most modern roses, was developed at Malmaison. Josephine's rose garden eventually had in excess of 250 varieties. Josephine wished to record her rare plants in lifelike watercolor, she commissioned Pierre-Joseph Redoute (1759-1840), the foremost plant illustrator of the day, to paint her flowers on fine parchment, and engaged Etienne-Pierre Ventenat, librarian of the Pantheon in Paris, to write accompanying plant descriptions. She then arranged for a number of engravers to produce colored stipple engravings after Redoute's watercolors. The result was three books of watercolors that were made into engravings: The Lilies, with 486 plates; The Roses, with 168 plates; and The Gardens of Malmaison, with 120 plates appeared in twenty installments between April 1803 and November 1805. The original books are still eagerly sought as collector's items.
Napoleon, who had divorced Josephine in 1809, was no longer a part of life at Malmaison. He was defeated in March of 1814 and went into exile on Elba. Many houses were commandeered for billeting troops at this time, but Malmaison and Josephine were left in peace. Czar Alexander I of Russia visited Malmaison while he was in Paris and toured the gardens. At about this time Josephine told Redoute "Monsieur, my roses are very dear to me now". Josephine died at her beloved Malmaison on May 29, 1814 of a chill she caught while taking a walk on the grounds.
Read more about Napoleon, the Empress and the Artist: The Story of Napoleon & Josephine's Garden at Malmaison by Duchess of Hamilton Jill.
Read more about Josephine : Napoleon's Incomparable Empress by Eleanor P. Delorme
Read The Letters of Napoleon to Josephine
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© S.W. This site last updated March 2003 by Iris