History avenges France’s famous outcast empress Josephine de Beauharnais

An exhibition in Paris celebrates the woman Napoleon divorced because she could not bear children

“I awake filled with you. Your portrait and yesterday’s intoxicating evening left no repose for my senses. Gentle, incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect you have on my heart!”

Napoleon Bonaparte was a general in the revolutionary army when he penned these lines to Marie-Joseph Rose de Beauharnais – it was he who changed her name to Josephine – shortly after they met in October 1795. They married five months later.

“My husband does not love me; he adores me,” the bride confided in a letter.

Josephine was 16-years-old when she married Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais. By age 20, she had borne two children. In 1794 he was guillotined but she was spared and began her social ascent.


The widow and the rough general from Corsica, six years her junior, forged a political as well as a love match. “Bonaparte had military victories to his credit, but he needed to enter Paris society,” says historian and curator at the Musée d’Orsay Stéphane Guégan. “She was the key. ”

“When Josephine married Napoleon she didn’t love him,” explains Amaury Lefébure, the chief curator of the exhibition marking the bicentennial of her death at the Musée du Luxembourg.*

"Little by little, after being unfaithful at the beginning of their marriage, she became fascinated by him and did everything she could to help him," Lefébure continues. "She suffered when he cheated on her. For him, the passionate love of the beginning disappeared, while her attachment to Napoleon grew."

France’s fascination with Napoleon is “a national illness”, says Guégan. The “black legend,” started by the English in the 19th century, paints Napoleon as a bloodthirsty tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions.

The "golden legend", prevalent on the French right, portrays him as the architect of modern France, its civil code, central bank, prefects, libraries and museums.

The opening of the Josephine exhibition this week coincides with the publication of Le Mal Napoléonien by former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin. He argues Napoleon's reign was a catastrophe that bolstered France's enemies and diverted Europe from revolution back to monarchy. Right-wing commentators accuse Jospin of perpetuating the "black legend".

Josephine, too, has her critics. "The late 19th century historian Frédéric Masson described her as a woman of easy virtue who spent a huge amount of money," says Lefébure. "She came from Martinique, where her family owned a sugar plantation. In recent decades, she became a symbol of white slave-owning society."

Public opinion faulted Napoleon when he divorced Josephine because she could not have children. Two weeks passed between his breaking the news to her and the official rupture – the same period observed by François Hollande before he repudiated his mistress this winter.

Josephine sobbed so hard at the divorce ceremony, she could not read her wrenching, handwritten statement.

She kept her title and settled in the Château de Malmaison, which is today a museum under Lefébure’s direction. “There were two empresses in France – a reigning empress, the new one, and Josephine,” he says.

“Josephine had a life after Napoleon,” Lefébure continues. She entertained lavishly, doted on her grandchildren, stocked her menagerie with black swans, emus and kangaroos, collected exotic plants, objects and contemporary art. When she died, the jewellery she left to her children was valued at the equivalent of €30 million – an astronomical sum at the time.

The fruit of Josephine’s orgy of acquisition has been assembled from the Louvre and Malmaison, but also from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Victoria & Albert and the private collection of the King of Sweden.

Josephine died from a cold she caught walking in the forest at age 51. .

History avenged Josephine. L’Aiglon, the son Napoleon had with empress Marie-Louise, died and never reigned.

"Two hundred years later through her son Eugene and her daughter Hortense (both of whom Napoleon adopted), Josephine is the ancestor of five dynasties that still reign in northern Europe," says Lefébure. The ruling families of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg descend directly from her.