She was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pageriex, the daughter of a sugar plantation owner in Martinique where everyone called her Rose. She moved to Paris and at the age of 16 married Alexandre de Beauharnais who called her Rose. At the age of 30 she was a young widow with two children and the elite in Parisian High Society called her Rose. Then she met a young army officer by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte and they were soon married. There was only one problem. Napoleon didn’t like the name “Rose.” So he called her Joséphine.
We visited eight museums during our stay in Paris last May. One of them was the Muséee du Luxembourg next door to the French Senate just a couple of blocks from our Rue de Condé apartment . The current exhibition was all Joséphine: her dresses, her jewelry, her gilded tableware, her harp, her paintings, portraits in oil and stone of both her and her husband. Some of the art treasures were on loan from places like the Louvre and the Hermitage. Others came from Joséphine’s country manor, now a museum: the Musée du château de Malmaison.
Two days after they were married Napoleon went to war in Italy and began to send back steamy love letters. Joséphine wrote back between affairs. Napoleon was furious when he heard about her lovers and then he began acquiring lovers of his own. But they still loved each other and in 1804 at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris he crowned himself Emperor and Joséphine Empress of the French. Six years later they were divorced because she was then 46, six years older than he, and she could not bear him a son. But they still loved each other and he told her that she could hold on to her title of Empress of the French.
After her divorce Joséphine retired to her home in Malmaison about seven miles west of Paris where she cultivated her garden of roses from all over the world. During the war with England ships carrying her roses were allowed through the blockade. She also possessed a menagerie of exotic animals, including emus and kangaroos from Australia, that roamed over her estate. One day in May 200 years ago she became sick after walking in her garden and she died four days later. Napoleon, exiled on Elba at the time, when he heard the news retired to his room and did not eat or talk to anyone for two days.
The exhibit at the Luxembourg Museum was in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Joséphine’s death on May 29, 1814. It closed on June 29th.
Napoleon adopted both of Joséphine’s children. Joséphine’s daughter Hortense married Napoleon’s brother Louis. Their son became Napoleon III. Joséphine’s son Eugene’s daughter married the King of Sweden. Joséphine is thereby the direct ancestor of the ruling families in five European countries today: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg. Another daughter of Eugene married the Emperor of Brazil and one of Eugene’s sons married into the Imperial Russian family. Eugene himself had a distinguished military career serving under his stepfather.
Six years after his first wife’s death Napoleon himself died on the island of St Helena. His last words were “France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine (France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine).”