The beginning of one of Napoléon Bonaparte’s earliest letters to Joséphine de Beauharnais simply oozes sensuality: “Seven in the morning. I awaken full of you…the memory of yesterday’s intoxicating evening has left no rest to my senses…Sweet and incomparable Joséphine, I draw from your lips, from your heart, a flame which consumes me…A thousand kisses, but do not give me any for they burn my blood.” Um, cold shower time!
Transitory Spaces of the French Revolution
This new General of the French army and mayor of Paris at the time, and by only slightly more than three weeks, was easily lured by this seasoned paramour who had answered to Rose until Bonaparte’s infatuation set her on a different course that would mark her as Joséphine for all time. The besotted nature of his letters is heady stuff to read but any of you who know me well have probably guessed by now I’m going straight for any mention of the décor in the books I’m highlighting today!
In her biography Napoléon & Joséphine: An Improbable Marriage, Evangeline Bruce writes, “From the start, General Bonaparte was impressed and intimidated by the air of quiet elegance of Joséphine’s house.” Proving that all things are relative, the author adds, “At St. Helena, Napoléon would tell General Gourgaud that Josephine’s circle was composed of ‘the most distinguished society in Paris,’ evidence of a misunderstanding on several levels.”
The author explains his false impression as a failure to realize that the home’s feeling of elegance was pastiche and illusion, as Joséphine—still aiming to claw her way to the top of the nouveau riche—was barely keeping it together financially. The true gentry of the day, whose wealth was still somewhat intact, opted to hide their means during revolutionary times, unlike Madame de Beauharnais and other upstarts like her.
“‘No one bearing a famous name wished to receive in 1795,’ claimed one newly returned exile,” Bruce writes. “But for a member of the new society like Joséphine, the necessity as well as the means to maintain influential connections was all-important. Her house must reflect something more contemporary; her decoration and her small amount of furniture were all the latest neoclassical style.”
Her meager means would change once she reeled in the military marauder, the pastiche and illusion falling away to be replaced by copious sums of money spent refurbishing Château de Malmaison and its gardens, a move that some biographers say infuriated Napoléon when he first heard the news as he was on campaign in Egypt, though I didn’t find evidence of this in his memoirs.
As he was attempting to convince the Turks in Egypt that it would be in their best interest to become a French colony, Joséphine was racking up debts that would total 1.2-million francs by the time her husband learned of her excesses. She only copped to obligations amounting to 600,000 francs, knowing he would have gone apoplectic if he’d found out the truth.
And she was right: he was incredulous that she had ordered thirty-eight hats during one summer when she was purportedly in retirement at Malmaison while he was slaving away conquering the world. That same summer, she plunked down the 325,000 francs that secured the dilapidated country manor they would eventually call home.
It seems Napoléon immediately warmed to the country manse, which would be his last residence in France. The room in the Château depicted above is called the yellow room of the Emperor, though I couldn’t find proof that the Emperor ever slept in the classically furnished quarters. It is said the couple shared the grander boudoir below, known as Joséphine’s bedchamber, instead. The design would have been different, as Louis Berthault redecorated the room in 1812 to update the decor for the Emperor’s new wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, just a few years before the Bonaparte would fall from grace.
Transitory Spaces at Kips Bay
My inspiration for deliving back into the story of these two unscrupulous lovers was Garrow Kedigian’s space in the Kips Bay Decorator Show House. He called the room “Napoleon’s Lounge,” and it was my favorite in the Lenox Hill mansion on 61st Street near Park Avenue, known as The Carlton House Townhouse. The uniqueness of the wall treatments and the moodiness of the atmosphere were handsomely alluring.
The Washington Post quotes Kedigian as saying, “We wanted to create a formal French drawing room. I was inspired by Napoléon, as he would create beautiful transitory spaces for himself to lounge in wherever he was.” The designer accomplished this by having Rajiv Surendra, a calligraphy artist, create chalk trompe l’oeil panels on the walls, columns and trey ceiling in the space.
He is spot-on about Napoléon’s talents at creating movable feasts. Bruce’s book is filled with descriptions of his love of creating dramatic entrances and exits and his fondness for campaign accouterments. This notice of his flagship, the Orient, as he is about to sail toward Egypt says it all: “Bonaparte’s own quarters were ‘astonishingly luxurious.’ Arnault had been asked to assemble for him a superb library aboard: history principally, and philosophy and poetry.” The books included in the library are actually recorded in Napoléon’s memoirs and the erudite choices are impressive for “a man of the campaign”—his intention to be sure. Bruce adds, “Eight hundred bottles of the best Burgundy and a city carriage for use in Egypt were also on board.”
In Napoléon’s memoirs, it is noted that the Burgundy was “well racked off” and the casks were hermetically sealed so the wine didn’t lose its quality on the voyage. “Several cases of this Burgundy twice crossed the desert of the Isthmus of Suez on camels’ backs. We brought some of it back with us to Fréjus, and it was as good as when we departed,” notes Louis-Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, who, as Napoléon’s personal secretary for eleven years, was the one to record the statesman’s every thought. Sadly while Napoléon and his army marched on Cairo, the Orient, sitting in Aboukir Bay, was blown to bits by the British. Transitory spaces, indeed!
Because Napoléon and Joséphine constituted such a deliciously devious pair, I thought it would only be fair to give the Empress her own accommodations within the Show House, which celebrated its 100th year last year. I decided to grace her with the beautifully pale surroundings of Alex Papachristidis’ room. My inspiration for doing so was Bruce’s description of Joséphine’s favorite rooms in their home on the rue de la Victoire:
“At ten in the morning of the day after Brumaire, the Bonapartes left the house on the rue de la Victoire forever. Josephine’s pretty folly, her mirror-lined dressing room painted with birds and butterflies and her elegant modern furniture were exchanged for the Gohiers’ somber apartment at the Luxembourg.”
I believe if Joséphine were decorating in the present day, Papachristidis’ classical sensibilities would have appealed to her. She was said to have understood modernizing luxury, both in terms of her fashion and her interior design choices, so the sumptuousness of the space would surely have suited her to a tee.
Malmaison proved to be a positive place for the Bonaparte’s despite the gossip that Napoléon balked at the asking price. “The first two years of the new century, supremely optimistic ones for France, would be remembered by both Napoléon and Joséphine as the happiest of their lives,” Bruce notes. “The atmosphere of new beginnings was symbolized above all at the Malmaison court. Its ‘Republican simplicity,’ its fresh and pastoral atmosphere, proved to be an ideal setting for the First Consul.”
The author says that in the early days of Bonaparte’s glory, all the principal roles were played by the young; that when at Malmaison, girls dressed in white were escorted by generals in their twenties. “Eliza Monroe, daughter of the American special envoy to France (and future President of the United States), joined the big Wednesday night dinners and the picnics on the lawn, the games and the amateur theatricals loved by the First Consul,” she adds; “and invariably after dinner, Hortense remembers, Bonaparte would take his wife’s arm and lead her off for a walk along under the trees.”
Bonaparte’s pleasure with the property was proven by the fact he bought up to five thousand acres of surrounding land—woods, fields, and vineyards. “Soon fashionable decorators would be called in to rearrange the priceless paintings and marbles acquired by the Bonapartes in Italy,” Bruce writes, “and Bonaparte commissioned Louis Girodet to paint a series of murals based on the poems of his beloved Ossian.”
Eventually a rotunda is built in the cool greenhouse and the company would often take their meals there amid the flowering shrubs. After dinner, they would repair to the house where charades, amateur theatricals and billiards were enjoyed.
Bourrienne notes the extent of Napoléon’s fondness for Malmaison in the memoirs: “On Saturday evening Bonaparte left the Luxembourg, and afterwards the Tuileries, to go to Malmaison, and I cannot better express the joy he then appeared to experience than by comparing it to the delight of a school-boy on getting a holiday.”
But Napoléon’s last moments at Malmaison were frantic ones. After spending five days there, he received an urgent message that he was to leave immediately. “The Prussian advance guard was already at Versailles,” Bruce notes; “a column sent by Blücher to capture Napoléon dead or alive had been thwarted by Davout’s order to blow up the bridge nearest Mailmaison.” After tearful goodbyes, he stepped into a yellow carriage with no armorial bearings and raced toward his exile.
I’d like to thank Garrow Kedigian for inspiring my romp into French history—one of my favorite places to spend time—and I’d like to salute all 21 of the designers who created spaces at this year’s show house, which were selected by a committee led by Bunny Williams. “This year’s team of participating designers and architects is an extraordinary mix of veterans and newcomers,” she remarked. Hear! Hear!
The Diary of an Improvateur and this entry, Transitory Spaces, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist, as well as a contributor to Architizer. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by