A travel article by Barbara Noe Kennedy for The Washington Post.
The statue depicted an elegant woman in an empire dress with flowing curves — Joséphine Bonaparte, the wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, who commissioned the statue upon her death in 1814. Installed in 1859, it stood in idyllic beauty in a park in Joséphine’s homeland, in Fort-de-France, Martinique, until 1991, when anti-racist protesters beheaded it. They dribbled it with blood-red paint and etched the Creole words “Respe ba Matinik. Respe ba 22 Me.” (“Respect Martinique. Respect May 22.”) on the pedestal. That was the date of the 1848 rebellion that finally ended slavery on Martinique, an overseas territory in the Caribbean that remains a part of France.
The headless statue remained there until a year ago, when an angry crowd finally tore it down.
This year, France celebrates the bicentennial of Napoléon’s death, while this enigmatic woman, whose life intricately entwined with that of the French warrior’s, remains a quiet aside. And yet, Joséphine throws us into the modern-day friction of gender, race and power. Who was she, really? Several sites — in Martinique, Italy and France — tell her story.
It started on Martinique, where Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in 1763 on a sugar cane plantation in Les Trois-Îlets. Today, all that remains of the Pageries’ wealth are the ruins of their sugar mill, recast as the Museé de la Pagerie. This was Joséphine’s childhood home, one she remembered fondly as her life’s trajectory shifted her to France and the limelight of royalty. The family kitchen has been converted into a museum showcasing her life, including her bed and love letters from Napoléon.“She always was a woman of the islands,” said Élisabeth Caude, director of the National Museum of the Château de Malmaison, Joséphine’s beloved home outside Paris. “She had an accent and, as a Creole, a certain nonchalance.”
Nearby, La Savane des Esclaves, a museum comprising wattle-and-mud houses, has been called the Williamsburg of slavery. Slavery was abolished on Martinique in 1794, only to be reinstated by Napoléon in the early 1800s until the 1848 rebellion. Some believe Napoléon did this to help Joséphine’s family’s struggling plantation — and her implicit involvement in allowing slavery explains the destruction of her statue.
“It is not impossible that Joséphine used her influence [to perpetuate slavery],” said chief of documents Christophe Pincemaille, in a dossier posted on the Malmaison website.
At 16, Joséphine’s parents shipped her off to France to marry Alexandre de Beauharnais, with the plot to rescue her father from financial failure. She became the Viscountess de Beauharnais and had two children. Her husband enjoyed frolicking with mistresses, so she finessed her charms, becoming one of Paris’s top socialites (and infamous for her own stormy affairs with influential men).
All that changed with the arrival of the French Revolution. Her husband was beheaded, and she was imprisoned, saved from the guillotine at the last second with the abrupt end of the Reign of Terror in 1794.
The next year, she met a skinny, awkward Corsican called Napoléon, who had risen to prominence in the revolution’s final days. Desperate for a suitable marriage, she used every ounce of her sensuality to seduce him. She was 31 years old, six years his senior, with rotting black teeth from her sugar cane days (which she hid with a closed-mouth smile), but with her legendary figure and social prowess, he didn’t stand a chance.
“Your image and last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses,” the besotted Napoléon wrote.
A year later, they were married, she taking the name Joséphine at his request.
In 1796 to 1797, the couple resided at the Palazzo Tornielli, near Turin, where Napoléon signed a peace treaty between the Republic of Genoa and the First French Republic. While here, Napoléon commissioned nuptial portraits from Italian neoclassical painter Andrea Appiani. Hers, entitled “Joséphine Bonaparte Crowning the Myrtle Tree, 1796,” depicts her as a young Greek maiden garbed in a loose muslin dress. Today, Robilant+Voena gallery owns the painting (which, according to its website, is for sale), though Château de Malmaison has a preparatory drawing for the work. The villa, open as a B&B, remains nearly the same as when they lived here, their essence alive in the 18th-century frescoes in the dining room and a lovely wisteria pergola outside.
As Napoléon rose to power, he established several royal residences, including Fontainebleau, which he renovated just before his coronation in 1804. Silks on the walls of Joséphine’s bedchamber, formerly belonging to guillotined Queen Marie Antoinette, are adorned with musical instruments, flowers and partridges with their young — a not-so-subtle reminder of Joséphine’s chief role as producer of heirs.
When Napoléon was crowned emperor on Dec. 2, 1804, at a magnificent affair at the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, Joséphine became empress. Jacques-Louis David, the topmost painter of the day, recorded the occasion in a grand tableau. “The Coronation of Napoleon,” now on display at the Louvre, depicts a young and beautiful Joséphine, the youthful part a bit of a stretch, given she was 41 at the time. She’s dressed in shimmering silk, kneeling in a submissive position as her husband hands her the crown that makes her empress.
But she and Napoléon were childless. In her efforts to conceive, doctors encouraged her to “take the waters” of Plombières-les-Bains, in eastern France. At the Thermes Napoléon — which reopens in 2022 after renovations — visitors can partake in a variety of water treatments that Joséphine might have taken in the late 18th century.
Alas, as much as she adored the little spa town, the waters didn’t help, and their rocky relationship, which also suffered from affairs on both sides (including one of his mistresses becoming pregnant with his son), her voracious spending and jealousy, was doomed. Their marriage was dissolved in 1809 at a ceremony in the Throne Room of the since-demolished Tuileries Palace in Paris.
Above all, the place that breathes Joséphine is Château de Malmaison, the palace just outside Paris that Napoléon gave to her and where sought refuge after their divorce. She is buried in a church nearby.
“Everything speaks of Joséphine at Malmaison,” Caude said.
This is where she was the happiest, and her imprint is everywhere: in her sumptuous red-and-gold bedchamber; her boudoir and wardrobe room, where she kept an ever-growing parade of dresses, shoes and gloves; and especially her garden. She imported plants from around the globe, as well as animals, such as peacocks, kangaroos and Europe’s first zebra.
When she died of pneumonia here on May 29, 1814, at the age of 50, the now-exiled Napoléon was told she died of a broken heart. “She really loved me, didn’t she?” he allegedly replied.
So, as we recognize the 200th anniversary of Napoléon’s death, what are we to make of the life of Joséphine? Should she be remembered as a survivor who barely escaped the guillotine and went on to be one of the most powerful women in France — let alone the world? A trendsetter of refined taste, who popularized empire dresses, developed many new strains of roses and became the first to decorate with a leopard-print rug? A victim who was marginalized by a powerful man, because she could not bear him a son? Or a perpetrator of slavery, who didn’t use her power to ensure a permanent end to an institution of dehumanizing cruelty?Like much of history, it’s complicated.
La Pointe du Bout, Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique
Occupying a former colonial residence, this gracious hotel sits in a lush tropical garden leading to a white-sand beach. Rooms from about $219 per night.
Hôtel La Pagerie: Tropical Garden Hotel
Rue du Chacha, La Pointe du Bout, Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique
This popular beach resort has renovated guest rooms, a welcoming, flower-splashed lobby, and an island-dotted pool. Rooms from about $145 per night.
Via Roma 79, Mombello Monferrato, Italy
Napoléon and Joséphine once lived in this historic villa. Rooms from about $99 per night.
L’Empereur, sa Femme et le petit Prince
2 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, Plombières-les-Bains, France
A furnished apartment including kitchen in the heart of Plombières-les-Bains. Rooms from about $80 per night.
Hôtel de JoBo
10 Rue d’Ormesson, Paris
This lavishly decorated boutique hotel in the Marais was inspired by Joséphine and her affinity for leopard skin, swans and roses. Rooms from about $172 per night.
Le Bistrot d’En Face
Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique
French and Caribbean influences mix in this tropical-style bistro in the heart of the Creole village. Open 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Entrees from about $20.
St. Joseph, Martinique
Chef Jean-Charles Brédas gives delectable French-Caribbean dishes a modern twist in this open-air restaurant in a century-old house tucked away in the island’s interior. Open 7 p.m. to 12:45 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Menus from about $71.
Allée Eugene Delacroix, Plombières-les-Bains, France
Inside Casino Plombiéres-les-Bains, this restaurant serves traditional French dishes and risotto, burgers and steak. Open daily noon to 2 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. Several combos are offered including the plat du jour (entree) and a drink for about $15; the entree and choice of appetizer or dessert for about $16; and appetizer, entree and dessert for about $23.
La Douceur de Vivre
23 Rue Liétard, Plombières-les-Bains, France
A global menu based on fresh ingredients. Call for a reservation. Entrees from about $15.
Le Grand Véfour
17 Rue de Beaujolais, Paris
Napoléon and Joséphine once dined at this elegant restaurant, the oldest in Paris, near the Palais-Royale; some say this is even where he proposed to her. Breakfast 12:15 to 2 p.m., lunch 4 to 5:45 p.m., dinner 7:15 to 9:45 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations required, and must be confirmed 24 hours in advance. Entrees from about $30.
Musée de la Pagerie
D38, Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique
Joséphine’s childhood home has been preserved as a museum. Open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Adults about $6, children about $2.50.
La Savane des Esclaves
La Ferme, Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique
A re-created 19th-century village created by the descendant of enslaved people from Martinique, including traditional huts and a Creole garden. Reserve ahead. Admission about $14 adults, about $9.50 for youth ages 13 to 18 and about $6 for children 3 to 12.
4 Ave. Des États Unis, Plombières-les-Bains, France
Built in 1856 for Napoléon III, the imposing Napoléon Baths include a modern wellness and health-care facility, three-star hotel and fine-dining restaurant. There are many combinations available, including the “Thermal Escape,” which is one night at the hotel, breakfast and four thermal treatments for about $172. The baths are closed for renovation until March 2022, but the hotel and restaurant remain open.
Rue de Rivoli, Paris
While residing in the Tuileries Palace, Napoléon turned the Louvre into a large museum (which he called Musée Napoléon) with spoils from his warfare across Europe. Now, it showcases art from nearly every civilization on the planet, including about 50 pieces acquired through Napoléon’s Egypt campaigns — and the gigantic “The Coronation of Napoleon.” All visitors must present a health pass; time-slot bookings are compulsory. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Adult tickets about $20, children under 18 free.
National Museum of the Château de Malmaison
Ave. du Château de la Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison, France
Joséphine was happiest at her French chateau about 10 miles west of Paris. Today, it’s open to the public for tours. Open weekdays 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Reservations recommended through the website; reservations not necessary for the park. Adult tickets about $7.50 and about $1.75 to visit only the park.