Bookreview: “Josephine and the Arts of the Empire”

As the reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo has started, reading a recent exhibition catalogue caused me to ferret out a book on Josephine. There are of course plenty biographies available, ranging hardly researched romantic pot boilers to the truly well-researched academically interesting ones. It was none of these I was after.

It was her decorative style which interested me. A publication by the Getty Museum dating from 2005, lifted a tiny bit of the veil. It is a coffee-table publication. Nevertheless, as an introduction to the period’s style, it contains a few interesting essays.

Most of the book unfortunately concentrates on the years Josephine was empress. So it roughly covers the period 1804 to 1814. Only one or two of the twelve essays, written by several contributors, touch upon her style and decorative tastes preceding her coronation.

Josephine was born when France’s Ancien Régime was still in power. She migrated to France and an arranged marriage in 1779. Even her contemporaries mention her manners as well as her tastes and preferences were strongly influenced by the manners and style fashionable during the last decade or so of Louis XVI’s reign.

Josephine survived the French Revolution and was released from prison in 1795. She became the mistress of among others Barras, before marrying Bonaparte in 1796. He crowned himself emperor in 1804. So this book skips Josephine’s decorating and evolving style from 1795 till 1804, while she lived at various places.

Moreover, Josephine did not start as a trendsetter once having been crowned Empress. On the contrary, she belonged to the very fast post-revolutionary trendsetting jet-set, before she met Napoleon. He started to influence and try to control Josephine’s tastes from the moment they were married.

He not only influenced and supervised the way she dressed. The more powerful Napoleon became, the more all the arts were used as propaganda. At times, this may hamper discovering what Josephine’s truly personal preferences and tastes were.

An example mentioned and illustrated in this book, is for instance her state bedroom in the Tuileries Palace. It was not just that the bed had been created for and used by Marie Antoinette. Much of the decoration and colour scheme had been Marie Antoinette’s as well.

The Ancién Regime’s taste is quite clear in the photos in this publication. The bedroom resembles Louis XIV’s state bedroom in Versailles. Napoleon may have liked all this, Josephine did not and later had a smaller and private bedroom built.

At least one essay describes how Josephine’s own colour schemes and preferences for materials to decorate rooms, were overruled by her husband. Even at Malmaison, bought by Josephine in 1799, some rooms were decorated to her husband’s taste. A few of these were redecorated after they divorced. As one essay mentions: the colours preferred by Josephine and her many advisors remained close to the Ancien Regime’s pastel colour scheme.

The book has twelve chapters. These range from the patronage of Napoleon and Josephine of certain painters and sculptures, to Sevres porcelain, the use of gilt in furniture and cutlery, to what she preferred to wear, the musical taste, her jewelry.

Two chapters touch upon one of Josephine’s great personal passions: plants, flowers, and gardens. Her house, conservatory, and garden at Malmaison were renowned. She managed to create new plant breeds and commissioned Redouté to paint many of his now famous watercolours.

“Josephine and the Arts of the Empire” is a superficial introduction to the Empire style. As stated above, it covers only about a decade of Josephine’s commissioning and decorating. It skipps the importance of the preceding Directoire style. The various essays are easy reads and the book contains many illustrations. It is certainly not a critical – on the contrary.

Certain subjects it either skims, glosses over, or does not even mention at all. One of these is the French looting of all the countries it came to dominate under Napoleon. The looting of art – in all its forms – very much resembled the Nazi looting of art. It should never be forgotten – as clearly stated in other publications – that Josephine’s position enabled her to pick and choose from among the many paintings, sculptures and other art carted off to France, while being advised by French art connoisseurs. What Josephine (and Napoleon and their advisors)  did not select to decorate her homes, ended up in French museums.

The book serves its purpose as a light-weight glossy coffee table publication – and certainly nothing more. It does not go into any of its subjects in any detail. It certainly does not extensively deals with or “explore the salon culture that Josephine encouraged, the lavish interiors and gardens in which she walked, the fashions and jewellery she wore, the porcelain and silver that graced her table, and the music she heard.” So borrow it if you can and safe your money for better books.

“Josephine and the Arts of the Empire”, ed Eleanor P. DeLorme, 2005, J. Paul Getty Museum
Malmaison Museum

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