Napoleon and Josephine: Outsiders in Love

Robert LEFÈVRE
French 1756-1830
Empress Josephine with a Herbarium on the table beside her (L'imperatrice Joséphine avec un herbier) 1805
oil on canvas
216.0 x 175.0 cm
Museo Napoleonico, Rome (Inv. MN 22)
Antoine-Jean GROS
French 1771-1835
General Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole on 17 November 1796 (Le général Bonaparte sur le pont d’Arcole, 17. novembre 1796) 1796
oil on canvas
130.0 x 94.0 cm
Napoleonmuseum Thurgau, Schloss und Park Arenenberg, Salenstein
Collection of Queen Hortense

Napoleon at twenty-six was a dashing young Officer, whose star was rising fast in the Revolutionary Army. He was born in Corsica into a family of minor aristocracy, but was largely educated in France and, aged sixteen, admitted to the prestigious École Militaire in Paris.

Josephine shared a similar background, coming from minor aristocracy from the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean and thus also speaking French with an accent.  Born Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, her family arranged a “good” marriage to a much older man, Alexandre, the Vicomte de Beauharnais, with whom she had two children. Because they were Royalists they were both imprisoned during the Terror. The Count was beheaded (Josephine narrowly escaped) leaving her a widow of some means but needing to make her own way in the world. A beautiful and vivacious woman, she quickly found a well-connected protector, whose mistress she became.  Able to mix in the cultivated circles of the “nouveaux riches”, she quickly became one of the ultra-chic, sexy and sought-after, cultured women known as les Merveilleuses (literally, the marvellous ones). At the centre of Salon life where people of consequence mixed and met, Josephine (6 years older and worldly-wise) clearly impressed the still unsophisticated young Officer, who, despite his rising fortunes in the army was still something of an outsider.

Rose de Pagerie, as she was then known, was anxious for the security of marriage – and already something of a financial burden on her protector who was evidently anxious to be free of her (it was he who arranged their introduction). She met Napoleon in September 1795, and he was soon in love with her, dazzled by her glamour, social confidence and charisma. Shortly after, in the first of hundreds of passionate love letters to her, he wrote:  ‘Your portrait and intoxicating party yesterday evening have left my senses no peace’. They married on March 9, 1796 – and thereafter she was known by the name he preferred to call her, Josephine.

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