Bonaparte, Josephine

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Josephine Bonaparte


Empress of France

Colonial Upbringing.

The woman who was destined to become Empress of the French spent her early life and adolescence on the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean. Her father was from a poor aristocratic family, and he served there in the navy. When she was sixteen Josephine married Alexandre, the Viscount of Beauharnais, and moved to Paris, where she stayed for several years. Her husband was pretentious and often offended by Josephine's colonial manners. As a result, he did not present her at court, and despite the fact that the couple had two children, they were soon separated. Josephine returned to her island home of Martinique only to be driven back to Paris by a slave revolt in 1790. Conditions in Paris were not much better as the city was then in the throes of Revolution. Now older and more mature, she became a fixture of high society parties, but faced a threat in 1794 when her husband Beauharnais was executed as a counter-revolutionary. She survived a harrowing imprisonment and continued her rise to the top of the fashionable world of Revolutionary France. After her husband's death she faced financial crises, although she managed to gain a modicum of economic stability through her associations with men as well as several business dealings. Around this time she met Napoleon Bonaparte, then a rising officer in the French army. Almost immediately he was smitten with her, although she long remained indifferent to him. Sensing that the match might be advantageous, though, Josephine agreed to marry him in a civil ceremony in 1796.

Fashionable Society.

Although now married to Napoleon, Josephine continued her climb in Parisian high society. In the early years of their marriage Bonaparte was often away from the capital, and although he frequently wrote to his wife, she rarely answered his letters. She was widely rumored to have had a number of affairs in these years, and by 1798 Bonaparte was considering divorcing her. Her family convinced him to remain married to her, and he returned to Paris and paid off the large debts she had accumulated. In the next few years Bonaparte's rise to power and eventually to the office of emperor of the French drew the couple closer together. In 1804, they renewed their wedding vows, but this time in a religious, rather than civil ceremony. Initially, Josephine relied on her husband's position and her newfound status as empress to make favorable matches for her two children in European noble houses. But her extravagant consumption of clothing, art, and furniture continued to be a sore spot, as was her inability to bear children, and by 1810, Bonaparte had their union dissolved. He was able to have their marriage annulled since no priest had officially presided at their 1804 religious marriage. Josephine was given a pension and retired to her country house at Malmaison. There she continued to entertain French high society on a grand scale, paid for by the funds she received from her former husband. When Bonaparte was forced to abdicate a few years later, she was protected by the Czar of Russia, although she died not long afterward, having reigned for almost two decades over Parisian society at a turbulent point in its history.

Fashion and Artistic Patronage.

Josephine was certainly not a woman of formidable intellectual powers. Throughout her life she labored to overcome her provincial upbringing, and in this she was largely successful. She possessed a single-minded determination to succeed in high society, and her sense of taste in clothing and art was an undeniable ally in the achievement of her goals. She was also widely admired for her good nature. In art, her patronage was particularly vital to the development of the Empire style, a fashion that was notable for its classical elements, which in many ways continued the direction of Classicism that had been popular during the last years of the Old Regime. Her fashion sense in the choice of clothes was recognized to be impeccable, and Josephine wore the Neoclassical fashions that were just beginning to become the rage in late 1790s Paris. Like Marie Antoinette before her, she had a fondness for the chemise, the white or light-colored dresses modeled on nightshirts and undergarments that were usually made out of simple muslin or cotton. In contrast to the chemises that had been popular in France in the years immediately preceding the Revolution, Josephine wore the style with a high waist, helping to establish the fashion that since her day has become known as the "empire" waistline.


Evangeline Bruce, Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage (New York: Scribner, 1995).

Eleanor P. DeLorme, Joséphine: Napoléon's Incomparable Empress (New York: H. N. Abrams, 2002).

Nina Epton, Josephine: The Empress and Her Children (New York: Norton, 1976).

Carolly Erickson, Josephine: A Life of the Empress (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000).

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