Life at Malmaison
Diana Scarisbrick visits an exhibition from Russia that evokes the Empress Joséphine’s house, garden and collections.
Monday, 5th November 2007
Visitors to this exhibition at the Hermitage Rooms in London may well wonder why so many choice possessions from Malmaison, favourite home of the Empress Joséphine, should now be in Russia. The answer is that she and her children, Hortense and Eugène, were linked to the Tsars Alexander i and Nicholas i by ties of friendship and marriage. After Joséphine died in 1814, leaving enormous debts, it was Alexander who came to the rescue by purchasing 38 paintings from her estate, and in 1829 Nicholas i acquired 30 more from Hortense when she too was short of money. The relationship became even closer in 1839 when Nicholas’s daughter, the Grand Duchess Maria, married Joséphine’s grandson Maximilian, Duke of Leuchtenberg. The marriage was conditional on his living in Russia, and Maximilian brought with him his share of the inheritance of his father, Eugène. After the revolution of 1917 it was divided among several state museums, which have lent to the exhibition. These sources are emphasised in the exhibition by portrait busts of the two tsars and of Eugène.
Whereas Malmaison today is a showcase for the arts of the First Empire, these Russian loans remind us that the house must have looked rather different when occupied by Joséphine. The Greek vases, bronzes and Old Master paintings that she collected for her Grande Galerie – with advice from Alexander Lenoir and Dominique Vivant Denon – are recalled by pictures that once hung at Malmaison. They include works by Claude Lorrain, Metsu, Van der Werff and Teniers from the collection of the Landgraf von Hessen Kassel, seized as plunder for Joséphine by General Lagrange, a Paulus Potter study of a wolf hound that she acquired at auction, and a Bernardino Luini, a gift from the Milanese painter Andrea Appiani. As in the Grande Galerie, pride of place here is given to a marble figure of a dancer (Fig. 2), bought from Antonio Canova in 1812, and so animated that she seems about to glide down the room. In a letter to the sculptor, Joséphine, who also commissioned The Three Graces from him, expressed her admiration: ‘Like Pygmalion you bring your masterpieces to life, but whereas he kept his for himself, you want the whole world to enjoy them’.
Joséphine’s good looks, charm and warmth are captured by Gérard in a portrait of 1801, in which she wears a loosely draped white muslin dress and cashmere shawl that contrast with the formality of her coronation attire, shown in a print. Her presence is further felt through a display of personal possessions:
a tulle and silver lamé dress by Leroy, an embroidered stole, a pair of shoes, a tortoiseshell comb for her chignon, letters and a writing box by Biennais. Of all these items recalling her life at Malmaison perhaps the most evocative is a little purse with neat cornelian fittings, one of the many useful objects that she and her ladies crocheted as they sat round a work table beside a glowing fire. Her garden was also important for Joséphine: she introduced at least 200 plants and shrubs new to France, and prints of roses by P.J. Redouté demonstrate her passion for botany. Undeterred by the continental blockade, she continued to import from the celebrated nursery of Lee and Kennedy in Hammersmith throughout the Napoleonic wars.
Always interested in the new, she was one of the first to appreciate troubadour- style paintings, a taste represented by François Fleury Richard’s depiction of Valentine of Milan grieving for her husband, the duke of Orléans, after his assassination by the duke of Burgundy in 1407. This portrayal of faithful love may also have appealed to her womanly feelings, and she certainly liked it so much that she had it reproduced on one of the plates of the magnificent porcelain dinner service created for her by the firm of Dihl and Guérhard, much of which is on show (Fig. 1). The service is a tour de force, for not only is it decorated with topographical views and other paintings from her collection but it also includes immaculately glazed or matt gilt figures of Cupids and Psyches. Similarly superb in quality is the furniture by Jacob Desmalter, whose talents she recognised long before she became empress.
Since Malmaison was not a palace but a private domain with relatively small rooms, references to the Napoleonic epic are few, but nonetheless important. There is a great Sèvres plaque painted by J.F. Swebach depicting the defeat of the Austrian army at the battle of Marengo in 1800, which conveys the drama of military action, with the youthful Napoleon totally in command. His victories are also alluded to by a beautiful triumphal arch inlaid with hardstones and glass mosaics by Giacomo Raffaelli, intended as the base of a clock to stand on a matching chimneypiece that was a gift from Pius vii to mark the signing of the Concordat of 1802.
Amidst so much of artistic and historic interest, the Hellenistic Gonzaga Cameo stands in a class of its own, exemplifying the highest pinnacle of court art in the ancient world (Fig. 3). Unusually large, the three-layered sardonyx portrays the rulers of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus ii and his queen, Arsinoe ii, at the time of their wedding in 278 bc. Her veil is crowned with laurel, as is his helmet, which also bears the symbols of a winged dragon and a star, and to indicate divine status his cloak is covered by the aegis of Zeus, supreme ruler of the universe. Set against the dark layer, their majestic white profiles, hers soft and feminine, his decisive and virile, are the embodiment of the authority that will bring prosperity to their subjects.
Once owned by Queen Christina of Sweden, who believed it represented Alexander the Great and his mother, Olympias, the cameo was presented by Pius VI to Napoleon for Joséphine, who gave it to Tsar Alexander in 1814. Since he was much influenced by his Greek namesake and was the most powerful sovereign of Europe after the downfall of Napoleon, he would have grasped its significance, and this pledge of friendship has ever since been one of the glories of the Hermitage, just as it was of Malmaison.
Diana Scarisbrick curated ‘Napoleonic Jewels’ at Chaumet, Paris, in 2004.
‘France and Russia: Empress Joséphine’s Malmaison Collection’, Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House, London (+44  20 7845 4600), 25 July-4 November. Catalogue by Alexandra Gerstein, et al., isbn 978 1 906 257 00 2 (cloth), £30; isbn 978 1 906257 01 9 (paper), £20 (Fontanka).
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