A Visit to Malmaison: Napoleon & Josephine’s Home

My Viking Seine River Cruise allowed me to visit Malmaison, the former home of Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine, in the western suburbs of Paris. Before this cruise, and like most tourists, I had never heard of the estate. Unfortunately,  the property is difficult to reach via Paris public transportation, and a taxi would be expensive. So, lucky for me, but sad for all those who miss it. 

Malmaison, the former home of Napoleon & Josephine.
Malmaison was the Paris home of Napoleon & Josephine

The excellent Viking Cruise excursion guide provided some background information on Napoleon and Josephine during the bus ride to the mansion. Josephine de Beauharnais was quite the character, and the guide made me so interested I went home and read a biography on her fascinating life.

(“Josephine” A Life of the Empress by Carolly Erickson)

Josephine’s Background

The Empress Josephine in a portrit hanging in Malmaison.
Portrait of Josephine hanging in Malmaison

To sum up Josephine’s life: 

She was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on June 23, 1763, on the island of Martinique. Josephine grew up on a plantation and was married off at age 16 to Alexandre de Beauharnais, a French aristocrat who was also a member of the French National Assembly. However, the marriage was not a happy one, and they both took other lovers. Alexandre was eventually executed during the French Revolution.

Josephine was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror and almost died but was released in 1794. She then met Napoleon Bonaparte, a rising star in the French military. She needed a husband for her two children and financial support. The two were married in 1796.

As Napoleon rose to power, Josephine became a prominent figure in French society and played an active role in the politics of the time. She was known for her charm and social skills, and her salon became a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and politicians. (Josephine accomplished all this without smiling; she had terrible teeth.) 

Despite their love for each other, Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage suffered many challenges. They struggled to have children, and Napoleon’s desire for an heir eventually led him to divorce Josephine in 1809.

After their divorce, Josephine retired to her estate at Malmaison, where she continued to be a patron of the arts and a prominent figure in French society until her death on May 29, 1814. Despite the end of their marriage, Napoleon continued to hold a deep affection for Josephine and was reportedly devastated by her death.

Napoleon’s Background

Napoleon in military uniform in his younger days.
Young Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon’s life differed greatly from Josephine’s; they were an unlikely match. 

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, on the island of Corsica, then part of the Republic of Genoa. He was the second of eight children.

 As a young man, Napoleon attended military school in France, where he developed a keen interest in politics and military strategy. He rose through the ranks of the French military during the French Revolution and played a prominent role in several major military campaigns.

In 1799, Napoleon staged a coup and established himself as the First Consul of France, effectively making him the country’s ruler. He later declared himself Emperor of the French in 1804 and embarked on a series of military campaigns that expanded the French Empire to its greatest extent.

Napoleon implemented several reforms during his reign, including the Napoleonic Code, which established a uniform legal system throughout France. He also founded cultural institutions, including the Louvre Museum and the French Academy of Sciences.

After his defeat in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne and exiled to Elba. He briefly returned to power in 1815 but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and was exiled again, this time to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. He died on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51.

What and Where is Malmaison?

Interior room at Malmaison in the Empire Style.
An upstairs room in Malmaison displaying portraits.

Malmaison, now a museum and historic chateau, was the residence of Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine from 1799 to 1814. It acted as a center for political and diplomatic activities during Napoleon’s reign. He met with foreign ambassadors and conducted important government negotiations in the estate’s elegant drawing rooms.

Visitors to Malmaison explore the chateau’s many rooms, restored to their original opulent 18th-century splendor. The furniture is Empire style, characterized by its grandeur, luxury, and military motifs.

Josephine's bedchamber at Malmaison.
The bed where Josephine died in Malmaison.

Highlights include the Emperor’s Study, where Napoleon worked on military and administrative matters, and Josephine’s bed-chamber, which features the original furnishings and decorations. After Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814, Malmaison returned to Josephine. She lived there until she died in 1814. After Josephine’s death, the chateau passed into the hands of Napoleon’s sister, Pauline, and then to his brother.

Malmaison and the Louisiana Purchase

James Monroe came to Malmaison to discuss the Louisiana Purchase.
The Emperor’s Study where discussions for the Louisiana Purchase took place.

I was surprised to learn that Malmaison played a role in the negotiations leading up to the Louisiana Purchase. In 1802, American diplomats James Monroe and Robert Livingston stayed at Malmaison while negotiating with French officials, including Napoleon Bonaparte and his foreign minister, Talleyrand, over the possible sale of Louisiana to the United States. Although the negotiations were complex and uncertain, they ultimately led to the Louisiana Purchase the following year.

I find discovering tidbits of history from my travels like this most welcoming. They add to what you already know and form a more complete picture of the world. 

A salon in Malmaison showing Empire style furniture.
A salon in Malmaison, note the gooseneck detail on the chairs.

The chateau also boasts a collection of art, including portraits of Napoleon and Josephine and furniture, textiles, and decorative arts from the period. 

The Gardens

Tree-lined walkway leading to Malmaison’s gardens.

Josephine developed a fondness for roses and designed and established the chateau’s botanical gardens, which included rare and exotic plants imported from around the world. She was known for spending beyond her resources.  

I only had a little time to stroll the gardens but found a few roses still blooming in November. I wished I’d had more time to explore the beautiful grounds. 

A rose in the gardens at Malmaison.
Josephine planted extensive rose gardens at Malmaison.

Overall, Malmaison is a fascinating destination for anyone interested in the history of France and the lives of Napoleon and Josephine in particular. Its beautifully preserved interiors and stunning gardens offer a unique glimpse into the luxury and elegance of 18th-century France.

Many thanks to Viking River Cruises for an incredible journey.