Napoleon loved his Josephine deeply, and even after divorcing her, he ordered she should keep her title as Empress of France. But did she love him back?
No matter where you stand regarding Napoleon, you can’t deny that this man was one of the most brilliant strategists and politicians in history. He was a nobleman with a dashing military career who knew how to seize opportunities like none other and ended up conquering almost every corner of western and central Europe. His family, being part of a minor strand of the Italian nobility, educated him and his siblings strictly so that they could rise in the social pyramid through an important career. Besides the ambitious plans his parents had, Napoleon always saw beyond the planned and ended up becoming the self-proclaimed Emperor of France and King of Italy, among many other titles.
Visite de Joséphine de Beauharnais à son mari Alexandre détenu au Luxembourg (Visit of Josephine de Beauharnais to her husband Alexandre held in Luxembourg) - Hector Viger (19th century)
Six years before Napoleon’s birth, in a sugarcane plantation in the French colony of Martinique, an aristocratic girl was born. Like the man who would become her husband, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie knew that things weren’t going to just be given to her and realized that if she wanted to defeat her destiny as the daughter of a not-so-wealthy aristocrat, she had to make some sacrifices. Together they're considered one of the most famous and powerful couples in history. It’s well known that Napoleon loved her madly, but did she feel the same for him? What’s the story behind the woman that’s often victimized for being dumped by the most powerful man in the world?
Josephine Bonaparte de Beauharnais - Andrea Appiani (1796)
To be honest, I don’t think there’s nothing victimizing about Josephine’s story as many movies and books show. So let’s start from the beginning. Yes, her family wasn’t that wealthy, but they had more than enough to live a life of little luxuries. However, after a set of hurricanes that devastated most of their property in 1766, they only had nothing more than their aristocratic names. As a result, from a young age she understood (or better said, was taught) that the only way to secure her family’s financial status was through connections, and naturally, marriage was the best way to achieve it.
L'imperatrice Giuseppina ritratta (Portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais) - Andrea Appiani (c. 1808)
The family saw a golden opportunity when the lover of one of her aunts’ health started to fail. Her aunt needed to secure the status of the family, since soon her own stability would be jeopardized. Still having some powerful connections, she decided to promote one of her nieces to become the wife of her lover’s son, Alexandre, who later on became Vicomte de Beauharnais. However, that luxurious title wasn’t really thought for Josephine, but for her younger sister, Catherine. Sadly, the 12-year-old passed away and the position was taken by Josephine, who saw it as a great opportunity life was giving her.
Madame Bonaparte dans son salon de Malmaison (Madame Bonaparte at Malmaison) - François Gérard (1801)
In 1779, her father took her to France to meet and marry her fiancé. They had two children, Hortense (who would later marry one of Napoleon’s brothers), and Eugène (who would become an important member of the nobility and Prince of Venice). But the marriage was doomed to fail, and in 1794 she got a court authorization of separation, although they were still married. That wouldn’t be such a problem since, in 1794, Alexandre was put in jail out of suspicion of being a supporter of the royalists during the Reign of Terror, and just some months later he was guillotined. The fate of Josephine was uncertain. Being considered a supporter just like her husband, she was also imprisoned. However, just when she was about to be sentenced, Robespierre was overthrown and executed, making her a free woman once again.
Le Sacre de Napoléon (The Coronation of Napoleon) - Jacques-Louis David (1805-1807)
She got the position she had wanted, but now she had to start from scratch (perhaps even worse, since her name was stained with her late husband’s destiny). Right after her liberation, she started analyzing future prospects. During this time, it’s said she had multiple affairs with important politicians, being Paul François Jean Nicolas the most important of them all. The story says that she accompanied him in one of his events, and there she met Napoleon, who was just a general at the time. According to Caroline Weber’s article on The New York Post, Josephine didn’t like him that much. He wasn’t that good looking and not as important as her current lover, but she saw that he was an extremely ambitious man with an enviable mind.
Joséphine en costume de sacre (Joséphine in Coronation Costume) - François Gérard (1807-1808
For Napoleon it was love at first sight. He felt infatuated with this woman, so he immediately started writing her letters. She fell quite fast (according to the story of course), and just in a couple of months, they started a relationship. As Weber states, there isn’t really a way to know if she corresponded Napoleon’s feelings or if she saw a huge potential in this general that was ascending so quickly. We can’t tell but, based on her story, many agree that Napoleon had much more to offer than Paul François, which proved to be a right call.
L'impératrice Joséphine (The Empress Josephine) - Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (c-1805)
Less than a year after they met, the couple married. At that moment their relationship was like the land of milk and honey. Napoleon, being six years younger and not that experienced in love, saw in his Josephine (the name she adopted after they met because he preferred it than the one she had used all her life, Rose) a love machine he couldn’t resist. There are tons of letters the couple shared during this moment, and they're considered some of the most romantic and lovely ones out there. However, it all changed when Napoleon started traveling with the army, and just some months after their marriage Josephine started an affair with a cavalryman. That changed Napoleon’s perception of her, and soon he started sleeping with many women during his tours.
Madame Lenormand weissagt der Kaiserin Josephine die Trennung von Napoleon (Madame Lenormand Predicts Josephine’s Divorce From Napoleon) - Josef Danhauser (1841)
Now, here comes the part where Napoleon becomes a despicable man (well, speaking only about their relationship). In 1804 he was crowned Emperor of France in a ceremony officiated by the Pope Pius VII. He crowned himself and then his lovely wife. However, the story says she nearly didn’t attend the ceremony because she found Napoleon in bed with a lady just a couple of hours before the coronation. Everything looked the same for some months, but there’s no doubt that Napoleon’s feelings for Josephine changed. Hurt due to the betrayal, and angry because they hadn’t conceived an heir, he started considering the possibility of remarrying.
Portrait de l'Impératrice Joséphine de France (Portrait of Empress Josephine of France) - Firmin Massot (c. 1812)
Secretly, he started looking for suitable prospects that could even reinforce his new royal status. Decided that it was the only way he could bore an heir, he informed Josephine of his decision, and in January 1810, they got divorced in a ceremony where both assured their devotion for the other. Just a couple of months later, he married Marie-Louise, the daughter of the emperor of Austria, at the Louvre. They had only one child, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles, who became Emperor Napoleon II after defeating the monarchy restoration.
Le divorce de l'Impératrice Joséphine (The Divorce of Empress Josephine) - Henri Fréderic Schopin (1843)
Josephine didn’t remarry and continued holding the treatment and unofficial titles of Empress of France. Despite the way she was replaced, both continued having a friendly relationship until her death in 1814. It’s said that when Napoleon heard of her death while he was in exile in Elba, he didn’t take it that well and locked himself for days. Moreover, legend states that when he was about to die in 1821, his last words were the famous “France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine” (“France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine.”).
There are opposite opinions towards Josephine. Some believe she was just an opportunist, and others believe she was just a victim of the social norms of her time and that patriarchal idea of women only being valuable if they had children. If you ask me, both strands are equally incorrect in a way. I do believe that she didn’t really care about those norms and lived the life she always desired. Married to Napoleon or not, she died in the position she longed almost all her life. She enjoyed love in a freer way than many other women could even wish at the time, and ended up being as remembered as one of the most important women of her time.
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