Volume II - Chapter 1
THE FIRST CONSUL AT HOME
The green-house at Malmaison
Auguste Garneray (1785-1824)
In the preceding chapters, we
learned of First Consul Bonaparte’s initial achievements. We shall now profit
from the (relative) respite afforded by the (provisional) Peace of
One of his most famous sayings was:
“When the ox is in harness, it must pull the plow.”
Napoleon was the ox. Which more or less comes down to saying that words such as relaxation or leisure were virtually absent from Napoleon’s vocabulary. Nevertheless, it is possible to find in the First Consul’s daily life (more difficult in the case of the Emperor) a few moments when he was (almost) a man like any other.
There is one place that is associated with those two words, leisure and relaxation, and that place bears the mythical name of Malmaison, the First Consul’s only residence outside the Tuileries Palace until he moved to the Château of Saint-Cloud.
THE HAPPY HOME
Three leagues, that is, a little over 13 kilometers from the Tuileries Palace, on the road from Paris to Cherbourg, the little town of Rueil (known at the time as Ruel) had the honour of playing host to First Consul Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine, née Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, whom Bernard Chevallier, the curator of Malmaison in his charming biographical portrait of her, dubbed “the sweet and incomparable Josephine”.
Malmaison, certainly a propitious place for happy moments, is not a stately home in the fullest sense of the term, rather, a large country house with a park, gardens and a farm. A real farm with a stable, a cowshed and a sheepfold. At least in the beginning.
The estate, which covered approximately 130 hectares, had been bought by Josephine for the sum of 225,000 francs paid by… Bonaparte upon his return from the Egyptian campaign.
To give the First Consul’s country residence a more majestic feeling, and to allow him to hold working sessions with ministers, work was undertaken under the direction of Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, who were to be the star architects of the First Empire: the addition of two buildings on either side of the court of honor – which also increased the living area – and a veranda: this was reserved for servants, and replaced the vestibule that served as an extension to the salons.
In the reception halls and the gallery were works of art and decorative objects chosen (as was perhaps preferable) by Josephine herself. Principal among these were works by the Italian masters, including Giuseppe Maria Crespi, represented by his Samson and Delilah, Francesco Mazzola (known in France as the “Parmesan”) by his Holy Family and by Pietro Vannucci (known as the “Perugian”).
Also in evidence were a few Egyptian touches notably in the form of obelisks and drawings by Vivant Denon representing the battles of the Pyramids and Aboukir. The brothers Jacob, who were the equals in cabinet making of Percier and Fontaine in architecture, supplied the elegant, yet sober furniture.
The library housed the First Consul’s favorite works, which included the French translation of the Lusiades by Luis Vaz de Camõens, the plays of Corneille in twelve volumes, and those of Racine and Carmontelle, author, painter and landscape artist, the originator of the sketch that was to become the Parc Monceau, all 35 volumes of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, numerous books on the history of France and the Orient, the campaigns of the (long forgotten) Marshal de Maillebois, great-nephew of Colbert, famous for his expedition to Corsica that won him his marshal’s baton, and a very great number of atlases and travel stories.
In short, the library of a studious man.
Just in case anyone had the wretched idea of forgetting that one did not come to Malmaison merely to relax, there was a council chamber between the dining room and the library, a constant reminder of the fact the master of the house never lost sight of his duty: it was in this same charming house, moreover, that the Legion of Honour and the Concordat were conceived.
In the English-style gardens – the only English specialty of the era
that did not pose any danger – there was a profusion of roses, which were especially
dear to the heart of Josephine, the lady of the house. A specially-constructed
hothouse housed exotic trees that reminded her of the family estate in
The First Consul fell truly at home on this estate, even though it may have seemed rather modest for a man in his position, since, besides abundant greenery kept constantly fresh by the nearby stream, he had a little private garden that he entered by way of a small bridge. Whenever he felt the need to get away from the rather confined atmosphere of his study, he had a table carried there and worked on this bridge, whose awning gave it the air of a campaign tent:
“When I’m in the open air,” he often said, “I feel that my ideas assume a higher, more expansive dimension. I cannot imagine how men can work successfully beside a stove, cut off from communication with the sky.”
The English politician Charles Fox, with whom first Bonaparte, then later Napoléon, would have liked to conclude a peace agreement between France and England – his death in 1806 prevented this dream being realized – used to say that at Malmaison, Napoleon was a totally different man than at the Tuileries:
“The First Consul at Malmaison, the First Consul at Saint-Cloud, the First Consul at the Tuileries; these are three men who make up an ideal whole of admirable grandeur. But I would truly need to be a gifted artist to paint his portrait in those three different places, since I would have three faces that resemble the same man, yet with three different sets of features.”
At Malmaison, the First Consul’s habits were – as Hortense, future Queen
of Holland, who regularly had the opportunity of staying there explained –
about the same as in
It goes without saying that Bonaparte began his day early. He was already in his study by five or six in the morning.
He locked himself in with his Secretary of the moment, Bourrienne, ministers, generals, state councillors – these arrived in the morning and generally left in the evening; the trip took approximately 30 minutes if the stagecoach was not held up – and no guest at Malmaison ever saw the First Consul appear before six in the evening, the hour set for dinner. He wore his favorite outfit, the familiar uniform of a cavalryman in the Consul’s guard.
In the evening, Bonaparte often invited learned men to dinner so that he could chat at length with them. Among the regulars were the mathematicians Monge, creator of descriptive geometry, and Lagrange; the chemists Berthollet et Fourcroy; the philosopher Volney; Laplace, the author of works on celestial mechanics and a treatise on the calculation of probabilities; and Prony, the engineer who, in 1822, measured with Arago, the speed of sound through the air.
The Consul, an army officer who was an expert in artillery, respected and admired these men. When he was made a member of the Institute, in the class of mathematics and physics, mechanics section, he confessed:
“The approbation of the distinguished men who make up the Institute does me great honour. I am well aware that before becoming their equal, I would remain their student for a long time.”
Throughout the Empire, Napoleon showed himself generous and hospitable toward men of science, securing pensions for them, arranging important chairs for brilliant young men just graduating from university to allow them to pursue their work unhampered by material concerns.
Malmaison was a very popular place.
Ministers, politicians without portfolio, officers and generals looking for promotions, artists such as the painter and miniaturist Isabey; few of the guests needed much urging to leave Paris – every Wednesday there was a ceremonial dinner – to go to and spend a few hours with that providential man in whose hands lay the destiny of the French nation and its people. And of course, their own.
Second Consul Camabacères, that talented social climber, future Arch-chancellor and Duke of Parma, did not go there to abandon himself to his greatest passion: gastronomy, since he considered the fare at the Consulate to have more in common with the home of a “petit bourgeois” than of the kitchens of the first Head of State.
Here, described by one of the guests, was one of the “ordinary” menus served at Malmaison:
Rump of beef garnished and fillets of wild duck
Two roasts of capon and lamb
Turnip au jus
Cauliflower au gratin
Crème française with sponge cake
And that was what they called back then a meal with no culinary pretensions! How times have changed!
The First Consul generally picked at his food – as he would continue to do when he became Emperor – and finished with a strong, sweet coffee brought to him by Josephine. The guests knew that they would spend only a short time at table, as for Bonaparte, things started to drag whenever a meal was more than half an hour long.
When the weather was fine, the First Consul had the table set up in the park, to the left of the lawn that stretched before the house, and on the occasions when he was in a good mood and could steal a few moments from his work, he would exclaim:
“Let’s play “barres”!
The spectacle then ensued, as a regular at the house recorded, of “the conqueror of the world” divesting himself of his coat to take part in this race between two teams of players. We are even informed that the First Consul “ran like a hare” and revealed what was a (well-known) weakness in the great man: he cheated in this game, as indeed he did in others.
rudely interrupted the calm of Malmaison, reminding the occupants that the
First Consul, whom they saw as free of care as a high school student, was the
permanent target of
This is what occurred one day after one of those carefree parties:
suddenly alarmed by the presence of two shabbily dressed individuals who were
staring at the Consul. Rapp, who had been discreetly sent for, arrived on the
scene, and taking one of them by the sleeve, threatened in his booming voice to
have him and his companion arrested. When the First Consul arrived, he
recognized one of the men as a staff sergeant in his Guides in the Army of
Italy, whose arm had been torn off in the battle of
“They’re veterans on the road. Hello, my friend! So you’ve come to see me? Let me show you around. Follow your General’s orders one more time. Lead the way, Eugène.”
veteran had simply come to request “a horse, a saber and a rifle” for his
brother. The brother was recruited. Then in the company of Eugène, under whom
he had served in
In order to understand the reasons for Joséphine’s anxiety, it is important to remember the dreadful royalist attack of December 24, 1800 that resulted in a dozen dead – including the little girl that one of the royalist terrorists had asked to mind the cart carrying the fatal charge, and 30 wounded, most of whom suffered mutilation – was still fresh in everyone’s memory.
In the salon and around the table, in addition to Josephine’s children, Hortense and Eugène, could be found Napoleon’s friends and faithful supporters since the earliest days: Lannes, whose wife won everyone over by her beauty alone – Junot, Bessières, Duroc, and Marmont. Also present was a swarm of young girls of the very best education, who had been trained by Madame Campan, Queen Marie-Antoinette’s former head chambermaid and headmistress of a highly esteemed house of education. It was at Malmaison that most of these girls would find husbands, men whose character had been shaped by the rough life of the army and to whom they would bring a little gentleness through their example.
The small theater designed by Fontaine under the roof was quickly replaced by a real one. Constructed on the site of the farm, which no longer served its original purpose, the circular structure had a raised floor, a painted canvas ceiling, a foyer and could seat over 200 spectators.
In the repertoire that was often played by Hortense, the young lady of the house and by her friends and members of the small society of Malmaison, were plays, first very light affairs, then later works taken from the great classical repertoire, such as the Barber of Seville, in which Josephine’s daughter, her pretty head crowned with black velvet and pink roses wrapped tightly around her blond curls, and her waist squeezed into a corset of the same colour, played a Rosine that Beaumarchais himself would not have been ashamed of.
Now that we know the future that awaited them, it is ironic to discover the names of two of the actors in the troop: Bourienne, who was dismissed for financial impropriety, played, we are told, “financial rogues to perfection,” and Marmont, with the same perfection, played “traitors.” A fateful role when one considers how he was to behave in 1814.
At the beginning, the interpretations were, as is to be expected, rather childish. All the more so since these amateur actors were thrust before the gaze of the First Consul, on whose lips a smile sometimes played, “whose judgment,” one of the actresses remarked, “was extremely daunting.”
But their progress was so rapid that the little Malmaison troop counted among its audience, besides Bonaparte and Josephine, foreign princes and princesses, ambassadors, ministers, senators, state counsellors, and any number of the most noteworthy generals of the regime:
“I saw played in this theater,” wrote General Bigarré, who would one day be King Joseph’s aide-de-camp, many comedies and operettas that were as well played as at the Théâtre-Français or at Feydeau.”
This type of
performance, which the First Consul found deeply relaxing, traditionally ended
with the light supper, after which everyone left for
In the Emperor’s heart, Malmaison would always remain the place where, as First Consul Bonaparte, he had known true happiness.
A new world took shape in the study and under the trees at Malmaison.
Malmaison was the cradle of all the hopes and achievements that washed
Malmaison was the cradle of a legendary epic – the word is not too strong –
that will perhaps remain unequalled forever.
After the catastrophe of Waterloo, when he made one last pilgrimage there, how could anyone doubt that the Emperor, who finally succumbed under the blows of his “Allies who had never ceased to be his enemies” would seek, in the pathways of the park, the gracious silhouette of the sweet, incomparable Josephine of whom he would say on the cursed rock of Saint Helena:
Empress Joséphine, 1809
Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835)
“She was the woman that I loved the most.”
But he was chasing after a phantom: the soul of Malmaison had departed one year earlier.
And it was from that happy home that he left to deliver himself to the
In her famous and sometimes very controversial Mémoires, the Duchess of Abrantes, the wife of general Junot, was moved to say of the charming Malmaison, which had changed so greatly in the twilight of that prodigious era known as the First Empire:
 Douce et incomparable Joséphine, éditions Payot, Collection « Portraits intimes ».