For Joséphine de Beauharnais Bonaparte, the Chateau de Malmaison — just outside Paris, with its abundant gardens and enveloping forests — was a cherished retreat, her respite from the demands of Paris and Napoleon’s court life. Today it is a delightful oasis and a museum dedicated to Joséphine and Napoleon.
The Chateau de Malmaison, or “bad house,” as it was called in the Middle Ages when the property was the site of a leper colony, is nestled in a small forest near the Parisian suburb Rueil-Malmaison. When Joséphine bought the house in 1799, it was the centerpiece of a 640-acre estate, which has shrunk to six hectares (14.8 acres). Today, residential apartment buildings sit on land that was once part of the empress’ great park.
The original Malmaison was built in 1622. After the imperial couple completed their renovations, the chateau incorporated elements of the neoclassical Empire style then flourishing. Malmaison is spare and compact, but the use of such details as wide window casements, decorative cornices and molding as well as neutral floor covering and mirrors gives the illusion of spaciousness.
Malmaison had several owners after Joséphine, including Napoleon III, who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew and step-grandchild, the son of Josephine’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais and Napoleon’s brother Louis. The philanthropist Daniel Osiris bought the house and grounds in 1896, financed restoration and presented Malmaison to France to be used for a Napoleonic museum. Further acquisitions and careful preservation have enhanced the property.
As one enters the grounds, the surprisingly compact white chateau comes into view, dwarfed by the surrounding woods. In summer the scent of the famous roses planted by the botanist and artist Jean-Pierre Redouté is a pleasant distraction along the gravel paths.
The tour begins with the salons, dining room and music room on the ground floor and proceeds at a leisurely pace. Braided satin cords bar traffic from certain precious carpets, but there is ample time to study the antique furniture and accessories.
Napoleon’s war campaign office is re-created in one ground-floor room. Walls and ceiling are covered with striped cloth; crossed spears are set in the corners of this simulated tent. The general’s portable desk dominates the room and, indeed, Napoleon seems almost present as one stands in the midst of the belongings that he took with him to battle.
The music room reveals Josephine’s gentler touch. Delicate paintings of flowers by Redouté decorate the corridor leading to the ornate salon where the empress’ harp is displayed.
An elaborate round table covered with signs of the zodiac and mystical symbols reveals another aspect of Josephine. The guide comments that she regularly had her own and Napoleon’s horoscopes cast and that tarot card readings by fortunetellers were routine entertainments in the household.
On the second and third floors, the tour continues along some very narrow passageways and into the family bedrooms and a room filled with memorabilia dating from Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena. The tour group buzzed with whispered comments when we came to the Osiris Pavilion on the second floor to view the death mask molded by the Corsican doctor Francesco Antommarchi who attended Napoleon as he died in 1821 on the remote South Atlantic Island, St. Helena. Also on view are the camp bed on which he died and the cover for the catafalque that carried his remains to the tomb.
Some of Josephine’s wardrobe spills out of one of the bedroom closets. Cluttering bedside tables and dresser tops are personal souvenirs and toilette items belonging to Joséphine and Hortense, her daughter.
An avid patron of horticulture, Joséphine also left her mark on the gardens of Malmaison, which she employed Redoute’ to lay out. In early summer they are at their most colorful, when rows upon rows of roses are in bloom.
In addition to his horticultural creativity (he developed many new rose varieties for Joséphine), Redouté was one of the world’s greatest botanical illustrators. His meticulous paintings of the roses at Malmaison are among the treasures of the New York Public Library, and his rose varieties grace gardens all over the world.
A few steps from the chateau, in the former stables, is a display of coaches and carriages, including the one Josephine rode in on the return to Malmaison after her humiliating divorce from Napoleon in 1809. Equally poignant is the carriage used by Princess Marie Antoinette of Austria when she came to France to marry Louis XVI.
Joséphine lived at Malmaison until her death in 1814. Not far from the gardens she presided over, in the church in the center of Rueil-Malmaison, is her white marble tomb. With her daughter Hortense, the two women, an empress and a queen, mother and daughter, repose together in the silent church, their vivid lives now history.
Chateau de Malmaison (Avenue du Chateau, Rueil-Malmaison, France). Consult the website for current opening hours, tours and virtual tours.
The museum is open daily, except Tuesdays. It is closed December 25 and January 1. The last entry each day is 45 minutes before closing time. Closing times change depending on the season and are open slightly later on weekends. Call ahead or check the museum website for specifics.
The chateau is about 12 miles (45 minutes) from Paris by car. Take Rte. N13 west from Neuilly and follow the signs to Rueil-Malmaison and the chateau where there is a free parking lot.
From la Défense metro/RER station: take bus 258 to “Le Chateau” (25 minutes). Cross the Route Nationale 13 and walk to the chateau about 300 meters.
From Rueil-Malmaison station: take the RER A line to Rueil-Malmaison, then the “Bus Optile 27” and get off at “Le Château” (8 minutes)
Nearby Attractions of Interest:
On Avenue de l’Imperatrice Josephine, a few minutes’ walk from Malmaison, the Napoleonic pilgrimage continues at Chateau de Bois-Préau, bequeathed to France by Edward Tuck, an American diplomat-banker with a passion for collecting portraits and artifacts of the Napoleonic era. Part of Tuck’s collection is housed in the Petit Palais in Paris.
In nearby St. Germain-en-Laye (also on Rte. N13) is the small Debussy museum, where the composer was born.
A similar version of this article appeared in The Washington Post.