A few years before Napoléon Bonaparte became emperor of France, his first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, bought an estate while he was away in Egypt. Château de Malmaison—which is located nine miles west of central Paris—was a grand but derelict old property, and when the future ruler returned, the couple decided it needed extensive renovations. They hired Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, young architects and decorators who would famously go on to help create the design style called Empire.
Josephine grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Her first husband was beheaded during the French Revolution, and she was imprisoned herself during the Reign of Terror. She was an independent woman, knowledgeable about design, as well as plants and gardens, and Malmaison became a lifelong passion. The Bonapartes were unable to have children, and Napoléon, desperate for an heir, divorced Josephine in 1809. But he insisted she keep her title and he gave her Malmaison. She lived at the château until her death five years later.
France offers so many important historical sites, and Malmaison often gets overlooked. It became a museum in 1906, and the interiors (full of tented rooms, custom cabinetry, rich tapestry, and monumental furniture) and gardens (designed in the English style by, among others, Louis-Martin Berthault) are a wonder to behold.
Join me on a tour of Josephine and Napoléon’s château.
Château de Malmaison, located a few miles west of Paris, was once home to Josephine and Napoléon Bonaparte, and, briefly, the seat of the French government. Josephine purchased the venerable property in 1799 while her husband was off fighting in Egypt. When he returned, they hired architects and decorators Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine to renovate the dilapidated house and grounds. Josephine was given the estate after the couple divorced in 1809 and lived there until her death five years later.
The tentlike metal enclosure that Percier and Fontaine created for the château’s entry is emblematic of the quasi-military Greek, Roman, and Egyptian–influenced style that became known as Empire.
Black-and-white tile floors were laid in the dining (pictured) and billiard rooms and adjoining spaces to provide continuity in the reception areas.
Black-and-white tile borders the floor in the music room.
A tent-shaped room added by Percier and Fontaine beyond the dining room.
The library features extensive millwork and arched ceilings.
Details of decoration on the library ceiling
The architect, decorator, and landscape designer Louis-Martin Berthault was brought on in 1805 to make further renovations. He hung Josephine’s formal bedroom with fabric that gave it a circular, tent like shape.
Despite its grand design, many parts of Malmaison are finished with simple materials, as seen in this staircase’s wood railing and treads.
Josephine was obsessed with plants and commissioned extensive gardens at the château. Having grown up in Martinique, she was particularly enamored of tropical flowers.
Bridges and a moat evoke another time.
Josephine was famously passionate about roses, and Malmaison remains to this day home to hundreds of rare hybrids.