Marie-Josèphe Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie was born on 23 June 1763 on the island of Martinique. She was the oldest of three daughters born to Joseph de Tascher de La Pagerie, an impoverished aristocrat. At the age of fifteen she was promised in marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais, a young noble and officer who had spent his childhood with the La Pagerie family in Martinique. While the young Rose, arriving from the provinces to sophisticated Paris, anticipated the attentive romance of a new marriage, Alexandre had married for the social convenience it gave him and in order to access his inheritance. He was in love with Laure de Longpré, the wife of another naval officer, who was pregnant with his child and whose husband died just months before Alexandre and Rose were married. Their marriage produced two children, Eugene and Hortense, but from the outset Alexandre was emotionally absent, in addition to the protracted physical absences necessitated by his military assignments. In 1783, after three years of unhappy marriage, Rose applied for a legal separation and withdrew to the convent of Panthemont where gentlewomen disadvantaged by circumstance were able to find refuge.
In 1788, with Eugène living with his father, Rose and Hortense returned to Martinique. It was there that they heard the news of the events of 14 July 1789. The tremors of the Revolution did not take long to affect the colonies and soon Josephine was fleeing back to France for refuge. Alexandre de Beauharnais was a vocal supporter of the ideals of the Revolution and an active member of the Jacobin party. As acting president of the Constituent Assembly, it was he that gave the order for the arrest of the royal family during their attempt at flight to Varennes in 1791. Despite this, he was imprisoned during the Terror for dereliction of duty in his command of the Army of the Rhine (which led to the loss of the French held city of Mainz). He was executed as an enemy of the Revolution and Rose was imprisoned. Only the beheading of Robespierre in the days before her execution saved Rose from the same fate as her husband. In the chaotic times that followed the Terror, Rose’s social network grew and she pursued a number of liaisons with powerful and well connected people such as Paul Barras (one of France’s five Directors after the fall of the National Convention), using her acquaintances to generate income to support herself and her children.
In 1795, up and coming artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte came into the orbit of Barras and his circle. He was entranced by Rose’s exotic femininity and her social position, thinking that she could gain him entrée to France's higher social circles. He also mistakenly believed that she could secure the financial situation of his own family with her income from Martinique. Rose did little to dispel this myth, although in truth, she laboured under many debts and struggled to pay for her extravagant lifestyle. Her spending would always be a source of conflict between them. In 1795, when extremist Parisians, opposed to the new constitution of the Convention, threatened to attack government offices in the Tuileries, Barras called on Napoleon to suppress the uprising. His success in quelling the insurgence led to promotion and prominence as a new star of the Directory. Rose, perhaps at the prompting of Barras, began to show interest in Napoleon and he became infatuated with her. Napoleon called Rose ‘Josephine’ and she adopted this name. They were married in March 1796. The Bonaparte family were hostile to the union and to Rose from the outset. While the ideal Corsican woman was diligent, frugal, passionate and dedicated to family, Josephine was immodest, spendthrift and easy-going but emotional. At thirty-two she was considered already old and the two children from her first marriage were seen as an encumbrance. Her grace and ease in society contrasted with the awkward manners of the Bonapartes. They conspired to be rid of her and made her life uncomfortable with acts of hostility.
Above: Josephine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, was described as dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a clear complexion and delicate figure – not beautiful, but truly graceful and charming, generous and good-hearted.
While Napoleon was initially smitten with Josephine, writing her passionate letters from the battlefields, she was more reserved in her affections. Immediately after their wedding, Napoleon left to lead the French Army into battle in Italy, while Josephine consoled herself with her lover Hippolyte Charles. Alarmed by evidence of her infidelity, Napoleon threatened to end his marriage to Josephine but the emotional appeals of Josephine and her children were able to sway his resolve.
When Napoleon’s quest for power and control took him to Egypt, Josephine purchased the estate of Malmaison. Josephine developed Malmaison, about twelve kilometres west of Paris, into a magnificent property with a garden cultivated with botanical specimens from around the world. It was here that she was to reside until her death.
As Napoleon’s power grew, he installed his family members in positions of power throughout the Empire. Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, married Napoleon’s brother Louis, who became King of Holland and Eugène became Bonaparte’s loyal deputy and later French Prince, Prince of Venice and Viceroy of Italy, among other titles.
On 2 December 1804, Napoleon crowned Josephine Empress. She performed the role of ambassador and hostess, organising receptions, entertaining visiting dignitaries, representing the Emperor at official functions and reviving something of the ceremony of the royal court. Despite her capability in the role of first lady, Josephine failed to provide Bonaparte with the heir he so desperately needed to maintain his line.
In 1810, Josephine’s marriage with Napoleon was annulled and he married Marie-Louise of Austria in a union intended to deliver France both an heir and an ally. Napoleon provided for Josephine with a generous settlement that included the property at Malmaison. They remained in close contact.
When Napoleon was sent into exile on Elba, and Louis XVIII returned to take the throne in Paris, Josephine was again called on to play hostess to visiting royals and dignitaries for the new regime. By this time her health was failing. She died on 29 May 1814, her last words purportedly ‘Bonaparte … Elba … the King of Rome’.