Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Empress in Residence: Somerset House Plays Host to Josephine's Famed Collection

François Gérard (1770-1837), Portrait of Josephine, 1801
Oil on canvas, 178 x 174 cm

France in Russia: Empress Josephine’s Malmaison Collection, on view at the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House, London, from 28 June to 4 November 2007, celebrates one of France’s greatest heroines, Napoleon’s consort Josephine (1763-1814). The exhibition focuses on her role as a collector and patron of the arts and brings together some of the finest paintings, sculpture and decorative arts that she acquired for her château of Malmaison, now housed in The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The exhibition also tells the remarkable story of this part of her collection’s journey from Paris to Russia in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat.

Rather than accept the standard view of Josephine as a frivolous lover of luxury, the exhibition puts her famed extravagance in context. She said of herself that she ‘was not born for such grandeur’ but imperial requirements forced upon her a lifestyle of great pomp and glamour. She was famously casual with money and Napoleon would say after her death that this was the only thing that caused them to argue. After her divorce from Napoleon (in December 1809) she was entitled to retain the title of Empress and continued to live like one, despite being unable to rely exclusively on state funds for her various architectural and collecting projects. Napoleon acknowledged Josephine’s role in the creation of Malmaison by giving her the château, its contents and its extensive grounds. By the time of her death, many bills had gone unpaid for years and her creditors were so numerous they had to be listed alphabetically. These aspects of Josephine’s character cannot be separated from an appreciation of her as one of the most important patrons and collectors of the age.

Empress Josephine as a Collector

Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
Dancer, 1806-12
Marble, 179cm high

The first room of the exhibition tells the story of Josephine’s collection, its development and display, as well as the dramatic circumstances surrounding some of her most notable acquisitions. Antonio Canova’s wonderfully evocative life-size marble sculpture, Dancer (1806-12), is a focal point of the display. The drapery of the figure’s fashionable, empire-waisted dress, the hairstyle and the coquettish pose all suggest this is a portrait of a modern woman. The Dancer is particularly significant as it was a commission for an original composition (rather than a version of a pre-existing design). It speaks clearly of Josephine’s sensitivity as a patron of Canova, which the sculptor appreciated greatly.

Claude Lorrain (1600-82), Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, 1663
Oil on canvas, 116 x 153.5 cm

Paulus Potter (1625-54), The Wolfhound, c.1650
Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 132 cm

Towards the end of 1806 Josephine received a remarkable collection of paintings from the famous gallery of the Landgraves (Electors) of Hesse-Cassel. In mid-October 1806, after their success at the Battle of Jena, Napoleon’s troops occupied the city of Cassel and discovered the city’s most celebrated paintings hidden in a hunting lodge. The general in charge, Général Lagrange, decided on his own initiative to send the collection directly to Josephine, justifying this on the grounds of the Empress’s ‘love of the arts’. The Cassel pictures formed the heart of Josephine’s collection and several important examples feature in the exhibition including Claude Lorrain’s magisterial Landscape with Tobias and the Angel from the four-part Times of Day series, and Gabriel Metsu’s exquisite cabinet picture, Breakfast. Josephine also actively collected paintings, for example purchasing Paulus Potter’s imposing Wolfhound in 1811. By then she had built a top-lit gallery at Malmaison in order to house her ever-growing collection: estimated at over 250 paintings in 1811 and 350 at the time of her death three years later. A summary catalogue was produced as an aid to the many visitors to the château (among them, the English collector William Beckford).

Empress Josephine at Home

Court dress of Empress Josephine, after 1810
Gauze embroidered with silver. Height: 115 cm
Musée National du Château de Malmaison
© Photo RMN © Gérard Blot

Josephine’s guiding spirit informed all aspects of Malmaison’s design and setting. The second room in the exhibition concentrates on the woman behind the collection. The central image is François Gérard’s celebrated portrait of her, which was originally on display at Malmaison. She is wearing one of her wonderfully sheer muslin dresses, and draped over it is an exotic indienne or shawl. A carelessly strewn bouquet of flowers on the seat next to her reminds the viewer of her keen interest in botany. The works in this section include a number of iconic images of Josephine and Napoleon and also personal effects belonging to the Empress on loan from the Musée du Château de Malmaison, including a silver-embroidered court dress and an exquisite écritoire (writing box) designed by the goldsmith Martin-Guillaume Biennais, as well as a selection of letters touching on subjects as diverse as the purchase of fine carriage horses from England and the care of her picture gallery and gardens.

Josephine as Patron of the Arts

Dessert Service: Bowl supported by caryatid figures, 1811-13
Dihl and Guérard, Paris
Porcelain; gilded and engraved on the gilding, 42 x 47 cm

Josephine’s great love was porcelain, and the highlight of the third room is the extraordinary porcelain dessert service that she commissioned to replace the old-fashioned service Napoleon had made for her at Sèvres (the Egyptian service which is now at Apsley House). This was the most expensive of all her porcelain commissions, comprising a staggering 213 pieces. Twenty-two pieces are on display including the most exceptional series of ‘picture plates’ (assiettes à tableaux) which reproduce paintings from her collection, for example Metsu’s Breakfast and Valentina of Milan by François Fleury Richard, one of Josephine’s favourite contemporary painters.

François Fleury Richard (1777-1852), Valentina of Milan, 1802
Oil on canvas, 55.1 x 43.2 cm

All the objects in this room can be identified in the inventory of Malmaison made after Josephine’s death. An example is the clock base in the form of a triumphal arch by the renowned Florentine mosaicist Giacomo Raffaelli, presented to Napoleon by Pope Pius VII in 1801 (at the time of the Concordat). The arch was placed on the mantelpiece in the Salon doré and opposite it, in the same room, was the remarkable console table with sphinx legs and sea-bed mosaic top by Jacob Desmalter, 1809, which was a diplomatic gift to Napoleon and also features in the exhibition.

The Fate of the Collection

The Gonzaga Cameo, featuring portraits of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II
3rd century BC, Alexandria
Sardonyx, 15.7x11.8 cm.

The final room in the exhibition focuses on the personalities around Malmaison and the story of the collection’s dispersal. After Napoleon’s first abdication in the Spring of 1814 Josephine received visits from several leaders of the Allied countries, such as the Prussian King and Tsar Alexander I. The bond with the Russian court proved the strongest and most lasting of all. Alexander visited her family often and pledged his support to them. The Gonzaga Cameo, showing a double portrait of an emperor and his wife, is one of the masterpieces of the Hermitage. Josephine is thought to have given it to the Tsar at a special ball held in his honour just weeks before she died. In August 1815 Alexander negotiated the extraordinary purchase of 38 of Josephine’s finest paintings and, at no extra cost, of her four marble statues by Antonio Canova, Europe’s foremost sculptor at the time. The purchase, by most accounts totalling just under one million francs, helped Josephine’s children Eugène and Hortense de Beauharnais settle at least part of the huge debts they inherited from their mother.

The secret transfer of paintings from Malmaison to the Russian Embassy in Paris took place between late August and early September 1815 despite the fact that Malmaison was under British command and the Prussians were clamouring for restitution of the Cassel paintings. By early 1816, all 38 paintings and three of the four Canova statues were shown together in a dedicated room of the Imperial Hermitage. The display was known as ‘la collection de la Malmaison’ – a powerful riposte to Napoleon and his army’s infamous confiscations of works of art. It can also be seen as proof of Alexander’s admiration for the Empress’s taste and of his wish to honour her memory.

Portrait of Tsar Alexander I, tapestry
Gobelins, France, 1812-16
Wool and silk, 103 x 90 cm

Among the objects shown in the final room of the exhibition are pieces from the Egyptian dessert service offered by Napoleon to Alexander in 1804 (which Josephine so admired at the time), and a woven portrait of Alexander I made by the Manufacture des Gobelins. The portrait originally showed Napoleon but was changed mid-way to reflect the new political situation. This room will also introduce two other key figures in the Russian afterlife of the Malmaison collection: Alexander’s brother Tsar Nicholas I, who purchased a further group of Malmaison paintings from Josephine’s daughter Hortense in 1829; and Josephine’s son Eugène de Beauharnais, whose heir and son Maximilian married Tsar Nicholas I’s daughter. It was through this dynastic marriage that a large amount of further material from Josephine’s collections came to be in Russia (confiscated during the October Revolution of 1917, most of this entered the Hermitage soon thereafter).

France in Russia will be the first exhibition to bring together some of the most important elements of the Hermitage’s Malmaison collection, which is today displayed in various different departments of the museum. It will offer the most complete account to date of the history of this remarkable collection.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Courtauld Institute of Art and The State Hermitage Museum, with additional loans from the Musée du Château de Malmaison. The catalogue comprises essays by Alexander Babin, Curator of 19th century Paintings at The State Hermitage Museum; Bernard Chevallier, Director of the Musée National des Châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau; Alexandra Gerstein, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery; and Tamara Rappe, Head of European Decorative Arts at The State Hermitage Museum.

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