Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine,
a Story of Friendship, War and Art from the Hermitage

Background information

1807–1814. A critical period in world history. On the European continent, war alternated with uneasy peace. The hostilities were often initiated by Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor, and other European powers often responded with similar aggression. Napoleon won overwhelming victories and reshaped European politics according to his will, until he overplayed his hand in his war with Russia. The Russians drove him back to France, where in 1815 he was decisively defeated. At the Congress of Vienna later that year, the political map of Europe was radically redrawn. The agreements made there ushered in a long period of relative stability on the continent, which lasted until the First World War.

Watch with a miniature portrait of Napoleon. Geneva, Russia, after 1812
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Napoleon and Joséphine

They are one of the most fascinating couples in modern European history: Napoleon Bonaparte and Joséphine de Beauharnais. Joséphine was born into an aristocratic colonial family on the island of Martinique in 1763, under the name of Marie-Josèph-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie. At the age of 16, she was married off to the 19-year-old Alexandre de Beauharnais, and she went to Paris. That marriage produced two children: her son Eugène in 1781 and her daughter Hortense in 1783. The French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Alexandre was arrested in 1793, accused of ‘aristocratic sympathies’, and guillotined a year later. Marie-Josèph-Rose was also condemned to the guillotine, but just before the sentence was to be carried out, her life was saved by the fall of Robespierre and the end of his Reign of Terror.

From that time on, she moved in fashionable circles, and in 1795, she was visiting one of the well-known Paris salons when she met a general whose star was rising: Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican of humble origins, born in 1769. For him, it was love at first sight, and he soon gave her the more romantic name of Joséphine. On 9 March 1796, they married in the Paris city hall, and a few days later Napoleon left his new bride behind to lead a campaign in Italy. After a series of impressive victories, he seized power in France. And he did not stop there. On 2 December 1804 he crowned himself emperor and made Joséphine his empress.

Although Joséphine had received a limited education, she had a highly developed social intelligence and excellent interpersonal skills. Her refinement charmed people of all varieties, and she often used her talents for material gain. Joséphine spent millions of francs on furniture, clothing and diamonds. Her taste in clothing set the trend in Paris. Napoleon, in contrast, was above all a military, who didn’t take much pleasure in high-society life. Although their love and affection for each other were genuine, Napoleon and Joséphine had anything but a fairy-tale marriage. Their personalities differed tremendously, and neither was entirely faithful to their wedding vows. Nevertheless, Joséphine was clearly Napoleon's true love. Although they had a tempestuous marriage, they were infatuated with each other, and each wrote thousands of letters to the other.

Miniature Portrait of Empress Josephine, 1814. France, Simon Jacques Rochard
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The setting for their romance was the Château de Malmaison, an estate that she bought with his help in 1799. Soon after that, she became a great collector, filling the house with an enormous array of art and furniture in the latest Empire style. Many of those objects are still there. She was also an exceptionally enthusiastic gardener; her rare plants were her greatest passion, and she had a special fondness for roses. Malmaison became a virtual theme park, with a zoo where Europe's first zebra and black swan were on display, a dairy farm with milkmaids in traditional Swiss costume, and a monkey that could seal letters.
But the fiery love affair that was Napoleon and Joséphine’s marriage took a fateful turn. Despite their deep feelings for each other, he divorced her in 1810 because she had not given him an heir. Napoleon’s second marriage was to the young Marie Louise of Austria, who bore him a son in 1811: the crown prince Napoléon François Charles Joseph (Napoleon II).

Tsar Alexander I

In 1777, Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich was born in St. Petersburg. His grandmother, Empress Catherine the Great, was at the height of her fame. She chose her grandson’s name, which harks back to another famous hero; her hope was that the young grand duke would become a second Alexander the Great. As his main tutor, she appointed the Swiss educator Frédéric-César de La Harpe, who taught Alexander the noble ideals of the Enlightenment. His grateful pupil later acknowledged his influence, saying that without La Harpe, there would have been no Alexander. After Alexander’s father, Tsar Paul I, was assassinated in a palace revolution in March 1801, the young grand duke ascended to the throne. Alexander is said to have been aware of the conspiracy and done nothing to stop the assassination. According to most historians, this left him with profound feelings of guilt.

The early years of his reign were marked by a certain interest in reform, but he had difficulty converting this into practical policies, apart from some administrative reforms and limited social legislation. Napoleonic France was both a shining example and a threat to Alexander. He established a State Council modelled after Napoleon’s Conseil d'État but also took part in the coalition that warred against France in 1805–07.

K.A. Shevelkin after François Gérard, Portrait of Tsar Alexander I, 1810–30. Oil on canvas, 253 x 169 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Alexander and Napoleon

‘If I were not Napoleon, I would have liked to be Alexander...’
This statement, made by Napoleon in 1815, underscores his respect for Alexander I, whom he opposed on the battlefield for many years and then took as a friend, and by whom he was ultimately defeated.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, France had conquered large parts of Europe. But Napoleon could not bring England to its knees. So he established friendly relations with Europe’s other great power, Russia. Alexander responded diplomatically to this attempt at rapprochement. Yet because Napoleon's lightning conquests filled him not only with admiration but also with suspicion, no alliance was formed. In fact, Alexander’s suspicions soon had the upper hand, and even transformed into dislike of the French emperor because, as some scholars say, of French insinuations about Alexander's role in the death of his father. As part of his efforts towards détente, Napoleon released Russian prisoners of war in December 1805, after the signing of the Peace of Pressburg (present-day Bratislava). He instructed one of them, Nikolay Repnin, to assure his monarch that the French emperor strove for peace between Russia and France. On 20 July 1806, French and Russian diplomats signed a treaty in Paris on ‘peace and friendship for all times’. But the wars continued until 14 June 1807, when Napoleon roundly defeated the Russian troops at Friedland (near Königsberg, then in Prussia, and now part of the Russian province of Kaliningrad). By this time, the French armies had reached the border of the Russian Empire. At the strong urging of his confidants, Alexander proposed an armistice to Napoleon. The French emperor agreed to this proposal, and on 25 June 1807, they met in an unusual location – a raft in the middle of the Neman River, near Tilsit, not far from Friedland.

This formed the prologue to a close and lively encounter between the two monarchs for the next 15 days. Each did his best to win over the other, with political objectives in mind and in hopes of making his negotiation partner dance to his tune. Both were successful. Understandably, Alexander could not refuse the personal friendship of a man whose heroism had astonished and captivated the world. Likewise, Napoleon fell for the irresistible charm of the Russian tsar. 'Even a man with a heart of stone could not remain indifferent when spoken to by the tsar,' his advisor in matters of state, Mikhail Speransky, explained. 'He is amiability itself.' The talks in Tilsit have been described as ‘a sincere attempt at a short-lived alliance based on mutual seduction’. On 7 July 1807, the two parties reached an agreement on a long list of points, including Russian participation in the Continental System, the trade embargo targeting Great Britain. On 9 July the two emperors ratified the treaty, and Alexander left Tilsit. The man who had until recently been his enemy waved to him cheerfully from the shore.

Anonymous, France, after Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli, Napoleon and Alexander I Say Farewell in Tilsit in 1807, c. 1810. Oil on canvas
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The peace treaty proved to be the slow prelude to a war of unprecedented proportions. At first, everything was fine. There were ceremonies of friendship and diplomatic gifts (such as consular palaces, Sèvres porcelain services, fur coats worth 80,000 roubles, and malachite vases). But this flood of tokens of mutual esteem did not stop the two emperors from keeping a close eye on each other’s compliance with the obligations assumed in Tilsit. Both parties violated the agreements. In early 1810, after Alexander refused Napoleon’s request for the hand of his sister Anna Pavlovna (the later spouse of King William II of the Netherlands), Napoleon swiftly arranged to marry Princess Marie Louise of Austria, and relations between France and Russia cooled. Alexander was also very upset about Napoleon’s support for the establishment of a French vassal state in Poland and the failure to take joint action against Russia’s old enemy Turkey. When Russia lifted its trade embargo against Great Britain towards the end of that same year, and Napoleon deposed the Duke of Oldenburg, whose son was Alexander's brother-in-law, there was a lasting shift in the political situation, and complete estrangement was only a question of time. The catastrophic war year of 1812 was just around the corner.

Dutch soldiers in the French army

The Netherlands was part of the territory conquered by Napoleon. In the Batavian Republic, which had been founded with a special status and had no obligation to send an annual contingent of young men to fight for Napoleon, the French emperor soon had fervent admirers. Nevertheless, he decided in 1806 that the Republic would have to make way for a state governed more directly from Paris. Napoleon appointed his brother Louis Napoleon as king of Holland. Louis’s wife Hortense, the daughter of Joséphine de Beauharnais, very reluctantly accompanied him. In this period, many young Dutch men were forced to join the French army or recruited as paid substitutes. For many adventurous young men from poor families, this was an opportunity to see something of the world and save money so that they could later set up their own small businesses.

An estimated 30,000 Dutch boys became part of the Grande Armée. They contributed to many of Napoleon's military victories, such as the Battles of Wagram, Austerlitz and Friedland. The best-known Dutch soldier in the service of the French was General Dirk van Hogendorp, who was appointed Governor-General of Vilnius. He formed brigades of Polish recruits for the Russian campaign and led them into battle. Thousands of Dutch soldiers fought for the French army in that campaign; the large majority of them did not survive.

François-Louis Couché after Jacques-François-Joseph Swebach, The Meeting of Alexander I and Napoleon on the Nemen River, 25 June 1807, c. 1807. Aquatint on paper, 32 x 44 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg


On 10 June 1812, Napoleon declared war on Russia, and on 12 June the Grande Armée crossed the Neman. Composed of 600,000 soldiers recruited from all over Europe, the army consisted of a central strike force under the emperor’s personal command; two other front armies under Eugène de Beauharnais, Joséphine's son, and Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest brother; two detached corps under Jacques MacDonald and Karl Schwarzenberg (who led the Austrian troops); and a reserve army. The Russian armies initially comprised some 400,000 men and consisted of the First Western Army under General Barclay de Tolly, later replaced by Kutuzov; the Second Western Army under General Bagration; and the Third Western Army, or Danube Army, under General Tormasov. There were also two reserve units.

The march on Moscow took two-and-a-half months, with a victory in battle for Napoleon at Smolensk and an indecisive battle at Borodino, where both sides suffered horrific losses. When Napoleon entered Moscow, it turned out to be completely deserted. Napoleon sent Tsar Alexander a proposal for peace talks, but the Tsar refused to negotiate. Hardly any people or supplies could still be found there, and what remained was destroyed in a sudden, devastating fire. Napoleon stayed five weeks in the city, but had then no choice but to turn back. Winter was coming, and the supply lines were much too long to provision all of the enormous army, which was already becoming exhausted. The low point of the harrowing retreat was the dramatic crossing of the half-frozen Berezina in November 1812. It actually meant the definitive failure of his campaign.

The fast-moving river was filled with large blocks of ice and could not easily be crossed. Engineers had to build two bridges; most of these men (400) were Dutch. They built trestles, dragged them into the ice-cold water and planted them in the muddy river bottom. Because their clothes were much too thin – many of them were in the water half-naked – they could not work in the river for more than a quarter of an hour at a time. After that, the men had to warm up around large fires.

Many of them succumbed to the cold and drifted away to their deaths in the rushing river. The next day, the Russians advanced towards the place where thousands of men were packed together at the bridgeheads. They positioned their guns and fired on the swarming crowd from above. Panic broke out as everyone tried to cross as quickly as possible. Many men fell and were crushed underfoot. Horses slipped and began to kick wildly in all directions. Carts sank into the river. Everywhere you looked, soldiers were falling into the icy water and drowning. Thousands of soldiers were left behind and killed or taken captive by the Russians. By this stage, the temperature had dropped below freezing again. A Russian general later wrote that a layer of ice had formed that night on the Berezina, underneath which the bodies of huge numbers of men and horses were visible. He added that he had never seen anything so gruesome. The Dutch engineers saved thousands of lives, but even so, thousands of other men died during the crossing.

Of the 600,000 soldiers who had set out on the campaign, less than 100,000 made it back across the Neman. Many had fallen in combat, but even more of them had starved or frozen to death. The Russian losses were comparable to those in the French army. Between late June 1812 and late February 1813, the total number of deaths was probably around one million.

Tsar Alexander, who was becoming increasingly religious, gave Divine Providence all the credit for the destruction of the Grande Armée. He took command of the army, alongside Kutuzov, and pursued Napoleon westwards. The three-day Battle of the Nations in Leipzig in October 1813 dealt the final blow to Napoleon’s army, forcing him to retreat across the Rhine. On 31 March 1814, Alexander’s troops entered Paris. He made a generous proposal to the emperor: ‘Let him take the hand I offer; let him remove to my territory. He will be welcomed there with both warmth and generosity. We would set a magnificent example for the rest of the world: I by offering him a place of refuge, and Napoleon by accepting it.’ But Napoleon did not accept Alexander's offer. On 5 April he abdicated, and on 11 April he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. On 20 April, Napoleon went into exile on the isle of Elba. After that, Alexander made another noble gesture, diminishing the severity of the sanctions imposed on France by the other major European powers.

Alexander spent a long time in Paris that spring and met Joséphine de Beauharnais there.

Miniature Portrait of Empress Josephine, 1814. France, Simon Jacques Rochard
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Alexander, Joséphine, and her art collection

Joséphine’s greatest passion was for her estate, Malmaison. She spent the happiest years of her life there prior to her divorce from Napoleon in 1809, and even afterwards, he allowed her to keep the château as her personal residence. There she created a domestic setting that exuded the spirit of the Age of Empire, surrounded by lush gardens with exotic flowers, plants and animals. A woman of refined, exclusive tastes, Joséphine decorated Malmaison with countless paintings, sculptures, pieces of furniture, antiquities, jewels, and other objets d'art. By the time of her death, her collection of paintings and drawings included more than four hundred works, by masters such as Potter, Metsu, Van der Werff, Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, Luini (purchased as a Da Vinci), Schidone, David Teniers the Younger, Terborch and Canova.

She had bought many of these works herself, and many others were gifts from Napoleon – war trophies from conquered territories throughout Europe. For example, many of the paintings in her gallery, the pride of Malmaison, came from the Gemäldegalerie of the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel in Schloss Wilhelmshöhe. This included masterpieces by Rembrandt, Lorrain, Potter, Van der Werff, Teniers and Terborch. The empress is said to have been fondest of the paintings of Lorrain, Potter and Teniers.

Ring with a monogram of Alexander I. Russia, St Petersburg, early 19th century. Gold, silver, diamonds, enamel, Ø 3.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

After Napoleon was exiled to Elba, Joséphine was very worried about whether the tsar would allow her and her children to keep their titles and possessions. When Alexander visited Joséphine at Malmaison in May 1814, she pressed one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world into his hands: the Gonzaga Cameo. This massive cameo (16 x 12 cm, 3rd century BC) is a double portrait of the king of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 285–246 BC) and his wife Arsinoe II, carved from sardonyx. The cameo had been taken from the Vatican by a French soldier; its previous owner was Pope Pius VI. She hoped that this gift would put Alexander in a generous mood, but it turned out to have been unnecessary. He reassured her, and the two of them became close friends. In the period that followed, they saw each other frequently and most often informally, and discussed all sorts of personal and financial matters. At one point, Alexander even suggested that Joséphine come and live in Russia and promised to accommodate her in a palace. During one of their last meetings, one cold evening in late May 1814, they were strolling in her garden when Joséphine, dressed lightly as was fashionable at the time, caught a cold. Five days later, on 29 May, she died of pneumonia, leaving a debt of three million francs.

Alexander kept his promise. Eugène and Hortense received large sums of money and kept their titles. Soon after Joséphine’s death, Alexander bought 38 paintings from her collection, as well as four sculptures by Antonio Canova, for a total of 940,000 francs and had them brought to St. Petersburg. Not long after that, he bought fifteen Spanish paintings from her collection in Amsterdam for 100,000 guilders, through the offices of an English banker.

Other works from Joséphine’s collection would end up in the Hermitage in various unusual ways. In 1829, Tsar Nicholas I acquired thirty paintings from her daughter Hortense. Her son Eugène’s inheritance included an enormous collection of furniture, tapestries, silver, bronzes and porcelain. After the fall of Napoleon and the death of Joséphine, Eugène settled in Munich and acquired the title of Duke of Leuchtenberg. In 1839, Eugène’s son Maximilian married Maria Nikolaevna, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas I. The Leuchtenbergs moved to the Mariinsky Palace in St. Petersburg, which the tsar had built especially for the young couple, opposite the majestic St. Isaac's Cathedral then under construction, and which he named after his daughter. It is probable that all the objects in Maximilian’s inheritance were taken to that palace, but later went to a variety of stately homes through inheritance. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Leuchtenbergs’ possessions in all those houses in St. Petersburg were nationalised. Many ended up in the Hermitage by one route or another.

Joséphine's descendants in the royal houses of Europe

Josephine’s daughter Hortense married Napoleon’s brother Louis in 1802 and became the first queen of the Netherlands (from 1806 to 1810). Her son Charles-Louis-Napoléon was the president of France from 1848 to 1852 and then declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. He was the second and last emperor to rule France, from 1852 to 1870.

The daughter of Eugène de Beauharnais, Joséphine van Leuchtenberg, married Oscar, the crown prince of Sweden. In 1844, they became King Oscar I and Queen Joséphine of Sweden and Norway. Their granddaughter Louise married the Danish crown prince Frederik. From 1912, he was King Frederick VIII of Denmark and she was his queen. Her present-day descendants include both Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and King Harald V of Norway. Princess Astrid of Sweden, a great-granddaughter of Oscar I and Joséphine, married Prince Leopold of Belgium, where they became King Leopold III and Queen Astrid in 1934. The present-day King Philippe of Belgium and Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, are grandsons of Queen Astrid.

Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole, 1796–97. Oil on canvas, 134 x 104 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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