Not Tonight, Napoleon ; While Her Consort Was out Empire-Building, Josephine Was Busy Assembling an Impressive Art Collection, Now on Display in London. Adrian Hamilton Reports
Hamilton, Adrian, The Independent (London, England)
The Nazis weren't the only ones to go in for the wholesale looting of art from conquered territories. Napoleon's armies were even more thorough in their pillaging, taking whole collections back to Paris to fill out the Louvre and the palaces of Napoleon's family.
In the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, there is an intriguing exhibition of the collection of one of the beneficiaries of Napoleonic looting, the Empress Josephine. It features a selection of works from Malmaison, Josephine's chateau, much of it seized from Germany and later bought by Tsar Alexander I.
It's not really the quality of the paintings that makes this show so worthwhile, although it contains a superb Claude Lorrain, a couple of striking portraits of Josephine, and some outstanding porcelain and console tables. And, by its very nature, it can but display a smattering of the collection - at Malmaison, the chateau on which Josephine lavished her newfound wealth as Bonaparte's consort, before he divorced her in 1809, Josephine had a gallery crammed with the Italian and Dutch masters favoured at her time, as well as works she'd commissioned from the sculptor Canova and other contemporary French artists.
But quite a bit of Josephine's art ended up in Russian hands, and the show does a good job of presenting a range of works that indicate her taste and tell the story of how they were amassed, then ended up in St Petersburg.
It's a fascinating tale. Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie has been for too long dismissed as a sort of frivolous Imelda Marcos figure, addicted to dress and bauble. And it's true, she did spend a small fortune on herself and her home, buying 520 pairs of shoes in a year. But she was much more than that. Born into a Creole family in Martinique, seeking her fortune in Paris, marrying a French nobleman who died at the guillotine, hers seems to have been a genuine love match with the young consul Napoleon Bonaparte - two provincials determined to make their way in the world. When Napoleon divorced her, it was not because the marriage had broken down but because of her inability to provide an heir. To the end, he regarded her with fondness.
The two portraits of Josephine in the show - Francois Gerard's entrancing formal-cum-informal picture of her at the height of her influence in 1801, and Firmin Mas-son and Adam-Wolfgang Topffer's portrait painted when, divorced and isolated, she was staying in Switzerland in 1812 - show her as a person of warmth, if with a little sadness in her eyes. You feel that she would be free of airs and graces, which is indeed how her contemporaries found her.
And she had taste. As far as paintings are concerned, the great boost to her gallery came from the seizure by French troops of the collection of the Landgraf von Hessen-Kassel. It was hidden after Napoleon's victory over the Prussians, but discovered by a French general who decided to deliver it as a gift to Josephine.
But even before the war spoils came her way, she was buying 17th- century Dutch and French paintings, and commissioning sculptures from Canova, and fine porcelain and furniture. …