The Coronation of Josephine


We have two of these paintings. One is at the Museum of Louvre, the other one here at Versailles. Let me fast-forward a little: Napoleon kidnaps the Pope, brings him to Notre-Dame where Pie VII is to do the crowning. But during the coronation Napoleon snatches the crown away from the Pope (see the unhappy Pontiff) and crowns himself, then crowns Josephine. An interesting detail — Napoleon’s mother was not there, but Napoleon insisted that she be included: Josephine did not get along with her in-laws; so, Jacque-Louis David painted the smiling mom watch the coronation she did not attend. The paradox of the painting is as plain as an egg on the face: it is all about Josephine. What do the Art historians call it? “The coronation of Napoleon!” Sometimes I wonder if they’ve actually seen it.

One of the reasons why Napoleon became the Emperor was Josephine’s attitude to her title  of Consuless. Who can blame her? In French it sounds even worse than in English. At the same time she resented the idea of becoming a queen, no doubt due to her royalist convictions. “Don’t you even think of becoming a king!” she used to tell him. What to do? Napoleon made his brother a king, the king of Holland; they must have thought it was funny. Napoleon’s brother, Louis was married to Josephine’s daughter from the first marriage, and Napoleon wanted to adopt their son, but the couple refused. Josephine’s early menopause was probably a secret to everyone: The days of Terror scarred her for life, and that half a year of prison, while she was waiting for her execution, could have sped up the physiological process. This difficulty Napoleon could not overcome; to create his own dynasty he needed his own legitimate children; hence, by 1809 the divorce became his only option. The army frowned upon this, the soldiers thought the divorce to be a bad omen, for it took place on the eve of the Russian campaign.

After the divorce Josephine held on to her title of the Empress Dowager — really strange, given that she gave birth to none of Napoleon’s children; with that title she held on to quite a bit of real estate; and yet Josephine had great difficulty staying out of debt — Napoleon kept bailing her out. After the Waterloo she would have to learn to live more frugally, but she did not last much longer. It was the visit of the Russian Tsar that had finished her off. Dressed in a neoclassical gown in the month of May, Josephine caught a terminal case of pneumonia after showing Alexander-I Lake Saint-Cucufa. She died at the age of fifty-one, officially five years younger than she really was.

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