EXPO Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam: Joséphine. An empire in the garden

The Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam takes you to the Malmaison gardens with an exhibition about Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. The exhibition of the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam shows some of the beautiful species Joséphine collected and tells the unique story of an empress and her private empire. It will be on show until 18th October 2015.

Amaryllis Joséphine by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Collection Teylers Museum Haarlem, the Netherlands
Against the backdrop of 18th and early 19th century European wars, led by the relentless tyranny of her husband, Joséphine de Beauharnais started her own botanical empire. On the lands of her estate Malmaison she gathered hundreds of species of exotic plants from around the world. Her unique green collection in the gardens of Malmaison received great fame, and no expenses were spared to improve and extend her collection

As one of the most powerful women in Europe at that time, Joséphine managed -driven by her almost obsessive passion for collecting- to create an impressive botanical collection in the gardens of Malmaison. Unfortunately, the collection would not last. Right after her death in 1814, all her plant collections vanished.

However, some of the plants were saved forever in the beautiful drawings by botanic illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Many of the plants that were illustrated by Redouté will be on show at the Hortus Amsterdam from colourful dahlias to the extensive collection of South African lilies, but also some beautiful roses and of course the hydrangea.

Who was Joséphine?

Portrait de l'impératrice. Auguste Gameray, 1813 (RMN-Grand Palais)
Portrait de l’impératrice. Auguste Gameray, 1813 (RMN-Grand Palais)
Joséphine was born Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, on 23 June 1763. She grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique, at the time a French colony that thrived on the cultivation of sugarcane. Her parents owned a sugarcane plantation. Over three hundred slaves lived and worked at the plantation. Marie-Josèphe-Rose however, enjoyed a carefree childhood with poor emphasis on discipline and intellectual development.

At the age of 16 Marie-Josèphe-Rose is married off to her cousin Alexandre de Beauharnais, who was also born in Martinique. They had 2 children, Eugène and Hortense. Paris, as well as the rest of France, was captivated by the Age of Enlightenment. The new desires for liberty, equality and fraternity were at odds with another reality: the stark contrast between the poor suffering French people and the money squandering  activities carried out by the elite. The French Revolution was waiting to happen.

During the darkest era of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, Marie-Josèphe-Rose managed to escape from the guillotine, unlike her husband De Beauharnais. After that she quickly gained fame and status in the Parisian upper class.

Napoleon crowning Josephine
Joséphine and  Napoleon
When Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Beauharnais met during a diner party in 1795, she was the most famous of the two. She was a flamboyant society lady and regularly seen at elite parties, while Napoleon still was relatively unknown. Napoleon, who would later be described as assertive, aggressive, intelligent and highly egotistical, appeared to be obsessed with her. As a pet name, he used a diminutive of her middle name: Joséphine. They married on 9 March 1796. Napoleon quickly made name in the French army. And his career paralled to her career. As Napoleon’s power grew, hers would too. In 1799 they were appointed First Consul and Consulesse, and in 1804 they were crowned emperor and empress.

It is only in the last 15 years of her life Joséphine plunges on collecting everything living nature has to offer. Napoleon was constantly at war along the borders of Europe. In 1799, while Napoleon stayed away for months for his journey through Egypt, Joséphine bought the impressive Château de Malmaison. Even before she signs the contract, she already fantasizes about luxuriant gardens with exotic animals and large greenhouses. It was here where she would create her Martinique, her own empire.

Malmaison, France
Malmaison, France
The days of Malmaison were the days of exploration. Expeditions were launched from Europe’s capital cities. All corners of the world were explored to gather as much knowledge and treasures as possible, including those from the plant world. Within a few years, Joséphine could hold her own with the best scientists in the fields of natural history and botany. She kept herself informed on all new discoveries from all over the world.

To contrast with the rigid style of Versailles, the gardens of Malmaison were laid out in a loose, rural, British style, incorporating lingering paths, pavilions, caves, greenhouses and sun lounges. Thousands of plants and trees were planted and all kinds of seeds were sown. Her Grand Serre Chaude was renowned. It formed the centrepiece of her gardens, accommodating a myriad of exotic tropical plants.

Joséphine collected plants competitively, vying with the Museum of Natural History for specimens. Thanks to the influence of her network, and with the ever-filled funds of Napoleon, she ordered seeds, bulbs and plants from all corners of the world. Botanists accompanying Napoleon on his expeditions, as well as  the emperor himself, would send hundreds of seeds to Paris. Joséphine also maintained contacts with other voyagers such as Nicolas Baudin and Alexander von Humboldt. During the Napoleonic Wars, ships carrying specimens for Joséphine were allowed free passage. Between 1803 and 1814 hundreds of species of plants were introduced to Europe. Joséphine pioneered the planting of exotics like acacia and eucalyptus, but she was also known for actively cultivating flowers like dahlia’s and roses.

Maidens Blush (Rosa alba var incarnate) by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Bijzondere Collecties UvA
As usual in the world of emperors and kings, Joséphine commissioned a professional artist to record her vast collections in richly illustrated, exclusive books called florilegia. Pierre-Joseph Redouté started in 1804 and made more than 500 engravings of the plant collections at Malmaison . His first publication was ‘Jardin de la Malmaison ‘, containing 125 drawings. His next publication, Les Liliacées (1802-1816), consisting of eight parts and 486 engravings is an absolute highlight. In 1809 , after the divorce of Napoleon and Joséphine, Redouté is still regularly invited at Malmaison by Joséphine, until her death on May 29, 1814. Finally in 1817 he published his most famous work ‘Les Roses’,  containing 150 color drawings. The drawings of Redouté are famous around the world. They are also the one and only ‘registration’ of the glorious collection of Joséphine de Beauharnais.

Favorite flowers of Joséphine

Wood violets were said to be a favorite of Josephine de Beauharnais, and after her death in the early 1800s, Napoleon was found to be wearing a locket with wood violets he had taken from Josephine’s grave.

Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam, a hidden gem

The terrace in the botanic garden is a favorite spot for both locals and tourists
The terrace in the botanic garden is a favorite spot for both locals and tourists
The Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world. Located in the city centre of Amsterdam, the garden is a beautiful and intimate place with an unique collection of plants. In the midst of busy city the Hortus offers an oasis of tranquillity, a flowery relief in the urban busyness.

The hortus is open very day from 10am – 5 pm. Entrance 8,50 EURO.

EXPO Hermitage Amsterdam: Alexander, Napoleon and Joséphine

At the same time an extraordinary exhibition about Alexander, Napoleon and Joséphine can be seen at the Hermitage Amsterdam. A story of friendship, war and art. A combination ticket can be bought at the Hortus and the Hermitage for 17,50 EURO.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Mogromo says:

    Great to know. I’ll try to catch the exhibition next time I’m in Amsterdam….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Mogromo, I am sorry for my late reply but I was wondering if you got a chance to visit the Joséphine exhibition in the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam. With or without the exhibition this is a great haven in the midlle of the busy city.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. mogromo says:

        I know the Hortus well and I also like that it is one of the sites of the Amsterdam Light Festival. As you can read on my blog, I am now immersed in research which makes me spend all my free time in Amsterdam and other places in archives and doing interviews. When I have finished this quest I will relax at the Hortus.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You have a very nice job!


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