11 May 2021
“Napoléon et Joséphine – Une histoire (extra)ordinaire”, the Chaumet exhibition
Among the celebrations of the bicentenary of Napoléon’s death, only one comes from a private actor: Chaumet, who was (under the name of Nitot) the Emperor’s official jeweler. Through 150 paintings, letters, jewels, etc., it charts Napoleon’s love story with Joséphine, intimately bound up with that of power.
Text and photos by Sandrine Merle.
I had the opportunity to discover the stunning exhibition in preview with Jean-Marc Mansvelt, CEO of the company. We wandered through the magnificent salons with their gilded woodwork, classified as historical monuments. A few highlights.
The power of the paintings
From the entrance, the famous portraits of the lovers in their formal finery (by François Gérard) frame the gilded throne of Napoléon. We are already familiar with the one of “Joséphine dans les jardins de Malmaison” attributed to Prud’hon for Eugène, but here we discover the pastel version “probably conceived at the same time for his daughter Hortense”, explains Jean-Marc Mansvelt. We also see – and this is extremely rare – the portrait of the young Napoléon in flaming red or the engraving of “The Rehearsal of the Coronation”. The most unexpected item: Napoléon with his nephews, including the future Napoléon III, on his lap.
Logically enough, the exhibition begins with the marriage certificate
Dated 1796, the document is accompanied by a simple ring with the initials JNB (Joséphine Napoléon Bonaparte) given as a gift by Napoléon, who was then still a mere general without a fortune to his name. Then comes the magnificent love letter written during the Italian campaign in spirited handwriting, complete with crossings out. Chaumet also shows the tailor’s account books, Nitot’s order books… and finally the letter from the empress in a tormented hand, accepting the dissolution of the marriage.
The tiara, an emblematic jewel of the Napoleonic era
Joséphine launched the fashion for this head jewel which she loved. Among the marvels exhibited (including the cameo sculpted from a single shell), the most important is that portraying 9 ears of wheat bent by the wind… Above all, this was Joséphine’s first order to Nitot, intended for her first official ceremony as sovereign. It was also the starting point for hundreds of commissions that would turn Nitot into a specialist of the genre. In spite of the scenography, we can see a few “prototypes” in nickel silver (a non-precious alloy) among the hundreds that line the walls.
The pearls finally reunited
This is a first: Chaumet reunited the pair of earrings and the necklace that Joséphine liked to wear together. Made with pear-shaped pearls (detachable from the necklace) and attributed to Nitot, they became separated as they were handed down the generations: the first is now in the Louvre while the second, known as the “Leuchtenberg” necklace, belongs to a private collection.
And finally, some family jewels
We discover the exceptional belt belonging to Empress Marie-Louise made from an antique cameo offered by Princess Pauline Borghese (Napoléon’s youngest sister). Inspired by the long belts worn in the Middle Ages, it is full of Napoleonic symbols (palmettes, bees, laurel wreaths) with pearl tassels on the ends. This last room also houses Caroline Murat’s nicolo agate ensemble, a pair of Auguste-Amélie de Bavière’s watch bracelets, Madame Mère’s acrostic bracelet and the enamel clover brooch given by Napoleon III to his future wife, Eugénie.
An exquisite blend of power and emotion. Book your visit here.
150 years ago, when the column fell…