Not just a beauty: exploring the genuine Empress Joséphine in history

Ridley Scott's upcoming film, "Napoleon," set to release on Apple TV+ in November, features Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic French leader and Vanessa Kirby, known for her role in "The Crown," playing his first wife, Empress Joséphine.

In the recently unveiled trailer for "Napoleon," we catch a first look at Kirby's portrayal of Joséphine. She is depicted as charming, alluring, and clever, drawing her future husband into a marriage that evolves into tumultuous dynamics. As the film's fall release approaches, let's delve into the life and legend of Empress Joséphine Bonaparte.

Who was Napoleon's initial spouse, Joséphine Bonaparte?

Born and raised in Martinique, a French colony off the South American coast, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, later known as Joséphine, hailed from a prosperous background, with her parents owning a sugar cane plantation.

At the age of 16, Joséphine tied the knot with French general Alexandre François Marie, the Viscount of Beauharnais. The couple had two children - a son named Eugène, born in 1781, and two years later, a daughter named Hortense, who eventually married Napoleon's brother.

The marital journey took a tragic turn when Alexandre, involved with the French forces, met his demise during the Reign of Terror in 1794, facing the guillotine at the hands of revolutionaries. Joséphine, briefly imprisoned alongside Alexandre, secured her release following the execution of Maximilien Robespierre.

How did Napoleon and Joséphine's story unfold?

The initial encounter between Joséphine and Napoleon occurred in 1795 at a society ball, orchestrated by her then-lover, politician Paul Barras. Their romantic involvement blossomed, leading to marriage in 1796, despite Napoleon being six years younger. Notably, Joséphine went by Rose before Napoleon coined the name Joséphine, which she embraced thereafter.

In the early stages of their relationship, Napoleon penned a series of renowned love letters to Joséphine, reciprocated only infrequently. During Napoleon's military campaign in 1796, Joséphine engaged in an affair with French lieutenant Hippolyte Charles. Simultaneously, Napoleon, upon learning of the liaison, initiated his affair with Pauline Fourès, the wife of cavalryman Jean-Noel Fourès.

These extramarital affairs strained Napoleon and Joséphine's union, worsened by their struggle to produce an heir. Joséphine, known for her extravagant spending, frequently indulged in shopping for clothing, shoes, and jewelry. Additionally, she utilized Napoleon's finances to enhance their residence, Château de Malmaison, and its opulent gardens, featuring greenhouses and exotic animals like kangaroos, monkeys, and zebras.

Why did Napoleon end his marriage to Joséphine?

In 1804, Napoleon ascended to the title of Emperor of France, with Joséphine as his empress. Despite a deteriorating marriage, she temporarily dissuaded Napoleon from divorcing her. After Napoleon's coronation, at Joséphine's insistence, they had a second ceremony at Notre Dame.

As Joséphine had shown that she was unable to provide an heir, Napoleon sought a new wife. The emperor's dissatisfaction, coupled with Joséphine's lavish spending, prompted the dissolution of their marriage in January 1810. Four months later, Napoleon married Marie Louise of Austria. Despite the split, Napoleon allowed Joséphine to retain her empress title. She passed away at 51 in 1814 due to pneumonia.

Are there cinematic portrayals of Empress Joséphine?

Empress Joséphine has featured in both films and TV shows. Gina Manès played her in the 1927 film "Napoleon," while Ruth Chatterton assumed the role in 1938's "A Royal Divorce." Notably, Joséphine appears in supporting roles in other Napoleon-centric films like "Désirée" (1954) and "Austerlitz" (1960).

In miniseries, Jaqueline Bisset and Isabella Rosselini portrayed Joséphine in "Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story" (1987) and "Napoleon" (2002), respectively.

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