Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hortense de Beauharnais (Queen Hortense), Part I

This post is Part I of a brief little introduction to the life of Hortense de Beauharnais, Empress Josephine's beautiful, talented daughter. I've always felt like Hortense has been neglected historically speaking; she is not half as well-known as her mother Josephine, nor her scandalous sister-in-law from hell, Pauline Bonaparte (no amount of sympathetic biographies or fanciful historical fiction will ever make me like that horrible woman). She's one of those beautiful, gentle souls who has sort of slipped under the radar in terms of famous females from the Napoleonic era. 

 I've always loved Hortense. She's my soul sister. I "get" her, so to speak. If you read her memoirs (available now for free on Google Books!), which are pretty dramatic, you can just picture a woman who yearns to be understood and appreciated for who she was. Hortense was not one to rock the boat. She was sensitive, artistic, and gentle. She did not lead rebellions, flaunt her love affairs, or pose nude for portraits, like her horrendous Bonaparte sisters-in-law. She was polite and kind; thanks to her mother, she had perfect manners, elegance and poise, and was very was well-educated. Her sister-in-law Caroline Murat once described her as a 'cold fish', but that was probably because Caroline was obnoxious, rude, oh and a traitor to the brother who gave her everything, Napoleon. Indeed, everyone who knew Hortense thought her lovely and gracious. 

Isn't Hortense gorgeous in this portrait? It's by far my favorite of her, done by Baron Francois Gerard. There's no date on it, but judging by her dress I would date it between 1803 and 1808. She wears a gorgeous, deep-red dress with gold trim and gold bees (Napoleon's symbol) embroidered on her puff-sleeves. Her pearl necklace, bracelets, earrings, and tiara were her wedding present from her mom and Napoleon upon her marriage to Louis, Napoleon's younger brother. Hortense was blonde, as you can tell, although her hair darkened as she aged. Little kiss curls frame her face, and her hair is wound into an elegant bun atop her head. She was tall and slender, with flawless porcelain skin, big blue eyes, a longish nose, and perhaps a bit of an underbite too. She's holding a drawing book and a pen, probably symbols of her artistic ability and love of drawing. 

Hortense was born on April 10th, 1783, in Paris. Her father was Alexandre, Viscount de Beauharnais, Josephine's first husband. Her mother, obviously, was Josephine de Beauharnais. 

Hortense's father, Alexandre, is pictured here. Obviously he looks like a bag full of laughs...not. He was moody, obstinate, probably bipolar, and horrible to Josephine. When Hortense was first born Alexandre refused to accept Hortense as his daughter, although her resemblance to him was very clear from the start. Alexandre had serious mental issues, and was determined to make Josephine (known then as Rose) suffer as much as humanly possible. He divorced her, tried to ruin her reputation, and put her in a convent, all while keeping a skanky mistress on the side. A real class act. Josephine, perpetually short of money thanks to Alexandre, moved back to Martinique for a time, and took Hortense with her. She had a darling little portrait of baby Hortense done around this time:

Too cute! She wears a little chemise dress with a light blue ribbon wrapped her waist, and clutches a tiny bouquet of flowers. Interestingly, her eyes are brown here, as is her hair. 

Once back in France, Hortense went through adolescence during what would have been a horrendous period to be an adolescent in France. The French Revolution was in full swing, and unfortunately, her father was guillotined in 1794. This was a tremendous loss for Hortense at a crucial period in her life. Luckily, although her mother was imprisoned at the same time as her father, she avoided the guillotine by the luckiest of chances. She was released and returned home to Hortense and her brother, Eugene, and set about rebuilding their lives. 

This is a darling little sketch of Hortense pictured here with her close friend Aglae Auguie, whose mother committed suicide during the Revolution. Hortense started attending Madame Henriette Campan's boarding school in St. Germain in 1795, along with Aglae and Napoleon's sisters. Hortense looks very young and innocent here, with her golden blonde hair pinned back and part of it braided and wrapped around her head, looking modestly downward. Hortense blossomed at Madame Campan's school; she painted and drew, learned to dance, played the piano and composed music, and made lifelong friends. She also became very close with Madame Campan herself, the lady who broke the news to Hortense that her mother had married the scruffy little general Napoleon.

Hortense would have used sketchbooks like this one, many of which still survive to this day in remarkably good condition. She also had a painting travel kit that she took with her on long trips:

And if you have any doubts as to her talents, look at this!

Romanticism much? Her use of color is gorgeous. As she grew older, Hortense's talents as an artist really became more refined and pronounced.

While at school, Hortense wrote letters to her mother like this one, talking about her progress. Josephine was gone in Italy for much of the time at this point (1796), but her little Hortense's letters are poignant and sweet. After her mother married Napoleon, Hortense couldn't stand the greasy, scruffy-looking general, and was terrified at the prospect of her mother being taken from Hortense and her brother Eugene-just the way her father was taken from them. But eventually Napoleon and Hortense grew very close; he really did everything he could to make his little stepdaughter happy. Napoleon came to have a very high opinion of the daughter he adopted and always referred to himself as her 'papa'. He never swore in her presence, and refrained from making the lewd comments he normally threw at the court ladies. Hortense repaid him by remaining loyal to him when he returned to France during the Hundred Days-at great personal cost to herself. Supposedly, Napoleon loved both Hortense and Eugene so much that upon his return from Egypt, when he was so devastated by reports of Josephine's alleged affair with Hippolyte Charles, he refused to listen Josephine's tears or explanations, but eventually caved in because he didn't want to abandon Hortense and her brother. After that mess, Hortense was careful to stay out of Josephine and Napoleon's notorious problems.

I LOVE this portrait of Hortense, done in 1803 by Gerard (I think; information on this portrait is ridiculously difficult to find). Hortense wears a gorgeous, richly colored dark blue gown with puff sleeves and a little gold chain belt just under her bust; the top of her sleeves are capped with the gold-trimmed renaissance-style ruffles Josephine made so popular. She wears her pearl necklace and earrings again, along with a tiny, pretty pearl tiara on top of her braided bun. She looks so young, innocent, and very vulnerable here. Her eyes already have that sad look about them. This was the year Hortense was approached by her mother to marry Louis, Napoleon's brother, and she was not attracted to Louis in the slightest. This marriage, while extremely unhappy, produced the future Napoleon III, making Hortense the link between the first and second empires. Josephine's quiet, unassuming daughter was the stepdaughter, wife, sister, and mother to kings and emperors! 

Thanks for reading my little post! Stay tuned for Part II!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and lively written. Most recently, now is even the question of who's the real father of Napoleon III. Because the Y-DNA of Napoleon I. and Napoleon III. are not identical.

Anonymous said...

I've read dozens of books about the Bonapartes.
One in particular, I found very informative about Napoleon III...........
The author, a British subject, tells how amazed a contemporary of Napoleon III's was one day when he found out that an illegitimate son of Louis Bonaparte looked so much like Hortense's son.......
Love your blog,

Jo Palm Reader said...

Love this story
I came across Hortense_de_Beauharnais in a palm reading and the girl in the reading looks much like her omg

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