Born in 1763 to a noble French family established for a long time in the Antilles, Joséphine Tascher de the Palerie, at 16 married the viscount Alexander Beauharnais with whom she had two children: Eugene and Hydrangea.
During the French Revolution she was arrested together with her husband and almost follows him to the gibbet. Alexander, commander of the armed forces of the Rhine had suffered defeat and was guillotined; Josephine was set free and returned to the gallant life and the court. Through her lover Barras, she met Napoleon Bonaparte, five years younger than her, and married him on March 9th 1796. She followed him to Italy, stayed in Paris during the Egypt campaign and attracted a great deal of criticism for her free behaviour. But she succeeded in becoming crowned empress despite suspicions of her unfaithfulness. In 1809, she had not given an heir to Napoleon’s throne, and was repudiated. She withdrew to the castle of Malmaison, near Paris, but kept up correspondence with the emperor. She died on May 29th 1814.
The beginning of the century saw the launch of the empire style imposed by Josephine: high waistline under the breast, square or round low-cut, provocative neckline, ample skirt which draped and trailed along the ground. The women of Napoleon’s court dictated the fashion of this period which proved to be brief and radically changed after his fall. During the century, the perfumed handkerchief was to become an essential accessory from every lady: symbol of class and token of love, revealer of whims, collector of tears, holder of secrets. According to gossip at the time, it was really Josephine who re-launched the handkerchief: she used it in coquettish way to hide her unhealthy teeth.
Josephine adored roses, and between the end of 1700 and the beginning of 1800 the gardens of Malmaison were the envy of the whole Paris. She had the plants arrive from England and not even the war, thanks to special safe-conducts, stopped them arriving. She was the first to bring the camellia to France, and had her portrait done wearing a silvery-pink camellia.