Napoleon, the Empress & the Artist: The Story of Napoleon, Josephine’s Garden at Malmaison, Redouté & the Australian Plants by Jill Duchess of Hamilton (1999) – review by Dr Duyker, Ed

Napoleon, the Empress & the Artist: The Story of Napoleon, Josephine’s Garden at Malmaison, Redouté & the Australian Plants

by Jill Duchess of Hamilton

Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1999, pp 244, illustrations, appendix, bibliography, index, ISBN 0 7318 9834 7.

Reviewed by Dr Edward Duyker

*An earlier version of this review was published in Explorations in December 1999.


This is an endearing account of the imperial couple, their residence, and the exotic (including Australian) fauna and flora established in the grounds of Malmaison and illustrated by the great botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840).  Unfortunately, endearing accounts are not always accurate or balanced accounts.  I share Hamilton’s admiration for Napoleon’s achievements as a general, modernizer, law maker and patron of the arts and sciences.  I share her respect for Napoleon’s extraordinary mind and her repugnance for the reactionary Bourbon regime which followed him.   And I share her delight in the history of Malmaison and the botanical treasury Josephine created there.  However, one has only to shift one’s gaze from the botanical paintings of Redouté to that of David, and more appropriately Goya, to be reminded of the ‘other’ Napoleon who stifled the democratic republican aspirations of the Revolution and bathed Europe in blood.

General Bonaparte may have rescued France from disorder and invading foreign armies, and he may have picked the crown up from the gutter with his sword, but to keep it on his head he was prepared to gamble with the lives of millions of others.   He also invaded, subjugated and plundered his neighbours.  And in his orders to kidnap and execute the young Duc d’Enghien, in the fossé at Vincennes in 1804, he revealed the same ruthlessness to his perceived political opponents as did Robespierre in his execution of Danton and Desmoulins (and all the other victims of the Terror). I do not wish to suggest that Napoleon, the Empress & the Artist is devoid of critical comment; nevertheless, this book is essentially panegyric in tone and its author makes no mention of Napoleon’s brutal repression in Spain. Even in discussing the imperial divorce, she never calls a cad a cad! Hamilton may have an excuse in focusing on Bonaparte, Beauharnais and botany, rather than battle and blood, but these days I am surprised to see any serious work on any aspect of the Premier Empire which does not take note of Pieter Geyl’s (1887-1966) landmark critical study Napoleon For and Against (1949).

Although Napoleon may have taken to gardening at various times in his life and owned a number of multi-volume natural history titles, I remain unconvinced that he had a very serious interest in the natural sciences.  His memoirs do not suggest such a passion.  Yes, he surrounded himself with savants, but they tended to be mathematicians and chemists, rather than botanists and zoologists.  I was also amazed at Hamilton’s attribution of humility to the Emperor; she writes, for example: ‘Although Napoleon was reluctant to have his name glorified, he made an exception with art and science’!  The author has no trouble convincing the reader of Joséphine’s serious interest in plants and gardening, however, her botanical artist Redouté remains a spiritually elusive character (probably because of the limited historical sources available). Although scholarly titles and other authorities are mentioned in the text, there are no footnotes.  Thus it is often difficult to determine the basis of some of the author’s assertions.

As I am working on a biography of the French naturalist Labillardière (the author of the first published flora of New Holland [Australia]), I would dearly love to know the source of Hamilton’s statement that ‘Labillardière personally planted Eucalyptus globulus at Malmaison in 1805 (page 20)’. Similarly, Hamilton mentions the various editions of the translation of Labillardière’s Relation (1800).  It is a pity, however, that she does not give details of the Russian edition she alludes to.  In his Bibliography of Australia, John Ferguson listed three English editions and two German language editions (one published in Hanover, the other in Vienna).  Hamilton, however, refers to only one German edition.

Furthermore, I was very surprised to read Hamilton’s declaration that Labillardière ‘came from a noble Normandy family’, that his ‘parents had a large estate’, and that he was related to Talleyrand’s mistress Madame de Flahaut Comtesse de la Billardière (page 77).  As a result of archival research in Labillardière’s birthplace Alençon, I can write with conviction that Labillardière was the ninth of fourteen children born to Michel Jacques Houtou, sieur de La Billardière, a lace merchant (and town clerk), and his wife Madeleine, a lacemaker.  The location of the family landholding, ‘La Billardière’, remains uncertain.  In the département of Orne, of which Alençon is capital, there are seven other known communes in which one can find the locative name ‘La Billardière’. The name also appears in other parts of Normandy.  The bourgeois Houtou family had no connection with the noble Flahaut family, even though both owned properties with similar name, and the naturalist Labillardière was no aristocrat as is suggested in the caption to his portrait on page 81.

The author of Napoleon, the Empress & the Artist also has a tendency to elevate the status of Félix Delahaye (1767-1829) gardener on d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition and, from 1805, chief gardener at Malmaison.  She often writes of Labillardière and Delahaye as if they were an equal twosome and of the Abbé Louis Ventenat’s (1765-1794), as simply their chaplain (see for example page 21).  The fact is, Delahaye, for all his talents was very much subordinate to Labillardière.  On an annual salary of 1000 livres plus 400 livres for equipment, Delahaye was not accommodated as one of the savants and did not dine with the officers of d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition.  Nevertheless, aside from collecting seeds, he did make a personal collection of 2,699 dried and numbered plant specimens under Labillardière’s guidance. It would seem that the Abbé Ventenat (according to his final letter to his brother, Pierre-Etienne, later conservateur at Malmaison), assisted Labillardière during his scientific excursions and made a joint natural history collection with him. Louis Ventenat died in Port Louis hospital, Mauritius, in August 1794, before he could produce any published work. Labillardière is known to have sent Pierre-Etienne Ventenat specimens of Australian plants collected during his voyage with d’Entrecasteaux.  They formed part of the ‘Herbier Malmaison’ and thus the ‘Herbier Ventenat’ now preserved in Geneva.

Having examined a specimen of Chorizema ilicifolia in the ‘Herbier Ventenat’ in Geneva and having searched successfully for it in its natural habitat in Esperance, I was immediately interested in Hamilton’s arguments regarding the etymology of the generic name of this beautiful Western Australian plant.   On page 156 she writes: ‘So great had been his [Labillardière’s] joy when he stumbled across a spring that he celebrated the occasion by naming a plant he found growing there Chorizema ilicifolia – in Greek, choros meaning “dance” and zema, “drink”’.  This same etymological argument was aired by Thomas Hart in an article in the Victorian Naturalist in January 1954. Hart, however, offered an alternative and far more convincing explanation which was also proposed by the great Dutch botanical historian Frans Stafleu (1921-1997) in the introductory essay to the facsimile edition of Labillardière’s flora. Hart and Stafleu suggested that Labillardière, using unconventional ellipsis, created a short euphonious name reminiscent of an outstanding characteristic of the plant (rather than an incident associated with its discovery).  Since Chorizema has a pea flower bearing separate stamens, they argued that its generic name was derived from chorizo (I separate) and nema (filament).  Hamilton, however, is entitled to her opinion.

In Napoleon, the Empress & the Artist it is also asserted that Labillardière’s Novae Hollandiae plantarum specimen  ‘is the first book published after settlement in which the continent is referred to as Australia . . . Matthew Flinders, who is usually acknowledged as the first person to coin the name Australia, used the word in correspondence but did not actually publish it until ten years later, in 1814’ (page 24).  It seems to me that the question of who first used the name ‘Australia’ after settlement is immaterial.  Who used it first would seem to me to be a more important question.  Although the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90-168 A.D.) referred to the unknown southern land as ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ nearly two thousand years ago and many after him employed the Latin adjective australis (southern, from auster the south wind) to describe the continent, it seems that the Portuguese-born Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros (1565-1615) was the first to employ a noun ‘Austrialia’, derived from this adjective, when he discovered Espiritu Santo (Vanuatu) in 1606 and thought it part of the great southland.  Yet, Quiros’ spelling with its extra ‘I’ is still not as strikingly familiar to the modern reader as the ‘Australia’ of the account of Jacob Le Maire’s and Willem Schouten’s voyage Spieghel der Australische Navigatie (Amsterdam, 1622) which has just been republished in a facsimile edition by the Australian National Maritime Museum.  I have said as much in the introductory essay.

I was a little frustrated by the manner in which the narrative in this book has been broken up with report-like subheadings.  These are often all the more obvious because of the double columns of text so characteristic of Kangaroo Press books. Napoleon, the Empress & the Artist contains many interesting illustration captions, but a good many of them end with the unexplained (contributor’s?) initials ‘D.R.’  Furthermore, the title page carries Hamilton’s name, but also the names of the author of the preface (Bernard Chevallier), the foreword (Bernard Smith) and the editor (Anne Savage). It is not unusual, these days, for the name of a publisher’s desk editor to appear on a colophon, but the appearance of Savage’s name on the title page and among the cataloguing-in-publication details, is unusual.

Be that as it may, this book contains a number of editorial lapses.  All historians have their oversights, indeed Hamilton has been kind enough to point out errors in my own work.  She may care to note that on page 37 she implies the French republic was declared on September 1791.  On page 84 we are told it was in August 1792 and on page 233 we are finally given the correct month and year (September 1792) but not the date: the 21st.  On page 94 we are given the very interesting list of European nations which have ruling families descended from Joséphine.  However, Portugal, one of the countries listed, has not had a ‘sovereign’ since it was declared a republic in 1910.  It should also be mentioned that Alexandre de Beauharnais, Josephine’s first husband (the sole father of her children and thus also the ancestor of many present day European monarchs), was the secretary, rather than the president of the National Assembly at the time of Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes (page 56).

In his foreword, Bernard Smith writes that this book is ‘packed with surprises.  How many of us knew that the young Napoleon when a cadet at military college applied to join the La Pérouse expedition to the Pacific?’  The fact is, claims about Napoléon’s attempt to join La Pérouse’s expedition are not new.  I first read of it in John Dunmore’s biography Pacific Explorer (p. 203-204).  The basis for the assertion is the memoirs of Alexandre-Jean des Mazis (c. 1768-1841), Bonaparte’s fellow student at the Ecole militaire in Paris.  However, the veracity of des Mazis’ 8-page Cahier  (written between 1821 and 1841) has been seriously questioned by Robert Laulan, historian of the Ecole militaire; see his article ‘Que valent les “cahiers” d’Alexandre des Mazis?’ published in the Revue de l’Institut Napoléon, in April 1956. Bonaparte is known to have had some interest in the navy while still at the Ecole militaire de Brienne, but this was mainly with a view to a Mediterranean posting and proximity to his native Corsica.  When he left Brienne in late October 1784, having gained admission to the elite Ecole militaire de Paris, it was with the intention of becoming an artillery officer.

I had other differences of opinion with Hamilton with regard to the course of the Revolution and the campaign in Egypt, the so-called imprisonment of Rossel in England and Labillardière’s return from Italy (before Napoleon), which would take too long to discuss in this review.  However, I feel I must address her sweeping statement that ‘Neither Captain Cook, a farm labourer’s son, nor Matthew Flinders, the son of a doctor, would have got a post in the old French navy (page 181)’.  Undoubtedly commoners had no prospect of reaching senior naval ranks, in the ‘Royale’, however, they could become officiers bleus i.e. naval officers, largely recruited from the merchant marine, who held intermediate grades and wore a uniform of garny bleu to distinguish them from noble officiers rouges (red officers).  Despite the contempt of the rest of the officer corps, which had hitherto been the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy, the officiers bleus, sometimes exercised independent command.  This was usually in unglamorous convoy escorts during wartime, as happened to Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne who later led the first French expedition to any part of Australia.  Other officiers bleus participated in major French voyages, as junior officers, such as Josselin Le Corre who served under Bougainville and then Marion (see my article in Explorations, No. 13, December 1992). For a more detailed examination of this subject, see Jacques Aman’s Les officiers bleus dans la marine française au XVIIIe siècle, Geneva, 1976.

In summary, Napoleon, the Empress & the Artist  is likely to have enduring value as an accessible source of reproductions of Redouté’s superb coloured illustrations of Australian plants and as a useful account of how many of these plants came to be grown and studied in France. Hamilton does not pretend to offer the most recent taxonomic revisions associated with the plants illustrated. This is always a difficult task. Hopefully some of the errors in the text can be addressed in any future edition.

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