The House Napoleon Owned as a Private Citizen

Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Napoleon owned one house as a private citizen and that house was situated at no. 6 rue Chantereine, which is also the place where some people say he met his future wife Josephine. The story is that after Parisians were ordered to give up their swords, Josephine’s son Eugene went to Napoleon and appealed to keep his father’s sword because his father had been guillotined. Eugene’s appeal so touched Napoleon, he asked to meet the boy’s mother and went to her home.

Although there are several other versions of how Josephine and Napoleon met, what is most important is that after they met, Josephine thoroughly captivated Napoleon. He was so captivated he began to visit her frequently. She was leasing a house in a fashionable district of Paris known as the Chaussee d’Antin located at no. 6 rue Chantereine. The street was so named because chantereine translates in French to “singing frogs,” and there were reportedly many croaking frogs that lived in the nearby marsh.

Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The house was unpretentious but elegant. It had been built about twenty years earlier, in 1776, by a neoclassical French architect named Perrard de Montreuil. Its first occupant was a dancer and well-known courtesan named Louise-Julie Carreau who used gifts from her lovers to speculate in real estate. She later married the famous tragedian actor François Joseph Talma, who was also Napoleon’s favorite actor. Carreau let the house from its owner in March of 1780 and liked it so much, she bought it in December of 1781.

Some years later, Carreau let the house to Josephine, who signed the lease on August 17, 1795, and after Josephine moved in, it became known as the Hotel de Beauharnais. Josephine decided to improve it and did so by making several changes, including changing the terrace into a spacious veranda. In addition, the house, along with two other villas, sat on what people described as a country road, and was described in the following manner:

“A porter’s lodge of two low storeys and single ground-floor room with two windows looking on to the street stood on the western side of the entrance doorway which gave access to a long narrow path (about 30 by 3 feet), just wide enough for a carriage, and bordered with rose bushes and a few shrubs. … The path at No. 6 opened on to a rectangular courtyard flanked by two wings, a coach-house on the right and stables on the left, with a garret and servant’s rooms above. At the far end of the courtyard stood the narrow white facade, 30 feet wide by 50 feet long, of a detached stone and ashlar building. Six semi-circular stone steps led up to a terrace, arranged as a veranda and used as an ante-room, bordered by a low balustrade decorated with antique vases.”[1]

Portrait of Alexandre Walewski in 1832. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rumors later claimed that one of the villas was occupied by Napoleon’s mistress, a Polish countess named Marie Walewska. Marie was married to a wealthy landowner four times her age, named Count Athenasius Colonna-Walewski. She became involved with Napoleon in 1806 after meeting him at a ball. There were rumors that she did so to help Poland in its struggle to regain independence from Prussia. Whether true or not, she nevertheless gave birth to Napoleon’s son, Alexandre Walewski, in 1810. He grew to be gifted soldier and diplomat, and although Count Walewski acknowledged him as his son, rumors continued to swirl that he was Napoleon’s child. When Walewski’s DNA was examined in 2013, it showed he was a descendant in the genetic male-line of the imperial House of Bonaparte.

After Josephine and Napoleon’s marriage on 9 March 1796, Napoleon moved in at no. 6 rue Chantereine. Historian Maurice Guerrini provided details about the house stating:

“The house had three principal rooms; an oval dining-room, from which a small stairway led down to the basement consisting of a cellar, a box-room and a kitchen; a small boudoir decorated with mosaics on the left with beyond it the large drawing-room, lit by two tall french-windows leading on to the garden. This room had an elegant chimney-piece. At the far end of the house facing north was the study where, on a simple oak desk, Bonaparte no doubt made plans which changed the destiny of France.

The low-ceilinged rooms on the first floor were similarly arranged; Josephine’s bed and dressing-room, a small boudoir, then the General’s bedroom, entered by a door carved with Egyptian motifs. This bedroom was connected with the ground-floor study by a staircase. A bathroom was on the half-landing. There was a second attic floor above.

The ground- and first-floor rooms, hung with mirrors and tapestries, were always filled with flowers, especially roses from the garden, tastefully arranged by Josephine’s gift hands. This garden, approximately four yards square, occupied the largest part of the site to which it lent a rural air.”[2]

Less than year later, Napoleon scored decisive victories in Italy, and the Paris municipality decreed as a tribute to his victories that the street be renamed rue de la Victoire. Moreover, Napoleon’s political influence was growing just like his pocketbook, and, perhaps, that is why Napoleon decided to buy the house on 26 March 1798.

“Bonaparte bought the house, numbered first 46, then 60, on 26 March 1798. The deed was signed in the presence of Maître Raguideau and registered by the civil tribunal on the following 2 August; the price was 52,400 livres, of which 6,400 were paid in cash and the remainder in four instalments due on 30 August, 16 September, 10 November, and 4 December 1798.”[3]

Hotel Bonaparte in 1798. Courtesy of Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Once Napoleon owned the house, he decided it had to be altered. This occurred even though he had previously described the house as “his dream of happiness.”[4] It was deemed too small and too insufficient, and he declared that it had to be enlarged and improved as he needed large reception rooms, a vestibule, and magnificent furniture.

“Architects were engaged to enlarge and transform the small house into a large hotel, and it was left to Josephine’s taste to convert the hitherto elegant private dwelling into a magnificent residence for the renowned general who had to be daily in readiness to receive official visits, delegations of welcome from the authorities, and the institutions of Paris, and from the other cities of France.”[5]

In May of 1798, Napoleon left for Egypt on a military expedition to seize Egypt and hoped to undermine Britain’s trade interests in India. The Egyptian expedition proved to be a disaster. Thousands of soldiers perished mostly from the bubonic plague. In addition, during his time in Egypt, he kept abreast of what was happening in France, and without orders left and returned to France partly because of Josephine.

She had become aware of Napoleon’s relationship with Walewska, but there was little Josephine could do. Moreover, she had not been faithful to Napoleon because almost immediately after their marriage and his departure for Italy, she was swept off her feet by the young and dashing staff officer Lieutenant Hippolyte Charles. She was so in love with him that she avoided joining Napoleon for some time, and when she finally did see him, she brought her lover with her as her aide.

For a time, Napoleon kept his domestic problems to himself and ignored the fact that his wife was having an affair. That changed during the Egyptian Campaign when one of his Generals showed him a letter detailing Josephine’s and Hippolyte’s relationship and others also mentioned that it was common knowledge throughout Paris that the two were involved. That, coupled with Josephine’s extravagant spending, resulted in a livid and depressed Napoleon writing to his brother Joseph stating that he was planning to divorce Josephine when he returned to Paris and his unhappiness spilled from his pen.

“It is melancholy business, when all the affections of one’s heart are wrapped up in a single person. I want you to arrange to have a country place ready for me when I return … I am counting on spending the winter there, and seeing no one. I am sick of society. I need solitude, isolation. My feelings are dried up, and I am bored with public display. I am tired of glory at 29; it has lost its charm and there is nothing left for me but complete egotism. I mean to keep my Paris house — I shall never give that up to anyone. I have no other resources.”[6]

Petit Luxembourg. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While in Egypt, Napoleon also stayed briefed on political affairs in France. He learned France had suffered a series of defeats in the War of the Second Coalition and he knew France was unhappy with its dictatorial government and thought France would welcome him back. Without the government’s permission he decided to return and arrived home on 16 October 1799. Josephine was not at the house, and Napoleon was furious believing she was with her lover. Apparently, however, she had gone to meet him and somewhere along the way took the wrong route. When she appeared, a tearful Josephine persuaded Napoleon to reconcile and his plan to divorce her never came to fruition. That would take a few more years.

A month after his return, the Coup of 18 Brumaire brought Napoleon to power as First Consul. He and Josephine then left de la Victoire to reside at the Petit Luxembourg. Thereafter, Bonaparte’s family members intermittently occupied the house, until Napoleon gifted the property to his cousin on 1 July 1806. Her name was Marie-Louise-Stéphanie Rolier Benielli and the property was part of her dowry when she married Colonel Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes.

She kept the house until she and her husband went into exile in the United States. However, when she returned from exile, she recovered it on 13 August 1823. She then kept it for over 35 years, during which time she bought some attached parcels and enlarged the garden. In 1857, she sold the house to a banker named Joseph Goubie, and, a year later, the house was demolished under the Second Empire of Napoleon III.

References:

  • [1] Maurice Guerrini, Napoleon and Paris: Thirty Years of History (New York: Walker and Company, 1971), p. 429.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 429–30.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 430.
  • [4] Luise Mühlbach, The Empress Josephine: An Historical Sketch of the Days of Napoleon (New York: A.L. Fowle, 1867), p. 346.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 347.
  • [6] M. Thompson, ed. Letters of Napoleon. Read Books Ltd, 2013, p. 129-130.

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