Pauline Bonaparte: Napoleon’s Pleasure-loving Sister

Napoleon’s pleasure-loving sister Pauline Bonaparte had always been considered somewhat shallow. Perhaps, it was because she had been spoiled as a child and received no formal education. Nothing intellectual ever interested her. In fact, her interests were frivolous and mainly involved her appearance, which generated much excitement with the public each time she appeared:

“Whenever she went to the theatre, every opera-glass was turned towards her. Her entrance into a ball-room was greeted by a long murmur of admiration. Her attire was always carefully studied, and very beautiful … She inspired the wildest enthusiasm.”[1]

Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefèvre

Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefèvre, 1803. Courtesy of Athenaeum.

One interesting story about Pauline’s appearance occurred when she attended a ball given by a Madame Permon. Pauline decided to outshine everyone at the ball and succeeded splendidly. However, one jealous attendee, a Madame de Coutades, sought revenge and pointing to Pauline said, “What a pity! She really would be lovely if it weren’t for that!”[2]  People began asking what she was seeing as Pauline looked beautiful to them, and when asked what was wrong, Madame de Coutades said, “Why are you blind? It’s so remarkable that you surely must see it.”[3] Pauline flushed with embarrassment just as Madame de Coutades exclaimed and pointed, “Why her ears. If I had such ears as those, I would cut them off!”[4] Mortified, Pauline gasped, covered her ears, and fled the scene.

Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline Bonaparte. Author’s collection.

Although there was no truth behind Madame de Coutades’ accusation, you could not convince 19-year-old Pauline Bonaparte that what Madame de Coutades said wasn’t true. Pauline’s ears were perfect. They were small and flat, and there was no hint of deformity. Nevertheless, thereafter, she was so self-conscious of her ears she refused to show them and went to great lengths to hide them by either wearing a band over them or styling her hair low.

The idea that Pauline Bonaparte was self-absorbed and frivolous was repeated by many people. For instance, Clemens von Metternich got to know her when he was Austria’s ambassador to Paris. He wrote, “Pauline was as handsome as it is possible to be; she was in love with herself, and her only occupation was pleasure.”[5] A nineteenth-century book on the Bonaparte court described her as “giddy, whimsical, and devoted to pleasure, … Pauline delighted in splendour, in dissipation, and all kinds of flattery.”[6] A twentieth-century historian echoed similar sentiments noting her frivolous pleasure-seeking propensities:

“It is true that her mind was as empty and her conversation as vapid as her face was lovely and her figure perfect; that when the talk did not happen to run on dress or scandal, and such subjects as music or art, literature or politics, came up for discussion, she was forced to sulk in a corner, in order not to display her ignorance. But then she was so pretty, so merry, so drôle, and always so ravishingly “gowned” — for not even Joséphine had more exquisite taste in frills and furbelows, and she was quite aware that even the most beautiful of pictures is better for an elegant frame — that such shortcomings were readily pardoned, and all the incroyables who crowded round her whenever she appeared in public vowed that she was divine.”[7]

General Charles Leclerc in 1804 by François-Joseph Kinson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pauline Bonaparte was also known to have many lovers and developed a reputation for “Bacchanalian promiscuity” while living on the island of Saint-Domingue (now modern-day Haiti) with her husband, General Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc. When Napoleon suggested the marriage, she did not object or assent but rather yielded to the wishes of her brother. In fact, it was originally planned that she would marry Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron, proconsul of Marseille, whom Napoleon had introduced her to and whom she fell in love with. Unfortunately, her mother Letizia objected to the marriage.

After Pauline’s marriage to Leclerc on 14 June 1797, Napoleon appointed his brother-in-law commander-in-chief of the French army in Italy. In 1801, he sent him to Saint-Domingue in the West Indies where he appointed him Governor-General and ordered him to restore French authority on the Caribbean island and arrest the rebel Toussaint L’ouverture. Pauline was supposedly in despair when Napoleon ordered her to go with her husband.  Georgette Ducrest, the niece of the educator, writer, and harpist, Stéphanie Félicité, known as Madame de Genlis, maintained:

“When she [Pauline] started for St. Domingo, she had for Lafon, actor of the Théâtre-Français, an affection about which there was so little secrecy, that Mlle. Duchesnois, on learning that General Leclerc was taking his wife with him, foolishly exclaimed, … ‘Oh! Mon Dieu, how grieved I am! It is easy enough to kill Lafon; he is so much in love with her.’”[8]

Some people claimed Mademoiselle Duchesnois never said such a thing and that Lafon was not the real reason Napoleon sent Pauline to the island. Supposedly, Napoleon feared that if she was left alone in Paris, her behavior might result in scandals. Whatever the reason, when Pauline Bonaparte learned of her brother’s decision, she was hysterical and told her friends that if she went to Saint-Domingue she would be besieged by snakes, savages, and boredom. A friend, Laure Junot, Duchess of Abrantès spoke with Pauline in hopes of persuading her to go.

“I told her that she would be queen over there; that she would ride in a palanquin; that a slave would be attentive to her least movement in order to execute her will; that she would walk about under flowering orange-trees; that the snakes would do her no harm, if there were any in the Antilles; that the savages were equally innocuous; that it was not there that people were roasted on spits, and I concluded my speech by telling her that she would look very pretty dressed à la créole.”[9]

The duchess’ persuasive speech induced Pauline to go to the island where she took numerous lovers, including several soldiers that reported to her husband. Despite her romantic relations, her health was not good as she was likely suffering from yellow fever, a disease that was decimating the island. Leclerc encouraged her to return to Paris for her health, but she would not. Perhaps, she didn’t want to go because she once stated, “Here, I reign like Joséphine; I am the first.”[10]  

She would have been smart to leave as yellow fever ultimately killed 25 generals and 25,000 soldiers. Leclerc got sick too. He fell ill on 22 October 1802, and a doctor from the military hospital in Le Cap diagnosed him with yellow fever. Thirty-year-old Leclerc never recovered and died. A proclamation dated 2 November 1802 from the Colonial prefect of Saint-Domingue announced his death to the army and colonial inhabitants:

“The night which has just passed, is a night of mourning for us. The Commander in Chief, Leclerc … is no more! an incurable disorder has snatched him from you. He had scarce reached the prime of his life; but he was a conqueror in battle, and he was wise in council.”[11]

Seven days after his death, Pauline, her son (named Dermide Louis Napoleon who had been born on 20 April 1798), and Leclerc’s remains were placed aboard the Swiftsure to return to France. Pauline had confirmed that before the ship sailed her husband’s remains were “embalmed in the Egyptian fashion, and wrapped in bandages as far as the head.”[12] The ship landed at the Bay of Toulon on 1 January 1803.

Pauline Bonaparte went to stay with her brother Joseph and did so until she found herself “bored.” She was tired of wearing black, even though her relatives and friends declared she was à merveille in it, and she was no longer interested in following the mourning rules established in Napoleon’s civil code. It was around this same time that Pauline purchased the palatial Hôtel de Charost for 400,000 francs and spent another 50,000 francs to improve and furnish it.

Pauline Bonaparte - her brother Joseph

Joseph Bonaparte. Author’s collection.

In the meantime, Napoleon was thinking about who his widowed sister should marry. However, he also realized that she needed to wait until November to avoid breaching mourning protocol. Napoleon thought the Duke of Lodi and Vice-President of the Napoleonic Republic of Italy, Francesco Melzi d’Eril would make a good husband for her, but when the Duke was approached, he refused, and, so, instead, Camillo Borghese, 6th Prince of Sulmona was suggested. With pressure from her brothers Joseph and Lucien, Pauline finally agreed to marry Camillo, and without Napoleon’s knowledge, she did so on 28 August 1803. When Napoleon learned what she had done, he was livid. She had not followed mourning protocol and so he refused to acknowledge her new title of princess.

Pauline’s new marriage was an unhappy one, still it was civilly confirmed in November. She had two good reasons to stay married to Camillo: First, she had a title, and, second, her husband was rich. She lived more sumptuously than Napoleon. Nevertheless, before long, rumors began to surface that she had resumed her old ways and was taking lovers. Roman citizens ridiculed her, and her unhappy brother chastised her in a note signed “Bonaparte” and dated 6 April 1804:

“Madame and Dear Sister:

I have learned with pain that you have not the good sense to conform to the manners and customs of the city of Rome; that you show contempt for the inhabitants, and that your eyes are unceasingly turned towards Paris. Although occupied with vast affairs I nevertheless desire to make known my wishes, and I hope that you will conform to them.

I love your husband and his family, be amiable, accustom yourself to the usages of Rome, and put this in your head: that if you follow bad advice you will no longer be able to count upon me. You may be sure that you will find no support in Paris, and that I shall never receive you there without your husband. If you quarrel with him, it will be your fault, and France will be closed to you. You will sacrifice your happiness and my esteem.”[13]

Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline’s portrait by Marie Guilhelmine Benoist, 1808. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pauline Bonaparte had long been suffering health problems. She had long-lasting issues caused by Dermide’s birth, health difficulties from her time on Saint-Domingue, and, perhaps, because of her free-loving attitude, venereal disease. Therefore, at her Camillo’s suggestion, she went with him in 1804 to the thermal baths in Pisa and then enjoyed the curative waters and baths of Lucca. She had wanted 6-year-old Dermide to go to with them, but her husband was not necessarily fond of the boy, so, he suggested he stay with his brother, and Pauline was swayed by the idea that her son could enjoy time with his cousins. Unfortunately, while the couple were away taking the curative waters, Dermide acquired a fever and died on 14 August 1804 at the Aldobrandini villa in Frascati. Pauline blamed her son’s death on her husband.

A year or so after Dermide’s death, around 1805, Camillo commissioned the famous Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova to depict Pauline Bonaparte as the goddess Diana fully clothed, but, instead, Napoleon’s pleasure-loving sister Pauline insisted on a practically nude version of Venus. Perhaps, because of her promiscuity, she wanted to enjoy the controversy the nude Venus would cause. Whether or not Pauline posed nude was controversial, but when asked how she could have sat around with nothing on, she reputedly said that she was kept warm by a stove in Canova’s studio. The result of Canova’s work appeared in 1808 and was a white marble statue called Venus Victrix. One writer noted:

“The Venus represents Pauline, almost nude, reclining on a coach and holding in her hand the apple awarded to her by Paris as the fairest of goddesses. The statue when finished was publicly exhibited, Prince Borghese not realizing that it was the form of his wife that he was submitting to general criticism until the fact was impressed upon him by a considerate friend. Then he sent it to Rome, where it was for some time concealed in a room in his palace, though later it again saw the light in the Borghese gallery.”[14]

In 1814, Napoleon was exiled to Elba. To help her brother’s financial situation, Pauline liquidated her assets, including selling the Hôtel de Charost, which the British government purchased and allowed the Duke of Wellington to use as his official residence during his tenure as British Ambassador to France. Pauline then went to Elba to visit her brother, the only sibling to do so. When she arrived, 34-year-old Pauline was still vibrant and attractive as noted by Napoleon’s valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis:

“Her person, from what could be seen, had all the beautiful proportions of the Venus di Medici. Nothing was lacking to her but a little youth, for the skin of her face was beginning to be wrinkled, but the few defects which resulted from age disappeared under a slight coating of cosmetic which gave more animation to her pretty features. Her eyes were charming and very lively, her teeth were admirable, and her hands and feet were of the most perfect model. She always dressed most carefully, and in the style of a young girl of eighteen. She always said that she was ill, out of sorts; when she had to go up or down stairs she had herself carried on a square of red velvet having a stick with handles on each side, and yet if she was at a ball she danced like a woman who enjoys very good health.”[15]

Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Napoleon’s Hundred Days and his loss at Waterloo, Pauline Bonaparte moved to Rome, as did her mother. Under the protection of Pope Pius VII, Pauline took up residence at the Porta Pia in the Villa Paolina named for her and decorated the villa in the Egyptomania style popularized by Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. She and her husband, Camillo, had been living separately as he moved to Florence where he had a 10-year relationship with his mistress. However, three months before her death, Pauline convinced the Pope to persuade her husband to return. Camillo did, and she died on 9 June 1825 at the age of forty-four at the couple’s Palazzo Borghese from pulmonary tuberculosis. She was buried at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.


  • [1] I. de Saint-Amand and T. S. Perry, The Wife of the First Consul (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1890), p. 285.
  • [2] Munsey’s Magazine v. 44 (New York: Frank A. Munsey Company, 1911), p. 525.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] C.W.L. Metternich, Memoirs, 1773-1835 v. 1 (New York: Harper, 1881), p. 200.
  • [6] The Court and Camp of Bonaparte (New York: Harper, 1832), p. 99.
  • [7] H. N. Williams, The Women Bonapartes: The Mother and Sisters of Napoléon I v. 1 (London: Methuen, 1908), p. 196.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 290–91.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 288.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 301.
  • [11] Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register v. 3 (London: R. Bagshaw, 1803), p. 78.
  • [12] H. N. Williams, p. 307.
  • [13] I. M. Tarbell, A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte: With a Sketch of Josephine, Empress of the French (McClure, Phillips & Company, 1906), p. 185.
  • [14] Munsey’s Magazine v. 11 (New York: Frank A. Munsey & Company, 1894), p. 306.
  • [15] L. E. Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena (New York: Harper & brothers, 1922), p. 81.

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