Of the 183-plus museums in the Paris, France, area, two of them were once private homes. Not your average home, mind you, but extravagant McMansions built to show off the wealth and importance of the residents inside.
Josephine Bonaparte, beloved wife of Napoleon, bought “Malmaison” in 1797 when her husband was away fighting the Egyptian Campaign. “Malmaison,” which means in English “bad house,” is so named because it was once the Paris base of operations for the Vikings, who were hoping to pillage and burn Paris while they lived in this building which overlooks the Bois de Boulogne on the right bank of Paris. Although Josephine was known as a good diplomat for her husband, she was just as well known as a spendthrift, who owned 500 dresses, 500 pairs of shoes, and more makeup than every woman in Paris combined. She spent a fortune on the house and more on its renovation, adding a 2000-acre garden with thousands of roses and many exotic plants never before imported to France. It was called “the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation.” Just for fun — after all, her husband had become Emperor of France for a time — she added a zoo with monkeys and black swans, and she had a cedar tree planted in the garden to celebrate Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, in Austria. The tree still grows in the garden today.
Visitors can tour the Classical style mansion and garden, which today has been cut down to 200 acres. The home, though, still has much of the beautiful furniture that the Bonapartes bought, and some of the 400 paintings by some of the best known artists of the day, including Da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt and Caraveggio. The entrance to the house is shaped like a tent, in honor of the master of the house, who loved to live on the battlefield, in similar-looking tents. There is a billiard room, a dining room (which was a new room to the French in this time; the idea of having a special room just for eating had recently been invented by the British), and an office which for a time was the seat of the French government.
Malmaison was a happy time for awhile. Napoleon adored his Josephine. Among his many love letters he wrote to her was: “My love for you forbids repose. But how can I rest anymore, when I yield to the feeling that masters my inmost self, when I quaff from your lips and from your heart a scorching flame?”
Unfortunately, Josephine could not have children, and so they divorced so that the Bonaparte name could live on. Josephine was well provided for and stayed in the house until her death in her lovely bed, from pneumonia, in 1814.
At the end of the same century, in 1875, the very wealthy Edouard Andre had built for himself and his wife an enormous mansion at 158 Boulevard Haussmann just off the Champs-Elysses in downtown Paris. Andre and his wife, Nelie Jacquemart, proceeded to travel the world together for the next 13 years and, with no children, they collected priceless art to bring back to the grand residence, which is said to have the finest private collection of artistic masterpieces in Paris.
Their collection includes art of the French, Dutch and English masters, but even more from the Italians; so much that part of the house was devoted just to the Italian art. They called it “our Italian museum.”
Paintings by Tiepelo, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Tintoretto, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Boticelli and Bellini among others, decorate the house, which was bequeathed to the Institut de France at the request of Edouard and his wife and was opened up to the public by that organization in 1913.. And besides paintings, the house is filled with Gobbelin tapestries, 18th Century marble busts, Savonnerie carpets, and marble staircases. In addition to paintings and other art forms, they brought back whole expensive frescoes and woodwork. The ceilings and anaglyptae were as decorated as the walls; some ceilings are coffered. Tintoretto painted the ceiling of the smoking room for them. The Second Empire style music room holds an organ and can comfortably hold 1000 guests.
A lovely cafe on a patio of the house serves visitors who are so overwhelmed and exhausted from seeing so much priceless art in one visit that they need to sit down and take lunch or tea.
Neither of these two incredible examples of French art and architecture at its finest should be missed by the visitor to Paris.