“let them eat cake” is a phrase I have uttered on occasion. When visiting the gardens of Versailles and Malmaison,Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) and Empress Josephine (1763-1814) enter my consciousness. For Susan Taylor-Leduc, Marie and Josephine are front and center in her cerebral thoughts.
‘It is a joy for me to see foreign plants multiply in our gardens. In ten years time I want to see that every French department owns a collection of precious plants initially grown in our nurseries’. Empress Josephine (1804)
Leduc forcefully argued that both Queen Marie and Empress Josephine were the first modern celebrities; the precursor of the contemporary political wife. Both women were trendsetters, interlopers, entrepreneurs and savvy drivers of economic trade.
Whether or not you call it “divorce French style” Marie Antoinette lost her head during the French Revolution. Before that happened, Queen Marie was an important garden patron. This patronage was the 18th century version of female empowerment. “For Marie Antoinette the garden was an opportunity to experiment with state craft.” Leduc. She created a garden, which was a kind of Disney-fication of the rustic landscape, allowing her to leverage her position in the monarchy until she produced an heir.
Josephine was a very different story. Born and bred in Martinique to a wealthy Creole family. In 1779 she moved to France and married her first husband Eugene de Beauharnais, who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. She cast a spell over Napoleon Bonaparte, who fell madly in love with her. They married in 1796. Josephine and Napoleon were considered a “power couple.” They replaced the landed aristocracy; creating a new class of young and talented. Failing to produce an heir, she divorced Napoleon in 1810, obtained a legal settlement and received child support for the children she had from her previous marriage. That is only part of this story of female empowerment.
Leduc spent most of her talk on Josephine. With a very rudimentary education, but a tremendous interest in floraculture and acclimatization, Josephine created the garden at Malmaison. Starting with 60 hectares, increasing the property to 100 hectares and by her death in 1814, the property included 726 hectares.
Josephine was not a scientist, but she had a tremendous interest in the natural world. Her greenhouses, conservatories, and Orangery, contained rare species of plants from Egypt, Arabia and Australia. Among the rare species of flowers introduced by Josephine, were hibiscus, dahlias, eucalyptus, rare tulips, phlox, myrtle, geranium, mimosa, cactus and rhododendron. Alexander von Humboldt’s trip to America in 1804 provided Josephine with thousands of specimens.
Josephine had a in-depth knowledge of colonial trade. Her family in Martinique had a controlling interest the sugar cane business. She was an intelligent speculator and clever business women. She cultivated a large flock of merino sheep; aware that wool was essential to military uniforms, she shrewdly raised sheep which became a crucial part of the French economy.
The title of Leduc’s lecture, Designing Legacy was not lost on anyone in the audience. Both women spawned a rich horticultural legacy, both constructed a vision of the natural world, both were shrewd political partners, both were ambitious in colonial and imperial realms. I think you could say they were some of earliest “members” of the MeToo movement.
as Garden Patrons
Bard Graduate Center
February 7, 2018
Susan Taylor-Leduc earned both her masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1992, she has worked as a teacher, curator, university administrator, and tour guide in Paris. A specialist in eighteenth-century French gardens, she is currently working on a book tentatively entitled Designing Legacy: Marie-Antoinette, Josephine and the French Picturesque Garden 1774–1814.