How Empress Josephine's roses launched an artist's journey

A footnote about her legendary garden at Malmaison opens a window into rose DNA, perfume, France's middle school system and the famous Monge Array.
Empress Josephine's hybridization created roses with more petals but less scent.

Empress Josephine's hybridization created roses with more petals but less scent. Credit: Wikipedia

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series about the artistic process.

For the 1990 In Public art installation, which celebrated the opening of the downtown Seattle Art Museum, I researched the history of the city’s waterfront. learned the obvious: that Seattle grew around its trade in lumber and fish. That discovery process sent me to Asia, to see first-hand how its local resources became the trade flowing into Seattle’s port. Since that time, following global trade has taken me around the world, and into and out of many historical epochs. The convergence of geography, economics, history, politics and industry (what used to be called economic geography), intertwined with science, culture and anthropology, still intrigues me, and I continue to make art about it.

I start researching my projects at the University of Washington library, though in the beginning a "project" is just an itch that needs scratching and the research for it is mostly reading sideways, following threads wherever they take me. I’m usually exploring a few potential projects at any given time.

Somehow — I now forget where or when — in just such a phase of fuzzy, happy discovery, I stumbled across a footnote about Malmaison, the rose garden at Empress Josephine’s estate outside Paris. Josephine began planting her rose garden in 1805. The footnote stressed the garden's singular importance in the development of the modern rose. I was immediately attracted by this pairing of a delicate flower with a powerful imperial will.

I’m writing from Paris, where I first visited the former site of Josephine’s rose garden a few years ago. As I’ve explained elsewhere in this series, I’ve been brought to Paris these past two years by the departement of Seine Saint-Denis to continue research on my Josephine Project, and to share my artistic process with middle school kids in the banlieue, the Paris periphery. Malmaison is on that periphery too, though some distance from the school where I’ve been working.

The Empress Josephine was born in Martinique to petty nobility. Her given name was Marie Josephe’ Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, but everyone called her Rose. When she met the young Napoleon, certainly not yet an Emperor, he was nonetheless imperious, telling her that he didn’t like the name and would call her Josephine.

Later, when he set out to conquer the world, Josephine stayed behind at Malmaison, a dilapidated 150-acre estate that she had lavishly rebuilt. It was here that she began the world’s first rose-only garden, and perhaps reclaimed her real self. Josephine asked Napoleon to have his men send her rose seeds and cuttings from wherever they ventured. Even the British, then Europe’s preeminent rose producers, with a massive naval blockade aimed at the French, bent to her will. English growers sent their rose plantings directly to Malmaison.

Napoleon complained about the cost, but he was far away and Josephine controlled a significant part of the royal budget, which she spent assembling a fine group of gardeners and scientists of the highest reputation, knowledge and promise. Josephine didn’t garden, but she was the hands-on patron of the project. Her support and oversight drew heavily on the existing science of the day, and pushed it forward.

For example, the rose familiar in the West at that time bloomed once a season, and its blossoms faded quickly once a cut flower was brought indoors. By systematically hybridizing the western rose with varieties from China, where the rose first developed, Josephine literally re-structured the way roses developed their petals. The result? Roses that blossomed spectacularly several times a season, and looked splendid in a vase in the parlor for days.


The Malmaison roses were so beautiful that Josephine commissioned the famous flower artist, Pierre Joseph Redoute, to paint their portraits. His rose series was published in a fabulous (and fabulously expensive) book released after Josephine’s untimely death — officially from pneumonia, more likely from a broken heart — at 51. Since then, the rose book has never been out of print. (For inquiring minds, when it became clear that his marriage to Josephine would remain childless, Napoleon divorced his love to marry a woman who could produce royal heirs. Josephine died, suddenly and not long after the divorce became final.)


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