Napoléon and Marie-Louise: the politics of love


Napoleon and Marie-Louise exhibition at Compiegne

This year is the bicentennial of the marriage of Napoléon Bonaparte and Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria and, amazingly enough, this is the first time an exhibition is dedicated to dedicated to this second Empress of the French. This one is set in the palace of Compiègne, 70 miles north-east of Paris.

In 1810 Napoléon was freshly divorced from Joséphine, who had been unable to produce an heir. He was intent on founding a dynasty. This prestigious union with a Habsburg princess was also designed to comfort his legitimacy in the eyes of the French and indeed all of Europe. His new bride was twice, though her father, Emperor Francis II and her mother, Maria Teresa of Naples, grand-niece of Marie-Antoinette.

And in 1770 a fourteen-year Archduchess Marie-Antoinette had been greeted at Compiègne by Louis XV and her fiancé, the Dauphin Louis-Auguste, future Louis XVI. Now, forty years later, Napoléon wanted to proclaim himself the equal of the Bourbons by meeting a bride of the same bloodline in the same palace.

No expense or effort had been spared to impress Marie-Louise and make her stay delightful. The  palace of Compiègne had been extensively redecorated for the occasion, works of art, chosen for their themes of love and fecundity, brought in from the Louvre, and furniture made to order for the arrival of the new Empress.

Napoléon is reported to have said that he was marrying un ventre, “a belly.” Marshall Berthier, dispatched to Vienna to bring the Archduchess to France, wrote his master, anxious to hear about her allurements, that Marie-Louise, “without being a pretty woman,” had “everything needed to make Your Majesty happy.”

As for Marie-Louise, she had been terrified and repulsed at the idea of marrying the boogieman of Europe,  and considered herself a sacrifice. But Napoléon was immediately charmed by her, and would know in turn how to charm her. One of the secrets of his grip on power was his personal charisma.


Chateau of Compiegne: Marie-Louise's Bedchamber

He was totally attentive to Marie-Louise, barely leaving her side for the first month of the marriage. Within a year of the wedding, she was delivered of a boy, titled the King of Rome. The exhibition closes on the famous portrait of Marie-Louise holding the child.


Empress Marie-Louise and the King of Rome by Gerard

But love, real though it was, was short-lived. It would not survive Napoléon’s defeat and abdication. For a while the idea of a regency, with Marie-Louise herself as regent during the minority of her son, seemed the most likely outcome. This was the solution favored by Alexander I, Tsar of Russia. But other forces were at work. England preferred to see the Bourbons restored. Fouché, Bonaparte’s minister of Police and most implacable enemy, saw to it that Marie-Louise returned to her native Vienna with her son, and the King of Rome never stepped onto any throne. Napoléon and Marie-Louise would never see each other again.

Back in Austria, still married to Napoléon, Marie-Louise would bear more children and, once widowed, she would marry again twice. And a dying Napoléon would call out Joséphine’s name. What politics had joined together, politics put asunder.

Photograph of Marie-Louise’s Bedchamber at Compiègne by Andreas Praefcke

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8 Comments to “Napoléon and Marie-Louise: the politics of love”

  1. Directory Submission says:

    Nice post interesting and informative too. looking for other informative post.

  2. Sylwia says:

    The diary, or actually memoirs, was originally written in French, because Potocka moved to Paris along with all of the Poles who had to quit Poland after the 1830 uprising, and she knew that it wouldn’t be published in Poland anyway (there was censure throughout the 19th century). She’s usually called by the tender “Anetka” in Poland, but her name was Anna. I think you can find it at Europeana. Eventually she may go by “Countess Potocka”. We tend to skip titles, because they weren’t Polish, but they were used outside of Poland.

    The memoirs proved an important source for historians, because Potocka was connected to all the significant people in Poland. The king was her great uncle, while Józef Poniatowski, a marshal in the Napoleon’s Army, was her uncle. Her second husband was Napoleon’s adiutant, and accompanied him on his sudden return from Moscow. Her father in law through her first marriage, Ignacy Potocki, was a famous reformer and a Minister of Education. Her another uncle, Adam Czartoryski, was a friend of Alexander, the tsar of Russia, and she meets them both when Alexander runs from Napoleon. Later, Czartoryski bought Hotel Lambert in Paris, and conducted Poland’s foreign politics from there. Chopin and George Sand were regulars there, but Potocka doesn’t go that far in her descriptions. She visited Paris during the campaign too, and was present at some huge party given for Marie-Louise that ended up in fire.

    I found an English translation of the memoirs too, although it seems to differ a bit from the Polish one. For example the English killed off her first husband to explain her second marriage. She was divorced, and the husband remarried too. But, since the diary, apart of describing events and royalty on the European arena, is full of Poles and places in Poland, I thought I might post it in chapters on my blog, annotating it with pictures and some “who is who” information, so that it’d be easier to read it. Perhaps you might write then about the people and places in France? There are of course many French there. All of those who came with Napoleon to Warsaw, and turned the heads of Polish ladies. Potocka says that they (the ladies) allowed themselves to be conquered too easily, but she followed one officer to France too. ;)

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Sylwia! I am very happy with the new design. As for Napoleon’s true feelings towards his new bride, who can tell? I believe he was sincerely impressed by her lineage, and she was a very attractive young woman. But it was from the start a political marriage. How far it went beyond that is very difficult to assess. What seems certain is that no one replaced Josephine in his heart.

    About this diary, is it available in French or English? I would be very interested.

  4. Sylwia says:

    There’s a diary from the Napoleonic times by Anetka Potocka. She was in the centre of many of the events. She wrote that while Napoleon furnished Marie-Louise with all of the gestures of kindness and care, it was only pretense. Nothing comparing to Josephine.

    P.S. I love the new layout of the blog.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Opulent indeed! This bed was obviously meant to sleep one.

  6. Penny says:

    Quite opulent but the bed looks a bit small.
    oh and still having trouble navigating.
    I wonder what is happening with my email subscription,
    I did not see anything for these latest 3 blogs.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    I read the same, Matterhorn, and can’t say I am surprised by Maria Carolina’s reaction to the marriage, given the family’s long feud with the French Empire. On the other hand, perhaps Maria Carolina was not in any position to give lessons on wifely duties…

  8. Matterhorn says:

    I read that Marie-Louise’s grandmother, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, was appalled by this marriage and cut off all contact with her granddaughter as a result. Once Napoleon had fallen, she was willing to speak to Marie-Louise again, but then, she blamed her for not following her husband to Elba like a dutiful wife!

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