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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