Michel Garnier, Portrait of Josephine de Beauharnais, 1790

2015 079 V0001Michel Garnier (French, 1753–1819), Josephine de Beauharnais, 1790, oil on panel, 12.75 x 10.5 inches. Gift of Michael and Susie McLoughlin, 2015.079

This unusual portrait of Josephine de Beauharnais (1763–1814), the future wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and empress of France, joins depictions of other political figures in the Snite Museum’s collections. This may be the earliest known portrait of the young socialite, probably commissioned by her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais. Josephine was born to a plantation owner on the island of Martinique and married the governor’s son, who served as an officer in both the American Revolution and the French Revolutionary Army, in 1779. Running afoul of Robespierre, both Alexandre and Josephine were imprisoned during the Reign of Terror; Josephine alone escaped the guillotine. The widow with two children married Napoleon in 1796 but bore him no children. Concerned for the succession of the throne, Napoleon divorced her in 1809.

Painted on the occasion of the Fête de la Federation (the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille on July 14), the artist shows Josephine in an oval, à l’antique (in profile) against a fairly simple background dressed in a fashionable red, white, and blue ensemble that suggests her solidarity with the revolutionaries. During the festivities, she and her husband represented the Island of Martinique, signaled by her exotic headgear described as à la créole. Seventy years later this work served as a model for another painting made by the artist Hector Viger who used it as a source for his fictionalized scene of Josephine and their two children visiting Alexandre in the Luxembourg prison.

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