History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 September 2009

Josephine's Hair

A lock of Josephine's hair; snipped on the day of her death, May 29, 1814.

On September 7, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia shut its doors on a magnificent exhibit on Napoleon.

It took me two trips to see the entire exhibition, because it was massive, containing an exhaustive and comprehensive collection of items belonging to Napoleon, his two wives, his numerous siblings, and those, like Talleyrand, with whom he had contentious relationships to say the least.

The exhibition is divided into segments covering the rise to power of a Corsican upstart named Napoleone Buonaparte; his roles in the rapidly changing post-revolutionary governments; his marriages to the soigné Creole widow, Josephine de Beauharnais, and to the naive Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria; his numerous siblings (you'll want to take a nap on Jerome Bonaparte's sumptuous bed with it's apricot brocade curtains and bolster); his military career and accomplishments; his coronation as Emperor of France; and his exiles on Elba and St Helena.

The item that has most remained with me from my first visit to the exhibit is depicted above--a lock of Josephine's hair, snipped from her corpse by her physician on the day she died -- at the age of fifty, on May 29, 1814. Tied with a dark green ribbon, it is a shade of pure brown, exactly the color that comes to mind when you think "brunette." I admit to tearing up when I saw such a deeply personal memento, and almost felt as though I was invading her privacy by viewing it. Perhaps my visceral reaction had to do with the fact that the curl was taken after she had died, a true rape of the lock because she had been unable to consent to its loss.

I fell in love with Josephine when I researched her life and her marriage to Napoleon for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (NAL, January 5, 2010). She was no saint, but she was not well treated by either of her husbands.

Josephine's prayer book; on exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia PA through September 7, 2009
Another highlight (for me) from the exhibit is an enameled snuffbox that belonged to Napoleon's nyphomaniacal sister Pauline. It bears her silhouette in gold, which makes it a particularly egotistical gift to have bestowed on one of her homelier sisters. But that's what she did. Pauline will get her due in my third book of the royal nonfiction series, currently titled ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Bastards, and Bad Seeds.

Have you ever been moved to tears by an artifact you saw in a museum exhibition? What was it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most moving museum artifact I've ever seen was at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Under glass was a piece of embroidery Mary Queen of Scots had worked on while living there. Mary's life at the palace was tumultuous, to say the least, and it left me wondering if that little piece of stitchery brought her comfort during anxious days.

The Napoleon exhibit sounds fascinating. Do you know if it was moving to another city?

7:51 AM  
Blogger Alexis Lorenz said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I'm already planning a trip to CA to go see it :)

8:05 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm trying to remember, Christine, if I saw the embroidery when I visited Holyrood House. I do recall being very, very moved, and really feeling the presence of both Mary, Queen of Scots and Darnley in the palace.

I don't know if the Napoleon exhibit will travel. I was disappointed that the gift shop didn't seem to sell a catalog for the exhibit the way most museum gift shops do for special exhibits. There were so many fascinating artifacts that I would have liked to refer to them in my research from time to time and have that "visual" to go to for a better visceral effect.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, I would love to see this exhibit! I was very moved by an exhibit I saw a few years ago at the Museum of the City of London on Africans in London in the late 18th/early 19th centuries and the emancipation and abolition movements. One thing was striking to me was how very "modern" the arguments(in pamphlets, books, etc...) about the dignity and rights of all people sounded. It's not as though no one was articulating those views then.

But I think the single piece I've seen in an exhibit that I found most moving was a exhibit at I saw at Stanford when I was a student about the internment of the Japanese. There was a letter from (as I remember) the President of the University to a Japanese man who had been a Stanford professor. The former professor and his wife wanted to move to a camp nearer to where their son, who was in the army, was based. The Stanford president said he would try to help but wasn't sure he'd be successful. The fact that this couple were imprisoned by the country their son was risking his life for really brought home the insanity of the policy.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Both items you mention, Tracy, are extremely profound; and by spotlighting that specific letter from the Japanese former Stanford professor you make an excellent point about how boneheaded the internment policy was -- a truly dark mark on American history.

It makes me think about how many history lessons are learned at museums rather than in classrooms; one lingering glance at some artifacts is worth thousands of descriptive words in a textbook.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tracy's comment reminds me of another truly moving museum piece I've seen. At the Holocaust Museum in D.C. (and there are truly not enough words to do that place justice), there was one thing that really stayed with me. It was a gigantic pile of shoes - all sizes - taken from concentration camp victims. It really drove home for me how horrific it all was.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Christine, my former in-laws were both Holocaust survivors; and there tend to be 2 types of survivors: those who never discuss it and those who can't stop. My in-laws fell into the second category and some of the stories they told (at the dinner table, yet) would curl your hair [and I know yours is really straight!]

I have yet to sum up the courage to visit the Holocaust Museum in D.C. because I know I will fall apart. I've seen photos of those shoes, but seeing the actual shoes, and what that image represents, must hit a person like a Mack truck to the solar plexus. I remember seeing blow-ups of photos the Nazis took, of the shoes, of the emaciated bodies in their too-baggy striped uniforms and of the piles of corpses displayed on the lower level of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. I had to run to the ladies room to throw up afterwards.

I was there many years ago with my best friend from college (also Jewish) and we met another American there, a guy who unfortunately defined the stereotype of a Southern "cracker." He was cracking jokes during the tour of the house and at the exhibit of photos in the basement. Maybe it was due to some sort of misplaced inability to handle seeing such atrocities; or maybe he was just a jerk, but I can't recall another time in my entire life when I really just wanted to haul off and slug someone.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Visiting the museum in the basement at the Ford Theatre in DC I found incredibly moving, and then going across the street to the boarding house where Lincoln actually died. Also, the Bronte exhibit at the Morgan Library (before they redid it with the awful Renzo Piano additions) was also incredibly moving. To see exactly how tiny Charlotte really was, and to the tiny books that she and her sisters and Branwell worked on. I also found the Oscar Wilde exhibit at the museum also moving.

Christine, if you check out the web-site for the National Constitution Center it might tell you where the Napoleon exhibit is playing next. I do know it was in DC for awhile. I also went down to see it in Philly, and was disappointed that not only did they not have an exhibition catalogue but no books on Napoleon, Josephine or that era whatsoever. I think it was a mistake on the part of the museum not to that, particularly since tickets were not cheap ($17).

12:13 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Yes, I think the Constitution Center missed a trick by not even having books on Napoleon or Josephine or the era, or even the War of 1812, at the bookstore. I wonder what they'll do for their next special exhibit (which opens next month and is on Princess Diana).

I somehow missed the exhibits at the Morgan, but speaking of how tiny Charlotte Bronte was, I was struck by the sleeve of one of Napoleon's jackets that was at the Constitution Center exhbit. He was evidently close to 5'6" (as explained by a placard in the exhibit that said he was 5'2" in Parisian measurement -- and that a Parisian foot was 12.789 inches, not 12 inches. And yet that sleeve is so narrow; it reminded me of Lord Nelson's tiny white hose that were on display at Greenwich during the Trafalgar bicentenary celebration. There was a special bifurcated exhibition on Nelson and Napoleon which was so exhaustive that I only got to glance at the Napoleon memorabilia because I was so focused on the Nelson artifacts at the time (my novel of Emma Hamtion, TOO GREAT A LADY, was in the production stages at that point).

I wear a size 5 1/2 shoe and I'm not certain my foot would have fit into Nelson's stocking. Even more touching was the bloodstain (his) on the white hose -- and of course the coat with the hole in it made by the musketball (and the shot itself, which is owned by Her Majesty and was on loan for the exhibit).

12:31 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The historical detail what never fails to choke me up -- in photographs, filmed narratives, letters -- are the single suitcases the Nazis told Jews to pack bring along upon "resettlement in the east." I imagine all that frenzied last-minute decision-making -- how can you fit everything you'll need into that one suitcase? The cruelty of that single detail... I know it's not the worst thing, but it's the homely details I can imagine myself obsessing about (packing and repacking, probably far into the night -- a suitcase, possessions you'll never see again) that get to me.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I would love to see the exhibit, Amanda. What a shame they didn't put together a catalogue. Seeing Anne Frank's diary in her house moved me to tears. Having read it as a freshman in high school and seeing the reality at the age of 29 it was a full circle moment and a very real touch of the divine. I felt the same way about the letters between Van Gogh and his brother Theo on display in the Van Gogh museum. The love between them and Theo's understanding were a rare testament to the love between two brothers. As I was fortunate enough to attend the Mozarteum which in addition to a fine music school is also the location of many of Mozart's original scores. The first time I actually saw one I was moved to tears.

I spent most of my trip to Auchswitz in tears. The juxtaposition of the poignant and the truly evil was overwhelming.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You're right, Pam; I could see doing the same thing. And it's chilling, in hindsight.

Louisa, I wish I'd seen the letters between the Van Gogh brothers. They had a loving, yet dysfunctional relationship, didn't they? Wasn't Theo essentially Vincent's agent?

The very first painting I remember seeing was Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" -- in an art book of my mother's. And then, in my 20s, after studying lots of art history in high school and college, with a concentration on Italian Renaissance art, and always being drawn to Botticelli ... to finally see "The Birth of Venus" in person during my one and only visit to the Uffizi in Florence, choked me up as well. Of course something like that doesn't carry the heavy emotional baggage connected with finally seeing Anne Frank's actual diary. I think anything connected with the Holocaust -- and particularly a concentration camp -- is bound to produce a stronger emotional reaction than other artifacts.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous P. Rocerin said...

Exercise is good. You need to do more of it. I think that will help you feel better aobut yourself. It looks like you put on a lot of weight latley. Also what might help your bald spot in the front of your head is not wearing a ponytail. The pulling of your hair is causing it to go bald (fyi).

11:56 AM  

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