Sometimes museums don’t feel like museums. If a museum is set in an artist’s former workspace, like the Musées Zadkine or Delacroix, it can feel as though the artist has just stepped out and you are peering into their studio. If a museum is housed in a building with other centres, such as the Institut du Monde Arabe (with its tearoom and Arabic library) or the Musée du Quai Branly (with its outdoor space and cinema) it can feel as though you are in a miniature city with a culture all its own. And if a museum is set in a former residence, it can feel like just that: a home.
One of these homelike museums is the secluded and magnificent Château de Malmaison. On the outskirts of the town of Rueil-Malmaison, an easy 25-minute bus ride from La Défense, the Château was indeed a home. However, unlike museums like the Jacquemart-André or the Cognac-Jay, houses which gained museum status because of their stunning collections, Malmaison is more famous for its former inhabitants than its contents. For the Château de Malmaison is where Napoléon I lived for a time with his beloved first wife, Joséphine.
Joséphine purchased Malmaison in 1799, while Napoléon was away in Egypt (and before he became France’s self-proclaimed emperor). The soon-to-be Empress was enamoured with English architecture and landscaping. Thus in complete contrast to the manicured gardens of other former palaces like Versailles or the Place des Vosges, she had her new home surrounded by rambling green fields, simple English flowers and shady enclaves of leafy trees. As a result, Malmaison’s grounds are far more relaxed and unstructured than those of other French châteaux.
Upon Napoléon’s return and coronation, Malmaison became the seat of the French government, along with the Tuileries, from 1800 to 1802. The château befitted this prestigious status, with its tentlike chambers, elaborate tiles and chandeliers, arched ceilings and grand proportions. Napoléon’s study, with its enormous antique desk and globe, conveys how seriously the man took his work (he spent most of his time at Malmaison in this room, sleeping only a couple of hours a night). However, the building’s importance quickly dwindled, and when Napoléon and Joséphine divorced in 1809 due to her infertility, the château served simply as Joséphine’s private home until her death five years later.
The interior of the castle is fascinating for its beauty and the traces of both ordinary and imperial life left by the Empress. Her formal chambers are stunning, but her more casual rooms, with their tiny furniture and soft pastel wallpaper, are more touching in their intimacy.
However, Malmaison’s true highlight is its never-ending garden. Always intrigued by the unusual, Joséphine had exotic animals imported to roam the estate’s fields. Gaze out her bedroom window and imagine a kangaroo bounding through a nearby meadow, or wander the grounds and envision a peacock strutting across your path. Both intimate and spectacular, Malmaison still feels like the home of a woman who loved rambling English gardens- and just happened to be an Empress.
Xx la Muséophile
Le Château de Malmaison, Avenue du Château de Malmaison 92500 Rueil-Malmaison, transport: autobus 258 from La Défense
Full price: 6.5 euros, reduced price: 5 euros, gardens only: 1.5 euros
Opening hours: October 1 to March 31, Weekdays 10am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 5.15pm, Weekends 10am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 5.45pm. April 1 to September 30, Weekdays 10am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 5.45pm, Weekends 10am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 6.15pm