The renovation work
When Bonaparte and Joséphine took ownership of the Château de Malmaison in 1799, they decided to carry out major renovation work. Indeed, they felt that the building, which was constructed around 1610 and which had been extended for the first time in 1686 before having two wings added to the courtyard in 1780, was rather outdated. They commissioned the young architects Percier and Fontaine for the work, who initially proposed to replace the old residence with a neo-classical villa. The two men knew each other well, having spent a long time in Rome together studying the city's antique monuments. They divided the work between them, Percier designing the drawings which were often inspired by portfolios of drawings done in Italy, and Fontaine overseeing the construction work. Anxious to avoid any unnecessary expenditure, the First Consul ordered them to confine their efforts to restoring the existing château.
On the ground floor, they began work on the vestibule: rather than replacing two broken beams on the first floor, they created supports using four wooden posts transformed into stucco columns which gave the room the appearance of the atrium of a Roman villa. To allow the vestibule to be opened out onto the adjoining rooms during receptions, a mechanism was installed enabling the mirrors to slide into the walls thus transforming the billiards room and dining room into reception halls, and the same black-and-white tiled floor was laid throughout to create a uniform effect. This decision called for the addition of a tent-shaped building designed by the architects in order to accommodate the servants who were stationed at the entrance to the rooms to greet visitors. In the pavilions at either end, two sets of three small rooms were modified to create larger rooms: in the north, the music room which would later be extended to include a gallery to display painting collections; and in the south, the library in which the architects concealed the flues of the kitchen’s chimneys using mahogany columns connected by mirrors. The dining room, which was already listed in the inventory in 1703, was extended by the addition of a semi-circular section and thereafter featured six windows instead of four.
On the first floor, the apartment of the First Consul and Madame Bonaparte was installed in the north pavilion and two small staircases were created. Bonaparte subsequently had his chamber moved to the south wing, above the library and the council chamber to provide easy access when he needed to work. All this work had seriously weakened the walls of the château façade however, and the architects were forced to use heavy buttresses to hold them up, which were then decorated with statues taken from the gardens of Marly in order to render the effect less severe. Outside the château they built a small theatre which was completed in under a month in the spring of 1802. The modest-sized theatre could seat 200 to 300 spectators and was to be the setting for numerous productions. The farm adjacent to the château was transformed into a kitchen block since the previous kitchens, located in the cellar, were no longer sufficient. Percier and Fontaine's work at Malmaison received the approval of Bonaparte, who was known for his harsh judgements, and marked a decisive moment in their career. Nonetheless their designs were partially modified from 1810 onwards by Berthault, the new architect appointed by Joséphine, then furthers so over the course of the 19th Century.
The interior decor
The linear and graceful style that characterises the interior decor of the Château de Malmaison is directly influenced by 18th century art but also features the innovative and visionary mark of the two architects Percier and Fontaine. Their style, created from a combination of Antiquity and Renaissance which they both immersed themselves in on their trip to Rome, is reflected in this old residence which became the archetype of consular style. There are no shortage of archaeological and historical references: Doric pilasters and stucco columns in the vestibule, decorative motifs inspired by Roman and Pompeian paintings on the library ceiling and in the dining room, and military trophies for bravery painted on the doors of the council chamber. While the mahogany arcs and columns in the library echo the Palladian-style motifs, the painted ceiling alludes to the literary authors whose works Bonaparte appreciated, and the council chamber with its fabric walls supported by fasces and pikes brings to mind the army tents used to decorate parks in Europe.
Bonaparte's impatience and tastes forced the architects to find solutions to renovate the decoration quickly and at little cost; The simplicity of the layout of Malmaison did not require the types of rich fabrics that were used at Fontainebleau and Compiègne: The striped army-style fabric used to decorate the council chamber and the green velvet covering the mahogany panelling in the salon pointed to the interior of the home of a wealthy individual. On the first floor, the Consul's chamber features a decorative painted frieze based on drawings by Percier. The walls underneath are covered with fabric whereas most of the chambers are wallpapered as evidenced by the descriptions in the 1814 inventory. Their motifs are unknown, but the great craftsmen of the time like Réveillon and Dufour displayed great technical and artistic skills. The beautiful wallpapers were sometimes imitations of silk with neo-classical motifs or rich fabrics representing trophies and were reserved the walls of the greatest homes. All of the curtains are made from embroidered muslin.
The subsequent modifications were carried out by the architect Berthault, who arrived at Malmaison in 1805 and remained in Joséphine's service until her death in 1814. The salon was refitted with an elegant white and gold decor featuring six medallions painted by Etienne-Jean Delécluze which illustrated the lovers Daphnis and Chloé. The billiards room was repainted in the tones of green and Egyptian earth which can be seen today, and a few decorative additions were applied to the windows in the dining room. The most significant transformation was that of Joséphine's bedchamber, which was given the shape of an almost circular tent thanks to a red sheet enhanced with golden embroidery that was hung on the walls. The ceiling was covered in a painting by Blondel representing Juno on his chariot, and the walls were decorated with numerous mirrors as well as eight flower paintings by Redouté. Berthault also refurnished the dressing room where Joséphine kept her clothes, just above her chamber. The wardrobes contained all sorts of garments; dresses, cashmere shawls, corsets, stocking, hats, gloves and shoes, all frequently replaced.
The furniture, designed by Percier, was made by the Jacob brothers who had already carried out work for Joséphine in her manor house on Rue de la Victoire. The famous marquetry craftsman Biennais produced small and sophisticated pieces of furniture that she was particular fond of: travel sets, an overbed table, a jewellery box and a paperweight, which were brought to Malmaison.
In addition to this matching ensemble which is still visible at the château today, there were also bouquets of flowers and bird cages in the vestibule whose chirping caught visitors by surprise.
Château de Malmaison