When asked to do an illustrated biographical piece, on the life of Josephine Bonaparte, one of the first places that I checked for easily accessible research materiel was on BBC radio archives, as they often have a great deal of resources to look though. Being a fairly avid radio four listener (contrary to their usual demographic) , I knew that at the very least, there would likely to an episode of ‘Great Lives’ about the life and times of Josephine. As always, it didn’t disappoint.
‘Great Lives’ is a biographical series in which guests choose someone who has inspired their lives. The show is a great starting resource for any biographical piece, as the guests and the researchers that feature on the show are always great authorities on the lives of the featured historical figure and they’re enthusiasm for the lives of these figures usually means that they know facts about them and their lives that would otherwise be considered to trivial for the history books. An example of this would be the an interesting detail that when Josephine arrived in France, to marry Alexander de Beauharnais, she took with her a suitcase filled with her favourite dolls, illustrating just how much of a child She was when she was sent away from home to marry.
In addition to this, the podcast also gave me a much more clearer look into Josephine’s adult life before Napoleon, for example; her many affairs with various senior members of the rebellion and even the debouched parties that she and, her then lover, Paul Barras (one of five dictators who controlled the French republic after the execution of Louis XVI). This particular detail lead me to an illustration by James Gillray (English caricaturist and printmaker famous for his etched political and social satires), of Theresa and Josephine dancing naked for Barras behind a transparent curtain, with what looks like Napoleon looking in from the side:
This work differs so much from the many oil paintings that will fill most google searches, when looking for images of Josephine herself, and also shows a much different side of her than shown in any of these paintings. However, it is of course highly doubtful that the illustration has much actual accuracy; simply because it is likely that Gillray had never met Josephine or seen anything other than paintings of her and Theresa. Also, while it is true that it was Barras and Theresa whom introduced Josephine to Napoleon, I’m sure he would not have been as guest at one of Barras’ ‘parties’; as prior to meeting Josephine, he was woefully inexperienced and socially inept.
Though I’m sure it gave me a somewhat sugar coated view, using this podcast was a starting point for my research into Josephine, and was extremely useful in giving me good first impression of her character, as both a person and as an influential figure. It also opened up a new direction in which to take my illustration, as Gillray offers a much more interesting approach to the likeness of Josephine than the countless oil paintings had previously offered.