The Hôtel de Beauharnais is rich in memories of the Napoleonic Empire period. For visitors, it recalls the apogee of this leader who subjugated much of Europe.
Its décor illustrates the glamour of a style that would be imitated by architects and artists at courts throughout Europe – in Berlin, Stuttgart, Kassel, Munich, Milan, Madrid, Saint Petersburg, The Hague, and Stockholm. The elegance of the Empire style particularly fascinated German courts.
That the culture they were appropriating came from their political enemy hardly mattered, especially since Napoleon had placed members of his family in politically important positions throughout Europe and had married his sisters to members of Europe’s highest nobility. When the king of Prussia stayed at the Hôtel de Beauharnais in 1814 and 1815 for the negotiations that followed Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, it is unlikely that he felt disoriented.
The renovation of his châteaux had made him familiar with what was then the most modern style in Europe. That being said, he may well have found the magnificence of the interiors at the Beauharnais a little too luxurious for his liking. Still, the fact that the king acquired this mansion in 1818 suggests that he also recognized the outstanding quality of its décor and furnishings.
The king had been spending time in Paris ever since 1815, and it seemed logical to invest in a permanent residence that might be used for a Prussian legation, and later as an embassy.
Admittedly, he could have bought a less lavish “palace,” but no doubt his decision was influenced by the Duke of Wellington’s decision to acquire the former home of Pauline Borghese, the Hôtel de Charost on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in 1814. It was important that Prussia need not blush at comparison with that prestigious residence. In this regard, Friedrich Wilhelm’s choice of the Hôtel de Beauharnais can be interpreted as a political and cultural gesture. For one thing, it made the king the owner of one of the most prestigious houses in the heart of Paris, one that could worthily represent Prussia in the eyes of all. But also, he could be associated with the exemplary modernity of its decoration.
The pride of owning this masterpiece of Empire-period art and culture remains strong even today. The fact that many objects, items of furniture, bronze fittings, clocks, and chandeliers that were part of the Hôtel de Beauharnais’s original decoration are constantly being borrowed for exhibitions about the Empire period clearly demonstrates its value.
A model building preserved
The Hôtel de Beauharnais is a pre-eminent model, for not only has this artistic treasure been conserved, it has also been kept alive, as the residence of the German ambassador to France, and as a place that is open to visitors. The Hôtel de Beauharnais represents the apogee of the Empire style at its most modern.
The visitor’s first reaction here is no doubt one of surprise at the richness of this lavish interior. We are struck by the luxury of the fabrics, the abundant gold, and the remarkable vivacity of the colours.
The fact is that a ceremonial interior created in around 1800 is very different from the contemporary interiors that we are used to. Likewise, the positioning of the luxurious original furniture in the various drawing rooms is some way from the modern idea of comfort. It is certainly true that in the Empire period the social rules and etiquette behind the fact of rising to one’s feet or sitting were different from today’s. However, the occupants of a place such as this must respect the artistic and social context of its creation and help visitors perceive this reality.
Over the centuries, the Hôtel de Beauharnais has acquired a rich and complex history. The building represents its owners – Eugène de Beauharnais, the king of Prussia, the German empire, and the Federal German Republic – and since its acquisition by Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia in 1818 it has been at the heart of diplomatic relations between Prussia, and later unified Germany, and France.
During this period the Hôtel de Beauharnais witnessed discord that led to the most terrible of wars, but also powerful moments of reconciliation, like the one cemented by de Gaulle and Adenauer after the Second World War. During those two centuries the hôtel’s artistic prestige was a political asset of no small importance.
Today, visitors can still see the modifications made after Napoleon’s days, but they will nevertheless recognize an ensemble that has the characteristics of the Empire period. By comparing what remained of the original decoration with the results of archaeological and documentary studies it was possible to reconstitute this total artwork in the same spirit as its decoration in the day of Eugène de Beauharnais and Napoleon.