WCW: Empress Josephine


The woman we know as Empress Josephine of France was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in Martinique in 1763 to French parents. When her younger sister died, she was sent to France to marry Alexandre de Beauharnais in her sister’s place. The couple had two children. During the French Revolution, Alexandre was guillotined while Josephine was imprisoned.

Michel Garnier, Joséphine de Beauharnais, 1790, Snite Museum of Art

Michel Garnier, Joséphine de Beauharnais, 1790,
Snite Museum of Art

She met the future emperor Napoleon in 1795 — it was he who gave her the nickname ‘Josephine’ — and became his mistress; the two married the next year. When Napoleon became emperor in 1804, he crowned her empress of the French. Unfortunately Josephine and Napoleon did not have children — her imprisonment may have caused her to go through menopause prematurely — and Napoleon divorced her in order to secure the succession in 1810. She lived her final years at her chateau at Malmaison and continued to have a close relationship with Napoleon.

Andrea Appiani, Portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais, c. 1808, via Wikimedia Commons

Andrea Appiani, Portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais, c. 1808, via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the L’histoire de France à travers le cinéma blog for some of the more obscure French productions!


Napoleon and Josephine (1924)

It’s listed on IMDB but without any further information — not even a cast! So this is all I’ve got.

1924 Napoleon and Josephine


Madame Sans-Gêne (1925)

An adaptation of the Léonce Perret play (with Gloria Swanson in the lead role), in which a washerwoman becomes a duchess in Napoleon’s court. Josephine is played by Suzanne Bianchetti.

1925 Madame Sans-Gêne

I think that’s Bianchetti on the left? Who’s good at recognizing Gloria Swanson’s profile?


Napoleon (1927)

An epic French silent film, with Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon and Gina Manès as Josehine.

1927 Napoleon

It’s interesting that they DIDN’T go super OTT luxe, like the previous film.

1927 Napoleon


The Fighting Eagle (1927)

“The exploits of Brigadier Gerard who helps expose Foreign Minister Talleyrand as a traitor to Napoleon,” per IMDB. Julia Faye plays Josephine.

1927 The Fighting Eagle

Coronation robes?


Napoleon’s Barber (1928)

Director John Ford’s first talkie, with Natalie Golitzen as the empress.

1928 Le Barbier de Napoléon

Lots of satin and fur!


So Ended a Great Love (1934)

Napoleon divorces Josephine (Erna Morena) in order to marry Marie-Louise.

1934 So Ended a Great Love

As someone on FB commented, “Please tell me which period this film is supposed to be set in??”


Anthony Adverse (1936)

An orphan is potentially separated from his love (Olivia de Havilland); Colleen Coloman plays Josephine.

1936 Anthony Adverse

This seems more 1820s than 1800s to me — I think it’s the puffed sleeves?


The Pearls of the Crown (1937)

French director Sacha Guitry loved to make epic historical films. This one touches on Henry VIII of England, Elizabeth I, and Napoleon. Josephine is played by Jacqueline Delubac, who also plays Mary, Queen of Scots in the same film.

1937 les Perles de la couronne

Shockingly modern! I feel like I’m looking at 1990s heroin chic!


Romance of Louisiana (1937)

A short film about the Louisiana Purchase, with Suzanne Kaaren as the empress.

1937 Romance of Louisiana

All bling, all the time!


A Royal Divorce (1938)

Napoleon and Josephine’s (Ruth Chatterton) relationship from meeting to divorce.

1938 A Royal Divorce

Now THAT is a train!

1938 A Royal Divorce

Love the turban!


Le Fabuleux destin de Désirée Clary (1942)

Another Sacha Guitry film, about the woman who was engaged to Napoleon before Josephine (Lise Delamare – La Marseillaise).

1942 le fabuleux destin de Désirée Clary

Fuzzy screenshot is fuzzy.


Pamela (1945)

An adaptation of a play about Louis XVII (son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette). Gisèle Casadesus plays Josephine.

1945 Paméla

I guess it’s a redingote look?


Désirée (1954)

The film that inspired this post — look for my review tomorrow! Another version of the story of Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons), who was briefly engaged to Napoleon (Marlon Brando). Merle Oberon plays Empress Josephine.


Those shoulder wings! Are insane!

Minus the blue eyeshadow, this is lovely.


Loves of Three Queens (1954)

Framed as a woman deciding which costume to wear to a party, the film tells the story of Helen of Troy, Genevieve of Brabant, and Empress Josephine — all four played by Hedy Lamarr.

1954 Loves of Three Queens

SUCH 1950s makeup and I love it!


Napoléon (1955)

An epic film by French director Sacha Guitry, with Michèle Morgan (Shadow of the Guillotine) as Josephine.

1954 Napoléon

The little fringe actually works!

1954 Napoléon 1954 Si Versailles m'etait conte 1954 Si Versailles m'etait conte


The Story of Mankind (1957)

An adaptation of a classic children’s book telling the history of humankind. Marie Windsor plays the empress.

1957 Story of Mankind

Feels very “sword and sandals” to me!


La caméra explore le temps: L’Exécution du Duc d’Enghien (1958)

La caméra explore le temps was a French TV show whose episodes focused on different stories from history. In this episode, about the duc d’Enghien (who was executed on charges of aiding Britain against the French), Anne Caprile plays Josephine.

1958 l'Exécution du Duc d'Enghien



Austerlitz (1960)

An epic historical film about Napoleon and the Battle of Austerlitz. Martine Carol (Lucrèce Borgia) plays Josephine.

1960 Austerlitz

The asymmetry is interesting — on the dress, not the boobs.

1960 Austerlitz

Non-clunky velvet! I am impressed!


Vénus impériale (1962)

A French-Italian movie about Napoleon’s sister, Pauline. Micheline Presle (Royal Affairs in Versailles) plays Empress Josephine.

1962 Vénus impériale

Aaaand that’s SUCH a 60’s turban.


Une journée de l’Empereur (1964)

A French TV (movie? episode of a series?) showing a day at Napoleon’s Tuileries palace. Françoise Seigner plays Josephine.

1964 Une journée de l'Empereur



Eagle in a Cage (1965)

A TV movie about Napoleon’s final years, including his imprisonment on St. Helena, with Jacqueline Bertrand as Josephine.

1965 l'Aigle en cage

Pretty sure my mom had that hairpiece in the 1960s.


Amoureuse Joséphine (1974)

A French TV movie, but that’s all I can find out! Évelyne Dandry plays Josephine.

1974 Amoureuse Joséphine

I didn’t realize Josephine had implants!

1974 Amoureuse Joséphine

I can’t see past the boobs!


Napoléon and Love (1974)

An ITV miniseries about Napoleon and his various loves, with Billie Whitelaw (Start the Revolution Without Me) as Josephine.

1974 Napoléon and Love

I do NOT get Billie Whitelaw’s appeal. At all.


The Loves and Times of Scaramouche (1976)


1976 The Loves and Times of Scaramouche



Les Grandes conjurations: L’Attentat de la rue Niçaise (1978)

Another French TV movie about Napoleon, with Evelyne Dandry reprising her role as Josephine.

1978 Les Grandes Conjurations - L'Attentat de la rue Nicaise

1970s, but pretty!


The Love Boat (1978)

Apparently one episode features actors Fernando Lamas and Michele Lee dressed as Napoleon and Josephine for a masquerade party. Too funny not to include!

1978 The Love Boat

She was on Knot’s Landing!


Joséphine ou la comédie des ambitions (1979)

A French TV miniseries focused on Josephine (Danièle Lebrun – Camille Claudel).

1979 Joséphine ou la comédie des ambitions

Ok so I have a crush on sideburns there. Clearly a prison scene.

1979 Joséphine ou la comédie des ambitions

I think that turban came from Dynasty.


Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story (1987)

Armand Assante as Napoleon and Jacqueline Bisset as Josephine, and all the cold-shoulder dresses you could ever want. Someday I will force myself to suffer through this for Snark Week glory. Maybe this year?

1987 Napoleon and Josephine- A Love Story

Loving that elastic sleeve strap!

1987 Napoleon and Josephine- A Love Story

WHY THE COLD SHOULDERS?? And the fringe!!

1987 Napoleon and Josephine- A Love Story

Oh yes, show us your demure face.


Napoleon (2002)

A big-budget, incredibly boring TV miniseries about Napoleon, with Isabella Rossellini as Josephine (as well as Gerard Depardieu as Fouché, John Malkovich as Talleyrand, and costumes by Pierre-Jean Larroque).

2002 Napoleon

Isabella Rossellini! So gorgeous!

2002 Napoleon


2002 Napoleon

The costumes are all so great, it’s too bad the series itself was a snooze-fest.


Who’s YOUR Empress Josephine on-screen?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

22 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Isabella Rossellini and the costumes are tdf. Billie Whitlaw was acceptable

    • M.E. Lawrence

      I’d like to see Rossellini as Josephine; I can imagine her enchanting a younger man.

      However, I was just pleased to see something/anything about Josephine; I’ve been reading about her since I was a teenager, and am now rereading Sandra Gulland’s trilogy, which is very well researched and equally well written. Josephine is sometimes dismissed as a mere light-weight charmer, but she was quite gutsy in her own way. (And perhaps some of her earlier biographers didn’t really consider what it would be like to spend two months in prison expecting every morning to be carted off and publicly executed. PTSD, anyone? I wonder whether any of the movies mentioned this.)

      Exquisite taste as well: https://en.musees-nationaux-malmaison.fr/chateau-malmaison/

  2. Kate D

    Now I want to watch the 2002 miniseries. Or just wear those dresses shown in your screencaps of it. All of them. So lovely.

    Maybe I’ll put it on in the background someday, just to see the costumes! And to watch Isabella Rossellini. :)

  3. Andrew Schroeder

    Napoleon and Love was boring and the costumes were underwhelming, and the characterization of Josephine was terrible. I know she was upset by the divorce but they turned her into a cringey stage-5 clinger.

    The 2002 miniseries would have been better had they cut all the boring fucking battle/campaign scenes, but I think that’s where most of their budget went. Oh well!

    • Al Don

      I would agree the battle scenes weren’t that well done and certainly don’t give a sense of scale that previous efforts did. But, making a series about Napoléon’s life and not showing warfare makes literally zero sense. The series that excise what Napoléon did for a living wildly miss the point.

  4. the Storyenthusiast

    That is definitely Gloria Swanson on the right. Also, I’ve put off watching Desiree, despite the presence of Marlon Brando. For some reason it seems cringe-worthy. Would love to read your review.

    • M.E. Lawrence

      I was just about to write, “Yes, Gloria! Right in the middle, ’cause she was the star!” G.S. does have a certain intensity, even when playing ingenues.

  5. Roxana

    I adore Desiree, despite the obvious historical problems, it’s just so PRETTY. All I can say about the costumes is they are lovely and at least the silhouette is right.

  6. mmcquown

    I saw the Abel Gance film many years ago. It was pretty impressive. I also saw the Napoleonic exhibition when it was at the Met. Seeing the real clothing, especially the uniforms and the clerical robes was fantastic. What was especially interesting was the size of some of the manikins required for the women’s dresses. They weren’t all tiny. And, of course, the cup… My other encounter with la famille Bonaparte was coming across the grave of Princess Murat in Tallahassee. I’ll go with Rosellini for Josephine.

  7. Al Don

    I felt a lot of onscreen Josephine’s were serviceable but not memorable. Isabella Rossellini was the best to my mind; actually given a character, exudes Josephine’s noteworthy charm, and has a passable resemblance to the personage. It’s a shame the rest of the series wasn’t up to that standard.

    Speaking of Joséphine ou la comédie des ambitions (1979), the actor for Napoléon in that series – Daniel Mesguich – had the most uncanny resemblance to the younger Napoléon. I used to think Albert Dieudonné was foremost in that regard until I saw Mesguich.

  8. Bea

    Honestly, the 1987 show/film looks like it was inspired by the stage production of Les Liasions Dangerouses(sp?)
    Complete with lounging man in white…. sorry, dude. Rickman did it better. ;)

  9. Damnitz

    The 2002 miniseries was so boring and the dialogues so stupid, that it did hurt me. Depardieu as Fouché was one of the greatest miscasts of the decade (just compare him with the real Minister and maybe with Claude Brausseur in “Le Souper” (1992)). However Christian Clavier was a miscast too and Isabella Rossellini stood out in the cast.

  10. Lee Jones

    I haven’t seen any of these films. However, I must admit that I am not a fan of Josephine’s.

  11. Kelly

    I like the moment in the silent Napoleon (dir. Abel Gance) when the guard at the prison calls out “Beauharnais” and both he and she step forward. The guard requires only one by that name to be executed, so the husband says something like, “My dear, you and I often disagreed, but allow me to win this argument,” and off he goes to be guillotined. Now, that’s class!

  12. Roxana

    Josephine really loved Napoleon, enough to let him divorce her so he could have an heir. And apparently he loved her too. Her name was the last word he muttered in his final delerium.

  13. Mrs. D

    I know it’s cheesy, but the 1987 Napoléon and Joséphine was one of the pieces that began my love of historical costume movies. Therefore, it will always hold a special place in my heart. That said, there is definitely a lot to snark, so snark away!

  14. kt

    The 1979 French series was great. I remember watching it on TV when I was in high school, but I wonder whether it would still hold up as I haven’t seen it since.

  15. saffireblu

    There was a movie/ mini-series supposedly about Josephine’s cousin, I believe- based on a story (people debate the truth of it) that she ended up at the Ottoman court…
    I have a vague memory of seeing the trailer a lifetime ago- I do recall F Murray Abraham was one of the sultans, & a Bond-girl was a ‘favourite’ wife or something…
    God, it kills me I can’t remember it (if you ladies found what it was, from my nonsensical blather, could you review it?) – Middle Eastern fashion in film always seems to go with the erotic fantasy, rather than the reality- you just have to look at ‘Magnificent Century’- & that was made by the country it’s representing, not a ‘Western’ interpretation, like say ‘Aladdin’ or an older film like ‘The Son of Ali Baba’ (don’t judge, my standards for historical-looking movies were very low when I was young).