'Malmaison, c'est Joséphine'. Josephine's absorption with this estate reveals sides of her nature not always apparent in the formal words of her correspondence or in the conventional patterns of her official behaviour. Here she shared with Napoleon in a never-ceasing programme of renovation and transformation. Here she could relax with her family, engage in music, conversation, and charades, plan the elaboration of her gardens and flower-beds, and enrich her collection of paintings and other art treasures. Here, surely, was another world having little in common with the overpowering rituals dominating the palaces of the Bourbons — a world displaying Josephine at her gracious best.
The rebuilding of Malmaison produced an essentially modest château — a Sans-Souci or a Petit-Trianon. The dilapidated farm-house, with its tall casement windows and high-pitched roofs, directly expressed the architectural style of the seventeenth century. The remodelling undertaken by Josephine and Napoleon was in the neo‑classical manner of the late eighteenth century, touched somewhat by the heavier splendours of le style Empire. The entrance hall, used for some elaborate functions and dinners, was of white marble, with tiled floors, graceful columns, and full-length windows overlooking the park. The Emperor's suite reflected both the style of times and his own tireless energy. The architects Percier and Fontaine were obliged to redecorate his council chamber in ten days, because Napoleon would not tolerate a longer interruption. Hence they hung striped cloths simulating a military tent and had them supported by pikes, faces, and standards, interspersing trompe l'oeil paintings of ancient armour and weapons. The library was heavy with its dark mahogany bookcases, its p286tall columns, and the Pompeian frescoes of the vaulted ceilings. The observant amateur English artist, Bertie Greatheed, who was conducted through Malmaison in 1803, reported a curious detail: Bonaparte was always given one particular chair to sit in, so he was told, 'because he has the trick of cutting and hacking the elbows all to pieces'. Yet, he went on, 'the whole looks snug and gives the idea that the mistress is a comfortable woman'.1
Josephine's rooms were lighter and more elegant than her husband's, with magnificent furniture provided by the best cabinet-makers in France and with some antique paintings on stucco sent to her by her brother-in‑law, Joseph, king of Naples. Portraits of Josephine and her children hung on the walls, as well as paintings by Girodet and Gérard in the newly emerging pre‑romantic style on subjects derived from Ossian. Now vanished but visible in contemporary drawings, the specially built gallery housed Josephine's remarkable collection of paintings. The building completely lacked any grand staircase of the type so dear to the baroque tradition. The upper floor, reached by an austerely utilitarian stairway closed off from the downstairs entrance, was devoted largely to sleeping quarters. Here the very handsome chamber of the Empress, with its canopied bed surmounted by an imperial eagle, quite outshone the quarters of the Emperor, for whom an iron campbed sufficed.
Malmaison derived its great charm from the intimate association of the interior salons with the enchanting setting of the grounds. From Napoleon's study window a toy drawbridge led across a dry moat to the lawns. From the entrance salon one could pass through the high French casement windows to a terrace, to the right of which rose the cedar of Marengo, planted in 1801 by Josephine's orders. Across the lawns were the pools upon which glided the stately swans of Malmaison. From time to time more property was acquired. In 1809, when Josephine was negotiating for the purchase of land from a rather obnoxious neighbour, Napoleon wrote to his wife from Germany as follows:
I have received your letter of the 16th, and I gather that you are well. The old woman's house is worth only 120,000 francs. They p287never will get more for it. However, I leave you free to do what you wish, since it amuses you. But, once you have bought it, don't have it pulled down simply to construct some rocky crags.2
The planning of the grounds — only a poor fragment of which remains today — was strongly influenced by the romantic English school of landscape design. In one part stood an antique temple with eight Ionic columns; in another was a statue of St Francis by the Renaissance sculptor, Germain Pilon, set in a grotto containing a funeral relief by Girardon. This was planned, as the architect, Lenoir, explained, 'so that there would be a tomb in the park following the rules governing the design of an English garden'. Beside a small pond were two marble columns brought from the ancient château of Richelieu in Poitou. From this same source came two •fourteen-foot red marble obelisks with gilt hieroglyphics, which were placed on the terrace. Statues for the façade facing the entrance court were obtained from the old royal park at Marly near Versailles. A fine statue of Neptune by Puget formed part of an elaborate fountain. Most striking, and indicative of the changing currents of taste, was the façade of a Gothic chapel of the Carmelite order, •thirty‑six feet high with remarkable sculptures, which had been dismantled and brought all the way from Metz to be installed on the top of a little rise.
Amid all this variety Napoleon as well as Josephine found refuge from the complexities of public life. The Emperor would walk, talk, work in his library, watch theatricals, and listen to the concerts that Josephine organized. He would inform himself on the mysterious subject of women's dress, engage in vigorous games of prisoners' base, play at bowls, and in general spend some of his happiest and most relaxed hours. For Josephine, Malmaison was, in simple terms, an earthly paradise.
Reared in a luxuriant tropical environment, Josephine had a passion for flowers; when given the opportunity at Malmaison she indulged this passion to the full. Admirers have written of 'Joséphine botaniste' and 'Josephine, patroness of agriculture' — pleasant tributes, but in the technical sense clearly inaccurate. Not scientific interest, surely, but genuine aesthetic pleasure p288led Josephine into this most delightful aspect of her activities.
The collection of flowers and plants began to take shape almost as soon as Josephine acquired Malmaison. Her family sent her seeds of various kinds from the West Indies. The exotic voyages of the eighteenth century had resulted in the bringing back of strange new plant specimens to Europe, many of which found a welcome home in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and the royal gardens at Kew in England. As early as July 1801, Bonaparte wrote to his wife saying that he had received some plants from London for her, and in that same year Josephine was engaged in some correspondence with the French plenipotentiary at London to see if the king of England could be persuaded to send her some plants from 'son beau jardin de Kew'.
When the great German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, returned from America in 1804 with thousands of specimens, one of his associates was the French botanist, Aimé Bonpland, who was destined to play a larger role at Malmaison. Humboldt's expedition provided Josephine with many plants, among them mimosa, heliotropes, cassias, and lobelias. Bonpland was in touch with Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of England, with whom he exchanged specimens, as he did with the horticulturists at Kew and those at the University of Glasgow. Ambassadors and travellers abroad were encouraged to send home rare specimens, with the result that figures came in from countries all over Europe, as well as from points as far distant as Morocco, Guiana, Mexico, and the Cape of Good Hope. During the campaign of 1809 Napoleon sent Josephine eight hundred plants and a great variety of seeds from Schoenbrunn, and other donations followed.
Between 1804 and 1814 it has been stated that 184 new species flowered for the first time at Malmaison. Its gardeners were responsible for introducing to France many plants, shrubs, and trees that are now commonplace: eucalyptus, hibiscus, phlox, cactuses, rhododendrons, dahlias, double jacinthas, and rare tulips. As in other respects Josephine was prodigal, willingly spending as much as three thousand francs on a rare p289bulb and constantly expanding the area devoted to cultivation.
The pink climbing rose, the Souvenir de la Malmaison, that is so often associated with Josephine was not developed until 1840. Roses did not at first much interest her, nor were they very popular in eighteenth-century France, coming after tulips, hyacinths, and carnations in general interest. On the advice of some of Josephine's botanists, many specimens of roses were nevertheless assembled in a kind of experimental garden where ultimately nearly two hundred varieties could be seen. Yet a rose garden in the true sense did not exist until later, and the famous rose paintings, so closely link with her memory, were not prepared until after her death.
Josephine's first head gardener was an Englishman, Howatson, whom Napoleon strongly disliked because of his policy, hardly surprising, of planning informal English gardens everywhere. He was quickly replaced by a French expert, Morel, who, alas, turned out to be equally unsatisfactory. Moreover, he was disposed to go even further afield than Howatson for his models. Morel, it developed, had written not only The Art of Gardens According to Nature, but also The Art of Constructing Gardens According to the Chinese. Disagreements continued, for Josephine protested against the desires of her husband and the architect, Fontaine, both of whom preferred gardens laid out, like the Tuileries, in formal, classical style. Following Morel, the distinguished botanist, Mirbel, acted as supervisor of gardens. He too created problems. He became the bête noire of Napoleon, largely because of his ineradicable tendency to spend more than his master had authorized. One year's planting came to double what had been stipulated. The great greenhouse, which was supposed to cost 40,000 francs, actually cost 192,000 francs. Mirbel, moreover, chose to live in considerable state; he had his private quarters at Malmaison, and he drove abroad with his own horses and cabriolet. In the Emperor's view this was too much. When dismissal came, Mirbel quickly found a botanist's paradise as intendant of properties to Louis Bonaparte, now king of Holland. One suspects that he obtained this post because of an appeal by Josephine to Hortense.
p290 The biggest hot‑house at Malmaison was an impressive structure generally comparable to those at Kew and Schoenbrunn and in addition possessing features that must have been unique. In the centre of the huge glass edifice was a salon having an open portico looking forth on the great masses of flowers. Illustrations show that this portico was held up by two columns of coloured marble, •twelve feet high, with gilded bases and capitals. The salon, which had a ceiling of Pompeian designs, was said to have been in exquisite taste, with rich rugs, statuary, vases, and handsome furniture all decorated in the antique style.
Josephine, for whom technical scholarship was a distant world, was clever enough to take into her service distinguished figures in the world of botany. Under her sponsorship and with her financial help their contributions were substantial. Her interest was genuine, if we may believe the observant Bertie Greatheed, who gives us the following in one breathless sentence: 'Bonaparte always sleeps with his wife: in her dressing-room were four or five books on botany: the only ones I saw in the house.'3 Josephine has impressive precedents in making her passion for the natural beauty of flowers and gardens a reason for the encouragement of botanical publications. Catherine the Great of Russia had sponsored the Flora Rosica of Pallas in 1784, and the Hapsburgs had similarly sponsored the famous Descriptions des plantes les plus rares des jardins de Schoenbrunn in 1797. Mirbel, Ventenat, and Bonpland provided worthy equivalents.
Charles-François Brisseau de Mirbel served as chief botanist and librarian between 1803 and 1806. He carried on a wide correspondence, drew up a manuscript catalogue, now lost, of the plants at Malmaison, and was responsible for the enlargement of Josephine's collection. Mirbel also engaged another botanist, Félix Delahaye, who had been to the South Seas; though him many rare plants were acquired.
A more famous name was that of Etienne Pierre Ventenat, a distinguished botanist who was employed by Josephine to prepare scientific descriptions of the various plants that Mirbel p291had secured and who was given the title, 'Botanist to Her Majesty'. In 1803 and 1804 appeared the two folio volumes, Jardin de la Malmaison, in which Ventenat gave detailed descriptions of more than two hundred plants. Surely Josephine was entitled to his eloquent dedication:
You have gathered around you the rarest plants growing on French soil. Some, indeed, which never before had left the deserts of Arabia or the burning sands of Egypt have been domesticated through your care. Now, regularly classified, they offer to us as we inspect them in the beautiful gardens of Malmaison an impressive reminder of the conquests of your illustrious husband and a most pleasant evidence of the studies you have pursued in your leisure hours. . . . Deign to accept the tribute of a work undertaken at your orders.'4
Aimé Bonpland, who had accompanied Alexander von Humboldt on his great scientific journey through South America, became in 1809 a kind of intendant or supervisor, making new acquisitions, buying scientific works for the library, and sending valuable plants to various parts of France. Napoleon disliked him, as he did most of Josephine's botanists, and dismissed him abruptly in October for the crime of having moved a shrub without having first obtained the imperial authorization. Josephine, nevertheless, managed to get him back and retained him after her divorce for important work at Malmaison and later at her estate of Navarre. In 1813 Bonpland published his Descriptions des plantes rares cultivées à Malmaison, with sixty-four colour plates by Redouté, a continuation of the two folios prepared by Ventenat and Redouté ten years before and a work of genuine scientific and artistic importance.
This account of the progress of botanical studies in France leads directly to Josephine's association with the distinguished Franco-Belgian painter, Pierre-Joseph Redouté. This 'Raphael of the flowers', who had been trained in the studios of the brilliant Dutch floral artist, Van Spaendonck, earlier had been flower painter and drawing master to Marie Antoinette. According to a touching tradition, in 1792 he was summoned to the prison of the Temple by the royal family to watch and p292to paint the momentary blossoming of a cactus they had long treasured. Redouté could be called a veritable Talleyrand of the arts, for in addition to serving Marie Antoinette he served Josephine and subsequently various members of the restored Bourbon dynasty. Under the Revolution Redouté had continued to develop his remarkable artistic skill and to acquire through his work at the Museum of Natural History an acute knowledge of the structure of plants. In 1801 he began work on the illustrations for the new edition of Duhamel du Monceau's classic Traité des arbres et des arbustes, a magnificently illustrated set of seven folio volumes not completed until 1819. The first volume of this 'Nouveau Duhamel' was dedicated to Madame Bonaparte, the next four to the Empress Josephine.
Redouté's first service to Josephine was to help with the interior decorations of Malmaison. He was paid 7,200 francs for a series of water-colours on vellum to be placed in Josephine's bedroom. Redouté also was paid 4,500 francs for decorations in the principal greenhouse. In the course of his work he developed his own techniques for reproducing plates in colour, notably in the two volumes of the Jardin de la Malmaison. What gives these plates their incomparable quality is the combination of meticulous exactness in detail with a true artist's feeling for colour and form. Redouté added to his fame by the illustrations for the eight volumes of Liliaceae which appeared between 1812 and 1816. Josephine contributed generously to the publication of these volumes: her initial subscriptions amounted to more than 20,000 francs, and she spent nearly 25,000 francs in purchasing many of Redouté's original drawings. Josephine never saw his most famous work, Les Roses, which appeared between 1817 and 1824 in thirty parts and six plates each. At this time the Napoleonic legend was taking shape, and those who associated the memories of Josephine with the greatness of imperial France, could find in the beauty of Redouté's plates some symbol of what they believed Josephine to have been.
Malmaison also boasted of a zoo, or menagerie. Josephine found it easy to encourage a custom whereby ships' captains p293returning from distant lands brought gifts for the wife of the new master of France. As a consequence hardly a ship touched French shores that did not bring some beast, bird, or reptile for Josephine. A list of animals brought into Le Havre in June 1803 by the ships Portefaix and Porteuse includes an antilope, a gnu, a zebra, a falcon, five parrots, various other tropical birds, and seventeen assorted tortoises. Josephine spent five hundred francs to transport a chamois from Switzerland, and nearly three hundred francs to transport a seal from the coast. Eagles, gazelles, monkeys, kangaroos, ostriches, flying squirrels, Swiss cows (for which Swiss cowherds and milkmaids were suitably attired and housed) added to her collection. The zoo was hardly scientific. It boasted a female orang-outang that slept in camisole and chemise, ate with a knife and fork, and knew how to curtsey. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the rue du Bac Talleyrand had been given a small monkey by Denon, the famous archaeologist. This remarkable animal had learned to seal dispatches with wax. One might guess that the simian diplomat may well have made trouble for the ministry, for when Josephine asked to have the monkey as a gift for her menagerie, Talleyrand promptly obliged.
The only suggestion of any scientific interest in this astonishing hodgepodge lies in Josephine's flock of five hundred prize merino sheep. This flock, which was handled under expert direction, was an annual source of young rams for French farmers and gives Josephine her slight claim to be regarded as a patroness of agriculture.
One of the most tantalizing aspects of Josephine's interest in the arts lies in her famous gallery of paintings, now dispersed. Out of what was clearly an undisciplined passion for collecting grew a truly extraordinary collection, which, according to the Catalogue printed in Paris in 1811, included most of the famous names in the history of continental European painting from Hans Memling to David.* Had it been preserved intact it p294could have counted as one of the great European collections. These paintings, to be sure, did not please the ever-articulate Bertie Greatheed. 'The works of art,' he wrote smugly, 'convince me that Bonaparte does not know one bit about the matter. There are very few of any merit, and they are placed at haphazard, whenever they happen to suit as furniture, among indifferent, bad, and execrable.'5 Whatever truth there may have been in Greatheed's criticism of their arrangement, his general estimate of the paintings was shockingly unfair.
One of the early dispatches that Napoleon sent back from Italy in 1796 had announced the forwarding of a spectacular list of art treasures as the spoils of war. In this list occur the names of , Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian, Raphael, and Veronese. Some of these paintings ultimately found a place in Josephine's collection at Malmaison. Throughout the years the flow of such treasures continued. Generals and administrators, knowing her interest, were quick to send works of art to her, chiefly from Italy and Belgium. After the battle of Jena, General Lagrange sent Josephine fifty paintings that a French military patrol had found stored in a forest cottage. They were from the gallery of the elector of Hesse Cassel and included four small paintings by Claude Lorrain and a 'Descent from the Cross' by Rembrandt.
Though occasionally Josephine would commission a purchase, the records do not show any very large sums spent in this way. In 1806, for example, she bought Metsu's 'Weighers of Gold' at Bruges for 1,800 francs. The exception would be contemporary works by genre painters and portraitists, for Josephine was always eager to have paintings of herself. The miniaturists also were regularly kept busy. Louis-Bertin Pérant, then much in vogue, was her favourite; since he received a total of 28,580 francs for miniatures probably costing about 500 francs apiece, he can be estimated to be responsible for at least fifty of these charming items. The total of other miniatures mounted into the hundreds.
Josephine owned paintings by most of the great Renaissance artists, among them Giovanni Bellini, Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Sarto, Giorgione, and Perugino. The Catalogue of 1811 p295shows three Raphaels, four small Leonardos, four Titians, and two canvases by Veronese. She owned paintings by Murillo, Van Dyke, Holbein, and Dürer. She had three Rembrandts and three Rubens. The names of the Flemish and Dutch painters constitute a veritable roster of famous artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: among them were Cuijp, Dow, De Hooch, Jordaens, Metsu, Ostade, Teniers, Ruysdael, and Ter Borch. The seventeenth-century Paul Potter, painter of cows, sheep, and quiet landscapes, was a great favourite, Josephine having at least sixteen examples of his work, among them 'La Vache qui Pisse'. Some of the Dutch and Flemish canvases had been bought by Josephine during her tour in 1803, others came from the museum at Cassel. The impressive French list included works by Champaigne, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Greuze, Nattier, Gérard, Vernet, Regnault, and David. Among the many portraits of contemporaries was a crayon drawing of Napoleon at Malmaison by Isabey. Redouté's eight water-colours on vellum are also listed.
Josephine's collection had an extraordinarily wide scope, yet rather than having a true catholicity of taste or valuing most highly the Rembrandts, the Poussins, and the Ruysdaels of her collection, she seems to have been chiefly devoted to the placid cows and the bucolic settings of Paul Potter and to the sentimentalized scenes of the style troubadour. She was not seriously and technically interested in the work of such great contemporaries as David, Gérard, Gros, Girodet, and Ingres, even though Gros was an old acquaintance whom she had presented to Bonaparte in 1796, and Gérard painted her at least eight times. Redouté, to be sure, she knew well and she could have chosen no greater painter of flowers. Her miniaturists were among the best of the epoch. She had much sympathy for Prud'hon, the great precursor of Delacroix and Géricault, whose painting of her reclining in the park at Malmaison is one of the best known of all the Josephine portraits. Yet the true direction of her taste is seen in her fondness for examples of the style troubadour — the fashion then current that found its subjects in p296the romantic idealizing of a medieval past. Duperreux's 'View of the Valley of Roncevaux and the Tomb of Roland', Forbin's 'Ossian Chanting his Poems', and Richard Fleuri's 'Farewell of Charles VII to Agnes Sorel', are characteristic examples of her preference. No less than seven of Fleuri's paintings, purchased at a cost of 7,000 francs apiece, were hung at Malmaison.
Prudhon's portrait of Josephine
Painting in the public domain.
Josephine had the hoarding instincts of a collector but followed no rational plan. Her taste extended into many fields. She was very fond of small sculptures, cameos, medallions, and ivory carvings, buying much from Paris dealers. The list also includes larger sculptures, busts by Chaudet, Bosio, and Chinard, as well as statues by the ultra-fashionable Canova. There is a record of her paying 70,000 francs for Italian mosaics. She also bought ceramics and porcelain, Etruscan vases, ancient armour, and miscellaneous objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The rooms at Malmaison soon proved inadequate for Josephine's impressive collection. Hence her architects constructed in 1809 a gallery •nearly a hundred feet long, opening from her music room. Now totally disappeared, it can be seen today only as a tantalizing glimpse in a contemporary painting of the music room. The gallery had some striking features, combining skylights (an innovation first employed at the Louvre in 1803) with a generally gothic décor. It was most comfortably equipped. Two large carved and gilded armchairs with footstools (presumably for the Emperor and Empress) were upholstered in green velvet; thirty smaller cross-legged chairs were covered in red morocco; the hangings were of white silk. Twelve console tables displayed Josephine's varied assortment of art objects. One is hardly surprised, therefore, that the total bills for this splendid setting came to 189,138 francs.
Napoleon rather than Josephine was responsible for the collection of books in the library. She bought occasional works on painting and botany and she subsidized the great folios produced by her botanical experts. In general, however, her expenditures in this realm were negligible; the accounts show as little as 125 francs spent by her in one year and 1,300 francs in another. Napoleon's own substantial collection has vanished, p297and the handsomely bound volumes at Malmaison today have been assembled from other sources, including the library of Marie Louise.
Ever since the days of the refurnishing at the rue Chantereine Josephine had been a generous patron of Paris cabinet makers. A console of hers from the Tuileries is now in the Louvre. At Malmaison one can still see the magnificent dressing case of inlaid woods, having a miniature of the Emperor by Vigneux and silver-gilt fittings, mounted with ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of‑pearl, and crystal. Felix Rémond made it at Paris in 1806; he submitted a bill for 6,000 francs; and the Emperor, apparently not thinking the bill excessive, ordered it paid.
Among the curiosities of Malmaison was an elegant boat or barge, •eighteen feet long, presented to Josephine by the prefect of police in the name of the city of Paris. The barge was put in the near‑by stream, but since its length prevented it from turning, it proved useless and had to be moored near by in a small pond. Josephine, evidently intrigued, then ordered a small craft half the size to be made by her builder, Magin. The little boat, for which the builder was still asking payment in 1818, was ornamented with fine paintings, had cushions of horsehair fringed with gold lace, an embroidered flag, and a waterproof cover. One can only hope that Josephine enjoyed it.
In 1815 Alexander I of Russia paid what for those times was the enormous sum of 940,000 francs for the paintings at Malmaison that had once belonged to the elector of Hesse Cassel. In 1829 Hortense sold thirty more paintings to St Petersburg for 180,000 francs. Some paintings were sold by the heirs to the Louvre; others went to individual buyers; Eugène took many works with him to Munich; Hortense kept some at Arenenberg. A further sale, the catalogue of which may be seen in the British Museum, took place at Malmaison on 24 March 1819. In contrast to the magnificent haul made by Alexander, this catalogue included the typical and heterogeneous remainders of an estate, interesting chiefly because of their associations with Josephine. Only three pictures were listed. p298The sale included many antique busts and statues — Juno, Diana, Antinous, Alexander Severus, and Augustus. The catalogue offered Etruscan vases, granite columns, mosaic-topped tables, cases, boxes, dresses, shawls, collars, laces, and feathers. Among the strangest items were a mummy's hand, a mummy's head, an entire mummy (male), and another (female) — last reminders of the Egyptian expedition of 1798.
The process of dispersal continued. Letters written by Napoleon to Josephine in the first days of the Italian campaign of 1796 were found in a closet by a valet and sold to a Polish nobleman. A French traveller at Calcutta noted in 1821 the series of water-colours on vellum that Redouté had painted for Josephine's bedroom. Visitors to the Hermitage at St Petersburg could in time enjoy paintings once at Malmaison. Some of Josephine's silver is now in a ski lodge in the Canadian Laurentians. Other treasures were sold in Brazil. Malmaison itself suffered a sorry dilapidation, followed by an equally sorry pseudo-restoration at the hands of Napoleon III. Only in the twentieth century has a splendid rehabilitation made it possible to recapture the tangible evidence of the Malmaison and the Josephine that once were.
1 B. Greatheed, An Englishman in Paris (London, 1953), p136.
2 Bourgeat, p182.
3 Greatheed, An Englishman in Paris, p136.
* Catalogue des tableaux de sa majesté l'impératrice Joséphine dans la galerie et appartements de son palais de Malmaison, Paris, 4o, 1811.
4 E. P. Ventenat, Jardin de la Malmaison (Paris, 1803), I, dedication.
5 Greatheed, An Englishman in Paris, p136.
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