Monday, August 30, 2010

Raucous Royal of the Month: Juliette Recamier

"a bewitching face, the easiest of figures; she affected the most elegant simplicity." 

When raven haired Jeanne Francoise Julie Adelaide Recamier entered a room she was like a scratching post covered with catnip. Wherever she went...the claws came out. In one Paris reception, reigning society queen, Mme. Talien, threw off her shawl in a huff  to show off her splendid figure and long arms. Mme. Recamier even came to the attention of Marie Antoinette who was so taken with her beauty that she compared her side by side to Madame Royale. (every teenage girl's nightmare)

By the turn of the 19th century, nothing was more coveted than an invitation to Mme. Recamier's literary salon. Known as "Juliette," fashionistas flocked to her soirees to admire her furniture and elegant dresses. Men fell at her feet to worship her "betwitching face" unadorned with face paint. Recamier soon attracted the attention of notorious rake, Lucien Bonaparte who wrote her passionate love letters exclaiming, "Oh Juliette, life without love is but a long sleep...Happy the mortal who shall become the friend of your heart!" Add to her list of admirers, Josephine Bonaparte's son, Eugene Beauharnais who took a ring from her and then begged, "be good enough, Madame, to soften the lot of him who is sincerely attached to you." 

Considering the scandal that surrounded her upbringing, it is surprising that Recamier was so admired as the beacon of virtue. Rumors abounded that her husband was actually her father. Many of her recent biographers have speculated that her father married her to name her his heir and protect her fortune from the upheaval of Revolutionary Paris. 

Oddly, Recamier remained a safe distance from most of her admirers with the exception of the Prince Auguste of Prussia who she fell passionately in love with and became the only man "who ever made her heart beat". The upheaval in France and her own marital ties kept her from being with her love. Recamier's husband did agree to a divorce so that she could marry Prince Auguste, but Juliette was so afraid of the scandal that would follow that she eventually distanced herself from Auguste. Still heartbroken, Recamier considered fixing herself an opium pill cocktail, but eventually relegated her Prince to her long list of male friends.

You're fired Jacques-Louis David
As the reigning beauty throughout Paris, she became one of the models for The Three Graces and commissioned her portrait to be painted by Jacques-Louis David. Unfortunately, when Madame Recamier saw her portrait she was not pleased and promptly fired David from the commission.

Biographers have long speculated on why David was fired. Some have said it was due to the inordinately long time he took to complete the commission. The most obvious answer is because David took some artistic liberties with how he represented her. He had done the unthinkable. He had messed with her hair. Instead of painting her legendary, dark siren locks cascading down her back, he painted a much lighter shade to contrast with his darker background and match his artistic vision of the neoclassical beauty. (The Greeks really loved their blondes). David never finished the painting, but it was still admired throughout Paris. The sofa that Madame Recamier reclines on is even called a recamier today.
It does look like the poor girl was shorn by the executioner before sitting for this painting. You have to wonder if David did this on purpose?

After firing David, Recamier hired his student Francois Gerard to paint her portrait with less artistic license. 

Which painting do you like better? 
I have to agree with Recamier. Gerard's painting is far more flattering to the sitter. Besides, even if you are Jacques-Louis David, you just don't mess with a woman's hair.

Mme. Recamier experienced financial hardship after Napoleon's policies bankrupted her husband. She later became featured in her benefactor, Madame de Stael's novel Corinne. Sadly, Juliette went blind in her final years and died at the age of 71 of cholera. 

I am really not doing Juliette justice with this cursory biography, (her life is full of raucous scandal!) but Lucy Moore covers Juliette Recamier in her fabulous book Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France.  You can even get this one at the bargain price over at amazon. See link below.

Sources and Further Reading:
Putnam's magazine: an illustrated monthly of literature, art and life, Volume 1
Austrian, Delia. The Life of Juliette Recamier, BiblioLife, 2010
Moore, Lucy.Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, Harper Perennial, 2008.


Unknown said...

Amazing Post!! I must admit, I've always loved that portrait by David, there is something fragile and beautiful about it.

Kind up the great work!

Amy DeTrempe said...

Great post. I love learning more about the historical people from this era.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for this! I've been interested in Juliette since I read Catherine Delors book For the King.

Stella da Genova said...

Lovely portraits, both!
Yes, her hair looks suspiciously bald in some areas. But, the David is exquisitely done. Just for that - though the artist has otherwise very skillfully idealized the sitter - I would have fired him, too!

My favorite is the Gerard because I believe that, although detail and drama are important, it is so much more crucial to capture the spirit and personality of the sitter. from what I've read about her in your blog post, it would seem that Gerard has succeeded in doing so!

- Brooke

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I'm with Brooke. While the David portrait is exceptional and elegant, the Gerard portrait seems to capture her spirit and is likelier closer to her true appearance based on your description of her.

Also, I just wanna say how much I enjoyed the piece. Your writing cracked me up. My favorite lines: "like a scratching post covered in catnip" (LOL) and this one: "Besides, even if you are Jacques-Louis David, you just don't mess with a woman's hair." Truer words were never spoken!

Jenny Girl said...

Excellent post indeed! What a beautiful woman and an amazing life. The second portrait is much much better.

Bearded Lady said...

I do love David but I have to agree with everyone, the second portrait really captures her essence. I love the red drape behind her too. There is something much happier about this painting. (David wasn't exactly a cheery guy.)

Audra said...

Great post -- so sad she never married her love! I recognize her portrait but didn't know who she was, so I'm pleased to learn more!

camille said...

Hello from Paris!
Just though you might like to know that there’s a new hotel opening in Paris called La Belle Juliette, in honour of the extraordinary Juliette Récamier.
Even though I work for the hotel, I have to say objectively that it really is beautiful. There are unusual objects and original etchings of Juliette on the walls of the various rooms, and even a library of antique books available for everyone to read.
Each room illustrates a moment of Juliette’s life, and through them I’ve learned about Mme de Stael, her greatest friend, and Chateaubriand, her greatest love. One floor is based around the time Juliette spent in Italy, and the top floor - called ‘les causeries’ - evokes her literary salons that doubled as a source of news and gossip for Parisian society.
The hotel is in the Saint Germain area of Paris, known for its links with great literary figures, and it opens on 15th January 2011. The website has some great images of both Juliette and the hotel.
Here’s the link. Hope you’ll like it:

Bearded Lady said...

Hi Camille,
Thanks for the links. Last time I was in Paris, it was soooooo cold that I swore I had to return again in the warmer months. Your hotel is on my top to stay list. What a great idea!