Madame Récamier


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Madame Récamier, Gérard, 1805. Photo: Melanie Clegg/Musée Carnavalet.

The gorgeous brunette Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard, better known as Juliette, Madame Récamier, was born in Lyon on this day in 1777. There are so many representations of Madame from the austere portrait by David, which shows her reclining wide eyed and slightly timidly on a chaise longue to the much softer and more alluringly confident painting by Gérard to countless others, all of which show Madame wearing her trademark simple white gown, which was intended to represent a virginity that it was whispered she did not relinquish until she was in her forties. It was also whispered that the long suffering Monsieur Récamier, who doted on his young wife who was twenty six years his junior, was actually her father and that their marriage, which took place in April 1793 when Juliette was fifteen, was in fact a clever ruse to ensure that his love child would inherit the bulk of his fortune. This, however, has never been proven and is probably just scurrilous gossip of the sort that was endemic during this period.

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Madame Récamier, Morin, c1798. Photo: Chateau de Coppet.

Unsullied though she may have been, Juliette Récamier had the gift of inspiring devotion and maintaining emotionally intense friendships with both men and women that were as full on as any sexual affair – with such luminaries as Madame de Staël, Madame Tallien and Chateaubriand all falling under her intoxicating spell. In fact so besotted was Madame de Staël that she kept the portrait above, which was painted by female artist Eulalie Morin, in her bedroom at Coppet so that it was the last thing she saw at night and the first in the morning.

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Also touching is this painting by another female artist, Marguerite Gérard, the protegée of Fragonard, who painted this intimate study, allegedly of Juliette Récamier and her friend Thérésia de Cabarrus reading a letter together. I love to imagine Thérésia, Joséphine Bonaparte, Juliette Récamier and Madame de Staël, all great friends despite the tumult of the times and the vagaries of their menfolk, sitting together in their autumn years and reminiscing about the lost days of Marie Antoinette’s court, the excitement of the Revolution and the wild lives that they had all lived.

My favourite depiction of Madame Récamier has got to be this wonderful bust by Chimard, a copy of which lives in my local museum in Bristol. Isn’t it beautiful?

I love her coyly downcast gaze, the plump roundness of her cheeks and that almost secretive smile as if she is keeping secrets from us. What a beauty. Just look at that artless looking but clearly carefully arranged pile of curls and muslin on her head – the very epitome of the carelessly elegant Napoléonic style, which was perhaps one of the most becoming of all times – if you had the figure for it.

I really love looking at the back of portrait busts to see what sort of hidden detail there is lurking. Not many other people bother to look so it’s almost like a special secret between the sculptor and myself.

Just look at the sweet little arrowed hair combs tucked into Juliette’s beautiful upswept hair.

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Madame Récamier, JL David, 1800. Photo: Musée Louvre.

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Perspective: Madame Récamier by David, 1949, Magritte. Photo: Private Collection.

If this is all a bit too old fashioned for you then perhaps you’d prefer Magritte’s depiction of Madame Récamier, inspired by the famous David portrait in the Louvre? I was lucky enough to see the life sized sculpted version of this at an exhibition of Magritte’s work at the Hayward Gallery in London many years ago and it really was the highlight of the show for me. I love how she still continued to inspire artists well into the twentieth century – there’s not many ladies you can say that about.

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One of Madame Récamier’s snow white shoes to go with those virginal dresses.

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