Thursday, 27 December 2012

Power and Seduction, Marilyn and Juliette, Muse and Model, Artemis and Aphrodite...

 ....Atalanta and Daphne....a post brought on by too much Christmas Pudding and Stilton?

The Three Graces, empowered or exploited, by Canova, c.1799. Image: Web Gallery of Art
part six of The Laurel Trophy
Immortalized as the dark-haired model in white chemise, peeping under her lashes at onlookers in Gérard's  meltingly sexy portrait, and forever associated with the sofa on which she reclines in the painting by David, in her lifetime Juliette Récamier was a discerning patron of literature and the arts. Her personal taste influenced fashion and interior design in western Europe, and she helped promote philosophical and political ideas in post-revolutionary French society. She was also famous for her virginity, that she is alleged to have given up, willingly, at the age of forty. The long wait is usually perceived as odd, a disorder, rather than a trumphant assertion of individuality through sexual discernment.  

The greatest loves of her life, consummated or not, were always worldly intellectuals, people addicted to using and defining power, whose inclusion of her in their observations gave her validation. Down this road lies the danger, fun but facile, of comparison to Marilyn Monroe and her symbiotic relationships with professional writers, teachers and analysts, all besotted with the ambivalent sweetness of her sex appeal, a vicarious affair that persists in the dozens of publications about her exploited or empowered femininity.....for more dangers, read on
The immaculate seduction: Juliette Récamier in a detail from Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Augustin's painting,1801, miniature on ivory, Musée du Louvre. The virginal banker's wife is role-playing an odalisque.

They are proven to be classic icons, representing the ideal female beauty of their respective eras, and still looking lovely to us today. Both their faces, Juliette's and Marilyn's, are as endearing as they are seductive because of their shared childlike innocence, even though one is looking at us out of the heavily made-up mask of a manufactured sex symbol and the other is emoting archly above her decolletage. On occasion, they both wore white dresses with no knickers underneath.  

Even the names under which they became famous were invented for their professional personae: before her marriage, Récamier’s full name was Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard, from which Juliette was a charmingly simplified extraction for the post-Rousseau generation. Neither of them were academic, but they were intelligent and witty. They both knew by instinct how to project the charm of their personalities to an audience. Similarly to an actress who only feels real when she is playing a part, a muse can only exist through the work she inspires. If the writers, artists, philosophers, physicists and politicians stop asking for her, she may as well be dead.

Otherwise there are more differences than similarities. Above all, Récamier was in control of her image and was not manipulated or undermined by other people, especially men, with whom she enjoyed having platonic relationships. She had personal and circumstantial advantages. Firstly, through luck, she was born into prosperous middle class respectability, and well-educated by her parents, who arranged for her to marry into wealth; secondly, though very sensitive, she was generally mentally and emotionally stable; thirdly, through her own character and judgment, she sustained her career as renowned beauty and cultural facilitator into middle and old age with the co-operation of her peers. 

Her image of beautiful virginity was marketed as an idealized, not an erotic, commodity during her lifetime. Feature by feature, she was not considered especially beautiful, but the combination of proportion, in her face, body and limbs, of grace in her movement, and of gentle demeanour with other people gave a memorable overall impression. She had the type of glamour that deepens with age. By nature affectionate, prone to emotionally intense relationships, she was not physically promiscuous, which kept her less vulnerable than a more sexually experienced woman in an equally dependent financial situation, because nobody could lay claim to her. 

She exercised seductive power in a way that challenges our modern prejudices about sexual liberation. Her virginity was not an affectation. Her coquetry may be perceived as benign; she had lasting friendships with the many people with whom she flirted, very few of them were silly enough to sulk when she didn't go all the way, and she seems to have given and derived happiness from her most intimate relationships.
For all the gentleness of her manner, Récamier was not a victim; she remained at the centre of a cultural and intellectual elite where she had protection and surprising autonomy, not inside the monstrously huge and cannibalistic popular entertainment industry with more than one man with a Napoleon-complex to fight.  

The shocking thing is not how repressed or odd Madame Récamier was in her personal choices, but how much more cultural influence, independence and respect a tiny minority of women commanded for a few years at the turn of the nineteenth century than the majority have now.


Able to challenge and beat the best of men: Atalanta by Heinrich Keller, 1802. Marble, Kunsthaus, Zurich. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

The name Atalanta means "equal in weight"

THE LAUREL TROPHY parts one to five