Wednesday, 18 September 2013

beyond the grave:

celebrity apotheosis 
"Such is the power of novelty in England, that the newspapers next morning were full of the arrival of the foreign Beauty."
François-René de Chateaubriand, describing Madame Récamier's visit to London in 1802, in his autobiography,
Mémoires d'Outre-tombe,

Stipple engraving by Anthony Cardon, published by Francesco Bartolozzi, of Richard Cosway's portrait of Madame Récamier


She was twenty-four years old and the most famous social networker in Europe. At her first public appearance in London society, "she was swept to her carriage by the tide of people....The crowd followed hard on the fair foreigner’s heels. This phenomenon was repeated every time she showed herself in public; the newspapers resounded with her name, and her portrait, engraved by Bartolozzi, was distributed throughout England." (Chateaubriand, Mémoires)

Juliette Récamier's personal qualities, and fashion sense, reacted uniquely with the cultural principles and fantasies of her time, which promoted the cult of the individual. Like Napoleon, she was born out of 18th century enlightenment and revolution, a gentler kind of opportunist who seized her moment, by collaborating on the creation of an image of femininity that Hollywood, fashion and pop music industries still mimic, a self-made goddess who dictated limits to her exploitation. She is one of the few women who attempted self-determination in popular and high culture and....


Confection: looking as luscious as a fruit glacé, Madame Récamier in Gérard's seductive painting that she herself preferred to use as her defining image, perhaps because it was the one that revealed, or stole, least of her real character. Chateaubriand considered it "Gérard’s masterpiece". He confided to his Memoirs: " is delightful, but does not please me, because I recognise the features without recognizing the expression of the model."
Oil on canvas, 1805, Musée Carnavelet
She is still famous for having had the most exquisite taste and the sweetest nature of all the literary and political hostesses of France during the Directoire, Empire and Restoration. Her interpretation of the newly revived classical aesthetic, both through the internal decoration of her house and the way she dressed, barefoot in simple, white, clinging, almost transparent gowns, garlands of fresh pansies in her hair and huge, lustrous pearl drops hanging from her ears, made her one of the most influential social and fashion leaders of her own and any time. A natural joy-giver, she inspired and promoted writers, philosophers, artists and designers, had intimate friendships with many of them, and seems to have felt most completely herself when being a muse and symbol.
In an age that elevated personality over convention and religion, she apotheosized celebrity. Her achievements were ephemeral, a way of dressing, of talking and giving a party, a mood leaving the chords of a harp lingering in the air, a promise of desire never consummated, and yet, two hundred years later, when we visualize the early nineteenth century, with its battles and poetry, with the figures of Napoleon and Wellington, Byron and Keats, Darcy and Elizabeth, Shelley drowning in the Ligurian sea, Nelson dying in victory, blood, smoke and firestorms all around him, there she sits in her designer marble bathroom, flirting with us, making us feel so good, looking so accessible and giving nothing of herself away.
Enigma: the alternative, less sweet, more cerebral, take on Madame Récamier, a calculated composition of classical abstracts by David, in which the woman is clearly as much of a contrived work of art as the furniture. The portrait, commissioned in 1800, was never finished and remained in David's possession until it was exhibited in the Louvre in 1826.