"She was one of the neo-Greeks who rose, half naked indeed, but fully clad in their own modesty..."
(Arsène Houssaye, Notre-Dame de TJiermidor, 1866)..
The nymph-bride stands under a laurel tree, timeless grace and chastity personified, not disguising her expression of mischievous amusement: detail of the oval portrait in oils of Madame Récamier, in her early twenties, c.1799, by Eulalie Morin (1765 - 1837).
Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et du Trianon
As much as politicians, generals and philosophers, she was trying in her own way to make order out of chaos, contributing her own sensibility of what was best in old and new, while maintaining an unusual degree of independence in her private life. Outwardly avoiding the thunderbolts and lightning of her Romantic contemporaries, an arouser of unrequited passions in other people apparently unmoved by sexual desires herself, a good...
listener loved by her friends for her kindness, she turned coquetry into a grace, and asserted her own right to individuality with a quietly heroic will.
The virginal banker's wife in the attitude of an odalisque, the gesture of adjusting her veil a reminder that she was admired for her graceful "shawl dance". Detail of Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Augustin's miniature on ivory, !801. Musée du Louvre.
She helped make the clear, unbroken lines of neoclassicism, softened by feminine curves and refined detail, the predominant visual style in Europe at a time of violent social instability and almost perpetual war.
Her career was funded by her rich financier husband, old enough to be her biological father, that gossip claimed was exactly who he was. Like so much about her private life, there is no proof, and the stories reveal more about the prejudices of the people making them up than about the subject herself. Painted appearances and formal statements are not reliable guides to a real life. All that is certain from contemporary sources is that the relationship between husband and wife was celibate from the time they married when she was fifteen and he was forty-two, to when she left him, amicably, twenty-seven years later. At the time of his proposal, Jacques-Rose Récamier, who liked to cover his tracks in writing, acknowledged that he had once had warm feelings for Juliette's mother.
The real-father theorists repeat the explanation that he was trying to protect his natural daughter's inheritance lest he be guillotined during the Reign of Terror. Jacques-Rose Récamier was a self-made capitalist from the rising professional middle class whose fortune could (and did) crash at any moment. Other contemporaries noted tartly that he was an extravagant lover of fine-living whose charming young wife wasn't bad for his business.
Whatever his motives, her parents saw overriding material benefits to their daughter in a match that raised just one of many pretty, accomplished middle class girls to social prominence in Paris during the most explosive sequence of destruction and creativity in the city's history, when it was the cynosure of the world.
She was not, and never pretended to be, intellectual, but she was very intelligent, her senses attuned to the arts, and, above all, to people, whom she read like books, and listened to like music, played on her harp or piano, her eyes raised and fixed on theirs in rhapsody while they talked. The astonishing thing, the thing that still makes her special, is that so few people ever disliked her or accused her of being manipulative. For western European bourgeoisie, for the ambitious politicians and writers drawn into her orbit, she had the sweet innocence of a child combined with the refined skills and cerebral eroticism of a geisha.
The legal fiction of her unconsummated marriage to a father-figure was the first sign that life could be made better by enhancing the appearance of reality, not through a vulgar lie, but by revealing a more beautiful truth.