Sunday, 22 December 2013


The erotic thrills of spiritual love: Canova's Cupid and Psyche
Marble, 1786-93, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web gallery of Art
In 1805, Napoleon exiled Madame Récamier from Paris. He had expected her to be a decoration, not a threat, at his imperial court. Tyrants are always galled when a pretty woman resists his authority. Paradoxes and anomalies are subversive by definition. Madame Récamier was feminine, gentle and sweet, and her reason for existence was personal power and influence.

Undermined by Napoleon's spite, her charmed life was suddenly precarious. Her husband was bankrupt
and their magnificent style of living was gone. She left France and travelled in Europe as a celebrity in her own right and as one of Napoleon's loveliest victims. Among the many men who laid siege to her was a swaggering young prince of Prussia with splendid black whiskers. August von Hohenzollern was one of the few distinguished men of his family with any brains or cultural sensitivity.....
after his uncle, Frederick the Great. He was a competent career soldier who helped reform the Prussian army after its paralyzing defeats at Jena and Auerstedt (1806) and fought bravely in many other battles of the Napoleonic Wars, finally at Waterloo. 

More surprisingly, he was well-read in contemporary literature, a fan of de Staël's novel Corinne, and passionate enough to fall in love with Juliette Récamier and propose marriage when they met at the author's salon at Coppet, the haven for all Napoleon's ideological opponents, in the summer of 1807.

The flirtation among exiles turned into a drama that appears to have got out of control.
A marriage would have had mutual advantages. It would have been convenient for Madame Récamier because her husband was financially ruined, her fortunes were not going to revive in France while Napoleon was ascendant, and, critically for a famous beauty of reduced means, she was approaching thirty. 

From the wealthy prince's point of view, carrying off one of Europe's most celebrated beauties as his bride would have been an unparalleled conquest. 

She was tortured with indecision for many months; the prince, a natural autocrat, was impatient, and she accepted his proposal; when asked to give a divorce, her husband implied both that he was willing to grant her request, and, in the most oblique words possible, that he regretted respecting her virginity for all fourteen years of their marriage if she was so easily going to give it up to another; she felt she could not leave him or give way to physical abandonment of self, not yet; the prince suspected her of coquetry; far from exulting in her erotic power, she contemplated suicide. 

The marriage plans were thwarted, but she eventually gave him the painting by Gérard, that August had always wanted, as a keepsake.

 Conquering hero standing in front of his greatest trophy, the portrait of Madame Récamier by Gérard. The woman herself eluded him. This portrait of Prince August (1779-1843) by Krüger, c.1817, shows him ten years after his romantic courtship, evidently still immensely proud of it. The painting was returned to Madame Récamier after the prince's death in 1843. Nationalgalerie Berlin. Image source: Wikipedia
Prince August never married, preferring to maintain two longterm mistresses and their many children. After his death, two of his daughters visited the elderly Madame Récamier at her home in Paris. His feelings for Madame Récamier do not appear to have been entirely histrionic. They remained friends, linked by their shared admiration for Germaine de Staël and her writing, and by the painted representation of Juliette that hung for the rest of their lives as a token of complicity in imagined possibilities. 

It was the happiest of endings for both of them. The Prussian court would never have given up élitist objections to a nouveau riche, Roman Catholic divorcée, however charming she was, and a neoclassical fashion leader, Napoleon's other "beautiful enemy", the popular queen, Luise, already reigned there. (Even at home in post-revolutionary Paris, universal egalitarian acceptance of Madame Récamier's social status did not exist; there were people who sneered at her petit bourgeois origins and intellectually shallow conversation.)

Put to the test, Juliette Récamier did not want to give up either her physical independence or her virtue for an over-ambitious venture, that, by deserting her husband, would have destroyed her reputation for kindness of heart. Without doubting her word that she suffered an acute emotional crisis at this time, it was not caused solely by Prince August, though it was tactful to make him believe so. 

Coppet, where feelings were encouraged to run high by the hostess, was the scene of another intense flirtation between her and Prosper Brugière, later created baron de Barante, the liberal statesman and historian. It was a moment in her life when many of its foundations were shaken, nothing that she had taken for granted seemed certain more, not money, home nor platonic love, and escape in a different direction was tempting. 

She may not, like Psyche, have been kissed by Eros, but her bluff had been called in her game of self-preservation. 

Blissfully interlocked in spiritual love: Canova's Cupid and Psyche
Marble, 1786-93, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web gallery of Art

After Madame de Staël's death in 1817, Prince August commissioned a painting of her in the character of her most famous heroine, Corinne, as a gift for Madame Récamier. Among de Staël's most treasured possessions at Coppet had been a portrait and bust of Juliette. These were not mere sentimental souvenirs. The two women were collaborators, consciously enhancing each other's reputation by emphasizing their complementary qualities, crystallizing a legend for the modern era of female friendship and the struggle for personal and political emancipation, a band of sisters united against hegemony, symbolized by the ancien regime and Napoleonic imperialism. 

The character of Corinne combined the political and intellectual energy of the author herself with the gentler moral and physical grace of her friend. When Corinne dances, with "an agility, a grace, a mixture of modesty and voluptuousness" evoking the poses of classical antiquity, "[it] is the dance of Madame Récamier". Germaine and Juliette wanted glorious immortality as much as Napoleon, Nelson and the heroes of Romantic poetry.

Befitting a commemorative project of as much academic solemnity as personal affection, Madame Récamier first approached David to execute the Corinne portrait, but he quoted such an outrageously high price that Prince August asked Gérard instead. 

The extremes of choice between academic mannerism and overt romanticism recalled the artists' portraits of the young Juliette over a decade earlier, the one untouchable, gazing coolly out from the centre of an arcane world, and the other so available, she's melting off her chair. 

Both versions are faithful likenesses of the woman who raised coquetry to an art form.