Thursday, 5 December 2013


 Pure sex symbol: Gérard's portrait (c.1805), still an effective image of natural feminine beauty and grace, in a setting that evokes the drapery and elegant furniture of Madame Récamier's real bedroom and bathroom.
Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art 

The pose Madame Récamier adopted for portraits, the lush sensuality of her appearance, the brilliant brown eyes and luxuriant black hair,the pale skin of neck and shapely arms left bare, even the hint of down on her upper lip, that seemed to promise so much earthly pleasure, was so far removed from her delicate personality that it was like performance art, in the late 18th century tradition of "attitudes." 

The virginal banker's wife enjoyed role-playing an odalisque, and though most of the portraiture created in her youth exudes sex appeal, she remained all her life a symbol of femininity that could never be owned or exploited by anybody.....
except herself.
She was fortunate to live (1777-1849) in an age when celebrities could still control their images. David's unfinished painting of her, that she personally loathed, is neoclassicism at its most austere, a minimalist study in self-detachment, forbidding intimacy with the subject, while Gérard's portrait of five years later, in which she is draped sinuously on a chair, an inviting expression in her eyes and pouting mouth, is irresistibly seductive.

 Woman as furniture: Madame Récamier interpreted dispassionately by David
 as one of a set of four pure neoclassical forms, along with lamp, chaise longue, and stool (1800), in a subdued palette. The sitter rejected being shown with light-brown hair as an untrue likeness. 
Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Though visitors to her apartments, a modern composition of saturated colours and clearly delineated forms in well-ordered space, were guided beyond the blue salon, past the slender arching of the Etruscan-inspired chaises longues and chairs, to the bedroom with its boat-shaped gilded mahogany bed and rose-pink cover, crowned with steeply falling white drapery, they were denied access to the ultimate sanctum, the virginity of the hostess herself. 

This was not a gimmick to enhance the exclusivity of her salon, though of course it helped. Throughout her life she had emotionally charged relationships with men, usually intellectuals or men at the heart of State and military affairs, but, outwardly at least, she shied away from sexual consummation.

As ever with attractive women who don't put their beauty to sexual use, some rejected lovers and sceptical observers, then and later, suspected her of being either abnormal or hypocritical.  There has been a lot of prurient speculation, gynaecological and psychological, about her virginity. The generally accepted fact is that she was a virgin by choice until she was forty, when it was also extremely unlikely she would conceive a child. The reasons are nobody's business but her own, and irrelevant to the creation of her myth.

Like Ovid's nymph Daphne, she was pierced by one of Cupid's leaden arrows that put her in flight of the physical love that her beauty aroused in men, and was dedicated to her vocation as patroness of literature, arts, ideas and friendship, her personal charm and discrimination the inspiration and reward of other people's aesthetic and political achievements. The greatest loves of her life were powerful intellectuals, people who needed her as an audience and, by including her in their analyses of thoughts and emotions, defined and validated her in return. 

Living celibately with a wealthy husband-father figure gave her financial security, and freedom from unpleasant physical inconvenience, two priceless advantages over the great courtesans of the 18th and 19th centuries born outside bourgeois respectability, without private incomes or prospects of inheritance, and no option but to offer sex in return for subsistence, let alone cultural influence.

Her husband, who was much older but far from repellent-looking, still handsome in his middle-age, seems to have been possessive, possibly controlling, but never physically demanding of her. There is  evidence from a letter reported and quoted by Madame Récamier's niece that Jacques-Rose Récamier regretted "having respected certain susceptibilities and repugnancies" of his wife's, and he wrote it to deter her from marrying someone else. 

The language is so cryptic that it is impossible to decipher the nature of their relationship, or know for certain if the words were Monsieur Récamier's own or paraphrased by the niece. Madame de Staël hinted in a letter that he was impotent, no longer with certain "faculties". 

No records survive of other mistresses after his liaision with Juliette's mother; if he was gay, it would explain both his complaisance and the harmonious collaboration of husband and wife in creating the most elegant private interior in Europe. 

The niece, Madame Lenormant, was largely responsible for the perpetuation of the Juliette myth, including the unassailable virginity and inspirational conversation, after Madame Récamier's death; like many Victorian relicts of famous people, she was probably a compulsive bowdlerizer.
It is possible to be flirtatious and sincere; the people who knew her best loved her for her candour. Flirtation was reflexive for her, a defense mechanism, as it is for many intensely shy but affectionate people who want to please others. 

She knew her own intellectual limitations, and, naturally intelligent as she was, found ways to compensate. Juliette became an accomplished conversationalist, the rapt and ravishing listener, who looked as pretty as a picture while other people talked to her, a sophisticated cultural and political facilitator who may have deployed, consciously or unconsciously, the arts of courtly love (an anachronistic term coined in 1883) to create a sexual and cerebral tension for her guests. 

Fascination with the interplay of passions and the mind was, after all, characteristic of her time. One of the most frequently illustrated allegories was the reconciliation of spiritual and erotic love in the story of Cupid and Psyche.

Trying to reconcile coquetry and platonic love: the allegory of Cupid and Psyche was a popular subject for painters and sculptors during Madame Recamier's formative years. In an elegantly mannered pose, Gérard's Psyche looks genuinely startled by her dilemma when feeling the physical delight of being kissed for the first time, but is still trying to protect herself, her butterfly soul fluttering above her head.  

Cupid and Psyche by Gérard,1798, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web gallery of Art

Forming spiritual ties with the beautiful Madame Recamier was a recommended pursuit for fashionably tormented intellectuals, as once suggested by Madame de Krüdener, the mystic novelist, to Benjamin Constant. She wasn't ensnaring lovesick boys; they weren't her type. Trying to unravel her unknowable personality was as pleasurable a challenge - "She is a strange person", wrote Constant in his diary - as trying to sleep with her. Most of the worldly and intelligent men who joined battle with her seemed to enjoy the immaculate seduction as much as she did, and, after leaving the field without spoils, remained good friends with her.
The tension between neoclassical eroticism and contemplation is expressed in the downcast eyes and inscrutable smile of the sculpture by Joseph Chinard, c.1805. 
She is at once modest, almost childlike, and beguiling in her sweet innocence, under the swept up Grecian hairstyle painstakingly arranged to look careless. In real life, she kept her eyes lowered, listening intently, until she would raise them to look fully into the face of the person talking to her. 
 Detail of marble bust in Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

In anyone else, this coquettishness would have been irritating, but her personality was of the rare type that other women loved as much as men. The pleasure both sexes - among them some very tough players in the literary and political spheres - all found in her company seems to have been therapeutic. Her veiled love affairs and sweet manner made her the antithesis of her close friend, Madame de Staël, (1766 -1817) whose sexuality was as open as her forceful intellect and appetite for fame. 

Though temperamentally different, the two women had shared interests, and knew they complemented each other. They were born and raised in the aspirational middle classes, daughters of men who had prospered at different levels of the financial bureaucracy of the ancien regime. Juliette's father, Jean Bernard, was a tax collector (receveur des finances sounds and looks so much more polite in French), and de Staël's father, the Swiss banker Necker, had been the leading reforming minister of Louis XVI's government. 

In 1798, showing where social power had shifted in a decade, Juliette's banker husband acquired Necker's former house as the theatre for his wife's innovatory interior decoration and flower-decked receptions during the Consulate. The Revolution was reliant on bankers, and the capitalists were rewarded with the prestige and political influence that as members of the Third Estate they had been long demanding. Madame Récamier supported de Staël's call for representative government.

The two friends were united in their love of literature and their abhorrence of Napoleon. He put a lot of time and effort into hating them in return. De Staël was the Emperor's bête noire, as if he knew instinctively that her restless genius was a direct intellectual challenge to his own, all the more offensive because she was a woman. It was as much in punishment for Madame Récamier's loyalty to de Staël as for her own liberal sympathies that Napoleon exiled her from Paris. 

He had expected Madame Récamier to be a decoration, not a threat, at his imperial court. Despots are always galled when a pretty woman resists his authority. The paradox is in itself frustrating to them. Madame Récamier was gentle and sweet, and her reason for existence was personal power and influence.
Tabouret from Madame Récamier's salon, made for her by Jacob Frères, now in the Louvre.