Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Pictures within pictures - which one is true and who owns the truth?

Detail of La Chambre de Madame Récamier à l'Abbaye-aux-Bois 
by François-Louis Dejuinne, 1827, showing Gérard's painting of Madame de Staël in the character of her literary heroine, Corinne, at top right.

After Madame de Staël's death in 1817, Prince August of Prusia 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 of idealized female friendship. Public relations, mutual admiration and ideological statement all contributed to the self-created cult of two very different women who recognized their complementary attributes. One was a brainy, brilliant, pushy, sexually liberated published author, the Sappho of her times, and the other....
an intuitive, reserved, refined conversationalist, who induced brilliance in other people, the perfect neoclassical muse.

They knew their own weaknesses. De Staël was sometimes irritatingly forceful, and emotionally unstable, and insensitive to the visual arts, and Récamier often seemed as passive as she was attractive, with sublime taste but no original ideas of her own. Friendship with Juliette gave de Staël an association with art, beauty, spiritual tenderness, and an erotic thrill, while de Staël lent Juliette intellectual credibility and literary immortality.

They were collaborators in creating a legend of a friendship during a struggle for personal and political emancipation. They understood how to manipulate their celebrity in an age that worshipped heroes and was obsessed by self-analysis.

 detail of The Muses and Venus Dancing in front of Mars, tempera, c.1797, by Canova. 
Museo Canova, Possagno
Their reconciliation of passion and restraint, sense and sensibility, was deployed far away from domesticity and provincialism to oppose the tyrannies of the ancien regime and new Napoleonic imperialism. In their different ways, Germaine and Juliette were as ambitious for glory as Napoleon, Nelson and the heroes of Romantic poetry.

The character of Corinne combined the political, intellectual and sexual 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 Mme Récamier" (Corinne ou l'Italie, 1807).

Detail of Dance of the Muses on Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1807, Altenationalgalerie, Berlin. Image source: Wikipedia
Befitting a commemorative project of as much conceptual solemnity as personal affection, Madame  Récamier first asked the academic David to execute the Corinne portrait, but he quoted such an outrageously high price that Prince August commissioned the more facile Gérard instead.

 Corinne at Cape Miseno by Gérard, 1819. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Image source: WGA

The finished painting (1819) showed Germaine de Staël sitting on a wild shore, clutching a lyre, eyes rolling upward in a characteristic moment of inner turmoil, her poetic improvisation interrupted by the arrival of her admirers, while Vesuvius erupts more modestly in the background. Madame Récamier hung the picture in her apartment at l'Abbaye-aux-Bois, in a prominent position so that no visitor to her salon could mistake its significance.

The extremes of choice between academic mannerism and overt romanticism presented by the rival artists recalled their portraits of the young Juliette over a decade earlier, the one untouchable, gazing  out from the centre of an arcane world, a version of herself that she rejected, either because she disliked David's serpentine interpretation, with its inaccurate light-coloured hair and the cool detached gaze, commanding admiration while giving nothing of herself in return, or because of his excrutiatingly slow working methods,
 Jacques-Louis David, Madame Récamier, 1800. Louvre. 
Acquired at the sale of David's studio in 1826. 
Image source: Wikipedia

and the other self is so available and sultry-sweet, she's melting off her Etruscan bathroom chair.
François Gérard, Madame Récamier, 1805. Musée Carnavalet. Image source: Wikipedia.

She gave the Gérard portrait to her suitor, Prince August, in 1808 as a consolation prize when they abandoned their marriage plans. It was returned to her after his death in 1843.

Neither version is truer than the other. They both give insights into the woman who raised coquetry to an art form and used fashion and interior decoration in preference over any other means of self-expression.
Franz Krüger, Prince Augustus of Prussia, 1817. 
A portrait of the brigadier-general who helped reform the Prussian army during the Napoleonic wars, with his favourite trophy hanging on the wall behind him. He owned the most famous portrait of Madame Récamier but not the woman herself.