Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Liberation and Self ownership

part six

 Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth 
sculpted in marble by Canova, 1796-1817, Canova Museum, Possagno

Instead of carrying off the charming but vacillating Madame Récamier to his Berlin palace as his bride in 1808, Prince Augustus of Prussia took the famous portrait by Gérard, perhaps sensing that owning an archetype of the eternal feminine was a more prestigious investment than a legal bond with the living woman.

The real Madame Récamier was unfazed by the incorruptible beauty of her painted alter ego, while her own fortunes, looks and health faded, and continued to pursue her career as a salonnière. It is a relief to know that her vitality, charming conversation and good taste were resilient to time and poverty. The cultural power generated by her reputation, that we would call her brand, was unassailable.

But something changed in her. At the age of forty she freed a hidden self when....
she started her relationship with Chateaubriand, the Romantic writer and politician, ten years older than her, possessed of the worldly and intellectual attributes that had always attracted her, and possibly her first and only sexual partner. 

At last, after years of procrastination, the muse took control over her personal life. She separated from her husband discreetly, under cover of his final business collapse in 1819. They remained close, choosing to live in separate lodgings near each other on the Left Bank.

Her home of two rooms in a convent was cramped compared to the glittering mansion she had occupied during the Empire. Necessity gave Madame Récamier, stripped of the social attractions of money and youth, her best opportunity to show her inner resources.

She simply adjusted to circumstances, inviting loyal old friends and a new generation of writers, actors, actresses, singers, painters and politicians to the small apartment at L'Abbaye-aux-Bois that she filled with books, flowers and the few remaining items of her grand furniture, creating a salon for the Romanticism of the Restoration as congenial to the era as her earlier one had been to the neoclassical Republic and Empire.

The apartment at L'Abbaye-aux-Bois, Madame Récamier's last home in Paris, as it was in 1819, showing the possessions which defined her - books, furniture, flowers, musical instruments, and pictures. Her dedication to art and friendship is symbolized by Gérard's painting of de Staël as Corinne, given to her by August of Prussia, shown on the top right. La chambre de Madame Récamier was painted retrospectively by Francois Louis Dejuinne in 1826, and the painstaking record of her simple white chemise, the famous sofa and its matching tabouret, with one of her cashmere shawls thrown over it, show that mythologizing neoclassical fashion and decor of the Revolution and Empire began as early as the mid-1820s. The impression of vitality and relevance is enhanced by the window being flung wide open over the city, inviting new ideas and people to her court. 
By her sixties, she was very frail, and blind in one eye. She kept her sufferings as private as her love affairs. Her relationship with Chateaubriand lasted through sickness and health, and his increasing reclusiveness, until his death in 1848. It was never legally formalized by marriage due to the existence of his wife. By the time Madame de Chateaubriand died, the lovers were too old and ill, and in Madame Récamier's case, too wise to marry. 

Of course, it was a liaison of convenience as well as love, a consciously symbolic union of two egoists, philosopher and muse, but their mutual respect was genuine, and she cared for him with all the kindness, understanding and patience of which she was capable.

The claim that she stayed as beautiful as ever deserves to be accepted as a poetic truth if nothing else. Like a great actress, priestess or storyteller, she never lost the power of suspending the audience's disbelief. She never soured.

The identity that had been created partly by her own arts of self-invention and partly by the writers and artists whom she had courted, was preserved for posterity in their works, factual and fictionalized. Her reputation for purity and witty conversation was exaggerated religiously by her adopted daughter, Monsieur Récamier's niece Amelia Syvoct, later Madame Lenormant, who kept control of the facts long after her idol’s death, by which time it was impossible to extricate the real woman.  

And why not? Biography is nosiness dressed up as history. People die, only art remains. A vocational muse honours her images. Whether or not we believe in her virginity is beside the point: Madame Récamier was claiming independence of conventional sexual relationships, and the institution of marriage, and of time itself. We still fall in love with her.

For a connoisseur of political realities and carnal pleasures like Chateaubriand, the devoted lover of her middle and old age, she was the embodiment of his Romantic ideal, the feminine companion for whom he had sought all his life. Thirty years before, Jacques-Rose Récamier had written that: "Others may possess greater beauty, but I have never seen any which answered better to my heart's desire."

Even she, whose self-created emblem of beauty had survived so many changes of government and personal fortune, was not charm against the mortal ugliness of bad sanitation in a rapidly industrialized and politically conservative world. 

She lived long enough to witness a third revolution, which inaugurated the brief second French Republic, under the presidency of the nephew of her old enemy Napoleon, and died the following year, one of the thousands of victims in France of the second cholera pandemic of the 19th century.
Within a few years, due to the work of scientists and visionary physicians like John Snow, the medical causes were understood, but it took the rest of the century to convince all western governments to implement the practical reforms necessary to eliminate the disease.

The window of the apartment at L'Abbaye-aux-Bois, Madame Récamier's last home in Paris, flung wide open over the city, welcoming modernity and new ideas from the real world outside her personal decorative creation.
Her lifelong pursuit of the arts and friendship is represented by the elegant neoclassical furniture, the harp and clavichord, the portrait of Germaine de Staël in the eponymous character of her most popular novel's heroine, Corinne. In another of her novels, de Staël had re-created her friend Juliette Récamier in the character of Delphine. 

The real woman, as she always intended, is elusive. Only art remains.

Every word written on this blog about Madame Récamier, or anything else beautiful, that reaches its target is for my mother. The rest is irrelevant.