My Daily Art Display today is about one woman and three paintings. The woman in question was Jeanne-Francois Julie Adélaïde Bernard Récamier and she was a celebrated French beauty and some would say she was the most beautiful and graceful woman of her day. Add brains, confidence and charms to this exquisite loveliness and you have as they said, the perfect woman.
She was born in Lyons in 1777. Her father Bernard was a banker and when she was young she and her father moved to Paris. At the tender age of fifteen she married Jacques Récamier a wealthy banker, some thirty years her senior. Her residence in Paris was a place of rest for the distinguished men of the day. She was the perfect hostess. She was witty, a great conversationalist and a natural beauty and the soirées she held at her salon attracted the most important politicians and literary figures. Invitations to her salon were much in demand, as to be a guest at her house guaranteed one the best of food and drink and the company of the “great and good”. The fact that you attended one of her gatherings meant that you had achieved social respectability. She entertained the likes of Lucien Napoleon, the young brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, and painters such as Gustave Moreau and Jacques-Louis David. Madame Récamier, who had a sweet disposition and was unspoiled by the constant homage she received, was extremely well liked. Strangely, there was never a hint of scandal regarding all the men that came to visit her.
All was going well until her husband was ruined financially through the policies of Emperor Napoleon whom he had bankrolled and because of this the visitors to her salon were sympathetic to her and her husband and her house became a home for people who wanted Napoleon’s reign to come to an end. This led to the Récamiers being forced into exile on the orders of Bonaparte and they fled to Italy for their own safety. Madame Récamier did not return to France until the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Husband and wife returned to Paris and she re-opened her salon but further financial setbacks befell them in 1819 and she had to move to a small apartment and despite the downsizing she still was inundated with eminent writers and statesmen.
Even in old age and with little money Madame Récamier retained her popularity. Her health began to fail and she became almost blind but despite that she never lost her attraction. Juliette Récamier died of cholera in 1849 aged 72 and is buried in the Cimitière de Montmartre.
Let us look now at the first of my three paintings and for this we must go back to the year 1800 when the artist Jacques-Louis David, a frequent visitor to her salon, was asked to paint a portrait of Madame Récamier. The painter who favoured the Neoclassical style was looked upon as the pre-eminent painter of his day. He had the young twenty-three year old lady bedecked in a white empire-line sleeveless dress like a modern version of a vestal virgin. We view her from a distance and so her face looks quite small. It is thought that David wanted his painting to be not just a mere portrait but an ideal of feminine elegance and charm. Her antique pose, the bare décor and light dress all epitomize his neoclassical ideals. She is shown in an almost bare space with the exception of the Pompeian furniture. She reclines on a French empire méridienne sofa, looking slightly backwards over her right shoulder. We know that David never finished the painting, which may account for the bareness of the canvas. Besides the sofa there is just a stool and candelabra shown in the painting. There is an austere minimalism to this painting.
Madame Récamier became impatient with David and the slowness of his work and, unbeknown to him, commissioned one of his pupils, Francois Gérard, to paint her portrait instead. David, when he heard about this new commission was furious and said to Madame Récamier:
“….Women have their whims, and so do artists; allow me to satisfy mine by keeping this portrait….”
The painting never left David’s atelier until it was finally exhibited at the Louvre in 1826.
And so to the second of my three paintings; the one Madame Récamier commissioned Gérard to paint in 1802. Besides the fact that she thought David was taking too long to complete the painting, she was also unhappy with what she saw on his canvas. She thought his depiction of her was too low-key and was displeased with his portrayal of her in a Neoclassical style.
Gérard was by no means a novice painter. In fact he was looked upon as one of the most popular portraitists of the day. Her instructions to him were quite simple. She wanted to be painted in a more natural setting. She wanted a more close-up portrait which would emphasise her natural curvaceous beauty and she wanted her complexion to be somehow echoed in the colour of the background. She must have been delighted with the finished painting. The red curtain which acts as a backdrop compliments the sitter giving her flesh a rosy tint. Look how the slight twist of her body, the low neckline of her Empire dress which only just cover her breasts and her bare feet exude a seductive yet charming air. There is an erotic charisma about her demeanour. However, it was not looked upon as erotic at the time. It was said to be just an intimate and thoughtful pose. Gérard’s version was not a type of Neoclassical painting. He has followed more closely the Romanticism movement of the late 18th century.
So finally and briefly let us look at the third painting of Madame Récamier. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Surrealist painter René Magritte made a series of “Perspective” paintings based on well-known works by the French artists François Gérard, Jacques Louis David, and Édouard Manet, in which he substituted coffins for the figures represented in the original paintings. This 1951 irreverent work of art by Magritte, entitled Perspective: Madame Récamier by David is almost identical to the painting by Jacques-Louis David with the one big exception – where Madame Récamier reclined seductively; Magritte substituted her body with a coffin. The only reminder we have of the lady is her white gown which we see cascading to the floor.
I will let you decide which painting you prefer and will close with one final piece of useful (useless?) information. The next time you go into a furniture shop looking for a sofa and the haughty salesperson talks to you about possibly purchasing a récamier you will know what he is talking about as the piece of furniture we see Madame Récamier reclining on in Jacques-Louis David’s painting was named after her!!