Le Monde – Philippe Dagen
“Literary buffs will remember her relationship with Chateaubriand. Some may recall she was also close to Madame de Staël. Historians know she was on very poor terms with Bonaparte, but there was much more to the life of Juliette Récamier (1777-1849), however remarkable these episodes may seem.
The prime merit of this exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lyon is to conjure up the woman who set a new trend in society. It also explains how she achieved this, playing on her beauty, clothes, relationships, friendships and influence to develop her image. Here, in short, is the story of a woman who became a star before either photographs or films existed.
Even her early life was extraordinary. She was born in Lyon, the daughter of a local notary, Jean Bernard, and his spouse Marie-Julie Matton. In 1793, aged 15, she married a 42-year-old banker Jacques Récamier. Her husband was a longstanding lover of her mother and was very probably her real father. He married his daughter at the height of the revolutionary terror to ensure that she would inherit his fortune if he was guillotined. In fact, he survived and was put in charge of the Bank of France in 1800, opening the way for his wife to become a figure of fashion.
With a remarkable sense for the stakes involved, Madame Récamier used all the technical resources available at the time to build and promote her image. In 1800, Jacques-Louis David painted her in a lascivious pose, dressed in the prevailing neo-classical style. Five years later, François Gérard did a similar portrait, which was reproduced in countless engravings. Both Joseph Chinard and Antonio Canova sculpted her perfect patrician features, and her physique.
The Journal des Dames et des Modes, an early women’s magazine founded in 1797, reported her ideas of elegance and seduction, explaining how the emblematic thin white cotton dress set off her arms and bust. Essential to this effect was a little stay corset, a coloured shawl and a diadem in her hair. It was all part of her style, revealing but not overly so, trailing a crowd of admirers but very few actual lovers.
Her Paris mansion on Rue de Mont Blanc was a temple of elegance, but it gained a dangerous reputation in 1803 when Napoleon banned receptions there, on the basis of allegations that the lady of the house was entertaining political opponents. Récamier, who had made a triumphant visit to London the previous year, simply moved her salon to Switzerland, joining De Staël. In 1807, Prince Augustus of Prussia fell in love with her and sought marriage, but she refused to divorce her husband and father.
By then she had been a leading figure in European society for 10 years and Napoleon found her fame increasingly irritating. She had stood up for De l’Allemagne, a book by De Staël that had been banned in France. More generally she had too many liberal-minded friends for the increasingly authoritarian emperor. He gave orders for her to be exiled from Paris, as if the police had any power over her name and reputation.
After the demise of the empire, Récamier reopened her salon in Paris. In 1817 she met the father of French romanticism, Chateaubriand, who was idolised by readers all over Europe, and he became a regular visitor to her gatherings. Other lesser lights, such as the philosopher Ballanche and the physicist Ampère, were equally assiduous.
Canova and Gérard carried on perpetuating her image. She was a born survivor, living through the Restoration and the July monarchy to watch over Chateaubriand as he died in 1848. The following year, she too died, aged 71, the victim of a cholera epidemic.
The exhibition illustrates her story with a wealth of detail, bringing together almost 200 paintings, busts, engravings, medals, garments and books. But above all it brings out the European scope of her fame, explaining how it was achieved and spread. Little has changed since: things just move faster thanks to photography, television and celebrity magazines.
But the persona invented by Récamier still works, thanks to a mixture of beauty, elegance, fortune, high society and art, constantly translated into wonderful pictures for a public that loves the scent of success. There is no shortage of contemporary imitators.”