Juliette Récamier: French Salon Hostess

Juliette Récamier was born Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard in Lyon on 4 December 1777, the same year that the Princesse de Lamballe and her sister-in-law were inducted into the Freemasons in the Adoptive Lodge called La Candeur. Juliette was the only child of Jean Bernard, the King’s counselor and a notary, and his wife, the former Marie Julie Matton. Juliette, as she was called, was described in personality and character as “tender-hearted, affectionate, charitable and kind, beloved in her home-circle and by all who know her.”[1]

French salon hostess: Juliette Récamier

Detail from painting of Juliette Récamier by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the age of fifteen, Juliette married a French banker nearly thirty years her senior named Jacques-Rose Récamier. However, her marriage to the handsome Jacques-Rose was in name only because they never consummated their marriage, and she remained a virgin until at least age forty. One reason for the lack of consummation may be explained by what Jacques-Rose wrote when thinking about his impending marriage to Juliette:

“I am not in love with her, but I feel for her a genuine and tender attachment which convinces me that this interesting creature will be a partner who will ensure the happiness of my whole life and, judging by my own desire to ensure her happiness, of which I can see she is absolutely convinced, I have no doubt that the benefit will be reciprocal.”[2]

Juliette Récamier, Portrait by by Jacques-Louis David, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Juliette Récamier. Portrait by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another reason for no consummation maybe that Jacques-Rose supposedly had an intimate relationship with Juliette’s mother (at least that was the rumor). According to Mary Elizabeth Mohl, a nineteenth British writer and salon hostess in Paris, Juliette was his daughter and their “marriage was the only way to assure the transmission of his fortune to Juliette [because of the problems associated with the Revolution].”[3] If what Madame Mohl alleges is true, it has never been proven, and some historians believe it and others don’t.

There’s also a third more logical reason why Juliette’s marriage may have been unconsummated. According to Prosper Mérimée, a French archaeologist and historian of the nineteenth century, Jacques-Rose never consummated the marriage because Juliette suffered from a physical condition that caused sex to be painful. A French doctor, historian, and author of numerous works of both fiction and history, Augustin Cabanès, also remarked on her physical condition in the late 1800s likening her condition to that of Queen Elizabeth I. He indicated that Juliette likely had some impenetrable membrane or vaginal band that prohibited or greatly deterred sex.

Juliette married Jacques-Rose at the height of the revolution. For the first few years they lived quietly with him regularly attending the spectacles that occurred at the guillotine. He was rich and being rich was enough to get you beheaded. So, later, when someone asked him why he visited the guillotine daily, he remarked, “I expected each day to share the same fate, and I went that I might prepare myself for it.”[4]

Juliette Récamier, though young, shy, and modest, was said to be accomplished and she soon had her own salon, which like other salons allowed for like-minded individuals to gather and discuss topics, such as literature, art, or politics. Her salon quickly became fashionable and was one of the chief salons for literary and political members of Parisian society. Many famous people visited that included the prominent British Whig statesman Charles James Fox who thought so highly of her he commented that “she was the only woman in France who united the attractions of pleasure to those of modesty.”[5]

In 1796, when Juliette was considered the social “Queen of Paris,” she met the famous Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, better known as Madame de Staël. She was a French woman of letters of Swiss origin. The meeting was something Juliette, often called Madame Récamier, never forgot, and this meeting developed into a sincere friendship between the two women that was long lasting.

Madame de Stael, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Madame de Staël. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

From Madame de Staël, Juliette Récamier also met the French mathematician Camille Jordan, Benjamin Constant (a Swiss-French political activist and writer on politics and religion), Pierre-Édouard Lémontey (French lawyer, politician, and historian), and Napoleon Bonaparte‘s younger scandalous brother, Lucien Bonaparte. One person wrote of him:

“[His] morals, even in those easy days, scandalized public opinion. Lucien promptly fell in love with the fair Juliette, and over the signature of ‘Romeo’ wrote her the most passionate love-letters. ‘Oh Juliette … life without love is but a long sleep. … Happy the moral who shall become the friend of your heart! ! ! … Well, Juliette, Romeo submits himself to the fate you reserve for him; but do not scorn him.'”[6]

Lucien Bonaparte, Public Domain

Lucien Bonaparte. Public domain.

Juliette Récamier was lauded for her beauty and her image was captured by many artists. In addition, she had many other admirers besides Lucien. To deal with the many men that found her fascinating she supposedly assumed an attitude of pity followed by indifference. However, she was not cold or heartless. Her admirers thought of her as possessing some sort of magical charm and once they became friends, they remained friends for life, like the friendships she had with Pierre-Simon Ballanche, Jean-Jacques Ampère, or Mathieu de Montmorency.

In 1803, Madame de Staël was exiled. Juliette was horrified and began to oppose Napoleon. She also refused to act as lady-in-waiting to the Empress, which created more problems for her with Napoleon. Moreover, many people who visited Juliette’s salon were former royalists unhappy with Napoleon’s government. These affronts soon resulted in Napoleon ordering her salon closed.

Juliette’s resolve against Napoleon did not lessen, and the closure of her salon was not her last tangle with him. He exiled her in 1805, around the same time her husband suffered extensive financial losses and she went into exile with her adopted daughter. Juliette also traveled to Lyon and from there she went to visit her dear friend Madame de Staël, who, at the time, was exiled and living at Coppet in Switzerland. While visiting her, Juliette met the Prince Augustus of Prussia, nephew of Frederick the Great, and the two fell madly in love. He swore:

“[B]y honor and by love to preserve in all purity the sentiment that attaches me to Juliette Recamier, to do all that duty permits me to bind myself to her by ties of marriage, and to take no other woman, as long as I shall have the hope of uniting my destiny to hers.”[7]

Juliette thought about marrying the Prince and though Jacques-Rose was willing to give her a divorce, she ultimately decided against it because her husband had taken good care of her. Moreover, he was poor and old and needed her more than ever. He had been ruined in 1807, partly because of Juliette’s rancor towards Napoleon. All the pressure about deciding whether to leave Jacques-Rose or not caused her to temporarily think about suicide, but instead, she decided to make the Prince a friend and that ended any talk of marriage to him.

Prince Augustus of Prussia with portrait of Madame Récamier in the background. Painted by Franz Krüger, circa 1817. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Madame de Staël had been sick for a time and died in 1817. While at her bedside, Juliette meet François-René de Chateaubriand for a second time. He came from an aristocratic family, suffered a somewhat difficult childhood, and was also the person credited with founding Romanticism in French literature. Before long, Juliette was in love with him and he was likewise attached to her. To the chagrin of other her admirers, Chateaubriand became foremost in her affections and attentions. An intimate relationship began around 1819, when she installed herself at the Abbaye-aux-Bois . There her little salon became the literary center of Paris once again and she received several impassioned love letters from him.

François-René de Chateaubriand, Courtesy of Wikipedia

François-René de Chateaubriand. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jacques-Rose died on 29 March 1830 in Paris. Years, earlier, due to extreme pressure from his family, Chateaubriand had married a young aristocratic woman who died in 1847. With Juliette widowed and Chateaubriand wife’s dead, Chateaubriand, who could barely walk, suggested that he and Juliette marry. At the time Juliette was going blind and though she temporarily considered marrying him, she was ultimately dissuaded. Thus, Chateaubriand’s final years were spent with him living as recluse and only leaving his Parisian abode only to visit her at the Abbaye-aux-Bois.

Chateaubriand died on 4 July 1848 in Paris, about two years before the wax sculptor Madame Tussaud died in London. As requested, Chateaubriand was buried on the tidal island Grand Bé near Saint-Malo, which is accessible only when the tide is out. Juliette lived less than a year. She died on 11 May 1849 of cholera at the age of 71. She was buried in the village Montmartre, north of Paris, in the cemetery known as Cimetière de Montmartre. One literary critic, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, wrote a tribute to the fair Juliette Récamier stating:

“Whatever may be said of her, the fact remains that she not only won the affection but also retained the respect of the foremost men and master-minds of her time: that during her long life she continued to add famous names to the number of her intimate friends; that without any pretensions to literary ability, she made herself one of the most prominent figures in the literary world of the early nineteenth century, and is more famous to-day, merely on account of her friends, than are some of those friends who have perhaps greater claims to fame.”[8]

Juliette Récamier on her death bed. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.


  • [1] Herriot, Edouard, Madame Récamier, Volume 1, 1906, p. 12.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Putnam’s Magazine, Volume 1, 1907, p. 320.
  • [4] Madame Récamier: With a Sketch of the History of Society in France, 1862, p. 7.
  • [5] Circumstantial Details of the Long Illness and Last Moments of Charles James Fox, Volume 5, 1806, p. 52.
  • [6] Putnam’s Magazine, p. 322.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 326-327.

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