Juliette Récamier: French Salon Hostess

 

Juliette Récamier was born Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard in Lyon on 4 December 1777. She 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
Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the age of fifteen, Juliette married a French banker nearly thirty years her senior. His name was Jacques-Rose Récamier. However, Juliette’s 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 other 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 Jacques-Rose 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, 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 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 “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 never forgot, and this meeting developed into a sincere friendship between the two women.

Madame de Stael, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Madame de Staël. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

From Madame de Staël, Juliette also met the French mathematician Camille Jordan, French lawyer, politician, and historian Pierre-Édouard Lémontey, and Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger scandalous brother. 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 had many other admirers than Lucien. To deal with the many men that found her fascinating, including Lucien, Juliette always assumed an attitude of pity followed by indifference. However, she was not cold or heartless. Her admirers and lovers thought of her as possessing some sort of magical charm and they became and remained friends with the lovely Juliette.

In 1803, Madame de Stael was exiled. Juliette was horrified and began to oppose Napoleon. Juliette also refused to act as lady-in-waiting to Empress consort Joséphine de Beauharnais, which created more problems for her with Napoleon. Moreover, many people who visited Juliette’s salon were former royalists unhappy with the 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 Napoleon. He exiled her in 1805, around the same time her husband suffered extensive financial losses. This resulted in her going to Lyon for a time, and from Lyon, she went to visit her dear exiled friend Madame de Staël. At the time, Madame de Staël was living at the Coppet in Switzerland. While visiting, 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 him, and now he needed her help because he was poor and old. He had been ruined in 1807, partly because of Juliette’s rancor towards Napoleon. However, she did temporarily think about suicide but instead decided to make the Prince a friend.

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

François-René de Chateaubriand, Courtesy of Wikipedia
François-René de Chateaubriand. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Years, earlier, due to extreme pressure from his family, Chateaubriand had married a young aristocratic woman who died in 1847. Juliette’s husband had died years earlier on 29 March 1830 in Paris. With Juliette widowed and Chateaubriand wife’s dead, Chateaubriand, who could barely walk, suggested 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, leaving his Parisian abode only to visit her at the Abbaye-aux-Bois.

Chateaubriand died on 4 July 1848 in Paris. He was buried, as requested, 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 contemporary and literary critic, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, wrote in tribute to the fair Juliette:

“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]

References:

  • [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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