Madame Juliette Récamier: Her Allure and Beauty

Madame Juliette Récamier was a socialite whose loveliness was internationally hailed. Many people mentioned her beauty. Among them was her adopted daughter, Marie Josephine Cyvoct who took the name Amélie and later became Madame Lenormant. She described her adopted mother in glowing terms stating:

“A supple and elegant figure, neck and shoulders admirable, both as to shape and proportion; a little red mouth, pearly teeth, pretty arms, perhaps a trifle too thin; naturally curling chestnut hair, and nose delicate and regular in shape, but very French in type; an incomparable brilliant complexion, that outshone all others, a physiognomy that was full of simplicity and occasionally most roguish, rendered irresistibly attractive by the kindliness of its expressional touch of something at once indolent and proud, and an admirably well-set head. To her truly must have been applied St. Simon’s words … that she walked like a goddess on the clouds.”[1]

Portrait of Madame Récamier by François Gérard with a Kashmir shawl. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A contemporary of Madame Récamier’s, Louis-Léonard de Loménie, a French scholar and essayist, also wrote that she was no ordinary beauty:

“A peculiarity of her beauty was that a first sight it was more attractive than dazzling; but the more one looked at her, the more beautiful she seemed.”[2]

A book on Madame Juliette Récamier was published in 1862 by Mary Elizabeth Mohl, a British writer also known as a Parisian salon hostess. She also highlighted Madame Récamier’s beauty claiming of her:

“It is probable that the keen appetite for all social enjoyment, sharpened by the long privation caused by terror, war, and famine, much increased the effect that Madame Récamier’s beauty produced. The few survivors from those days can scarcely find words to express the rapture she excited in a large and mixed public. By the revolution all distinctions of rank had been not only abolished but forgotten; every one pushed on pell-mell to see the beauty; and some few remember being half crushed to death in the Tuileries by the suburban crowds who would have a look at her.”[3]

From a young child, Madame Récamier’s mother taught her that her looks were important and because of her striking beauty, everyone wanted to paint her even if, as the Salt Lake Tribune noted, her “beauty no canvas could reproduce.”[4] Still painters tried to capture and immortalize her with their paint brushes. Perhaps one of the best known paintings was the one done by Jacques-Louis David in 1800 at the height of the Neoclassical fashion. David portrayed her reclining on a Directoire-style sofa and wearing a simple Empire dress with nearly bare arms and her hair in the short “à la Titus” style.

Madame Juliette Récamier, portrait by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although David and other artists made heroic attempts to capture her beauty on canvas, the Marshfield News-Herald exclaimed in 1934 that they missed the marked because “the exquisite coloring of her complexion defined the artist’s brush.”[5] Perhaps that is another reason why so many women wanted to imitate her and tried to learn her beauty secrets. One supposed way they could achieve her flawless complexion was to embrace one of her beauty routines, bathing her face, neck, and arms daily in a buttermilk bath.

There were also other stories about how Madame Juliette Récamier obtained such faultless and luminous skin. In the late 1880s it was claimed that she used a certain cream, a special formula that had been concocted specifically for her. The cream eventually became known as Madame Recamier Cream and was advertised and sold in the late 1800s by Mrs. Harriet Hubbard Ayer, an American socialite and cosmetics entrepreneur who married and then divorced an iron executive, Herbert Copeland Ayer, a man fourteen years her senior.

Mrs. Harriet Hubbard Ayer. Author’s collection.

Supposedly, during a trip to Paris Mrs. Ayer found a chemist who created creams and perfumes and bought his formula for a face cream reputedly used by the late Madame Juliette Récamier. Nonetheless, that was not the story that Mrs. Ayer told. When she began advertising her Madame Recamier Cream, she invented a much more interesting and innovative story claiming that she obtained the formula in the following manner:

“One day, in Paris, Mrs. Ayer, while suffering intensely from the scorching sun of a July journey across the English Channel, was offered a pot of cream by an old French lady friend, [anonymously known as Madame X] to be used on the face when retiring, being assured that it would do wonders in softening and beautifying the complexion. Its effects were so magical and so marvelous that Mrs. Ayer became anxious to possess the formula for the Cream, which she learned was not an article to be bought. But the old French lady refused to give the recipe, which (as she told Mrs. Ayer) was the one used by her beautiful and famous ancestor Julie Recamier, for forty years, and was the undoubted secret of her wonderful beauty, which as everybody knows, Mme. Recamier retained until her death.”[6]

Madame Juliette Récamier - 1898 version

An 1898 version of Madame Juliette Récamier. Author’s collection.

According to Mrs. Ayer, as she continued to persist in trying to get the formula from Madame X, she also had her friends try the cream too. They were likewise impressed, which caused Mrs. Ayers to become even more anxious to possess the formula. Because Madame X was pious and of the “old noblesse” she came one evening to Mrs. Ayer with a subscription paper for some church affair and it was then that Mrs. Ayer offered to buy it from Madame X:

“She refused at first, but finally consented on the condition that I should not say that I had purchased it from her. For years I made the Cream for my own and my friends’ used, and only after my circumstances were so changed that I was struggling for my own and my children’s support did I chose to supply dozens of my acquaintances gratis with Recamier Cream, which was then called, entre nous, ‘that French paste Mrs. Ayer makes.’ When at last I decided to put the Cream on the market, I wrote Mme. X ― about it, and obtained her consent to my telling how I secured the formula, stipulating only that I should not make her name public.”[7]

In 1886, supposedly using this secret formula, Mrs. Ayer came out with a whole line of Recamier beauty products. To increase the desirability of them she also added the Ayer name and family crest on the bottles. Besides the cream that Mrs. Ayer’s claimed produced velvety smooth skin and removed tans, sunburns, pimples, red spots, and blotches, she also sold Recamier Balm, Recamier Lotion, Recamier Powder, and Recamier Soap. The balm served a beautifier “pure and simple” while the lotion removed freckles and “moth patches” and smoothed away irritations. The powder helped women to achieve flawless skin and came in three shades “white, flesh, and cream” and the soap contained healing ingredients.*

Madame Recamier trade card for Ayer's Recamier cream

Trade card for Ayer’s Recamier Cream. Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth.

Although Mrs. Ayer was not a contemporary of Madame Juliette Récamier, Madame Rengault de Saint-Jean-d’Angély was, having gotten married about the same as Madame Récamier married Jacques-Rose. Many people claimed that Madame Rengault was as beautiful as Madame Récamier. Yet, according to Madame Rengault, Madame Récamier had a sway over people that she nor any other female possessed, and she noted that Madame Récamier produced an effect on people that all other women envied:

“I was at a party where I charmed and captivated all, but Madame Récaimer came in; the brilliancy of her eyes, which yet were not large, and inconceivable whiteness of her shoulders, crushed every one, eclipsed all: she was resplendent.”[8]

Madame Juliette Récamier - nineteenth century Neoclassical marble bust

Nineteenth century Neoclassical marble bust of Madame Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of 1stdib.

Frances Trollope, an English novelist and writer, was another contemporary of Madame Juliette Récamier’s and like others from this same time period, Trollope found the French beauty intriguing and captivating. She found her so interesting she mentioned her in her book Paris and Parisians in 1835 in which she reported:

“Of all the ladies with whom I have become acquainted in Paris, the one who appears to me to be the most perfect specific of an elegant Frenchwoman is Madame Récamier ― the same Madame Récamier, that I will not say how many years, I remember to have seen in London … Formerly I knew her only from seeing her in public, where she was pointed out to me as the most beautiful woman in Europe; but now that I have the pleasure of her acquaintance, I can well understand, though you who know her only by the reputation of her early may not, how and why it is that fascinations generally so evanescent are with her so lasting. She is in truth the very model of all grace. In person, manner, movement, dress, voice, and language, she seems universally allowed to be quite perfect; and I really cannot imagine a better mode of giving a last finish to a young lady’s study of the Graces, than by affording her an opportunity of observing every movement and gesture of Madame Récamier. … The perfect loveliness of Madame Récamier has made her a thing to wonder at; and now that she has passed the age when beauty is at its height, she is perhaps to be wondered at still more; for I really doubt if she ever excited more admiration than she does at present. She is followed, sought, looked at, listened to, and moreover, beloved and esteemed, by a very large circle of the first society in Paris, among whom are numbered some of the most illustrious literary names in France. … She contrives to make even the still-life around her partake of the charm for which she is herself so remarkable, and there is a fine and finished elegance in everything about her that is irresistibly attractive.”[9]

A third contemporary, the Duchess of Abrantes, also had high praise for the lovely Madame Juliette Récamier:

“She was a compound of ingenuous gracefulness, talent and goodness, harmonized by that delicacy which alone forms the charm of loveliness. I have often discovered a resemblance between her and the Madonnas of the pious Italian painters; but this resemblance was purely intellectual. It proceeded not from regularity of features, but from that soul which animated her eyes and beamed forth from under her long eye-lashes, and from the high and intellectual forehead, blushing under its fillet of leno, the only head-dress with which, for many years, she set off the charms of her countenance. In the smile which so often separates her lips of rose, you might perceive the innocent joy of a young and ravishing creature, happy to please and be loved – who saw nothing but bliss in nature, and answered the salutation of love which met her on all sides, by an expression of silent benevolence.”[10]

Madame Juliette Récamier

Madame Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Despite the high praise given for Madame Juliette Récamier’s beauty, most of those who associated with or who met her claimed that it was not her captivating appearance that made her so alluring. Supposedly, she was extremely kind and had a personality that drew people to her. The Kenosha News reported:

“The secret witchery which was so distinctive in Madame Recamier lay, perhaps, more in her warmth of heart; something in her nature even beyond her delicate and indefinable tact afforded the mysterious charm. Saint Beauve’s remark, that she carried the art of friendship to perfection.”[11]

One her best friends Pierre-Simon Ballanche, a French writer and counterrevolutionary philosopher, seconded this assessment. He also claimed of his good friend Madame Récamier:

“[She] lived much more in her friends than in herself … The worship of talent was one of her characteristics. Distinguished persons had a claim on her sympathy, and were destined to her charm and even to receive her affections.[12]

Pierre-Simon Ballanche. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After her death, women still wanted to copy her as her allure did not pass away with her death. Indicative of this is an article that appeared in the Evening Express in March of 1894 that reported on a “new fad” favored by society ladies of the Victorian Era. It involved recreating Madame Juliette Récamier’s famous pose painted by David.

“A style of photography much in vogue just now is that of ladies of rank and fashion being photographed in their night dresses and bare feet. It is a copy of a French fad of many years ago, recently revived, and is called the Recamier pose. Several celebrated Austrian beauties have had their portraits painted in this undress costume. An American lady reporter, who recently spent a week in a photographer’s studio as an assistant, thus describes a visit to the gallery of a well-known society woman, said to be tall and graceful, with beautiful brown eyes and great, quantities of russet brown hair: — After a few minutes spent in disrobing the lady, whose name (says the writer) I must refrain from mentioning, came out from her dressing-room. … A great divan, with a quantity of cushions, had been rolled in from the reception-room and upon this the lady threw herself, and with inimitable grace kicked off the slippers, disclosing a pair of dainty bare feet, the soles of which resembled the pink of a shell. … ‘Of course, you know in the character of the pose I must show a little more of my feet,’ said the lady, giving the skirt of her gown a slight elevation, and disclosing several inches one of two very white and very slender ankles.”[13]

*The wondrous claims that Mrs. Ayer made for her Récamier line were debunked in 1902 by the Boston Journal of Health when the journal accused Mrs. Ayer of producing cheap, ordinary preparations. The journal also alleged that the products contained harmful, even dangerous ingredients, such as the mercury component “corrosive sublimate,” in her products.


  • [1] The Rhondda Leader, “Bits from Books,” September 28, 1907, p. 5.
  • [2] E. Herriot, Madame Recamier (New York: W. Heinemann, 1906), p. 30.
  • [3] M.E.C. Mohl, Madame Récamier: With a Sketch of the History of Society in France (London: Chapman and Hall, 1862), p. 10.
  • [4] The Salt Lake Tribune, “Explanation of Last Sunday’s Cartoon,” January 18, 1931, p. 67.
  • [5] Marshfield News-Herald, “Declined Napoleon’s Order to be His Lady in Waiting,” January 24, 1934, p. 7.
  • [6] The Inter Ocean, “The Beginnings of Beauty,” December 2, 1888, p. 21.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The New Monthly Magazine v. 117 (Chapman and Hall, 1859), p. 455,
  • [9] The Morning Chronicle, “Literature,” March 22, 1836, p. 3.
  • [10] The Atheneum v. 31 (Boston: Kane and Company, 1832), p. 390.
  • [11] Kenosha News, “Beauty Won Hearts,” January 17, 1898, p. 7.
  • [12] E. Herriot. 1906, p. xiv.
  • [13] Evening Express, “Posing for the Camera,” March 31, 1894, p. 1.

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