Madame Récamier’s Bedroom: A Masterpiece

Everyone wanted to see Madame Récamier’s bedroom at her house located in the Chaussée d’Antin that had once belonged to Jacques Necker, minister to Louis XVI. The Récamiers purchased the house in 1798 through Necker’s daughter, Madame de Staël, who was selling the home for him. After they purchased it the Récamiers had the house repaired and enlarged.

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

The Récamiers also set about redecorating and hired architect Louis-Martin Berthault in collaboration with his mentor, architect Charles Percier. All of the new furniture to be installed in the house was custom made from original designs, causing Madame Récamier’s adopted daughter to state, “so much luxury and elegance, unwonted at the period, excited a great deal of remark.”[1] In addition:

“[The house] represented the taste of a post-revolutionary moneyed elite; [Madame Récamier’s] husband, a banker, was one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s chief backers. When a description of her house appeared in the 1803 Monthly Review as part of ‘A Rough Sketch of Modern Paris’ it was prefaced by an account of the three classes that made up post-revolutionary Parisian society: ‘1st, l’ancienne nobless, or old nobility; 2ndly, the governmental class, or constituted authorities; and 3dly’, the class represented by Madame Recamier, ‘les parvenus, ou nouveaux riches, upstarts or new gentry.’”[2]

Madame Récamier's bedroom - Louis-Martin Berthault

Louis-Martin Berthault. Public domain.

As work on the building was undertaken, word of the costly mansion spread throughout Paris and because most people saw it as an extravagant display of wealth, Parisian and visitors to Paris wanted to see it. Among those lucky enough to visit was Miss Mary Berry, an English woman who had met Madame Récamier for the first time during the Peace of Amiens, a peaceful period in 1802 that allowed people like Madame Tussaud to travel to England and Eliza de Feuillide to travel to France. Berry stated of her first meeting with Madame Récamier in April of 1802:

“Dined at Mr. Jacksons: the women were Madame de Brignole, Madame Recteren, a Spaniard, wife to a Count Recteren, formerly Minister from Holland to Spain, a lively looking woman, and Madame Récamier, a rich banker’s wife, who has the finest house in Paris in the new style, and is herself the decided beauty of the new world, for if she can be handsome, it is entirely a figure de fantasie. She has a clear complexion, is young, tall, dressed with much affectation of singularity in the extravagance of the mode; her manners are douceureuses, thinking much of herself, with perfect carelessness about others; for, besides being a beauty, she has pretension, I understand to belesprit. They may be as well founded, and yet not sufficient to burn her for a witch.”[3]

Several days later Berry visited Madame Récamier’s house and reported on the interior stating:

“There are no large rooms, nor a great many of them; but it is certainly fitted up with all the recherche and expense possible in what is now called le goût antique. But the candelabra, pendules, & c., though exquisitely finished, are in that sort of minute frittered style which I think so much less noble than that of fifteen or twenty years ago. All the chairs are mahogany enriched with ormolu, and covered either with cloth of silk, those in the salon trimmed with flat gold lace in good taste.”[4]

As to Madame Récamier’s bedroom, Berry could not help but gush:

“Her bed is reckoned the most beautiful in Paris – it, too, is of mahogany enriched with ormolus and bronze, and raised upon two steps of the same wood. Over the whole bed was thrown a great coverlid or veil of fine plain muslin embroidered as a border. The curtains were muslin, trimmed and worked like the coverlid, suspended from a sort of carved couronne de roses, and tucked up in the drapery upon the wall, against which the bed stood. At the foot of the bed stood a fine Grecian lamp or ormolu, with a little figure of the same metal bending over it; and at the head of the bed another stand, upon which was placed a large ornamented flower-pot, contain a large artificial rose-tree, the branches of which must nod very near her nose in bed. Out of this bedroom is a beautiful little salle de bain. The walls inlaid with stain-wood and mahogany, and slight arabesque patterns in black upon the satin-wood. The bath presents itself as a sofa in recess, covered with a cushion of scarlet cloth embroidered and laced with black. Beyond this again is a very little boudoir entirely lined with quilted peagreen lustring, drawn together in a bunch in the middle of the ceiling.”[5]

Another visitor to Paris during the Peace of Amiens was Joseph Farington, an 18th-century English landscape painter and diarist. Like Berry, Farington was impressed when he saw the Récamier’s house. However, he also noted that it was not just a display of wealth and specifically stated of Madame Récamier’s bedroom:

“Her house is furnished with singular elegance … evidently not in the way which any Upholsterer would prosper but from the designs of an Architect of high and cultivated taste. There is also that uniformity in all the parts of the furniture according properly to the design of the whole that shows that everything was done under direction of one uniform plan … it is in the bedchamber of Mme. Récamier that the Artist has endeavoured to exhibit the highest proofs of its taste … The whole is so ideal, that is so little similar to any fashion which prevails, that it certainly has the same effect on the mind that looking at a beautiful design in painting would have. The rich and costly appearance of the furniture is only a second consideration; it is the taste and elegance which most delight the eye.”[6]

Madame Récamier's bedroom described by Joseph Farington

Joseph Farington. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A third person who saw the house and Madame Récamier’s bedroom was J.F. Reichardt. He was a former maître de chapelle under Frederick II and visited Paris in 1792, 1802, and 1803. During one of his trips the Récamiers invited him to one of their splendid fetes. As he had some time to visit, he provided a lengthy description of all the amazing details that he witnessed inside the house. His description was later published in a book on Madame Récamier by author Edward Herriot in 1906.

“The house, Reichardt says, was not very immense, but it was imposing-looking, particularly on a night when there was fete. In the courtyard there were numerous lamp-posts, on the stone steps Turkey carpets and rare shrubs and flowers. The suite of rooms consisted of the hall, two drawing-rooms to the right, Madame Récamier’s bedroom, bath-room, and boudoir, the two latter rooms on the left. Each time a lady entered the mistress of the house said: ‘Would you like to see my bedroom?’ Madame Recamier then took her guest by the arm and led her to the most elegant room in all the house, whereupon the men ‘young and old,’ hurried forward to have their share in the sight.

Reichardt was not more discreet than the others, since he can describe the sanctuary to us in all its details. The bedroom, he tells us, was very large: the walls almost entirely covered with high, wide mirrors all in one piece. Between the glasses and the inlaid doors of artistic workmanship, a white wainscoting with brown beading relieved by bronze ornamentation. Facing the windows, the wall at the far end of entirely formed of a glass. The ‘couch of the goddess’ … was all white and covered with the finest Indian textures. The woodwork of the bed was of a beautiful antique shape and was also ornamented with bronze. Elegant vases were placed on the two steps of the raised platform on which it stood. At the back were two tall candelabra, each one of six or eight branches. The bedcurtains were white. At the back was a heavy violet curtain of damask which fell in handsome folds; it was well raised at the sides for the glass on the wall to be left free, so that when Madame Récamier was in bed she could be seen reflected in it from head to foot.

Reichardt also saw the bathroom. Like Madame Récamier’s bedroom, it was also ornamented with glasses, partly covered with heavy green silk. He describes the bath, which could be, when wanted, transformed into a soft, covered with red morocco.”[7]

Although Madame Récamier’s bedroom is long gone, some of her eighteenth century bedroom furniture can be seen today at the Louvre. The pieces shown in the image below were created in 1799 by the Jacob brothers (George II Jacob and Jacob Desmalter). They are Neoclassical in style and created from mahogany, ebony, copper, gilded bronze, and marble. In addition, the porcelain vases were manufactured by de Dagoty.

Madame Récamier's bedroom - pieces

Pieces from Madame Récamier’s bedroom. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although all the pieces are interesting, some people claim it wasn’t Madame Récamier’s bedroom but her bed that was of real interest. The Chester Courant seemed to suggest that was true with what they wrote in 1803:

“When Madame Recamier’s grand state bed, the most costly and elegant in Europe, was properly finished, she was embarrassed about the means of shewing it to advantage. To ask people to go and look it, to a shew of it was deemed vulgar and ostentatious. … About a fortnight … she invited a large party of the principal persons in Paris to a splendid ball … but Madame was too much indisposed to appear. … All was gloom and sorrow at Madame’s indisposition, and all of Paris went next day to inquire the state of her health. She was well enough to receive her friends, but not to quit her bed. Everyone was shown up to the state bed-room in which Madame was sitting up, dressed, with more apparel than she wears when she goes out. Her night-clothes were of the finest articles, and the richest laces which Europe could produce; but the bed! – every one was amazed at its richness and grandeur. Madame enjoyed the astonishment of the surrounding circle with an affected indifference, but with much real pride; and for a week after, nothing was heard of but Madame Recamier’s bed.”[8]

Madame Récamier's bedroom - her bed

Madame Récamier’s bed. Courtesy of French Wikipedia.

The bed with two regal swans was indeed magnificent. It is thought to have been a prototype created by Percier, as a bed similar to Madame Récamier’s bed is found in a sketch signed by Percier at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Mahogany was used to highlight the bronze work that include the goddess of night, Diane, poppies, and an antique palmette.

Besides the bed, there are two nightstands. One was used at the bedside and the other served as a planter where at one time, as mentioned above, a large artificial rose-tree stood. Furthermore, according to the Louvre:

“The bed rests on a base with angles protected by palmettes in gilded bronze. The bed was designed to be parallel to the wall and fitted with two bedside tables of equal height. These bedside tables are made up of a molded base and a rolled-up backrest. The front of these nightstands are decorated with a woman in gilded bronze dressed in the peplum and wearing a crescent moon and holding lighted torches. … At the base of each bedside are swans … linked by a slightly curved cross bordered by a large garland, patinated bronze, poppy flowers [an allusion to sleep] with a golden heart wrapped.”[9]

Besides the bed and the nightstands, there is also a secretary that was used in Madame Récamier’s bedroom. It was once positioned between two windows against a wall and faced the bed. Bronze decorations on it include two kneeling winged figures that face each other holding a garland of flowers and fruit. On the bottom door, a young winged goddess places her left hand on an urn framed by two flower stems.

Secretary in Madame Récamier’s bedroom. Courtesy of French Wikipedia.

Madame Récamier will always be remembered for the art of reclining and perhaps that is why her bedroom is still of major interest today. It certainly didn’t hurt that Jacques-Louis David’s picture of her helped to create the idea of her lounging on a chaise, that then became known as a recamier. Nor did it hurt that everyone wanted to describe her bedroom including author Henry Dwight Segwick who wrote in his 1940 Madame Récamier: The Biography of a Flirt:

“[Madame Récamier’s] bed-chamber was the most elaborate in its finish; the ceiling was high, and the walls were covered with great mirrors with white woodwork between, touched up with delicate bronze ornaments. The bed stood on a platform; the curtains that hung from the canopy were of violet damask and fine muslin; the lambrequins were of satin.”[10]

Juliette Récamier lounging in a portrait by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] A. Lenormant, Memoirs and Correspondence of Madame Récamier. (Boston: Roberts Brother, 1867), p. 13.
  • [2] I. Haywood, S. Matthews and M. L. Shannon, Romanticism and Illustration (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 128.
  • [3] M. Berry, Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry from the year 1783 to 1852. v. 2 (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1866), p. 177.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 191.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 191–92.
  • [6] T. Canepa, “Furniture History,” Furniture History Society 38 (2002): p. 108.
  • [7] E. Herriot, Madame Recamier (New York: W. Heinemann, 1906), p. 89–90.
  • [8] Chester Courant, “Madame Recamier’s Bed,” January 18, 1803, p. 2.
  • [9] M. Barbier, “Lit de Madame Récamier,” Louvre.
  • [10] H. D. Sedgwick, Madame Récamier: The Biography of a Flirt (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1940), p. 49.

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