Socialite Madame Récamier: Interesting Facts About Her

Socialite Madame Récamier, also known as Juliette Récamier, was a native of Lyon, France born on 3 December 1777. She was the only child of Jean Bernard, a King’s counselor, and his wife Julie Matton. She went on to marry one of the richest men in France, a banker named Jacques-Rose Récamier. She made a name for herself, partly because of her beauty, partly because of her wealth, and partly because of personality. To understand more about her, here are nineteen facts:

Socialite Madame Récamier

Madame Récamier. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Fact #1: Madame Récamier’s beauty and allure were regular mentioned and her adopted daughter, Marie Josephine Cyvoct, who took the name Amélie and later became Madame Lenormant, once 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]

Fact #2: Socialite Madame Récamier entertained many people but perhaps one of the most interesting was Victor of Averyon. People described him as a feral boy who was discovered in the late 1700s. His social visit to her became the talk of the town, especially after he ran across her lawn stripped to his undershirt, which brought her and all her guests outside to “capture” him.

Fact #3: Just like the Princesse de Lamballe had favorite books, so too did socialite Madame Récamier. Among some of her favorites were those discovered by J.F. Reichardt, a former maître de chapelle under Frederick II who attended a fete at Madame Récamier’s during one of his visits to Paris in 1792, 1802, and 1803. He reported that he found scattered about the rooms of house and sitting on the furniture was such things as “Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Young’s Night Thoughts and Raynal’s Histoire philosophique des deux Indes.”[2]

Fact #4: One interesting tale about Madame Récamier happened when she was a young girl. A son of her father’s friend was mischievous if not wayward. He constantly raided his neighbors vineyards for their grapes and one day he enlisted Juliette in one of his raids. It went bad because the neighbor was on guard against thieves after suffering loss after loss. He then caught Juliette red-handed and as I noted in my book Napoleon’s Downfall:

“What happened next explains the appeal of Juliette’s beauty. It so disarmed the neighbor that, rather than scold the tearful and trembling girl, he begged her to stop crying. He also promised not to tell her parents about the thefts and even sent her home with her pinafore full of grapes.”[3]

Fact #5: One particularly humorous story related to the socialite Madame Récamier involves Joseph Fouché, the first Minister of Police. He had been ordered to Rome and then Naples to watch the movements of Napoleon Bonaparte’s colorful brother-in-law Joachim Murat. To help Fouché travel swiftly his carriage was to be readied in advance at each relay. Juliette and a friend were also traveling the same route and they made better time than expected because at each relay, their carriage was prepared and waiting. Madame Récamier could not help laughing when she later learned the reason; she and her companion had made such good time because of mistaken identity. Apparently, it was Fouché’s carriage that had been given to them each time.

Joseph Fouché. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Fact #6: The beautiful Madame Récamier was also known to have been a superb dancer and to have loved dancing. The Public Ledger noted her penchant for it reporting:

“She was passionately fond of dancing … and at her debut in society she made it a point of honor to arrive at the balls the first and to leave the last.”[4]  

Fact #7: Much as Marie Antoinette was noted to glide across the floor when she walked, socialite Juliette Recamier was known for her exemplary grace. Many people wanted to copy her poise and elegance and numerous articles were written about how she achieved it. Utah’s Eureka Reporter seemed to have the answer when it stated:

“Madame Recamier whose beauty and charm were the marvel of her generation was asked how she had become so graceful as never to betray awkwardness in the slightest motion. She replied, ‘By always acting in private as if the eyes of the court were upon me.’”[5]

Fact #8: Another interesting thing about the French socialite Madame Récamier was her bedroom. It was in fact a room everyone wanted to visit it. Many people mentioned it and it was cited as being more luxurious than even that of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais. In fact, according to The Caledonian Mercury, her bedroom was “a matter of curiosity in Paris ― nothing can be more superb … all strangers have immediate admittance when the apartments are not occupied.”[6]

Fact #9: Madame Récamier met Prince Augustus of Prussia when she was staying with her best friend Madame de Staël, daughter of Jacques Necker, finance minister to Louis XVI. Juliette and the Prince fell in love and he wanted to marry her. The idea of being a Prussian princess was highly appealing to her but in the end, she realized she would have to give up too much. The Prince however continued to have a strong desire to be with her and because of this she sent him a portrait in 1808 completed by François Gérard in 1802. It hung at Prince Augustus’ palace until he died (19 July 1843) and was then returned to Juliette under his orders. Gérard’s portrait depicts Madame Récamier in a leisurely pose dressed in a white dress and barefoot.

Socialite Madame Récamier by François Gérard

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

Fact #10: Many men besides Prince Augustus were smitten by the charms of Madame Récamier. Among them was the Duke of Wellington, who although enamored by her discovered that she was much less unimpressed by him and considered him neither “animated” nor “interesting.”

Fact #11: Another smitten lover was Lucien, brother to Napoleon. Of course, Lucien had no more luck than Wellington did. Lucien fell madly in love with Madame Récamier at first sight and began to refer to her as his Juliette and called himself her “Romeo.” He also began to send her dozens of effusive love letters expressing his love:

“Lucien’s letters were far from literary masterpieces, and his corny words did not endear Juliette to him. … Eventually, … she reached her limit and showed her letters to her husband. She wanted him to forbid Lucien from visiting … He told her that to shut the door to Napoleon’s brother was unthinkable … Instead, he counselled her to continue to demonstrate prudence and wisdom.”[7]

Lucien Bonaparte by François-Xavier Fabre (1800). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eventually, the relationship between Lucien and Madame Récamier ended, and bad blood developed between the two when Lucien learned that she had read his letters to her friends and ridiculed him. He, however, gained some satisfaction when at a dinner party that Juliette was attending, he was asked to toast to the most beautiful woman in the room. She thought he would name her and blushed in expectation but instead he raised his glass and toasted to “Peace,” citing it as the most beautiful woman.

Fact #12: As mentioned Juliette’s complexion was said to be exquisite. Mrs. Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a cosmetic entrepreneur, in the late 1800s therefore decided to create a cosmetic line and to name her line after the socialite Madame Récamier. Ayers’ promised women they too would have skin as beautiful as Juliette’s. Among the products sold in Ayer’s line were a face cream, lotion, balm, powder, and soap. Click here to learn more about Madame Récamier’s beauty and Ayer’s and her products.

Fact #13: Socialite Madame Récamier encountered the famous Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova after Napoleon banished her. She met him while visiting in Rome and they hit it off and became great friends. After Napoleon’s downfall in 1814 and before Juliette returned to Paris, she stopped at Canova’s studio to tell him goodbye. She found that he had created two plaster casts of her from memory – one plain and the other veiled – but rather than represent her physical beauty they were attempts by him to copy her soul.

“Unfortunately, Juliette disliked both … Canova … was highly disappointed … The plain bust never appeared again and no one seems to know what happened to it. As to the veiled one, Canova transformed it and added a crown of olives. He called it the ‘Beatrice of Dante’ after Dante’s muse. … it became one of his most famous sculptures.”[8]

Canova’s Beatrice of Dante. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts of Boston.

Fact #14: Socialite Madame Récamier was often referred to as one of the “three graces,” the other two being the future Empress Josephine and Thérésa Cabarrus, called Madame Tallien. The three graces were some of the well-known leaders of the Merveilleuses (marvelous women), who were counterparts to the Incroyables (male incredibles) of the late 1700s.* These groups not only affected fashion but also influenced politics and art.

The Merveilleuses also scandalized Paris with their sheer and transparent gowns made from linen and gauze. Cleavage was brazenly on display and fashions were so shameless one writer reported that morality was at “its lowest ebb.” Women also threw off their veils and “yearned to adopt the costume woven of air … ‘The Merveilleuses’ exhaled an atmosphere of voluptuous complacency. … Clothed, semi-nude, almost nude, such was the progression of the day.”[9] In fact, dresses were so transparent that skin-tight pockets were prohibited, which resulted in women carrying tiny handbags known as reticules.

The three graces were so important in Paris that one journal concluded that “Mme Tallien, Mme de Beauharnais, [and] Mme Récamier … pursuing the current fantasies of Graeco-Roman dress and decoration … are of more consequence than all five armies on the five fronts.”[10] Moreover, Madame Tallien, better known as “Our Lady of Thermidor,” reputedly wore expensive rings on her bare toes and gold circlets on her ankles.

Fact #15: There were numerous articles about the fashions that socialite Madame Récamier chose and her popularity among Parisians during the late 1700s and early 1800s. One description of her at that time appeared in the Public Ledger about 25 years after she passed. It stated:

“M’me Recamier, dressed in the style of Aspasia, almost in peplum, with sandals which showed her feet on a tiger skin, her hair falling in ringlets over a snowy neck kissed gently by the March sun, her arms bare, except where they were encircled by cameos, allowed herself to be adored at distance by all the Incroyables and all the Muscadins like an idol of an ancient temple.”[11]

Fact #16: Besides the painting by Gérard, the Madame Récamier also commissioned another portrait from Jacques-Louis David, a French artist who painted in the Neoclassical style. However, for some unknown reason, he was slow and never finished it. She grew impatient and then commissioned his student Gérard to paint her. David’s unfinished portrait remained in his studio and likely remained unseen, until it entered the Louvre in 1826.

Socialite Madame Récamier - Jacques-Louis David

Unfinished portrait of socialite Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact #17: Socialite Madame Récamier is the woman for whom the Récamier couch was named. It is a type of couch or chaise that is usually backless with graceful scrolled ends. She liked to relax, recline, and lounge, and as mentioned, several paintings show her in such a position, which may have been why the Récamier couch acquired its name.

Fact #18: Socialite Madame Récamier became inextricably intertwined with François-René de Chateaubriand, a French writer and historian who founded Romanticism in French literature. She fell in love with him soon after her best friend, Madame de Staël, died. Juliette relationship with Chateaubriand seemed unusual as he was reported to have been a demanding, difficult, and self-centered windbag whereas most people thought of Juliette as being as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Chateaubriand, who called her Leonie, became smitten and once mentioned how he thought of her:

“Leonie is tall, her figure is charming. Leonie is beautiful. What makes her face so rarely beautiful is the oval line which one sees in Raphael’s women alone. It expresses the sweetness, the delicacy and the kindness. The soul and character of Leonie are noticeable for the same qualities of beauty. But the special feature about her personality is a piquant spirit and a romantic imagination, in contrast with her natural tranquil manner. At times her words are impassioned, while her face is timid and naïve. One finds there a mixture of the virgin and the muse. One falls with love at her feet, and she holds you there, filled with respect.”[12]

François-René de Chateaubriand. Public domain.

Fact #19: Juliette died on 11 May 1849 after contracting cholera. Although “cholera is claimed to leave ‘frightful traces,’ those present at her death found Juliette spared any signs … Her beauty that had won her admirers and lovers remained perfectly intact as if she was a statue of grace and sweetness.”[13]

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


* The Merveilleuses and Incroyables emerged from the Muscadins, and although the terms were sometimes used interchangeably, the Muscadins came from a lower social background and were primarily middle-class citizens compared to the Merveilleuses and Incroyables who were members of the ruling class.

References:

  • [1] The Rhondda Leader, “Bits from Books,” September 28, 1907, p. 5.
  • [2] E. Herriot, Madame Recamier (New York: W. Heinemann, 1906), p. 92.
  • [3] G. Walton, Napoleon’s Downfall: Madame Récamier and Her Battle with the Emperor (London: Pen and Sword History, 2020), p. 13.
  • [4] Public Ledger, “Beautiful Recamier,” December 2, 1875, p. 1.
  • [5] The Eureka Reporter, “Acquiring Grace,” May 12, 1905, p. 7.
  • [6] The Caledonian Mercury, “Paris Journal,” December 18, 1802, p. 3.
  • [7] G. Walton, p. 37.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 125–26.
  • [9] F. Loliée and B. O’Donnell, Prince Talleyrand and His Times (New York: Brentano’s, 1912), p. 137.
  • [10] A. Stuart, Josephine: The Rose of Martinique (London: Pan Macmillan, 2011), p. 165.
  • [11] Public Ledger, p. 1.
  • [12] D. Austrian, Juliette Recamier (R.F. Seymour, 1922), p. 91.
  • [13] G. Walton, p. 171–72.

Google+ Comments

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Comment