Récamier, Juliette (1777–1849)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Récamier, Juliette (1777–1849)

Parisian woman, one of the most beautiful of her day, who attracted the devotion of many of the leading politicians, writers, and social leaders in Europe and whose salons were among the most popular with Parisian society. Name variations: Madame Récamier or Madame Recamier; Jeanne Françoise Julie Adelaïde Récamier; de Récamier. Born Jeanne Françoise Julie Adelaïde Bernard in Lyons, France, on December 4, 1777; died in Paris, France, on May 11, 1849; daughter of Jean Bernard (a notary of Lyons and later collector of customs in Paris) and Juliette Matton Bernard; married Jacques Rose Récamier (a wealthy banker), on April 24, 1793; no children.

Presided over one of the wealthiest and most popular salons in Paris (1795–1806); lived in exile in Europe (1806–07, 1811–14); returned to Paris and continued to attract the cream of Parisian society to her gatherings (1814–49).

Jeanne Françoise Julie Adelaïde Bernard was born in 1777 into the turbulent world of France. Within 12 years of her birth, the tension of the Bourbon monarchy had erupted into the French Revolution. Over the course of her life, France would be rocked by the Reign of Terror and the rise and fall of Napoleon, only to find itself back under the government of the Bourbon monarchs in 1815. This was a period of intellectual and literary flowering, but it was also a time of shifting political loyalties and uncertainty.

"Juliette," as she preferred to be called, was largely sheltered from the upheavals of the day. Her father Jean Bernard was a notary in Lyons until, in 1784, he was appointed collector of customs in Paris. Leaving Juliette in the care of her mother's sister in Ville-franche, the Bernards moved to Paris, where they remained on the fringes of Parisian society. After several months at Ville-franche, Juliette was moved to live with another of her mother's sisters, a nun at the convent of La Déserte in Lyons. She later recalled her life there "like a vague, sweet dream, with its clouds of incense, its innumerable ceremonies, its processions in the gardens, its chants, and its flowers," and credited this early influence for her later religious faith: "I have been able to retain my religious belief, though coming in contact with persons of such various and contradictory opinions. I have listened to them, understood them, admitted them, as far as they were admissible; but I have never allowed doubt to enter my heart."

When Juliette regretfully left the convent to live with her parents in 1791, her mother Juliette Matton Bernard decided to introduce her to the wonders of Parisian society. Although Juliette learned to take great pains with her dress and her toilette, and even learned to play a little on the harp and the piano, she never undertook any academic studies. Her parents entertained regularly, and one of their most constant visitors was an old family friend, Jacques Récamier, a wealthy Lyonese banker. Récamier was described as a handsome man with fair hair and blue eyes and a kindly, optimistic nature. In 1793, he asked Juliette's parents for her hand in marriage. Juliette was 15; Récamier was 42. Despite the difference in their ages, Juliette agreed to the match, and on April 14, 1793, the two were wed in a small civil ceremony, which was celebrated quietly since it occurred at the height of the Reign of Terror.

[T]his young woman forms a remarkable study, for, at an age when girls dream only of reigning over a heart … she was thinking how to dominate men, salons, and society itself.

—Joseph Turquan

Monsieur and Madame Récamier seem to have developed a harmonious, if distant, relationship. Contemporaries as well as later biographers commented upon Jacques' paternal concern for his young wife, and Madame Récamier even admitted to her niece in later years that she had been Jacques' wife in name only. In fact, speculation abounded that Jacques was actually Juliette's father, and that she was the product of an earlier liaison with Juliette's mother in Lyons. Jacques set Juliette up in a well-furnished château but spent most of his nights in a small apartment in Paris closer to his business.

Soon after Juliette's marriage, the Reign of Terror burned itself out, and Parisian society began to reappear. Madame Récamier's beauty drew the attention of the Parisian crowds, and her combination of wealth and good looks gave her a certain level of celebrity uncommon for someone without an aristocratic background. Contemporaries waxed eloquent over her white, glistening shoulders and perfect complexion. Her brown hair and eyes set off a countenance of neat, regular features in her round face. She was noted for her elegant figure, especially for her well-proportioned neck, shoulders and arms. As her celebrity grew, she found herself surrounded by the best of Parisian society. On one occasion, she agreed to take on the responsibility of handing around a purse to collect charitable contributions for the Church of St. Roch. On the day of the collection, the church was so full that people stood on chairs, pillars and altar pieces just to catch a glimpse of the famous beauty. The collection was an immense success, bringing in the unheard-of sum of 20,000 francs.

Monsieur Récamier encouraged his young wife to entertain, realizing that her growing celebrity was good for business, and Juliette enjoyed holding salons and parties. Her entertainments were enormously successful: men of the highest rank and the most celebrated wit competed with each other to honor Récamier, and she became "the inaccessible goal of the ambition of a hundred Don Juans." Most of the highest-ranking members of the French aristocracy had emigrated from France during the Terror, and many of them had returned to find financial ruin. They could not dream of opening salons of their own, and so were willing to bestow the honor of their presence upon the salons of the nouveau-riche. Although she was no wit herself, Madame Récamier was able to attract some of the most distinguished minds of her time to her salons. She was widely praised for her tact, which allowed her to bring together men of contrary ideas or competing political factions in apparent harmony under her roof. Since many of her fêtes kept her up until dawn, she came into the habit of sleeping until four in the afternoon, at which time she rose, took her bath and dressed. If any visitor presented himself before the five o'clock hour, her porter would turn him away, noting "Madame's day has not commenced."

In 1798, Jacques Récamier became convinced that their house was too small, and he bought a house in the Rue de Mont Blanc that had belonged to Jacques Necker and Suzanne Necker . It was during this transaction that Madame met and established a lasting friendship with the Neckers' daughter, Madame Germaine de Staël . Monsieur Récamier gave Juliette carte blanche to decorate the house without regard to cost, and the luxury and elegance of the furnishings generated a great amount of interest and comment.

Madame de Staël, whose pre-Revolutionary salons had made her one of the most distinguished intellectuals of Paris, took an immediate liking to Madame Récamier. They quickly became close friends and confidantes. Juliette could not equal Madame de Staël in wit or learning, but her charming and sympathetic nature made her popular among the most learned members of Parisian society.

Madame Récamier's reign at the top of Parisian society was not destined to last for long, however. The rampant speculation that accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power began to take its toll on her husband's business interests. Napoleon is said to have become much enamored of Juliette, but when he offered her a position in the household of his sister Carolina Bonaparte , she turned him down. Perhaps in response to this unaccustomed rebuff, when Monsieur Récamier's bank suffered a series of reverses a few months later, Napoleon refused a state loan to keep the bank afloat, and Jacques was forced to declare bankruptcy in October 1806.

To their credit, many of Juliette's friends were sympathetic to her plight. Several of the best Parisian families had been reduced to relative penury in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon's meteoric rise. The Récamiers left Paris for the provinces, where Juliette was able to "hide from the fashionable world, so often dazzled by her brilliant fêtes, that she was no longer financially able to open her doors," writes one of her biographers. "This saved her from the bitterness of seeing her house put up for sale, and in the meanwhile of living miserably on a single floor." To Juliette's great relief, Madame de Staël, who had been banished by Napoleon in 1803 because her political views were spoken a little too freely, offered her an invitation to join her at her house in Coppet, on the Swiss side of Lake Leman.

While living at Coppet, Juliette met Prince Augustus of Prussia, the heir to the Prussian throne. Augustus was so entranced with Juliette's beauty that he asked her to marry him, although Juliette was already married, and her status as a Frenchwoman, a commoner, and a Catholic made her quite unsuitable as a candidate for the Prussian throne. Madame Récamier was so excited by the offer that she wrote to her husband of 14 years at once, asking for a divorce on the grounds that their marriage had only been a civil one and had never been solemnized by the Church. Unbelievably, Monsieur Récamier wrote back giving his consent to the divorce, but warning Juliette that the king of Prussia was unlikely to approve of the match and that Augustus' reputation in Europe had earned him the nickname "Prince Don Juan." In 1807, Augustus returned to Prussia, and Madame Récamier returned to Paris. They kept up a correspondence for several months, but finally gave up on their scheme. Augustus contented himself with a painting Madame Récamier sent him of herself by the artist François Gérard.

Because of her continuing connection to Madame de Staël, in 1811 Napoleon banished Madame Récamier from Paris, forcing her to live outside a 100-mile radius of the city. For the next several years, until Napoleon was defeated and sent to Elba in 1814, she flitted through the provinces, living in a succession of hotels. In 1813, Juliette, accompanied by her seven-yearold niece, whom she had adopted, went to Rome. While she was there, the sculptor Canova made two busts of the great beauty; when Madame Récamier found them to be less flattering than she desired, however, Canova angrily gave them new titles and sold them.

During his wife's exile, Monsieur Récamier had slowly rebuilt his fortune, and Juliette was able to return in 1814 to reclaim her place as queen of Parisian society. Her popularity was not diminished by her prior absence from the social scene, and, at 37, she still had the ability to inspire passion in the hearts of the most successful and famous men of her time. Benjamin Constant, the famous writer and diplomat, became one of her most ardent admirers, and is said to have written some of his most stinging indictments of Napoleon as a result of her influence.

Madame Récamier's contemporaries and her later biographers, some of whom have depicted her as a cold-hearted flirt, have been hard pressed to explain her ability to attract the most distinguished men of her time as admirers. Poorly educated and lacking in political ambition, what did Juliette have to offer her illustrious friends, especially after her husband's fortune failed and her own beauty was dimmed by encroaching age? Biographers have depicted her life story as "the little thread which binds many other stories together." She certainly lived her life for her friends, and perhaps, as one biographer noted, "having no children, Madame Récamier consoled herself by having academicians." She has been much praised for her ability to convert her most ardent lovers into lasting friends. Notes another biographer: "She did not extinguish the passions she inspired. Rather she tempered them." In the absence of a family relationship with husband and children, Madame Récamier "found her pleasure and consolation, one might say her vocation" in friendship. Many of her friends, including Madame de Staël, referred to her often as "benevolent" and "angelic."

Madame de Staël returned to Paris soon after Madame Récamier, but by then she was very ill. Juliette kept constant vigil at her side

and was stricken with grief when Madame de Staël died. While tending to her dear friend, however, Juliette met the man who would become her most important admirer and closest friend, François Auguste de Chateaubriand. Despite his enormous success as an author, Chateaubriand was melancholy and dissatisfied. Cheered by Juliette's presence, he later claimed that his friendship with Madame Récamier "was … a relief to his spirits." He quickly became a permanent fixture in her social circle, and, although he was already married, he did not attempt to hide his devotion to Juliette.

In 1819, Jacques Récamier suffered another reversal of his fortunes, and Madame Récamier separated from him, taking a small apartment in the Convent of L'Abbaye-aux-Bois, where she remained for the rest of her life. Although her rooms there were almost as modest as the nuns' cells, she continued to entertain the cream of Parisian society at numerous receptions. Chateaubriand was a frequent attraction featured at her gatherings, as were Benjamin Constant, the poet Ballanche, and members of the most august houses of France and the rest of Europe. She surrounded herself with literary and political figures as well as leaders of fashion. She had the honor of seeing her friends rise in the political firmament. In 1821, her longtime friend Matthieu de Montmorency became minister for foreign affairs. Soon afterward, Chateaubriand was appointed ambassador to London. In his absences, he wrote to her often of his impatience to be back by her side.

As Juliette entered into middle age, she continued to gather new admirers around her and, what is more, successfully kept the friends of her youth close to her side. Her old admirers became even more devoted to her throughout the passing years. Chateaubriand was dismissed from his political office abruptly in 1825, and, although he served as ambassador to Rome from 1828 to 1829, he never reached the political heights of which he dreamed. He remained Juliette's faithful admirer and daily visitor, however, except when political necessity dictated that he travel. Over the course of the next decade, Madame Récamier began losing many of her friends and family to death. Matthieu de Montmorency died in 1825, and her father died shortly thereafter. In 1830, at age 80, Jacques Récamier succumbed to an inflammation of the chest. Although many biographers note that her grief at her husband's passing was notably absent, other contemporaries claimed that she felt "that she had lost her father a second time."

In that same year, France suffered through yet another revolution, which served to end the political ambitions of many of her friends. Her faithful admirer Chateaubriand gave up his political aspirations and dedicated himself to his writing. But her rooms at the Abbaye-aux-Bois still remained a favorite gathering spot for the literary élite of Paris. Her continuing popularity is evidenced by a soirée she hosted in 1840 to raise money to help flood victims in Lyons. Although the price of the tickets was set at 20 francs, members of Parisian society were known to have bid as much as 100 francs to secure them. All in all, from her overflowing rooms in the Abbaye-aux-Bois, Madame Récamier was able to raise no less than 4,390 francs for her cause.

Into her old age, Madame Récamier was still considered the "Queen of Society." When in 1845, at age 68, she lost her vision to cataracts, she continued to receive visitors in her rooms regularly. In the mornings, she would awaken and have the newspapers read aloud to her, or perhaps go for a drive. Each day at 2:30 in the afternoon, Chateaubriand, despite the fact that he was nearing 80 and in failing health, came to see her, and after an hour's tête-à-tête with him, Juliette would receive other visitors for the rest of the afternoon.

Madame de Chateaubriand died in 1847, and within a few months, Chateaubriand asked Madame Récamier to marry him. Pleading their advanced years, she politely refused him and proclaimed her desire to continue their relationship as it had been before. When, in the following year, his health declined further, she attended his bedside until he breathed his last in July 1848.

Separated from all of her closest friends by death, Juliette did not linger much longer. A cholera outbreak in 1849 claimed her among its victims, and she succumbed to the disease on May 11, 1849. By the time of her death, Madame Récamier was esteemed as a relic of a bygone age. As France edged closer to democracy, the aristocracy would become increasingly politically marginalized. To many of them who mourned Juliette's passing, she represented the last of the great leaders of pre-Revolutionary salon culture.

sources:

Brooks, Geraldine. Dames and Daughters of the French Court. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries (reprint 1968).

Hall, Evelyn Beatrice. The Women of the Salons and Other French Portraits. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries (reprint 1969).

Luyster, Isaphene M. Memoirs and Correspondence of Madame Recamier. Boston, MA: Knight and Millet, 1867.

Terhune, Albert Payson. Wonder Women in History. London: Cassell, 1918.

Turquan, Joseph. A Great Coquette: Madame Recamier and Her Salon. NY: Brentano's, 1913.

Wharton, Grace and Philip. The Queens of Society. NY: Harper, 1860.

suggested reading:

Delecluze, Etienne-Jean. Two Lovers In Rome. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.

Levaillant, Maurice. The Passionate Exiles: Madame de Stael and Madame Recamier. NY: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958.

Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History and Chair, Division of Religion and Humanities, Friends University, Wichita, Kansas