Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard, known after her marriage as Juliette Récamier, was born on December 4, 1777—240 years ago yesterday. Had she lived during modern times, I believe one of her favorite design events of the year would be The Salon Art + Design exhibition because it holds such exceptional furnishings by the world’s finest galleries. I thought of her when I attended the show several weeks ago because many of the pieces exhibited were perfect for performing one of the acts that made Juliette famous: reclining.
The Art of Reclining and the Salon
She was so distinguished at it, thanks to the portrait painters of her era, she was known as the “dame au sofa” for posing elegantly upon the chaise lounges of her time known as récamiers, which were named after her. Perfectly in line with this arousing pastime, the noted salonnière was such a seductive force during her heyday that she was regarded as the era’s most legendary coquette. This is one of the biggest departures between this hostess who held her salon during the First Empire and her predecessors during the ancien régime—Madame de Sévigné, Marquise de Rambouillet, Madame de Lafayette and the Duchesse de Longueville among them.
I was curious about this arbiter of taste so I went in search of material about her and there is no shortage of biographers willing to dish about her life and her salon. I chose The Biography of a Flirt by Henry Dwight Sedgwick as my starting point because the author wrote about her so entertainingly. It’s not very often that I find myself laughing aloud when reading the stories of important historical figures but this was the case with this tongue-in-cheek look at a tumultuous time in France’s past. The author cleverly separated the material into sections that begin with snarky snippets called “Historical Gloss”—the snide tone of the summations making them the most amusing commentaries in the book.
Sedgwick begins his recounting of Juliette’s story with an old expression: “Every beautiful woman should be a flirt; every flirt should be a beautiful woman.” Then he sets out to prove that this celebrated beauty was decidedly both. What makes her so perfect for this literary design adventure is that she had a reputation for being au courant in choosing furnishings for her homes during a time of decorative upheaval that found France transitioning from Louis XVI to Directoire to Empire Style during the life of her salon.
“The furnishing of M. Récamier’s house was of the very latest fashion, very smart, and everybody was curious to see it,” Sedgwick wrote. “The 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.”
There are other details in this book that prove the salonnière was visionary in decorating her homes, and the fact brings about a push/pull that I notice so often when I’m writing about design: what was once new is now, and forever will be, time-honored. It’s the theme behind The Modern Salonnière discussions I hold from time to time and I’m surprised at how often I notice the paradigm now that it has come into my consciousness.
The Epitome of Glamour
This brings me to The Salon Art + Design and the stunning vignettes I saw there, which are the perfect backdrops for the artistic and romantic interludes I believe Juliette would manufacturer if she were alive today. As an arbiter of taste, she was the epitome of glamour, and she had a coquettish nature that was mentioned by every contemporary of hers—in either letters or memoirs or biographies. I am betting she would have truly appreciated the impeccable taste of the gallerists who curate their booths for this show, just as I do.
To set the tone for her flirtatious interludes, Sedgwick waxes poetic about Madame Récamier’s beauty by comparing her to of a version of the Latin Venus fused with Aphrodite Urania: “It was this Venus, as she floated down the centuries, that visited Botticelli’s studio, lovely, ethereal, in all the eloquence of exquisite contours, seeking with wistful eyes for gentle hearts to make them hers. And then, passing on into France upon the stream of Latin inheritance, she paused at last over the cradle of Jeanne-Françoise-Julie-Adelaide Bernard, our Madame Récamier to be, and blessed it.”
Juliette married M. Récamier, who was 27 years her senior, when she was 15. Sedgwick tells us she began her salon when she was 20 “in the full beauty of early womanhood.” He describes her figure as lithe and elegant, her head as set beautifully upon a perfect neck, her teeth as pearl-like, and her entire appearance as indescribable—a countenance that suggests one of Quentin-Latour’s pastels. Once he has painted a portrait of the hostess, he introduces the main players in Juliette’s salon, which was decidedly political in tone. This was a significant difference to the gatherings hosted by the woman salonnières during the ancien régime, which held a balanced mix of male and female habitués.
Juliette’s coterie was peopled predominantly by men, one of which was Adrien de Montmorency, who had fallen for the young woman. “The torture of having vexed you is unbearable,” he wrote to her in a letter after she soft-pedalled his advances. “Do let me see you for a minute…I dare not speak but I am sure your penetration divines what I must and will say to you…I beseech you, I beg you with tears in my eyes, to let me see you for a single instant, at some moment of the day. I await your reply in fear and trembling…”
Salon Art + Design
Oh, to incite such passion! Oh, to inflame such a noble heart! Given all the drama she inspired, I have decided to tell the rest of this coquettish story by placing her and her admirers within vignettes from The Salon Art + Design exhibition, the anecdotes ripped right from the pages of this well-written biography. This cadre of habitués included major players in Napoléon’s cabinet, each of them flocking to her drawing room any time it was open to them. One of the highest ranking was Napoléon’s brother Lucien, and Sedgwick minces no words when describing Juliette’s trifling with this brash Corsican: “She was born a coquette, and never could resist a proffered flirtation even though Lucien Bonaparte was not personally sympathetic to her, nor sufficiently refined.”
The author notes how much she enjoyed the sport in spite of the fact that she did not care much for the other player! This would be born out today when we find her strolling into the above vignette by David Gill Gallery, taking a seat on the petite perch far away from Lucien, who is lounging on the edgy sofa. The record of their flirtation survives because it was chronicled in his letters to her. The name Juliette suggested to him that he should be Romeo, and some letters are written as from Romeo to Juliet, which were dated from Venice. Sedgwick wonders whether this was because Lucien was not really familiar with Shakespeare’s play or because he deemed Venice more romantic than Verona. Unleashing his razor-sharp wit, he wrote, “If Napoléon had not made war better than Lucien made love, European history would have been different.”
Sedgwick reports that during a particularly enjoyable evening when Juliette had called her habitués to her salon at 7 Rue du Mont-Blanc, she was dressed in white satin and muslin, the gown cut to show off the beauty of her neck and shoulders. White was a signature color for her when it came to her fashion choices, and on this evening, she danced gracefully in spite of the challenge presented by a long train. Let’s spy Juliette as a modern woman making her way from the dance floor to the gracious vignette above, which was brought to the Salon show by Nilufar Gallery. As she takes a seat and crosses her legs on the sofa, she is flushed from dancing and her mid-length dress with a scoop back rises to expose perfectly toned thighs. This makes every man in the room imagine his hands brushing up against her skin.
Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who was in attendance during the evening Sedgwick describes, remarked that there was a charming simplicity in everything Juliette did, which resulted in such a strong feeling of coquetry: “In dancing she would raise her crystal clear eyes, while her lips parted to disclose her pearly teeth, and her whole being let you feel that she expected, like a child, to be admired.” He explained that it was the union of genuine charm and coquetry that created her wonderful attraction, an onslaught that continued well into the wee hours of morning, as the dancing that evening lasted until two.
Only then were the guests ushered into the dining room where a hot supper was served at an immense table—fish, game, fruit, wines, confectionery, all in great quantity and of delicious quality. “The attendance was so strong that there were three sittings before all the ladies were served,” Sedgwick notes. “There can be no doubt that she thoroughly enjoyed the success of her hospitality and the admiration she called forth.” If the present-day Juliette wafted into the vignette above, composed by R&Company, it would have been obvious she enjoyed the dramatic flair that had been created as she, at last, took her seat at the table with the first group of women to dine.
The British politician Charles James Fox visited Juliette with his nephew Lord Holland and his wife. He wrote in his memoirs that she received visitors with singular ease and frankness. General Junot and his wife, Eugène Beauharnais, Germaine de Staël and a host of others joined the party for dinner that evening. Afterwards, Madame Récamier and Madame de Staël acted a scene from a play de Staël had written. If we bring them into modern times, the members of this group would have happily made their way to the seating area in the above vignette brought to the show by Richard Nagy to discuss de Staël’s success as a playwright. Fox was so enchanted his gushing in a letter about Juliette is downright embarrassing: “What a charming creature! She is really the work of the Deity on a holiday! How sweet she is! What a smile! What a glance! And the sound of her voice! What silky hair! And how happy her expression, so calm and pure, it portrays the self-content of a sweet soul!”
Though he makes it clear that Juliette’s main aim in life was to be a bon vivant, Sedgwick admits she wasn’t without talent. He notes that she painted, though she seemed to downplay the fact: “As to her tastes, she danced beautifully, and sang prettily, and could play upon the piano and harp. She does not speak much of painting, but this may be because so few of her letters and so little of her journal have come down to us, the latter she herself destroyed, almost all of it.” Herr Reichardt tells the story of how he found her drawing a landscape in a room she had rented from Hubert Robert, the renowned artist who had been a favored designer of the Louis XVI, which she had furnished with only a piano and a sofa. Given her desire to create art, I believe we would find the modern-day Juliette enjoying her life in the Friedman Benda milieu above, her admiration of the grandly sized triptych inspiring her to great heights of aesthetic eloquence when her salonnières filed into her drawing room.
When Reichardt spied her in her studio, he says she was wearing an Egyptian dress, trimmed with fur, with “her lovely curls thrown carelessly back, her lithe body bending over her drawing paper, her charming hand lightly running over it, and her liquid glance shifting from her drawing to the admiring old artist, and back.” Calling Reichardt a priggish Prussian, Sedgwick notes how charmed he was by the sight of her, quoting him as saying, “She was assuredly an exquisite jewel in the old painter’s atelier.”
Juliette visited the Château de Coppet, Mme de Staël’s residence in Switzerland, a number of times, her contributions to her friend’s salon recorded as vigilantly by the affluent circle surrounding them as the activities within her own were. Whereas politics ruled in Juliette’s drawing room, authorship and acting dominated in de Staël’s. During one evening, Germaine had written a piece that dealt with love, which she and Juliette acted. Afterwards, they performed M. de Sabran’s comedy Le Grand Monde, a satire on fashionable society, with the playwright in the role of Oreste.
Also in attendance during that particular visit was Prince August of Prussia, who Sedgwick describes as falling wildly in love with Mme Récamier at first sight. He calls the Prince good-looking; a man of fine presence and royal blood: “He was but twenty-four, and, seemingly for the only time in his life, fell completely in love.” The contingent gathered at Coppet liked him, a fact confirmed by Benjamin Constant, who wrote in his diary, “The Prince August has fallen for Mme R. He is a man of distinction.” Were Constant writing his autobiography today, we would find him scribbling at the table in the Sarah Myerscough Gallery vignette above, recording a contemporary version of Juliette’s story that would rival the original entry he made.
Juliette let herself yield to her desire to be adored by Prince August, but she found herself anxious and exhilarated by the situation, both emotions foreign to her when it came to attraction. She was touched, flattered and charmed by his youthful passion, and for the first time she claims she “lost her head.”
Because she proclaimed to her friends that the Prince was the only man who had made her heart beat fast up to that point in her life, I believe the modern Juliette would be leaning against the padded arm of the sofa in the Vallois vignette above, fanning herself as she thought about the potential for love with this young man. “She blew upon the kindling flame, thinking, or rather hoping, that she had been handed—if I may shift my metaphor—the key to happiness,” Sedgwick wrote, a remarkable feat given she had told M. Gaudot she was destined never to know this extent of delight several weeks before.
Given her passionate belief in romance and in complete surrender to the ideal of love, a modern-day Mme de Staël would have urged Juliette on, just as she did during the 1700s. These days, we would find them playing cards in the mid-century vignette created by Modernity above, marveling at the fact that the Prince was seriously in love with her and dumbfounded that he had proposed Juliette obtain a divorce from her husband and marry him. “The idea took her fancy,” Sedgwick wrote. “He was a prince royal, handsome, chivalric, who never suggested, as other royal princes might do, a less permanent union, but vowed that he loved her for life; well-bred, but passionate, with a simple candor that, matched with the greater subtlety of the Parisians, clothed him with a sort of boyish freshness. She felt as if life were at last offering her a chance, a new beginning, love, happiness, a real home, a real husband, children, and an almost royal coronet into the bargain. Her heart was touched, her imagination stirred.”
Though the couple exchanged vows in which Juliette swore on her soul’s salvation that she would protect the sentiment that bound her to the Prince, she decided against continuing the romance, though not before she had sent a letter asking her husband for a divorce. If she were writing such a missive today, we would find her penning it at the beautiful desk in the above vignette brought to the Salon show by Liz O’Brien.
Sedgwick explains that her change of heart was brought about by the voice of reason that wafted through her brain once she was far away from the royal, who had been summoned by his family to return home: “…to lead a life of court etiquette among a people of a different speech, of alien usages, and Protestant religion, with a man younger than herself, familiarly dubbed Don Juan, and the uncertainty as to how the royal family would accept such a marriage, which they must regard as a pitiable mésalliance for a Hohenzollern, were objections that grew stronger the more she reflected upon them.” She soon returned to her husband’s household, which was a bold move given her request for a divorce that has since been withdrawn. If she were returning to his home today, I believe we would find the couple tersely silent at each end of the handsome dining table in the Ammann Gallery vignette above, the distance between them echoing the chasm in their relationship, which had never been consummated.
Having kicked the Prince to the curb, her coquetry continued and many other suitors followed, most of which she kept at arm’s length. This was the case with Propser de Barante, whom she claimed she had no intention of letting overstep the bounds of friendship. She addressed him as Monsieur and supposedly worked to discourage him, which Sedgwick said was to no avail. If she were navigating these tricky waters today, the contemporary flirt would be seated in one of the handsome armchairs in the Twenty First Gallery vignette above pretending to read while steeling glances at de Barante, who was looking across the room at the other suitors milling around. Sedgwick exposes her insincerity: “…in her heart of hearts she must have known that every word from her lovely lips, no matter what they said, and every gesture of repelling his advances, drew him on. And, as always, her pity for a lover made it impossible to be harsh, and her loneliness made it impossible not to be grateful for his love.”
Pierre-Simon Ballanche was the next succumb to Juliette’s beauty. From the moment he laid eyes on her, Mme Lenormant said, “Ballanche belonged to her.” In an unpublished biography the philosopher penned, he wrote, “When I saw Mme Récamier for the first time, I was immediately enveloped by a strange charm…I had at the time a bitter grief, but it vanished as by enchantment, and so began a friendship, full of life and color, which will be hereafter an inspiration for all my works.” Sedgwick says he compared her to a living apparition of Dante’s Beatrice, the modern version of which we might see draped across this avant-garde iteration of a récamier in the Nicholas Kilner vignette above.
While she was busy weaving the web of winsome charms she used to ensnare these men, the political climate was causing the headstrong among the upper crust of society quite a few challenges. Being one of these, Juliette was forced into exile for visiting Mme de Staël at Château de Chaumont when her friend had been sentenced to move 40 leagues from Paris for defying Napoléon’s order to stop writing what he deemed incendiary literature. Before long, the Emperor would banish both of these strong-minded women from France altogether. During her exile, Juliette moved to Italy, renting an apartment on the Corso in Rome. Here, she opened her salon to serve as a meeting place for the French who were visiting or were in exile in the city. The Comte d’Estourmel, who was an elderly gentleman by then, was among her new habitués. He wrote, “If I had seen her at the age when one becomes fou (mad), I should have gone crazy, but since I see her only at the age one becomes bête (silly), that saves me.” If he were he alive today, we would see the older gentleman kicked back in the black lounge chair in the Todd Merrill Studio vignette above, his head turned toward the lovely sofa where Juliette would be engaged in conversation with Mme de Staël, the look in his eyes foolish with desire.
Among the smitten Italians that Juliette welcomed into her salon was the sculptor Antonio Canova. She visited his studio and admired his work, complimenting him on his talents. From that day on, he made his way to her apartments every day and wrote her a note in flowery Italian every morning. “Addio, addio, Cretura Celeste! (Farewell, farewell, Heavenly Creature!)” began one; “I love you with all my soul…Know that I am aflame, that I am coming tomorrow evening to see you and to tell you that I adore you with all my soul.” We find the modern-day Juliette reading one of these missives, smiling widely as she does, in the hair-on-hide chair in the Galerie Negropontes vignette below, her eyes dreamy as she lowers the letter to her lap and stares at the beautiful coffee table with its accents of gold.
Napoléon’s first stint as Emperor ends as he is neutralized and Juliette is free to return to Paris. She once again rejoins her husband’s household, which has moved to a less chic address at 32 rue Basse-due-Rempart, and reopens her salon, returning to a similar social life as the one she had before her exile. She is still thronged by admirers as she makes her way around town in her carriage and sits primly in her box at the opera. After the performances there were finished, she received her salonnières.
As it had always been, her salon was very political in tone, and a surprising pastiche of partisan personalities frequented it, from Bonapartists and Republicans to Jacobins and aristocrats of the old régime. Even British politicians on par with the Duke of Wellington put in appearances. If we were to find her gathering her coterie around her today, she would seek out furniture with serious provenance to furnish the all-important chamber, such as is seen in the Galleria Rossella Colombari vignette above.
A former lover of Germaine de Staël’s suddenly succumbs to Juliette’s coquettish ways after decades of friendship. He was touted as “the wittiest man since Volatire” with “a mind at once romantic, ironical, poetic and serious.” He is none other than Benjamin Constant, mentioned above, a Swiss-French political activist and author. During this chapter in Mme Récamier’s story, Constant writes Juliette passionate love letters: “Do you know that during this life, already long, which you disturb, I have never seen anything in the world like you. I carry your image with me everywhere. I am sad and also amazed by it. Verily I am not joking; I am in pain. To cause such suffering of this kind is a matter of indifference to you. Angles, too, are cruel.” The Juliette of the 21st-century frowns as she reads this sentiment from the sumptuous armchair in the Maison Gerard vignette above, the vexation her suiter feels pulling at her heartstrings.
Constant also wrote that Juliette held his whole being in her hand, as God holds creation: “One look, one word, one gesture, changes my existence.” His journal is filled with desperation and grief: “…there is something silly in attempting nothing with a woman with whom one is in love, and with whom one is often tête-à-tête at two o’clock in the morning. I will persevere.” When the besotted contemporary Constant finally sees her, seated across the round table in the Demisch Danant vignette above, he pours his heart out but to no avail: she holds stubbornly resolute.
Politics are roiling and “The Hundred Days” comes and goes to find Napoléon meeting his match at Waterloo. Once Louis XVIII is restored to the throne, the aristocracy begin to return from exile and retirement, which changes the tenor of Juliette’s salon. “She was close to forty, and flirtations had lost their first early charm,” explains Sedgwick, “but she continued to flirt, as much from habit as for amusement. She was almost ready to give up her secret hope of meeting a man who might capture her heart. Moths as of old fluttered about the candle.” Nothing depicts this better than the stunning light fixture in the Hostler Burrows vignette above, the butterflies the perfect symbol for a sensuality that drew men to a woman as if helpless to flutter toward her.
The besotted included Paul David, her husband’s nephew, whom she claimed she was putting in his place quite firmly while she was actually enjoying his pining for her. Had his longing been playing out today, we would find them seated opposite each other on the sleek slipper chairs in the Galerie Chastel-Maréchal vignette above, the modern Juliette telling him he must stop his moping around because it’s not sexy. She feels she can be this bold because the moths to her flame are coming out of the woodwork! Ballache has just published his prose poem Antigone, the heroine modeled after Juliette; and M. de Forbin, another suitor, writes to her, “My life is yours; you are and ever will be the motive and end of all my actions.” But the simple fact is Juliette is bored out of her mind.
General Lamarque throws his hat in the ring, deciding he was crazy in love with her, but his timing is horrible because a formidable fellow is about to enter her life, one whom Sedgwick says will brush away all of the flirtations like a mighty wind. He is the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, whom Juliette met years before at a dinner party at Germaine de Staël’s in March of 1817. In his Memoires from Beyond the Tomb, in which he devotes several chapters to Mme Récamier, he remembers meeting her: “Toward the end of dinner, she spoke a few words about Mme de Staël’s illness. I turned my head a little, I lifted my eyes, and I saw my Guardian Angel at my right.” In modern times, the two would meet around a beautiful mid-century table like the one in the above vignette composed by Karl Kemp, the perfect setting for a divine intervention between two famous flirts today!
Former suitors like Ballanche were beside themselves with jealousy, letters pouring in that implored her to be careful and think only of the missive’s author. Were he writing it today, Ballanche would pen such a communique at the incredible table in the Galerie BSL vignette above. Seated in the delightful armchair, he urges her, just as he did then, to think only of him: “You are poetry itself. Your destiny is to inspire, mine to be inspired.” He begs her to undertake some literary work that will distract her, though she has never been someone known to write her own material. He suggests translating Petrarch, advice which she ignores, of course!
This would become clear were the present-day Juliette seated on one of the artful sofas in the Wexler Gallery vignette above, her frown as she is reading the letter a tale-tale sign. “His flatteries did not divert her thought from that passionate romantic figure who moved women as no man of the time except Byron had done,” Sedgwick notes. Admitting just how bowled over she had been, Juliette wrote years later, “No head could have been more completely turned than mine was by M. de Chateaubriand; I used to cry all day long.”
The other male movers and shakers of her time were now in a serious uproar over the news. Adrien de Montmorency wrote her a biting letter from Madrid where he was serving as a statesman, a rebuke he would pen perched on the Klismos chair in the Galerie du Passage vignette above if he were writing it today. We see him leaning toward the table as he thrashes the page with his quill, only to jump up and pace around the room when he feels his blood boil: “I see that you are so completely distraught by your new romantic circumstances that I don’t enjoy my secondary role very much. I know all the strength of your imagination when it is fixed on a single object. All that you have left for other people are some social graces…and when a place so weak is attacked by the most experienced and able seduction, I ask of my own common sense, what can I, four hundred leagues away, say to you, and after two years of absence. I resign myself to a friendly remembrance on your part at moments when you are not satisfied with your surroundings.”
Had these men only known she wasn’t exactly having the time of her life! Truth be told, her relationship with Chateaubriand was a painful one due to his philandering. The reason Sedgwick gives for her weakness for this politician is that she saw herself as past her prime: “She had been accustomed to reign, and reign alone, in the hearts of men. She was forty-five years old, and perhaps she was more sensitive because she feared that her rare beauty might have passed its fullness and begun to show a turning to meet decay.” The author points out that her mirror did not support this fear, but the prospect of falling further for a womanizer drove her to leave Paris for Italy. “She did not know how to accept the position, however temporary, of second place…she would show that he was not necessary to her, and perhaps, far away from him, she might recover her self-control, her self-possession.” Approaching the mirror in the Garrido Gallery vignette above, the modern-day Juliette would turn her head from side to side as she studied her face to see if the signs of aging were as acute as she feared.
No matter how far she advanced in years, there was never a lack of admirers. At this stage of her life, they would range in age from 20 years younger to nine years older than her. During her time in Rome, it was remarked that when she walked along the streets, the men fell back to make way for her, the observers comparing the effect to the Iliad’s mention of the old men on the walls of Troy who saw Helen go by. “They understood why her face had launched a thousand ships,” Sedgwick maintains. Imagine the modern-day goddess that Juliette would be if she were perched upon the avant-garde chaise in the Galerie Maria Wettergren vignette above today, and this brings us to an archetypal visual of the Dame au Sofa draped across chaises as broad in stylistic notes as the récamier of the 18th-century to the work of art above, which is the heart of my own story about her.
As we say goodbye to Juliette, we see that her group of devotees has shrunk to a few ardent men, but they are truly fervent still. And, surprisingly enough, Chateaubriand is among them, too old now to keep up with his wandering ways. When he died in 1848, it was Juliette who made sure his book Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb was readied for publication. She was forced to enlist the help of several of the intellectuals who had surrounded her during her entire adult life because she was virtually blind by then.
On May 11, 1849, she succumbed to cholera and passed into the eternal in her last act of reclining. Sedgwick wrote, “From the kind hands of death her ancient beauty came back to her face in all its purity, and her features wore the angelical solemnity of a marble statue.” Let’s leave Juliette and Chateaubriand, her last and greatest lover, in the Maison Rapin 88 Gallery vignette above, facing each other on the sofa knowing they both would leave the earth with no animosity between them.
The Modern Salonnière and Madame Récamier and the Art of Reclining © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by