Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Love, Loss and a Long Life: Juliette Récamier

Juliette Récamier (Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier, Lyon, France, 4th December 1777 – Paris, France, 11th May 1849)


Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David, 1800
Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David, 1800

We stay in France today though there are no prisons, battlefields or guillotines to hamper our path. Instead we are due an audience with Juliette Récamier, a fellow salon-keeper of considerable renown.

Juliette was born in Lyon to Marie Julie Matton and Jean Bernard, King's Counsellor. She received an exemplary convent education that ended prematurely when her father was promoted to Receiver of Finance and the family moved to Paris. Here the modest young girl continued her education, happy in her surroundings as discontent spread throughout the country. Her peaceful life was shattered when the Terror swept through Paris and her father was imprisoned; although he would survive the revolution due to the intervention of influential friends, he lost his job and much of his wealth.

At the age of 15, Juliette married a 42 year old banker and close friend of her mother, Jacques-Rose Récamier. The wealthy Récamier was immensely fond of Juliette and protective towards her and rumours spread through Paris that he was the girl's true father and had married her to ensure that she could be his heir should he fall victim to the revolutionary guillotine. Indeed, Récamier made no secret of his fondness for Juliette's mother and the marriage was never consummated, leading to speculation that Juliette had a physical confition that made intercourse too painful to attempt.


Madame Récamier by François Gérard, 1805
Juliette Récamier by François Gérard, 1805

In her new role as wife to the influential Récamier, Juliette became a favourite of Paris society and her salons were immensely popular with the literary and political circles of the city. Many of the male attendees to the salon found their hostess enchanting and developed strong, platonic attachments to her. Her greatest champion was François-René de Chateaubriand and he was a constant presence in Juliette's home, as were many former royalists who had survived the Terror. The monarchist flavour of her household brought Juliette to the attention of Napoleon and he watched her gatherings with interest, seeing them as a rallying place for those who would oppose him. Indeed, her closest friends were Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque and , Germaine de Staël, outspoken opponents of the emperor.

Perhaps in an effort to gain or ascertain Juliette's loyalty, on several occasions she was offered the position of  lady-in-waiting to Joséphine de Beauharnais, rejecting the opportunity each time. Finally, Napoleon decided that he could delay no longer and, fearing the type of chatter that might be going on in the salon, he had Constant, de Staël and Juliette exiled from Paris. She travelled Europe before settling first in Italy and then with de Staël in Switzerland, where she met Prince Augustus of Prussia, with whom she fell deeply in love. Desperate to accept the Prince's proposal, Juliette asked Récamier for a divorce but the couple found themselves distracted by the loss of his fortune in a disastrous business deal and the divorce was never pursued. When Augustus returned home, Juliette was plunged into depression, though found some comfort when she and her husband adopted his orphaned niece, to whom both were devoted.


Prince Augustus of Prussia by Franz Krüger, 1817. The Prince stands before the portrait of Madame Récamier.
Prince Augustus of Prussia by Franz Krüger, 1817. The Prince stands before the portrait of Madame Récamier.

With her husband attempting to rebuild his financial affairs, Juliette returned to Paris in 1814 to resume her salons in somewhat circumstances. She took up residence at L'Abbaye-aux-Bois, where she continued to host visitors and became the centre of a literary circle of some renown. Récamier fell seriously ill in 1829 and stayed with Juliette until his death the following year, nursed to the end by the woman who had once been his teenage bride. Afflicted by failing eyesight in her later years, Juliette was heartbroken to hear of the death of Augustus in 1843 and she died six years later, a victim of cholera. This remarkable woman was laid to rest in Montmartre beside her parents and husband, her famed salons passing into history.

10 comments:

  1. She was very beautiful. I hope she was comforted somewhat by the fact that her Prince never married, even though he fathered quite a brood of children.

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    1. I hope so; I really feel for her situation.

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  2. Nice post on a fascinating woman. Thanks!

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  3. A beautiful and fascinating salon hostess-much like yourself,Madame.

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    1. Why thank you, sir! How nice to see you visiting the salon again...

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  4. Interesting that a woman less than 20 years of age should be able to host a successful salon. Were Juliette and her husband actively opposed to Napoleon or was there opposition passive. For a banker being opposed to Napoleon must have carried some risk.

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    1. I would say a vocal opponent, though Juliette was louder than her husband!

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