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Madame Récamier, née Julie (dite Juliette) Bernard (1777 - 1849)

© 2002 RMN / Gérard Blot

Paintings
French painting

Author(s):
De Vergnette François

Juliette Récamier, the wife of a Parisian banker, was one of the most famous socialites of her time. This portrait, showing her dressed in the "antique style" and surrounded by Pompeian furniture in an otherwise bare picture space, was extremely avant-garde for 1800. Exactly why it was never finished is unclear, but its state enables one to study David's technique before his vibrant preliminary brushwork and background rubbings were "glazed over" with translucent colors.

An ideal of feminine elegance

Madame Récamier, gracefully reclined on a meridienne with her head turned towards the viewer, is dressed in a white antique-style sleeveless dress and is barefoot. The room is empty except for the antique-style sofa, stool and candelabra. She is seen from some distance, so her face is quite small, but this is less a portrait of a person than of an ideal of feminine elegance. Madame Récamier (1777-1849), although then only twenty-three, was already one of the most admired women of her time. The daughter of a notary, she epitomized the social ascension of the new post-revolutionary elite. Her husband, older than her, had become one of the principal financial backers of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. In their mansion, restored by the architect Percier and furnished by the cabinetmaker Jacob, the couple entertained numerous writers, some of whom - like Benjamin Constant or Chateaubriand - fell passionately in love with Madame Récamier.

One of David's whims

Commissioned by Madame Récamier in 1800, the picture remained unfinished for reasons unknown. David was not satisfied with it and wanted to rework it but Madame Récamier, who thought David worked too slowly, commissioned one of his pupils to paint her portrait instead. Vexed by this, David said to his model: "Women have their whims, and so do artists; allow me to satisfy mine by keeping this portrait." The painting remained in his studio, unfinished, and was probably not seen by the public until after it entered the Louvre in 1826. In 1864, Théophile Gautier wrote of Madame Récamier's "indescribable attraction, like the poetry of the unknown."

The esthetic of the unfinished

One of the work's innovative aspects is its horizontal format, unusual for a portrait, and habitually reserved for history paintings. The bare space around the figure emphasizes the elegant arabesque of Madame Récamier's reclined body. Her antique pose, the bare décor and light dress all epitomize neoclassical ideals. The clear harmony of the ensemble, due to Juliette Récamier's white dress, is brightened up by the warm hues of the furniture. Only the model's head is nearly finished, and David has not yet added highlights to the impasto of her dress. The accessories, walls and floor are merely sketched in with vibrant brushstrokes, with the white undercoat still showing through in places. The canvas' unfinished state gives the picture a mysterious, poetic appearance doubtless very different to the finished portrait David had in mind. After the minutely detailed portraits he painted during the Ancien Régime, several of David's portraits after the Revolution have unfinished backgrounds (Madame Trudaine, Musée du Louvre).

Bibliography

Schnapper Antoine, Jacques Louis David 1748-1825, catalogue de l'exposition, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989, p. 356-357.

Technical description

  • Jacques-Louis DAVID (Paris, 1748 - Bruxelles, 1825)

    Madame Récamier, née Julie (dite Juliette) Bernard (1777 - 1849)

    1800

  • H. : 1,74 m. ; L. : 2,44 m.

  • Acquis à la vente de l'atelier de David, 1826 , 1826

    INV. 3708

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Daru
    Room 75

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