Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Madame Recamier: The Living Image


Here is a story that Andy Warhol would have thoroughly enjoyed.

An iconic image of regency France, or France in the time of Napoleon, is David's portrait of Madame Recamier, the famous society hostess. In 1800 David portrayed her as the ideal post-revolutionary woman: in the Classical gown (or negligee) of a citroyen, at ease with the non-monarchical state. She is so Enlightened, she can't even be bothered to wear shoes while she lounges on her chaise. How ancient Roman, no, how French nouveaux!

Well, when Harriet Lady Bessborough was in France, she decided to drop in on the icon that was Juliette Recamier. To her surprise, she found Madame exactly as she pictured her. Madame Recamier was in her skimpy white gown lounging in bed. Just like the painting! The only difference, Harriet noted, was that this time she was surrounded by men. How utterly scandalous! What would Lady Spencer say?! Harriet thought the whole thing was too ironic and decided to drop in on her again when she wasn't so exposed imposed. The second time, it was the same thing; Madame Recamier in bed, surrounded by men, her "beautiful white shoulders exposed and perfectly uncovered to view - in short, completely undressed and in bed." Harriet, who had a history being shocked by French aristocrats' blatant sexuality, asked if Madame was indisposed. Out of the graceful pink lips came, not the sweet voice of a Muse, but the shrill protests of big-mouth attention seeker. To Harriet's prudish horror, Madame Recamier proclaimed to everyone in the room that she was not indisposed and she was not pregnant either (if that's what you mean you cheeky Brit!).

Obviously Harriet was not hip with the times.

7 comments:

  1. It's sort of like the reveal in Singing in the Rain, when you realize Lena Lamont has that terrible voice. I love this portrait for its simplicity and elegance. Funny to know a bit of back story - especially one of so much contrast.

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  2. That is very amusing. The portrait seems very idealized, then! It's a lovely painting; it seems sad that the subject wasn't quite as "classy" as she looked.

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  3. Oh, please, Madame Recamier was just as classy as old Harriet.

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  4. Hahaha! The funny thing about Harriet is that she had numerous affairs yet always seemed so scandalized by things French people did. Of course, that could just be how I interpret it. I think the two both had the same balance of classy and crassy but Recamier was very outspoken whereas Harriet was quite the opposite.

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  5. Aha! I remember reading about that in Harriet's biography! I don't think of Harriet as being a prude, though, or even easily shocked. After all, she was the one who went campaigning in the streets among butchers and pedlars!

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  6. Love this story. I always adored the painting, but my art history book didn't add this little biographical detail. Thanks for sharing.

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