Thursday, 14 January 2010

Madame Récamier: The Lady who said No

Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard Récamier (1777 -1849), perhaps the most celebrated beauty of her age.

Born in Lyons, she married Monsieur Récamier in 1793. She was 15 and he was 42.

It was never more than a formal marriage. Some believe that her husband was in fact her natural father, and that he married her simply to ensure that she should inherit his wealth in the uncertain times of the Revolution.

She was painted by David and sculpted by Canova.

She entranced Napoleon and Wellington in turn, and turned them both down. (1)

She has given her name to the reclining sofa on which she was painted by David.

I myself came across her by a rather circuitous route. A Christmas present introduced me to W.G. Sebald. In his Rings of Saturn I discovered the sad tale of Charlotte Ives and the French writer Chateaubriand whom the young Charlotte fell in love with while he was exiled in Bungay (which happened to be my father's home town) during the French Revolution. I moved on to Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre-tombe, and this led me to his close friend Madame Récamier, and so back to Napoleon, to whom so many roads always seem to lead.

Madame Récamier and Napoleon

Madame Récamier met Napoleon twice only. In December 1797 she was present when the Directory honoured him on his triumphant return from Italy. She stood while everyone else was seated to get a better view; the crowd murmured, presumably at her beauty; Napoleon turned and gave her a harsh look; she sat down. It seems that he never forgot her.

In 1799 she met Lucien Bonaparte who often visited her at her home in Clichy. Lucien became besotted with her and pursued her unsuccessfully; he wrote her letters from "Romeo to Juliette" !

Her next meeting with Napoleon was at function given by Lucien. She was pleasantly surprised by him and felt that the simplicity of his manners was in contrast to Lucien's.

She was struck by the tenderness he showed towards his niece: While he was talking with persons about him, he held the hand of Lucien's little daughter, a child of four years, whom he at last forgot. The child, tired of her captivity, began to cry. "Ah. pauvre petite!" he exclaimed, in a tone of regret, "I had forgotten thee." (2)

When Lucien approached, Napoleon said, And I too would like to go to Clichy. Fouché, Napoleon's Chief of Police, told her The First Consul thinks you charming.

At dinner, after she had failed to take the vacant seat beside him, Napoleon loudly described her as the most beautiful, and after dinner he came up to her and asked

Why did you not take the seat next to me?

I should not have presumed she replied.

It was your place, he said.

At the after dinner concert he made her uncomfortable by staring at her, and afterwards he approached her: You are very fond of music, madame?. Then Lucien appeared and Napoleon moved away.

A friend of Napoleon's liberal critic Madame de Stael, Madame Récamier turned against Napoleon when he exiled the latter, and her salon was seen as a centre of opposition. Nevertheless she remained on cordial terms with Napoleon's sisters Maria (Madame Bacciocchi ) and Caroline (the Queen of Naples, wife of Murat).

In 1805 Fouché and Caroline Bonaparte tried to get her to accept a position at court, probably in part to counter the influence of Josephine. Fouché told her: since the day he [Napoleon] first met you, he has never forgotten you; and though he complains that you have ranged yourself among his enemies, he does not blame you, but your friends. (3) Around this time she twice accepted an offer to use Caroline's box at the theatre; by coincidence or otherwise Napoleon was present both times and fixed his spy glass on her.

Fouché was very angry when she turned the offer down.

Exiled in 1811-1814, she visited the King and Queen of Naples (Murat and Caroline Bonaparte) as the empire was tottering. On the way she met Fouché who was also headed to Naples to try to keep Murat and Caroline on Napoleon's side. She was there when Murat told his wife that he had sided with Austria and England. Later, whilst the defeated Napoleon was on his way to Elba, she was called back to Naples by Caroline, and stayed with her several days.

On Napoleon's short lived return to Paris in 1815 she decided not to flee.

She received a note from Hortense, Napoleon's step daughter, saying she hoped she would not leave Paris: You may trust to me to take care of your interests. I am convinced that I will not even have occasion to show you how delighted I should be to be useful to you. (4)

She also received a letter from Caroline offering her refuge in Naples. In the event she had nothing to fear. Napoleon himself got her close friend, fervent admirer and formerly strong critic of the Emperor, Benjamin Constant, to draft the new constitution.

Madame Récamier and Wellington

During the restoration in 1814 she met Wellington at Madame de Stael's. She also introduced him to Queen Hortense, Napoleon's step daughter, who at that stage was supporting the restoration of the Bourbons.

Wellington was clearly as entranced by Madame Récamier as Napoleon had been. He wrote a number of letters to her including this on June 13th 1814:

.. every time I see you, I leave more deeply impressed with your charms and less disposed to give my attention to politics!!! I shall call upon you tomorrow .. in spite of the effect such dangerous visits have upon me.

He was to call on her again after Waterloo: I have given him a good beating, he said. Despite her opposition to Napoleon she was disgusted by this remark and refused to receive him.

Her account is worth reading:

I see him again after the battle of Waterloo. He calls upon me the day after his return. I did not expect him. My annoyance at this visit. He comes back in the evening and finds my door closed. I refuse also to see him the next day. .. They say he is very much taken up with a young English lady, wife of one of his aides-de-camp.

Dinner at the Queen of Sweden's with her [de Stael] and the Duke of Wellington, whom I then see again. His coolness to me; his attention to the young English lady. I am placed at dinner between him and the Duke de Broglie. He is sullen at the beginning of dinner, but grows animated, and finishes by being very agreeable. I perceive the annoyance of the young English lady seated opposite us. .. I see the Duke of Wellington very seldom.


1. Strange that Napoleon and Wellington seemed to be attracted to the same women. They shared at least two mistresses, the actress Mlle George, who has appeared in this blog on other occasions, and who apparently offered to accompany Napoleon to St Helena, and the Italian contralto, Giuseppina Grassini.

2. Memoirs and correspondence of Madame Récamier   Translated from the French and Edited by By Isaphene M. Luyster p. 18-19.

3. Memoirs p. 52

4. Memoirs p. 111

5. Memoirs p. 106

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