Saturday, February 26, 2011

So Who Was Juliette?

The angelic Juliette Recamier, who was born Jeanne-Francoise Julie Adelaide Recamier but quickly nicknamed Juliette, was one of those rare, precious souls who was a genuinely good person--absolutely beautiful and with a giving heart to boot. 

A colored lithography of Juliette from the 19th century--she had curly, chestnut-colored hair, a heart-shaped face, and big brown eyes. Her face has an innocent, angelic quality to it that is noticeable even in her portraits of her as an older woman.

What makes her 'angelic goodness', as one writer describes her, even more ethereal was the fact that she seemed to have it all--wealth, looks, a fab house, endless male attention (sometimes from serious hotties), a kind, easy-going husband--and yet in her life nothing was EVER as it seemed. In actuality, she went from being a millionaire overnight to utterly penniless the next day (her husband's business abruptly crashed). She never let herself fall in love with a single man until she was in her 40's. Worst of all, her so-called 'husband' was actually her real father, who married her during the most violent phase of the French Revolution in order to be able to transfer his huge fortune to her. She did not find this out until much later, after a huge amount of psychological damage had been done. She never had children and never remarried, even after her 'husband''s death. But she never broadcast her sorrow, never whined and complained--instead, she suffered in silence, becoming depressed at an early age and tried, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide in her late 20's. She would battle depression throughout her entire life and only found a respite from her melancholy in her friends--her one, all-important solace. Her small band of loyal friends formed her lifeline--they became her reason for existence, and she devoted herself to them, body, mind, and soul. Her life is perhaps the living embodiment of the phrase 'all that glitters is not gold'. Juliette's life glittered at times, but it was never gold. 
A pretty little sketch of Juliette from the early 1800's that, oddly enough, was very popular in England! It was printed tons of news sheets, distributed everywhere. Juliette at this point was at the height of her fame; adoring crowds followed her wherever she went. She wears her signature white dress, lifting a transparent white veil as though to say hello to you. Her left sleeve is pulled down, exposing her pearly skin and juuuust being seductive enough without going too far. She always managed a difficult balance between the innocent, virginal look and the coy seductress like none other!

Her best friend was Germaine de Stael, one of the most amazing writers I have ever found. Her writing is inspiring, funny and probing, romantic without being corny--even in the age of Romanticism, where feelings and emotions were cheesified to the TOTAL Nth degree. She summarizes incredibly complicated historical figures or events and I find myself nodding and agreeing before I even realize what I'm doing. 
The most famous portrait of Germaine de Stael, usually known as Madame de Stael, painted about 1810 by Baron Gerard (Napoleon's fabulous artist). She's holding a little olive leaf in her hand because she thought her hands were her one beautiful feature and she showed them off whenever possible. She also sported a turban from 1798 onwards, long past its popularity, and it became her signature style!

 Germaine herself was emotionally unbalanced, demanding, and childish, with an ego that only Napoleon's could match. On the other hand, she was incredibly warm and giving, selfless and funny and very kind. She brought Juliette out of her shell at the ripe old age of 21 and taught her how to feel--that is was okay to feel emotions, even that it was healthy to do so. She tried to persuade her to divorce her husband in 1807 to marry a HOTTIE of a Prince, Augustus of Prussia (Juliette refused) because she genuinely wanted her friend to be happy. She sometimes grew very jealous of Juliette's looks and would beg her friend not to 'seduce' her lovers, like Prosper de Barante, a hottie diplomat and writer. Germaine was very painfully aware of the fact that although she was brilliant, she was not beautiful--at a dinner once, a man was seated between Germaine and Juliette, and looking at each of the women, he exclaimed how lucky he was to be seated between intelligence (Germaine) and beauty (Juliette). Ever witty, Germaine turned to the man and quipped 'Well, that's the first time in my life that I've ever been called beautiful!' The sad part is that Juliette was probably just as excited to be called 'intelligent.'She worshiped the talent of her friends and always tried to help them in any way with their writing. It was her way of living vicariously through their success, of letting herself become absorbed in another person and thus forgetting her own unhappiness. 
A truly lovely portrait of Juliette in 1807 by Firmin Massot (who also painted my favorite portrait of Josephine Bonaparte, coincidentally). She looks more virginal and angelic than ever here. Her eyes look kind and beseeching, her skin very pale, almost translucent. She has a kind but sad expression, her trademark. The best part is her sheer muslin dress and the transparent shawl-type cover she's wearing. You can see the tiny gold embroidery at the edges! Very lovely.

One very interesting little adventure concerning Juliette took place when I lived in Paris. I like to take flowers to the graves of the historical figures I study, because all too often they have been forgotten amidst the sands of time (unless you're Napoleon, in which case you have successfully made it impossible to forget you, buried in your own massive coffin, in your own mausoleum, in your own frigging HISTORICAL MONUMENT) and somehow I hope that my little offering will remind them that they are not entirely forgotten. I've done this for Josephine Bonaparte, my hero, countless times at Malmaison, her beautiful home located on the outskirts of Paris, for Hortense de Beauharnais (Josephine's daughter), Fortunee Hamelin, Laure Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angely, and many others. So I wanted to do the same for Juliette, who is such an inspiration. I bought a little pink bouquet of flowers and trudged to the Cimitiere de Montmartre, tucked into a little niche of Paris not far from the red-light district, Pigalle, where Juliette is buried. I entered the cemetery and felt immediately suffocated and creeped out. Maybe it was because of the overpass that glides over the cemetery? For whatever reason, I immediately detested this place. I bought a map from the cranky guard and succeeded in wandering around for an HOUR, in the drizzly rain, without a clue as to where Juliette lay buried. The cobblestones hurt my feet and I just wanted to get back to my warm apartment at this point. Finally, as I walked by the area one last time where the map said Juliette was located, I suddenly stopped and felt the strangest urge to just stay stopped and turn left. No one told me to stop, I just FELT it in the most indescribably weird way. As though I were getting a bit of invisible help.
At that moment, I turned left and walked straight up to Juliette's grave. It was bizarre, and I was shocked and immediately felt goosebumps on my arms. After all that searching! I saw her name engraved clearly, although the tablet was a bit weather-beaten. It was still elegant, though. And apparently she is not forgotten, for there were 2 other bouquets of flowers on her grave, and I sat mine next to them gently (where they probably still sit!).
Her gravesite though, rather than being beautifully peaceful, like Malmaison, or just quiet, like Pere Lachaise, has a gentle, delicate sadness to it. It's difficult to describe, but it is there. It's a sweet sadness, as though you can taste the happiness that was just out of her reach. Perhaps Juliette left her imprint there for us to feel and remember--I like to think so, anyway.
Juliette's grave at the Cimitiere de Montmartre in Paris. My bouquet was the hot pink one, obviously, because Juliette was nothing if not stylish! :) 

My next post will be about Juliette's loves--who she loved, and who loved her! Stay tuned! :)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Juliette Recamier-A Little Introduction

Well it has definitely been a while since I've posted anything on here! I took a bit of a break thanks to the holidays, job changing, and, well, that little thing called life, but I am back and will try to be a bit more faithful and regular in my posts!

So my research has recently led me to one of the most fascinating and yet boxed-in figures of the Napoleonic era: Juliette Recamier. She was better known throughout her life as Madame Recamier, and she is famous for her portrait by Jacques-Louis David which hangs, even today, in the Louvre:

 This lovely example of neoclassical portraiture at its height was painted in 1800, when Juliette was in the bloom of her beauty at 23 years old and David was already a famous artist, the undisputed neoclassical French master. Up to this point, David had painted many incredible portraits of a variety of subjects, from politicians to mistresses to aristocrats--and they all look as if they're going to step out of the painting and say hello, that's how realistic his portraits are. 
Even though this portrait is unfinished, he still captures the essence of Juliette perfectly, I believe, albeit in a very stark and unflattering style (especially in comparison to Juliette's other portraits, rosy-hued and dimple-cheeked). The portrait is so realistic; you can see how her stark white dress was bunched up in the back so the train wouldn't drag, then how it was modestly pulled up in the front, probably laced with a drawstring. She wears a white dress because she nearly always wore white, in stark contrast to the rainbow of gem-colored dresses so popular in the heyday of late 18th-century Parisian fashion. She rarely wore any jewelry (she wears none here) but when she did, they were nearly always pearls (symbols of sadness). You can see how little tendrils of her curly hair were pulled under her black bandeau in that windswept style so popular during this time to frame her heart-shaped face. It looks as though she either had a very high high forehead, or very thin hair--towards the front, she looks almost bald. Obviously she was proud of her small and dainty feet, bare and on display here--small, pretty feet were considered very desirable during this time period.

What is the most fascinating, however, is Juliette's expression here: her timidity, her shyness, her lifelong battle with depression and massive insecurities even as she was hailed as the most beautiful woman in Paris, shine through. She looks extremely insecure, almost like a frightened rabbit (although that may be a reaction to David's very bad temper as he was painting this portrait; he kept shouting and yelling the entire time) and unsure of herself--which Juliette was, and for very good reason.

Stay tuned for more posts on Juliette, because her life was one helluva soap opera--her  'father' was probably homosexual, and lived with his bossy partner and his domineering wife, Juliette's beautiful but vain mother, in a very odd little menage-a-trois of a Parisian townhouse. Meanwhile Juliette lived a few streets over in opulent splendor in another house with her real father, whom she unknowingly married at the ripe old age of 15--a marriage arranged by her own mother to make sure her daughter would inherit her father-cum-husband's enormous fortune in the upheaval of the Revolution! Add to this the fact that Juliette's BFF was Germaine de Stael, the emotionally unstable but utterly brilliant author of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the fact that Juliette became Germaine's muse, closest friend, and hugest girlcrush until her death. THEN the fact that despite being adored by nearly every man she met--including the dashingly handsome and heroic Prince Augustus of Prussia, who wanted to marry her, Benjamin Constant, the famous politician, Napoleon's poet brother, Lucien, who wrote some of the cheesiest love poetry that can ever be imagined in her honor, along with (literally) legions of other men, Juliette remained a virgin with a reputation perfect in every way until her thirties (possibly forties), when she fell in serious love with the cross, cranky, and brilliant founder of Romantic literature, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (yes, he of the famous steak nowadays) and finally-FINALLY-let herself go (hooray!). She had tons of women friends, but never had children so was given her niece, like a stray puppy, to raise by her husband/father. She tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pain pills, was banished from Paris by Napoleon when she refused to stop seeing her royalist friends and point-blank refused to be a lady-in-waiting to Empress Josephine at Napoleon's laughingstock court.

And that's just for starters! In summary, Juliette Recamier had quite a life. So stay tuned for all the details!

Close-up of Juliette from the previous portrait--sad eyes, sweet smile
Juliette's pearl diadem she would have worn in her hair for special occasions. She would have worn her hair swept up in a chignon in the back of her head, curly tendrils pulled towards the front, then this dainty little diadem put in the chignon.
Another example of Juliette's white dresses--this one  is cut in the Empire style, probably made of sheer muslin, and delicately embroidered along the hem. How fun would it have been to wear these dresses; it would have been like wearing pajamas everyday! Lucky Juliette!