Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier (4 December 1777 – 11 May 1849), known as Juliette , was a French society leader, whose salon drew Parisians from the leading literary and political circles of the early 19th century.
A native of Lyon, and known as Juliette, Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard was the only child of Jean Bernard, the King’s counsellor and a notary, and his wife, the former Marie Julie Matton. Her father became, in 1784, the receiver of finance. She was educated at the Couvent de la Déserte in Lyon briefly, after which her family moved to Paris.
She was married at the age of 15, on 24 April 1793, to Jacques-Rose Récamier (1751–1830), a banker nearly 30 years her senior and a relative of the gourmand Brillat-Savarin.
In relaying the news to a friend of his impending marriage, Récamier wrote, “I am not in love with her, but I feel for her a genuine and tender attachment which convinces me that this interesting creature will be a partner who will ensure the happiness of my whole life and, judging by my own desire to ensure her happiness, of which I can see she is absolutely convinced, I have no doubt that the benefit will be reciprocal …. She possesses germs of virtue and principle such as are seldom seen so highly developed at so early an age ; she is tender-hearted, affectionate, charitable and kind, beloved in her home-circle and by all who know her”.
A rumour arose that he was in fact her natural father who married her to make her his heir. Although many of her biographers have given credence to this, it is unproven, and discounted by some historians.
Curiously, however, Récamier wrote, again to a friend, that his relationship with Juliette’s mother may have been more than merely platonic: “It may be said that my feelings for the daughter arise out of those I have had for her mother; but all those who frequent the house are well aware that what took me there was pure friendship, a friendship which had grown out of the possibly somewhat warmer feeling I may have had in the earlier days of our acquaintance.
At present, having reached an age when all other pretensions are past, she only wishes to educate her child, and make her a virtuous and good woman”.
The Récamier marriage was never consummated, and Juliette remained a virgin until at least the age of forty. A rumour was initiated by Prosper Mérimée that Mme Récamier suffered from a physical condition which made the act of sex painful.
This, however, did not get in the way of her charm, as many individuals including François-René de Chateaubriand were said to have had intense emotional relationships with her. Chateaubriand was a constant visitor of her salon and, in a manner, master of the house.
Even in old age, ill-health (she became almost blind) and reduced circumstances, Juliette Récamier never lost her attractiveness, though at least one man who met her, artist Guillaume Gavarni, said that she “stank of the lower middle class”.
And although she numbered among her admirers the duc de Montmorency, Lucien Bonaparte, Prince Augustus of Prussia (whose proposal was accepted but the marriage never occurred), Pierre-Simon Ballanche, Jean-Jacques Ampère, and Constant, none of them obtained over her so great an influence as did Chateaubriand, though she suffered much from his imperious temper. If she had any genuine affection, it seems to have been for the baron de Barante, whom she met at Coppet.
Beautiful, accomplished, and with a love of literature, Juliette was shy and modest by nature. From the earliest days of the French Consulate to almost the end of the July Monarchy, her salon in Paris was one of the chief resorts of literary and political society that followed what was fashionable.
The habitués of her house included many former royalists, with others, such as General Bernadotte and General Moreau, more or less disaffected to the government. This circumstance, together with her refusal to act as lady-in-waiting to Empress consort Joséphine de Beauharnais and her friendship for Germaine de Staël, brought her under suspicion. In 1800 Jacques-Louis David began his portrait of her, but left it unfinished on learning François Gérard had been commissioned to paint a portrait before he had. Gerard’s was completed in 1802.
It was through Mme de Staël that Mme Récamier became acquainted with Benjamin Constant, whose political equivocations during the last days of the Empire and the first of the Restoration have been attributed to her persuasions. Mme Récamier was eventually exiled from Paris by the orders of Napoleon I. After a short stay at her native Lyon, she proceeded to Rome, and finally to Naples.
There Mme de Récamier was on exceedingly good terms with Joachim Murat and his wife Caroline Bonaparte, who were then intriguing with the Bourbons. She persuaded Constant to plead the claims of Murat in a memorandum addressed to the Congress of Vienna, and also induced him to take up a decided attitude in opposition to Napoleon during the Hundred Days.
Her husband had sustained heavy financial losses in 1805, and she visited Mme de Staël at Coppet in Switzerland. There was a project for her divorce, in order that she might marry Prince Augustus of Prussia, but, though her husband was willing, it was not arranged.
In her later days she lost most of what was left of her fortune; but she continued to receive visitors in her apartment at L’Abbaye-aux-Bois,a 17th-century convent (demolished in 1907) situated at 16 rue de Sèvres in Paris, to which she retired in 1819.
In 1859, Souvenirs et correspondances tirés des papiers de Madame Récamier was edited by Madame Lenormant. See Mme Lenormant’s Madame Récamier, les amis de sa jeunesse et sa correspondance intime (1872); Mme Mohl, Madame Récamier, with a sketch of the history of society in France (1821 and 1862); also François Guizot in the Revue des deux mondes for December 1859 and February 1873; H Noel Williams, Madame Récamier, and her Friends (London, 1901); E Herriott (Engl. trans., by Alys Hallard), Madame Récamier et ses amis (1904) (elaborate and exhaustive).
Juliette Récamier died in 1849 of cholera at the age of 71 and was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Montmartre, at the time a village north of Paris.