Madame Récamier

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Jacques-Louis David, Madame Récamier, 1800

Madame Juliette Récamier, the jewel of high society, was the Gatsby of her time. She threw parties that no one could deny an invitation to and had an entourage of only the most important men,  including Lucien Bonaparte and, later, the Prince August of Prussia - each a good friend for a 23-year-old socialite to have. Surrounded by adorers of both her beauty and wealth, Juliette got a bit of a big head. She commissioned a portrait from only the most famous painter of the time: David. Even though he found it a "lesser genre," he was damn good at it, and Madame Récamier was not one to be denied.

Then the story gets a bit blurry. There are theories about why this piece, one to immortalize Juliette in her prime, was never completed. They range from slowness of completion to actual criticisms from Juliette as to the resemblance. All that's actually known is that David said, "Madame, women have their caprices; artists have theirs too. Allow me to pander to mine; I shall keep your portrait as it stands." Ouch.

To add insult to injury, Madame Récamier commissioned another artist, François Gérard, to paint her instead. Completed in 1805, his piece (shown below) is dramatically different than David's. Knowing the drama surrounding David's work, it is easy to see the little signs of his disdain for her. Specifically the giant bald spot he left, immortalized forever just like she wanted. David's piece has a sickly palette with minimal furniture, the only distinct piece being the chaise lounge Juliette sits stiffly upon. Unlike most other portraits, David creates significant distance between his subject and the viewer. Her bald spot takes up all of the attention anyway. Gérard's piece is brighter and warmer, with much more movement in the clothing and a much tighter focus on the beautiful Madame Récamier. She looks like a completely different person. Maybe David just showed a different side of the socialite that she didn't want everyone to see.

François Gérard, Portrait of Madame Récamier, 1805

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