La Récamier’s salon owed its success to her enticing beauty and her husband’s complaisant wealth. Born in Lyons in 1777, named Jeanne-Françoise-Julie-Adélaïde Bernard, and known to her friends as Julie or Juliette, she was endowed with a loveliness of face and figure that survived even when she had become seventy and blind. She developed almost every charm of the feminine character—kindness, sympathy, tenderness, taste, grace, tact … She added to this a sensuous pliancy that stirred a hundred males without any known harm to her virginity. In 1793, aged sixteen, she married Jacques-Rose Récamier, who was forty-two but a banker. He was so pleased to contemplate her beauty, to hear her singing, to watch her delicate hands drawing sentiment from her piano or her harp, that he cushioned her in every comfort, financed her career as a salonnière, bore with paternal indulgence the conquests that she made, herself unconquered, and apparently did not insist on his marital rights.60
In 1798 he bought the Parisian home of Jacques Necker, on the Rue du Mont-Blanc. During that transaction Juliette, twenty-one, met Mme. de Staël, thirty-two; it was only a casual encounter, but it began a lifelong friendship that even rivalry in love could not end. Inspired by the success with which the older woman had brought to her salon the most prominent statesmen and authors of the time, Juliette in 1799 opened her new home to periodical gatherings of men and women prominent in the political, cultural, or social life of Paris. Lucien Bonaparte, the minister of the interior, lost little time in declaring to her his imperishable love. She showed his flaming letters to her husband, who advised her to treat Lucien with patience lest the Récamier bank incur the hostility of the rising dynasty. Napoleon extinguished Lucien’s fire by sending him as ambassador to Spain. Perhaps he himself had cast an eye upon Juliette as a “morsel for a king.”61 She had quite other inclinations. Despite her husband’s cautions, and her father’s precarious position as postmaster general in the consular government, she welcomed to her salon royalists like Mathieu de Montmorency, anti-Napoleon generals like Bernadotte and Moreau, and others who resented the First Consul’s increasingly imperial ways.
She was now in the prime of her beauty, and the leading painters were glad to have her sit for them. David portrayed her in the favorite pose of current goddesses—reclining on a couch, and loosely dressed in a Grecian gown that left bare her arms and feet. M. Récamier felt that David had not caught the demure loveliness of his wife; he challenged François Gérard, David’s pupil, to rival his master; Gérard succeeded so well that David never forgave him.62
In 1802 Juliette and her mother visited England, where dignitaries like the Prince of Wales and belles like the Duchess of Devonshire received her with all the honors due to her beauty and her anti-Bonapartist sentiments. Soon after her return to France her father was arrested for having connived at secret negotiations between Parisian royalists and the rebel Chouans of the Vendée; he was arrested, and was in danger of being sentenced to death, when his distracted daughter persuaded Bernadotte to go to Napoleon and intercede for M. Bernard’s release. Napoleon consented, but dismissed him from his post. “The government,” Juliette admitted, “had a perfect right to remove him.”63
In 1806 her husband appealed to the Bank of France to save him from bankruptcy by lending him a million francs. The directors referred the request to Napoleon, who, returning from Marengo, found the bank itself involved in difficulties; he forbade the loan. Récamier sold the house on the Rue du Mont-Blanc; Juliette sold her silver and jewelry, and, without complaint, accepted a simpler life. But she came close to a breakdown when, on January 20, 1807, her mother died. Hearing of this, Mme. de Staël invited her to come for a stay in the Necker château at Coppet in Switzerland. M. Récamier, absorbed in a struggle to regain solvency, gave her his permission to go. On July 10 she reached Coppet, and began the most amorous period of her career.
A succession of suitors attended upon her there, including Mme. de Staël’s lover Benjamin Constant. She enjoyed and encouraged their attentions, all the while (we are told) guarding her citadel. Some critics have accused her of dealing recklessly with men’s hearts, and Constant wrote bitterly: “She has played with my happiness, my life; may she be cursed!”64 But Constant too played with hearts and lives, and the Duchesse d’Abrantès remembered Juliette as quite unblemished:
One cannot expect to find, in future times, a woman like her—a woman whose friendship has been courted by the most remarkable persons of the age; a woman whose beauty has thrown at her feet all the men who have once set eyes upon her; whose love has been the object of universal desire, yet whose virtue has remained pure. … In her days of gaiety and splendor she had the merit of being always ready to sacrifice her own enjoyments to afford consolation … to any friend in affliction. To the world Mme. Récamier is a celebrated woman; to those who had the happiness to know and appreciate her she was a peculiar and gifted being, formed by Nature as a perfect model in one of her most beneficent moods.65
In October, 1807, Juliette came so close to commitment with Prince August of Prussia, nephew of Frederick the Great, that she wrote to her husband asking for release from their marriage. Récamier reminded her that he had through fourteen years shared his wealth with her, and had indulged her every wish; did it not seem wrong of her to desert him in his efforts for financial recovery? She returned to Paris and her husband, and the Prince had to comfort himself with her letters.
As Récamier grew rich again, and Juliette inherited a fortune from her mother, she resumed her salon, and her opposition to Napoleon. In 1811, when Mme. de Staël was in hot disfavor with the Emperor, and Mathieu de Montmorency had just been exiled for visiting her, Juliette dared fortune, and, over the warnings of Germaine, insisted on spending at least a day with her at Coppet. Napoleon, upset by bad news from Spain and Russia, forbade her to come within 120 miles of Paris. After his first abdication (April 11, 1814) she returned, reopened her salon, and entertained Wellington and other leaders of the victorious Allies. When Napoleon returned from Elba and recaptured France without a blow, she prepared to leave the capital, but Hortense promised to protect her, and she remained, temporarily subdued. After the second abdication (June 22, 1815) she resumed her hospitality. Chateaubriand, whom she had met in 1801, now reentered her life, and gave her a second youth in a strange and historic romance.