I don’t know much about Madame Récamier, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming one of my role models. I’ve come to know this nineteenth century literary and political hostess through her portraits scattered in Parisian museums, including David’s portrait in the Musée du Louvre. She is always poised and oozing the Neoclassical elegance of the First Empire.
David’s unfinished 1800 portrait is stark compared with the dramatic large-scale paintings that surround it, including the Oath of the Horatii to its left and the Coronation of Napoleon directly across the room.
In a gallery so charged with gestures and significance, Madame Récamier’s solitary body is powerful, political. Her portrait hangs next to David’s self-portrait, painted when he was in prison and didn’t know if he would be executed. The two figures’ gazes come at you with equal intensity.
Gérard painted his own portrait of Madame Récamier in 1805 (it is now in the Musée Carnavalet), and I find it to be more Disney than David’s.
I could see Gérard’s Madame Récamier lounging around all day, barefoot and content, covering everything with garlands. I see David’s Madame Récamier strategically using her garlands to strangle her enemies.
Musée du Louvre (Denon wing, first floor, room 75)
Address: Palais du Louvre 75001 Paris ∣ Métro: Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre (line 1 or 7) ∣ Opening hours: Wednesday to Monday from 9am to 6pm, open until 9:45pm on Wednesday and Friday