The Centre of European Celebrity: What Made Madame Récamier’s Salon Special?

Geri Walton

Age of Revolution French Revolution and Napoleon
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Madame Récamier’s salon was the centre of European celebrity. It was established because Jacques-Rose believed that the beauty and charm of his wife, who was 26 years his junior, could help to increase his status and wealth. Jacques-Rose was one of the richest and most respected bankers in France. He supposedly loved soirées and the admiration that his beautiful wife received. He therefore suggested she open a salon.

Detail of Madame Récamier from portrait by François Gérard in 1802. (Credit: Public Domain)

Having accepted her husband’s idea, Madame Récamier’s salon was soon filled with the brightest and the best, ranging from returning émigrés and prominent writers, to influential financiers and persuasive intellectuals or leading politicians.

In fact, the New York based Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art stated of her:

“[F]ar surpassing all the literary queens of society … was the young, the graceful, the amiable, the talented, the every way charming Mme. Récamier, in whose salon, radiant with her ‘dazzling beauty,’ was collected all that was best in the thought and activity of France under the Consulate.”

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The guests

Madame Récamier’s salon was held on Mondays from 1799 to 1803 and, when it initially began, old friends of her parents helped form a “kernel” of her regular patrons.

Attendees to Madame Récamier’s salon included some of her closest friends. For instance, one regular attendee was royalist supporter Mathieu of Montmorency Laval, a man Madame Récamier treated as a father figure. Also in attendance was Pierre-Simon Ballanche, a French writer and counterrevolutionary philosopher who greatly influenced French literary circles expounding a theology of progress and the belief that the French Revolution had divine significance. Madame Récamier’s best friend, Madame de Staël, a woman of letters, could frequently be found at the salon, though she would ultimately be banished from France by Napoleon Bonaparte for opposing his policies.

Madame de Staël by Marie-Éléonore Godefroid after François Gérard. (Credit: Public Domain)

Besides close friends, there were other elite and influential people who attended Madame Récamier’s salon. Napoleon’s sisters Elisa and Caroline attended, as did their brother Lucien, who fell madly in love with his host. Benjamin Constant, a Swiss-French political activist and writer on politics and religion, was often present. He and his lover Madame de Staël worked together and influenced one another, which made them one of the most celebrated intellectual couples of that time. French general Jean-Victor-Marie Moreau could also be found at Madame Recamier’s salon. Whilst he initially helped Napoleon gain power, he later became the First Consul’s rival and was banished to the United States.

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803. (Credit: Public Domain)

Conversations and clashes

Madame Récamier’s salon was different from other salons. Her aim was for her guests to discuss and stick to one subject.

Salon conversations tended to echo the prevailing opinions or the strongest views circulating at the time. Madame Récamier, though, always remained neutral, allowing everybody to feel accepted. Purportedly Madame Récamier also tried to bring those of contrary opinions together. Her motives for this are unknown but 21st century historian, Temma Balducci, notes that:

“Contemporary commentators suggest that Récamier did indeed imagine her salon as an institution capable of healing the wounds of the Revolution trauma in France by bringing together members of its divided elite.”

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With the diversity in preferences and opinions among the attendees it was surprising to many people that Madame Récamier’s salon ran so smoothly. Récamier’s outstanding success can be attributed in part to her mother, Madame Bernard. As a young girl, Madame Juliette Récamier learned from her the skills necessary to make a winning salon:

“[T]he young Juliette often socialized with the numerous guests that frequented the Bernards’ home when Madame Bernard hosted dinners twice a week. Literary people were the family’s favourite guests and the slightly coquettish Madame Bernard was extremely skilled at ‘attracting, retaining, and grouping … men whose sentiments were often in conflict.’ The dinners proved to be a great education for the young inquisitive girl and the skill of handling conflict would become one of Juliette’s greatest talents.”

Example of a French salon showing a reading being held in 1755. (Credit: Public Domain)

Madame Récamier’s skill at successfully handling people with diverse ideas and differing opinions also meant that she was able to successfully establish, as noted in the magazine article about her salon, “peace, courtesy, and goodwill in a circle where opposing interests and hostile passions made collisions imminent at every instant. At her house ‘ambassadors, generals, ancient revolutionists, and royalists’ seemed to lay aside political passion, charmed and spellbound by the magic of her personality.”

Author Delia Austrian also noted, “it was said that great men who often clashed outside because of their different political views brushed these differences aside in Madame Récamier’s salon and were very friendly toward each other.” This ability of people to “check” themselves created goodwill and made it less likely that people would offend their gracious hostess or create political resentment between attendees. Thus, it also meant visitors were disinclined to “transgress” the established custom of amenability.

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Reputation

Author Joseph Turquan, who wrote a biography about her in 1913, remarked:

“It is very difficult to draw an exact picture of Madame Récamier’s salon under the Consulate. Through her doors passed an interminable procession of all the most distinguished actors who were remodelling a new society. In this crowd she received each comer with a flattery so eager that one of her admirers said with some show of jealousy that she had ‘an equal preference for everyone.’”

Those who attended Madame Récamier’s salon had several reasons for wanting to attend. Some people hoped to obtain a favor, such as military or public works contract, from her banker-husband Jacques-Rose. Being seen at her salon and hobnobbing with the brightest and the best also increased a person’s positive reputation. Also, she spoke well of everyone and refused to tolerate slander or backbiting. Of course, such reasons further aided her in producing a successful salon.

As a salon hostess, Madame Récamier has also been mentioned as being one of the most attentive and graceful. She had no qualms about surrounding herself with “women more witty than herself, and moreover, no woman … ever sacrificed more of her own charms to let the others shine, so thus she [was] adored by anyone who [had] genius, talent, or wit.” As she had learned composure from her mother, she was also artful in applying it and found that attendees enthusiastically “chanted her praises.”

A change of scene

Madame Récamier’s dear friend Madame de Staël died in 1817, and another blow for Madame Récamier came after Jacques-Rose lost his immense fortune. She then rented an inexpensive apartment in 1819 from nuns at Abbaye-aux Bois, who offered such lodgings to impoverished gentlewomen. In these simple surroundings she then held her salon. Visitors found that instead of being surrounded by luxury the room they occupied now was “a simple chamber, paved in brick, covered by a poor carpet, and adorned with the most modest furniture.”

Rendering of Madame Récamier in her chambers at Abbaye-aux Bois by François-Louis Dejuinne. (Credit: Public Domain)

When guests arrived, they found their hostess sitting on one side of the fireplace and formed a circle. Guests also found themselves looking at a painting of Madame de Staël that had been created by Marie-Éléonore Godefroid. Despite the modesty of Madame Récamier’s new surroundings, however, there was no change to the types of people made welcome there. As before, a visitor had to be of “distinction,” and attendees needed a personal invitation issued from Madame Récamier.

Under these conditions, Madame Récamier’s salon continued, although in its last stages it was more literary than political. Various authors gave readings or read excerpts from their books, which were then usually followed by lively discussions. Further, some people maintain that Madame Récamier’s salon at this time was held by her out of boredom rather than from her wanting to maintain the stellar reputation of her once brilliant salon.

Chateaubriand and the End

After Madame de Staël’s death, a lonely Madame Récamier formed an intimate relationship with François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand. He was a handsome intellectual, writer, historian, politician, and diplomat who founded Romanticism in French literature. He was also greatly critical of others, a womanizer, and a “tedious self-centered windbag.”

François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand in 1828. (Credit: Public Domain)

People could not figure out how someone as charming and lovely as Juliette could be so inexplicably drawn to him. Nonetheless, she was greatly attracted to Chateaubriand and even more so after her husband became seriously ill and died on 29 March 1830. Madame Récamier lived for another nineteen years and during that time Chateaubriand became increasingly important to her. In fact, she tried to cultivate a social climate more amenable and favorable to Chateaubriand’s desire for a political career.

Despite Chateaubriand becoming the centre of her world, the brilliance of her earlier salon was not forgotten. French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve mentioned Madame Récamier’s continued uncanny ability of hosting a successful salon and remarked that she had conquered him much like she had conquered all her visitors that came before him.

He stated of her:

“Never a talent, a virtue was lost, she recognized every distinction; she was willing to recognize every merit, and bring it to light. She desired to place everyone in his right relation therefore creating a perfect harmony about her, and thus subordinated them to her.”

Geri Walton is an author who has written several books on French history, including one on the Princesse de Lamballe and another on Madame Tussaud. Her most recent book, Napoleon’s Downfall: Madame Récamier and her Battle with the Emperor, was recently released with Pen and Sword.

Bibliography

Austrian, D. Juliette Recamier. R.F. Seymour, 1922.

Balducci, T. Women, Femininity and Public Space in European Visual Culture, 1789-1914. London: Taylor & Francis, 2017.

Mémoires d’une femme de qualité sur le Consulat et L’Empire. Paris: Mercure de France, 1987.

The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art v. 47; v. 110. New York: Leavitt, Trow, & Company, 1888.

Turquan, J. A Great Coquette: Madame Recamier and Her Salon. New York: Brentano’s, 1913.

Walton, G. Napoleon’s Downfall: Madame Récamier and her Battle with the Emperor. London: Pen and Sword History, 2020.

Geri Walton