Jeanne Françoise “Juliette” Récamier
French Social Leader
1779 – 1849 A.D.
Jeanne Françoise “Juliette” Récamier, a French social leader, one of the most beautiful and best beloved women of her time. She was born at Lyons, but when she was seven years old, her parents moved to Paris, where her father Jean Bernard was appointed collector of customs. Her mother, a handsome woman, of great strength of mind and business capacity, amassed a fortune in speculation, and held it through the horrors of the Revolution.
When Julie, or Juliette, as she was usually called, was about twelve years old, she accompanied her mother to a reception at Versailles, where her graceful beauty and charm of manner attracted the attention of Queen Marie Antoinette, and when her career as a social favorite began.
Twice a week Mme. Bernard gave suppers at her home, where she welcomed all clever people. Among the visitors was M. Récamier, a rich banker, attractive, well educated, agreeable and generous. He was forty-two and Juliette fifteen when he asked her in marriage. He had been kind to the child and had given her pretty playthings. He was proud of her girlish beauty, and she regarded him as a father. They were married in April, 1793, when the Reign of Terror was at its height.
For four years Juliette Récamier lived a quiet, uneventful life, till order was somewhat restored in distracted France. She had become very beautiful, and her presence was solicited at subscription balls and other public places.
In 1798 began her life-long friendship with Madame de Staël. A year later at a fête she met Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul, whose constant gaze made her very uncomfortable. In 1804 when he had become Emperor, he sent a message asking Mme. Récamier to attach herself to his court as a lady of honor. She refused the position, and incurred the displeasure of Napoleon, which lasted until his fall.
In 1806 her husband’s banking-house failed, and her home and jewels were disposed of to help pay the debts. The sympathy for Mme. Récamier was universal, and her popularity excited the envy of Napoleon, who in 1811 found political reasons for her exile from Paris. Poverty and exile, however, could not disturb the lasting friendships she had established with some of the most famous men and women of Europe, among them princes and victorious generals, who sought her hand in marriage, urging her to break her loveless union with M. Récamier. But she remained faithful to her husband, and returned to Paris, after an exile of three years. Napoleon had fallen, her husband had somewhat regained his fortune, and she had come into possession of her mother’s property, and her salon now became the centre [sic] of society.
In 1817 a great sorrow came to Madame Récamier in the death of Madame de Staël, and the most important influence come into her life. By the bedside of her friend she made the acquaintance of the man to whom she was thereafter to give the first place in her heart, a man of brilliant talents, a statesman, and the foremost French author of the age, M.de Chateaubriand.
A year after M. Récamier again failed in business, losing part of his wife’s money. She now felt that she must lead a separate and personal life, and sought an asylum in the Abbaye-aux-Bois. With the rest of her fortune she supported her husband, who lived near by, until his death in 1830. The Abbaye soon became a centre [sic] of meeting for the distinguished men and women of France. Her financial reverses made no difference in the hearts of those who loved her.
Here came Sir Humphrey and Lady Davy, Maria Edgeworth, the Duke of Wellington, Alexander von Humboldt, the Duchess of Devonshire, and other famous persons. For many years she remained the social attraction of Paris, and in 1840 when a subscription-soiree was given at the Abbaye, in aid of suffering in her native city Lyons, Madame Récamier was called the most beautiful person present, and she was then sixty-three years of age.
Chateaubriand came every day to the Abbaye, between two and three in the afternoon. For an hour they talked alone, and then other visitors were admitted.
About this time a cataract began to form in one of Madame Récamier’s eyes, which eventually resulted in total blindness during the last two years of her life, though the brilliancy of her eyes remained unchanged.
In July 1848 Chateaubriand died, and by her tearless grief and strange pallor it was evident that she would soon follow him. Eight months later, on May 10, 1849, she was stricken with cholera, and after twelve hours of suffering, died the following day. “We shall meet again,” she said to her niece. After death she seemed more beautiful than ever, with an angelic expression. She died as she had lived – beloved by all who knew her.
Lamartine, in speaking of her, said: “One look at her face sufficed to bind your heart to her forever.”
Saint Beuve said: “France can never forget her.”
Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.