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A Pretty Face
As artists and painters, we pride ourselves in being merchants of beauty. Even those of us who don't always paint beautiful things, at least try to produce work that is to some degree pleasant, attractive, and visually satisfying. To do this we develop a keen eye for great beauty and are appreciative of it wherever we might come upon it. Sometimes, we find it in nature, sometimes in objects, and sometimes it a beautiful face. Today we call such faces super models, or movie stars, or wives, or grandchildren. In this century, Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and others have inspired artists from traditional portrait painters to Andy Warhol. Around 1780, there was born one such beautiful face. She married in her early twenties to a wealthy Parisian banker by the name of Recamier. Her name was Juliette.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, her beauty was legendary. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte commented that her beauty reminded one of Venus. She attracted painters wanting to capture her exquisite loveliness, by the scores. The most famous painting of her was by none other than the great Neo-classical artist, Jacques-Louis David who depicted her reclining, barefooted, on a Roman-style sofa. Her delicate, Roman tunic, aside from revealing perhaps as much as it concealed, set the standard for the Empire Style in both female fashion and furniture (based upon the design of the sofa). The Empire referred, of course, to that of Napoleon Bonaparte. The surface coolness of her pose and expression concealed a latent sex appeal having a powerful influence upon other artists, not to mention all the other similarly beautiful women who saw the painting.

Another artists, by the name of Dejuinne, painted Mme. Recamier dressed all in virginal white, reading in a library. Chinard, painted her as a nymph with partly exposed breasts; while François Gérard used a Greek style of dress and furniture for his version. It would appear she might have inspired more paintings than Helen of Troy inspired ships. Yet her existence was hardly ideal. Rather than living as a goddess, she was something of a prisoner in her own home, albeit a rather palatial pad, the Hotel Recamier. She was married to a husband who neglected to consummate their marriage, and similarly, was the victim of several unhappy romantic liaisons. Nonetheless, in conjunction with the artists who painted her, she managed to dictate her tastes in clothes, interior design, and other matters of style, to much of Parisian society during the entire Napoleonic era.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
13 June 1999


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