René Magritte vs Jacques-Louis David

November 20, 2007


ARTIST:Jacques-Louis David, TITLE: Madame Récamier, YEAR: 1800,
LOCATION: Musée du Louvre
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ARTIST: René Magritte, TITLE: Madame Récamier by David , YEAR:1951, LOCATION: National Gallery of Canada
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ARTIST: Jacob Freres, OBJECTS: Salon de Madame Récamier : guéridon, chaise longue, paire de bergères, paire de fauteuils, paire de chaises, tabouret (detail as seen at Louvre), YEAR: cca 1800, LOCATION: Musée du Louvre


AUTHOR: De Vergnette François

Madame Récamier

Juliette Récamier, the wife of a Parisian banker, was one of the most famous socialites of her time. This portrait, showing her dressed in the “antique style” and surrounded by Pompeian furniture in an otherwise bare picture space, was extremely avant-garde for 1800. Exactly why it was never finished is unclear, but its state enables one to study David’s technique before his vibrant preliminary brushwork and background rubbings were “glazed over” with translucent colors.


An ideal of feminine elegance

Madame Récamier, gracefully reclined on a meridienne with her head turned towards the viewer, is dressed in a white antique-style sleeveless dress and is barefoot. The room is empty except for the antique-style sofa, stool and candelabra. She is seen from some distance, so her face is quite small, but this is less a portrait of a person than of an ideal of feminine elegance. Madame Récamier (1777-1849), although then only twenty-three, was already one of the most admired women of her time. The daughter of a notary, she epitomized the social ascension of the new post-revolutionary elite. Her husband, older than her, had become one of the principal financial backers of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. In their mansion, restored by the architect Percier and furnished by the cabinetmaker Jacob, the couple entertained numerous writers, some of whom – like Benjamin Constant or Chateaubriand – fell passionately in love with Madame Récamier.

One of David’s whims

Commissioned by Madame Récamier in 1800, the picture remained unfinished for reasons unknown. David was not satisfied with it and wanted to rework it but Madame Récamier, who thought David worked too slowly, commissioned one of his pupils to paint her portrait instead. Vexed by this, David said to his model: “Women have their whims, and so do artists; allow me to satisfy mine by keeping this portrait.” The painting remained in his studio, unfinished, and was probably not seen by the public until after it entered the Louvre in 1826. In 1864, Théophile Gautier wrote of Madame Récamier’s “indescribable attraction, like the poetry of the unknown.”

The esthetic of the unfinished

One of the work’s innovative aspects is its horizontal format, unusual for a portrait, and habitually reserved for history paintings. The bare space around the figure emphasizes the elegant arabesque of Madame Récamier’s reclined body. Her antique pose, the bare décor and light dress all epitomize neoclassical ideals. The clear harmony of the ensemble, due to Juliette Récamier’s white dress, is brightened up by the warm hues of the furniture. Only the model’s head is nearly finished, and David has not yet added highlights to the impasto of her dress. The accessories, walls and floor are merely sketched in with vibrant brushstrokes, with the white undercoat still showing through in places. The canvas’ unfinished state gives the picture a mysterious, poetic appearance doubtless very different to the finished portrait David had in mind. After the minutely detailed portraits he painted during the Ancien Régime, several of David’s portraits after the Revolution have unfinished backgrounds (Madame Trudaine, Musée du Louvre).


During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Surrealist painter René Magritte made a series of “Perspective” paintings based on well-known works by the French artists François Gérard, Jacques Louis David, and Édouard Manet, in which he substituted coffins for the figures represented in the original paintings. The composition of this work is almost identical to that of David’s famous portrait of Madame Récamier in the Louvre, except that the seductive young sitter has been replaced by a coffin, with a cascading gown left as the only trace of her previous existence. Executed in Magritte’s carefully detailed style, this irreverent rendition of the Neoclassical masterpiece is suffused with mordant wit.


Salon (day bed, pair of bergères, pair of fauteuils, pair of chairs, stool)

This set of chairs comes from the rooms occupied by Juliette Récamier (1777-1849) at the Abbaye-au-Bois, rue de Sèvres, in Paris. It was most likely created originally for one of Madame Récamier’s salons in the Hôtel Récamier, rue du Mont-Blanc, whose neighborhood of Paris had become fashionable in the early 19th century. Probably the work of Jacob Frères, these seats are representative of the style of furniture produced in those years.

Seats in the manner of the antique

This salon set is composed of a day bed, two bergères, two fauteuils, two chairs and a stool. The day bed, shaped like those of Antiquity, is supported by patinated legs imitating the look of bronze. The front legs are baluster-shaped and the back legs in the Etruscan style. There is a back on each end with scrolling frames terminating in lion snouts of patinated wood, an ornament also reminiscent of antique furniture. In her portrait by Jacques-Louis David (Painting Department, Musée du Louvre), Juliette Récamier poses on a very similar day bed, which the painter might likely have ordered specifically from Jacob to furnish his studio. The other chairs stand on the same types of legs, baluster-shaped at the front, and Etruscan at the back. The lion snouts are also repeated on the chairs. The arm supports of the bergères and of the fauteuils are shaped like winged sphynges standing on their hind legs, a motif often used by Jacob Frères. As for the X-shaped stool with its legs ending in lion paws, it evokes the seats found in Ancient Rome.

Varying effects with materials

in 1791, the Le Chapelier law abolished the guild system, allowing cabinetmakers and woodcarvers to work indifferently with solid woods and veneering woods. Thus in the early 19th century cabinetmaking techniques began to be applied to a type of furniture produced until then exclusively by woodcarvers. Such is the case with this set, which is veneered with lemon wood and amaranth. On the seat rails and the seat posts, the lemon wood veneering is outlined with amaranth fillets. The illustrations that have come down to us show that these seats were upholstered with blue cassimere. The furniture’s strict sober style was therefore enlivened with vivid polychromy.

A set better known for its later history

If we can only suppose that this furniture comes originally from the Hôtel Récamier, we are on the other hand certain that it followed Madame Récamier, after the death of her husband, the banker Jacques-Rose Récamier, to the Abbaye-au-Bois, rue de Sèvres, in Paris. Indeed, in 1826, François-Louis Dejuinne painted a watercolor representing Madame Récamier’s bedroom there, in which part of the seats appear. In 1848, the painter Auguste-Gabriel Toudouze immortalized this time the aspect of Madame Récamier’s salon, which was furnished with another part of the set. Along with the furnishings of Madame Récamier’s bedroom – also in the Louvre – this salon provides a good example of the elegance of furniture produced in the early 19th century.


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