Often criticised for his history paintings, David was however unanimously praised for his portraits. And even though he felt portraiture a lesser genre, he never belittled it and left to posterity a gallery of portraits of his contemporaries which are some of his best work. Juliette Récamier, born in Lyons in 1777, a banker's daughter and wife, dominated the high society of the Consulate period. An invitation to her salon was not to be refused, and the crowds thronged her Parisian town mansion not only to gaze on the remarkable beauty of the hostess but also to cast envious glances at her fabulous frères Jacob furniture. Always surrounded by an entourage of male admirers (indeed adorers), Madame Récamier excited the passions of many a man, but most notably those of Lucien Bonaparte, and later Prince August of Prussia, Benjamin Constant and Chateaubriand.
And so it came to pass, in the spring of 1800, that the most famous of First Empire artists began painting the portrait of the most ravishing woman of the times, then aged only 23. A few months later, the incomplete picture was abandoned. "Madame, women have their caprices; artists have theirs too. Allow me to pander to mine; I shall keep your portrait as it stands" were David's words to her. Slowness of execution, criticisms as to the resemblance, caprices on the part of the diva, unhappiness with the result and dissatisfaction on the part of the painter, many theories have been put forward for the interruption; but the question mark remains today as it did then.
This painting breaks away from the traditional portraiture's concentration on the face of the model. David creates real distance between the viewer and the young woman half-lying, like a Roman patricienne, on her couch/chaise longue. The space around her is empty, the decor kept to a minimum, the furniture and the pose have an enormous simplicity. This antique severity is heightened by the grace of the model, the supple curve of the arm, the lines of the back and neck, the delicate face with its profound look. And the incomplete nature of the works gives viewers a clear picture of David's incomparable technique: the thick paint carefully worked for the model, the light, vibrant scumbling for the ground, the harmonies of blue and yellow, ochre and brown.
Legend has it that losing her patience with David's slowness, Madame Récamier commissioned another portrait from Gérard. Completed in 1805, this work, more mannered and apparently more flattering to the model, puts into high relief the remarkable modernity of David's incomplete portrait.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)