DAVID, Jacques-Louis
(b. 1748, Paris, d. 1825, Bruxelles)

Madame Récamier

Oil on canvas, 173 x 244 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

This is a case where a comparison will give a good idea of how differently the same subject was handled by Jacques-Louis David and one of his numerous pupils. David started the portrait of Madame Récamier in 1800 which was never finished. (However, incidentally, this portrait helped a contemporary item of furniture to become known under her name.) When the master learned that the lady had also commissioned his pupil Gérard to paint her, he is said to have refused any further service.

In David's portrait, noble simplicity, expressed by the simple dress and the Spartan decoration, is also eloquent in the open face. This might well appear more to the modern viewer than Gérard's version, which was judged to be more representative and flattering at the time. And comparisons with portraits of Madame Récamier by other artists suggest that Gérard had achieved a better likeness than David. The Spartan severity of David's composition, the Neoclassical sparseness of the arrangement, the cool handling of the room, the distanced pose, with the lady turning her shoulder to the viewer, were all elements with which Neoclassicism had operated for long enough.

Gérard, by contrast, sets the lady in a noble park loggia, where she seems to be inviting to conversation. Her low-cut bodice is seductive, the red curtain flatters the subject and gives the flesh a rosy tint. Where David gave the beautiful woman a rather severe touch around the mouth, Gérard embellishes her features with the hint of a gentle smile, making her look younger. By contrast, David's portrait in the antique manner looks rather forced. Perhaps these were the reasons why his painting was never finished. Madame Récamier gave Gérard's portrait of her to her admirer Prince Augustus of Prussia, a nephew of Frederick II, who had met the French beauty at the salon of Madame de Staël. For state reasons a marriage was impossible, but in the painting Madame Récamier was ever present in the palace which Schinkel furnished for the Prince in 1817.