The great Mystery

Madame Récamier – Jacques-Louis David (1800)

“What do you think most about during the day?
Women. They are a complete mystery.” – S. Hawking

Jacques Louis David’s portrait of Parisian muse and socialite Juliette Récamier on her sofa (the style of which is now known as the récamier), is a remarkable painting.

This neoclassical masterpiece is striking by its revolutionary simplicity (in composition and technique; he used only five colors) and its impressive avant-gardism. Madame Récamier is painted in landscape format (unusual for that time), from far enough so that the details of her face or person do not matter as much as what she symbolizes: grace and pure feminine elegance. Théophile Gautier spoke of Madame Récamier’s “attrait indicible comme la poésie de l’inconnu” (*).

I feel a strange attraction to this painting. It conveys mystery and serenity and has a je ne sais quoi that makes its realism not as obvious as in most pre-impressionist art. The painting has more than what it shows and this abstract dimension is present as much as the realist one. It is not a technical tour de force showing how skilled the painter was; in fact it is not even finished, rather it is an anti-realist painting.

A beautiful woman dressed in white, gracefully reclined in a room minimally furnished and a mysterious light-darkness interplay are elements that provide a powerful symbolism that speaks to our inner human nature, in different ways of course, but I think we cannot remain insensitive to it. Actually, I’m curious to know how such a powerful symbolism as The Woman in this painting is perceived by women…

The painting was commissioned by Madame Récamier and started in 1800. It remained unfinished in his studio for unknown reasons. In the meanwhile, Madame Récamier, who thought David worked too slowly, commissioned his pupil François Gérard to paint her portrait (which was done in 1802). The picture entered the Louvre in 1826.

Finished vs. Unfinished..
… or how a neoclassical painter shows how much the obvious realist interpretation is flawed.  The only detail that’s nearly finished is the model’s head. The rest is merely sketched in with visible and vibrant brushstrokes (impressionism before impressionism!). The unfinished state of the canvas contributes a lot to the mysterious and poetic appearance of the picture. Ironically enough, a technically unfinished painting gives birth to an emotionally finished one. That is because art is about perception instead of vision. An insight that impressionist and modern painters developed later on.

David’s sense of space was so perfect that he added a strip of canvas at the top that was essential for his composition and without which the painting would not have worked (according to Avigdor Arikha). The painting was indeed finished in his head. David was bearing the future of painting in him.

In 1951, the Surrealist painter René Magritte parodied David’s painting in his own Perspective, replacing Julie Récamier by a coffin leaving a cascading gown left as the only trace of her ‘presence’ (the painting is now in the National Gallery of Canada). I admit that I do not get the point of such a parody; the original painting was surreal enough for me, much more than Magritte’s work.

External Links
Le Louvre

(*) “indescribable attraction, like the poetry of the unknown.”


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