DAVID is perhaps the most glorified and most disgraced of all painters. Born to the skies by his contemporaries, he was dragged to the grimonies by the next generation. The agreement was reached today on his work, thanks to the retreat of time that extinguishes the hatreds of schools and parties. David, a history painter, now enjoys only moderate esteem, and all our admiration is now addressed to David the portraitist. This judgment of posterity would have surprised and especially irritated the painter, if he had been able to guess it. In his eyes, history painting, inspired by the ancients, counted alone; he had used it as an instrument to overthrow the mannerism and insipidity of the eighteenth century; he owed him his title of head of school. As for the portraits, he regarded them as a relaxation of his great labors, and as an inferior art, at best, to procure a secure and immediate income. To Madame de Verninac, sister of Delacroix, of whom he had made a delightful portrait, and who wished to see it appear in the Salon of the Year VIII, he writes: “It would be ridiculous if an artist like me should simply exhibit a portrait no matter how good it is.” And to soften his refusal, he adds: “I am busy at this moment in painting yet another beautiful woman, Madame Récamier. It’s a different kind of beauty. I think she will want her portrait to be exposed; then I shall have the honor of warning you and of asking you to join yours at the same time.”
It was in 1800 when David began the portrait of Jeanne-Françoise-Julie-Adélaïde Bernard, wife of the rich banker Récamier. Her great fortune, and her reputation for beauty and wit, made her search in the salons of the time; she shone there without effort, by the sole virtue of her charm and her goodness. This famous woman charged David, then in all his glory, to fix his features. The painter approached this portrait with enthusiasm, some say with love; he had added a young artist named Ingres, who was to become an illustrious figure, to draw the accessories.
David had placed his model in a charming pose. Half lying on a bed of rest, Mme. Récamier turned her pretty face to the right. She wears a light dress of white linen, from which her bare feet cross one on top of the other. A black ribbon keeps the hair curly.
The portrait so well started was never finished. One fine day, David learned that Madame Récamier was leaving him to be painted by Gérard, his student. He conceived of spite and abandoned his work. The portrait remained in a sketch, but what a sketch! In front of this masterly work, where color is merely indicated by light smears, which make it transparent and luminous, we almost rejoice of the chance that prevented David from applying the thick, often dull and heavy paste of his brush. As it has come to us, this portrait is a true masterpiece, as much by the mastery of the execution as by the sobriety, the distinction and the harmony of the lines.
Gerard, in his portrait of Madame Récamier, was not less fortunate than his master. Like him, he succeeded in producing a masterpiece. The two canvases in the Louvre can be compared. That of Gerard has perhaps more freshness and seduction, we can guess the concern of the painter to flatter his model; that of David is distinguished by more harmony on the whole, by more firmness, by more truth also. Nothing is less like David the painter of history than David the portraitist: in front of the living nature fell his systematic coldness; he attacked it with absolute sincerity, seeking neither to interpret it nor to adorn it; on the moving features of the model, by dint of study and precision, he grasped the soul and fixed it. He owes to this scrupulous probity a glory of good quality, which his best and most extensive compositions of history could not have secured to him. “He did not even shrink in front of the horror, despite his love of classical beauty. The glory of David is his great science of drawing strengthened by the incessant study of the model, ennobled and reduced to the general type by the familiarity of the antique. Undoubtedly the figures of his paintings sometimes froze into statues, but never his portraits. For a long time David’s authority was immense, undisputed, unrivaled. He had taken possession of the domain of art as a despotic master. These dominations are not acquired without a rare power, and, why not say the word, without genius.” (Theophile Gautier.)
The portrait of Madame Récamier, not having been completed, remained the property of the artist who forgot it in a corner of his studio. He followed him in his exile to Brussels without finding a buyer. It was acquired by the State in 1826, at the posthumous sale of the painter, for the sum of 6,180 francs. He was placed in the Louvre, from which he only went out once in 1889 to appear at the centennial of the Universal Exhibition. It is placed today in the hall known as Salle du Sacre, where the most famous works of the great painter are gathered.
Height: 1.70 – Width: 2.40 – Natural size figure.