Monday, March 19, 2012

Madame Recamier: The New Queen Of France

Madame Recamier by Jacques-Louis David, circa 1800, Louvre, Paris.
Why on earth would a portrait of a Rococo era socialite from Paris possibly be important today, in America, in 2012? Because Jacques Louis David's Neo-classical portrait of France's "hostess with the most-est" is revolutionary, and not just for its style, but because it leads to a new direction in politics, which incorporates language highly relevant for today and which we may be seeing in the not-so-distant future during this election year.
David's self-portrait from jail.
When David started out as a young painter, Rococo was the rage: "worldliness" and excessive wealth is the best way to visualize it (unless you have been through the interior of the Palace of Versailles which exemplifies the outrageous style today. "If some was good, more was better"). Everything about Rococo was (art)ificial: it took leaves and made them stylized, sea shells and turned them into decor pieces with gold gilding and hyper-ornateness in every detail of every detail.
Marie Antoinette's bedchamber at Versailles. There is a hidden door through which she attempted her escape at the beginning of the French Revolution. Please compare this opulence with the sparseness of the Madame Recamier portrait.
It wasn't just interiors and architecture where the grandness of "playfulness and design" reigned supreme, but in the outlandish fashions of court where it truly excelled as each aristocrat would attempt to outdo the others in fantastically rich clothing and wig styles. (After the French Revolution, some artists would go back and revive aspects of Rococo, so it wasn't just that the French really hated interior design and waged a Terror to get rid of bad decorating, the Revolution aimed against the opulence associated with the style and those who could afford it and  allowed the poor to starve so they could wear perfume).
A highly talented female painter (extremely rare for this time) Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun painting her majesty, Queen Marie Antoinette, 1778. The crown of the queen of France rests off to the corner, on the right, and that seems to be Lebrun's commentary on the queen: she prefers to wear the hat of a fashionista, and keep her royal duties "on the side." The extremely wide panniers (underneath hoops) expand the dress into high court fashion of the day. David is not reacting just against this style of portraiture, but against the excessive wealth used to create the persona of this style, against the queen putting her royal duties "off to the side," instead of caring for her people. There is much more to be said of this painting, but just note the general feel and the queen's preferred way of people remembering her and how she wanted to be presented publicly and in her royal role.
When David was just starting out, he wanted to revolt against all of this. Having been injured in a dual at a fairly young age (he received a scar by his mouth) and having a terrible stuttering problem, he was a natural outsider in the city of wit and writers. Yet David learned to speak with his art, and what he painted said volumes. Most art historians focus on his really big, great works, like Oath of the Horatii (1784) or The Death of Socrates (1787) and The Death of Marat (1793). The French Revolution began 1789 and finally ended in 1799; Madame Recamier was done a year later, in 1800, and succinctly summarizes all that David had learned from the Revolution and what he hoped the Revolution would mean for everyone in the end: freedom.
Francois Boucher, the herald of the Rococo movement. A copy of this painting made its way to King Louis XV and Marie-Louise O'Murphy became an official mistress to the king for two years and that in and of itself says something about the times: what the king wanted, the king could have. The painting shows a favored style of portraiture during this time, and also why David would want to use it as a model (copies were floating around so he probably was) to create the exact opposite in his Madame Recamier. The jostled bedding suggests that she has been engaged in the art of love-making and the "fallen flower" (the end of virginity) lies on the floor. Her sprawling figure is meant to arouse and invite to sexual activity, not a lofty engagement of greater ideals and meaning, but just pure debauchery, and in Boucher's own way, that could be a commentary on how the aristocracy saw France: ripe for the taking, their taking.
I don't mean just political freedom or some freedom from working or want, but freedom from ignorance and artificiality and David cleverly manages to communicate this through his use of light and darkness in Madame Recamier by siting another famous portrait of a queen, The Ditchley Portrait of the English queen, Elizabeth I.
The separation of the foreground, filled with light, from the dark background.
In the Ditchley Portrait (below) there is an obvious separation between light and darkness which the reign of Queen Elizabeth made possible (the separation of the Anglican community and the light of reasonableness it brought to Christianity from the darkness of the Roman Catholic Church). It's far more apparent in the Ditchley portrait, but it was supposed to be for the sake of political propaganda. There is the exact same method employed by David in Madame Recamier: where is the foreground light coming from? It doesn't matter, because the darkness is kept at bay by her body, in the background, as if her recumbent figure is a time line of the before and after of the French Revolution, and everything before the Revolution lies in the darkness and everything after the Revolution is going to be bathed in light.
The Ditchley Portrait, Queen Elizabeth I.
Madame Recamier provides the viewer with an empty space, which must have been welcomed after the guillotine was beheading people day and night for years, blood running in the gutters and bodies everywhere. That background of the painting reminds us what an important political piece of propaganda Madame Recamier is: the Revolution was worth it, the Reign of Terror was worth it, the White Terror was worth it. Do you remember how badly you were treated under the King and Queen? Do you remember how poor you were? Do you remember that you couldn't get an education unless you were going to become a priest? Look at this comely woman, whose only light is the ancient lamp of wisdom (before Christianity) and her simplicity is both dignified and regal.
But there is more.
To enlarge, simply click on any of the images.
The simple, white and unadorned gown she wears requires no artificial supports (girdles) or architecture (panniers) to be elegant and that clearly references the artificial structures of society: the differences between the poor and upper classes (and the clergy would be included in there as well) and the means to keep people within their class. Her bare feet, long a religious device, provides the key to letting us know she is an allegorical figure (at the same time she was a real woman). Take off your shoes for the ground you stand upon is holy to the Lord your God, the Lord told Moses from the Burning Bush. Her bare feet are not meant to invoke the Christian God (far from it) but to enthrone a new goddess, France, as the queen of people's hearts, who would be good and true to her children (especially the poor ones), and two elements of the painting provide this detail.
Not only does the lamp stand suggest the "ancient lamp of wisdom," but that it is superior to all other knowledge because David endows it with height above all else in the panting, even the woman herself.
First, note the way the gown is not bulky at all (compared to the court gown of Marie Antoinette) but there is additional fabric hanging down over the side and reaching the floor. Today, we would call this "trickle down economics" from the Reagan administration, but her gown, reaching from the lounge to the floor, is meant as the good which would come down to them from on high and the second device, the little floor table by the fabric, provides the symbolic means for climbing up the social ladder to a higher realm. It's not an abolition of the upper classes (that's why she reclines [a sign of leisure] on a chaise lounge, a piece of furniture for the wealthy and aristocrats, they will be retained) but now anyone would be able to obtain to that station, not just by birthright, but by genius, industry and usefulness--which of course comes from the writings of Rousseau and the American Revolution.
Please note how the scrolls of the ancient lamp stand are mirrored upon the legs of the lounge. Beauty and decoration is important, David tells us, but it must be austere and to be that, it must reflect the ancients. Why are the pillows there? Again, that would be a sign of the upper classes--how many poor people would have cushions such as those? And even if they did, how much of their labor-intensive day could they afford to waste in reclining upon them? There is also the historical element that such cushions were utilized by the aristocracy in ancient Rome, where David did his studies.
And that brings us to her hair.
If you will, please contrast it with the wig of Marie Antoinette; Madame Recamier's is natural, no powder, no wigging, and her natural locks showing naturally symbolizes the dominance of "natural thought" in French political thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his theory of the Natural Human (but David doesn't go quite as primitive as Rousseau). The state of nature for which Rousseau advocated influenced--not dominated--the French Revolution and one of the limits for David as we can see is that Madame Recamier is in a civil environment, not a natural one (such as by a spring or amongst trees). Yet the last detail, her head-band, is imperative to understanding David's political thinking: the thoughts must be disciplined and even restrained (because that's what a head band does, contains wild wisps of hair, symbolizing wild thoughts).
The demeanor of Madame Recamier is utterly different from the sprawling figure of Marie Louise O'Murphy above; the half-twist is the inherent mystery of nature and knowledge, that which is hidden, but could not be grasped by our limited intellect regardless. The subdued tones of the painting are meant to emphasize the interior life rather than the luxury of the bodoir of Marie-Louise.
In conclusion, Jacques-Louis David was a master of painting because he could incorporate political undercurrents into his works, regardless of his subject or what he wanted to say. While dethroning Marie Antoinette as Queen of France, David enthroned the Age of Enlightenment as Queen and goddess in the person of Madame Recamier. Again, it's wise of us to remember how political revolutions have been encoded in the past, as we will have a chance to refer to these elements in upcoming posts on films which are probably politically revolutionary themselves.
King Louis XVI of France in regal style.