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Gérard’s portrait of Madame Récamier listed in Elizabeth Shaw Melville’s Memorandum book

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MBB 3.5. Pierre Michel Adam after François Gérard. Madame Récamier, etching, 1826. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

One entry in Elizabeth Shaw Melville’s memorandum book reads: “Madame Recamier by Gerard—costume of Consulate—bare feet and neck on a Roman chair in a niche beneath a pillared arch—Same by David represents her leaning back on a rustic seat” (p. 176). This entry appears in a section of the memorandum book in which a variety of statues, prints, and paintings are recorded, so it may refer to a print after the painting that the Melvilles actually owned. If so, their copy may have been Pierre Adam’s 1826 etching (above) after François Gérard’s 1805 painting (fig. 1 below).

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Figure 1. François Gérard. Madame Récamier, oil on canvas, 1805. Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

The entry in the memorandum book also relates to a French connection in Melville family history. According to “family tradition,” Fanny Fleury, who married Thomas Melvill, Jr. (1776-1845) “was an adopted daughter of Madame Recamier” and was married “from [her] salon” (Sealts, Early Lives, 250n60). Thomas married Françoise Lamé-Fleury in 1802, about the time Herman’s future father Allan was sailing back to Boston after residing with his brother Thomas in Paris. Thomas was a business associate of Madame Récamier’s banker husband Jacques Récamier (Bryant 1:333-34). He and his wife Françoise would have seen Gérard’s 1805 portrait of Madame Récamier soon after it was painted. They would also have known that Gérard had painted that portrait after Jacques-Louis David had left his portrait of Madame Récamier, now in the Louvre, unfinished (see fig. 2). Elizabeth Melville’s entry in the memorandum book shows her awareness of the portrait by David and may indicate that she and Herman had an engraving after that portrait as well. But this entry has been crossed out in pencil with no further annotation, leaving its import uncertain (see Sealts, notes 53, 55, 57, and 60, pp. 250-51).

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Figure 2. Jacques-Louis David. Madame Récamier, oil on canvas, 1800. The Louvre, Paris.

François Gérard (1770-1837) was born in Rome, but lived most of his life in Paris. He became a pupil of David in 1786 and had become his assistant by 1791. Gérard illustrated luxury editions of authors including La Fontaine, Virgil, and Racine, but “his reputation and success were based on his work as a portrait painter,” beginning with Isabey and his Daughter in 1795. The increasing demand for his portrait paintings led to eventually “commissions from Bonaparte, his family and entourage, culminating in the official Napoleon in his Imperial Robes”in 1805, the same year he completed Madame Récamier.  Those two paintings made Gérard “the most fashionable portrait painter of his day, surpassing even David” (Spencer-Longhurst, 334).

Madame Récamier (1777-1849) was born in Lyon. Known as Juliette Bernard before her marriage, at age 15, to Jacques Récamier, she lived most of her life in Paris. She was highly admired for her beauty, her sociability, and her spirited love of literature and interest in politics, all of which made her fashionable Salon one of the most desirable gathering places for the cultural elite of Paris (and visitors from other nations). Like François Gérard as a portrait painter, Mme. Récamier as a high society hostess managed to navigate successfully from the early days of the French Consulate, through the Imperial reign of Napoleon, and on into the eras of the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy. Gérard’s 1805 portrait of her remained a touchstone of domestic, Napoleonic, Imperial style.

In 1809 Jacques Récamier suffered reverses in his banking activity which impacted young Thomas Melville. In 1811 Thomas, Françoise, and their children crossed the Atlantic and settled in western Massachusetts, where “Fanny” died in 1814 after giving birth to two more children. Young Herman Melville in the mid-1830s valued his Uncle Thomas as a cosmopolitan traveler who had introduced Herman’s now deceased father Allan to Parisian high society. In 1840, before signing on to a whale ship, Herman visited his Uncle Thomas in Galena, Illinois. In Pierre, published in 1852, Melville transferred some of scandalous rumors that attached to Jacques Récamier’s relations with his young wife Juliette and adopted daughter Françoise (Fanny) to Pierre Glendinning’s irresistible suspicions about whether Isabel, the attractive young woman with uncertain parentage who had mysteriously arrived from France with whom he was falling in love, had in fact been fathered by Pierre’s father (to a significant degree based on Herman’s father) when a young man in France (Bryant, 1:333-36).

In 1849, during his visit to the Louvre, Melville is likely to have seen David’s unfinished portrait of Madame Récamier (acquired from the painter’s studio after his death in 1825). Later in life, he would have valued Madame Récamier as a close companion of Madame de Staël, whose Germany he acquired in 1862 and heavily annotated. In one of those annotations, he wrote that “it is delightful and wonderful to see—passim—such penetration and understanding in a woman, who at the same time possesses so feminine and emotional a nature” (Cowen, 11:114). During his visit to London in 1849, Melville had already acquired a copy of Madame de Staël’s Corinne; or, Italy (Sealts, Melville’s Reading, nos. 486, 487). At the instigation of Mme. Récamier, Gérard painted Corinna at Cape Misenum “in memory of Madame de Staël” in 1819, the year Herman was born (Spencer-Longhurst 335).

    • Works cited in this section:
    • Bryant, John. Herman Melville: A Half-Known Life. Vols. 1 and 2. Hoboken NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.
    • Melville, Elizabeth Shaw. “Unpublished Memoranda.” In Merton M. Sealts, Jr. Early Lives of Melville. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974. 167-176.
    • Spencer-Longhurst, Paul. “Gérard, François.” Grove, 12: 334-36.