Do you recognize the woman in the painting?
This is Jeanne Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier – more commonly called Juliette or Madame Récamier – at the age of 28. She was a European celebrity in the early 19th century, known across Paris for her salon where leading literary and political circles gathered. Her story was commemorated in the 1920/1928 films, Madame Récamier, but, as with many women, truth is stranger than fiction.
Juliette was born on December 3, 1777, in Lyon, France. Her father was a king’s counsellor and notary, becoming the receiver of finance when Juliette was seven years old. With position came opportunity, and Juliette was educated at the Couvent de la Déserte followed by tutors in Paris.
At the age of fifteen, Juliette married Jacques-Rose Récamier, a banker thirty years her senior. Jacques admitted that he was not in love with Juliette but, rather, hoped she would make a “partner who will ensure the happiness of my whole life.” (Edouard Herriot, Madame Récamier, p. 12) In fact, the marriage was never consummated, leading some scholars to speculate that the marriage was a ploy to ensure Juliette inherited Récamier’s estate. Their marriage took place at the height of the French Revolution, and Juliette saw opportunity.
In 1799, Juliette established a salon in Paris, focused on literary and political conversation. Over the next six years, her visitors included former royalists, generals, political activists, writers, and many who took issue with Napoleon’s government. In fact, Juliette herself despised Napoleon, refusing to act as lady-in-waiting to his wife and encouraging Swiss-French political activist Benjamin Constant to formally oppose the empire by advocating for bicameralism. Napoleon eventually exiled Juliette from Paris. She lived in Lyon, Rome, and Naples before returning to Paris in 1819, where she re-established her salon and remained until her death in 1849.
What is truly fascinating about Juliette is her romances – or distinct lack of them. Though married, there is no evidence that Juliette and Récamier consummated the marriage. In fact, in 1805, Récamier was willing to divorce Juliette to allow her to marry Prince Augustus of Prussia (the richest landowner in Prussia who fell in love with her). But Juliette refused. Juliette was also connected to many men in her life, though no concrete evidence of a physical relationship has been found.
Instead, Juliette was – possibly – of a different orientation. In 1999, Dr. Aurora Wolfgang published a study of Juliette’s correspondence with Germaine de Staël, a female political theorist who held salons and collaborated with many in Juliette’s political circles. Germaine was also married, to a man seventeen years her senior. Despite having children, it is said that Germaine and her husband had little affection for one another, as it was an arranged marriage. In her study, Dr. Wolfgang re-contextualized their relationship, arguing that Juliette and Germaine were in love with one another for twenty years. This relationship was later examined by Dr. Susanne Hillman, whose 2018 article explored the women’s well-known friendship and how it contributed to their quest for fame and power. Most remarkable is the contemporary accounts that Dr. Hillman cites, including this comment from statements and historian Francois Guizot (a common friend of Juliette and Germaine):
These two individuals mutually seduced and fascinated each other, the one by her beauty and the charm that suffused her actions, the other by the power of her soul and spirit…Never, perhaps, have two celebrated women been as sincerely united and have rejoiced, in private as much as in public, in their very different celebrity.Francois Guizot (1787 – 1874)
So were Juliette and Germaine lovers? Or was their friendship strictly platonic?
Historians continue to debate this, but in that debate lies power. For centuries, close female friendships have been framed specifically as friendships, with any notion of romantic love or sensual relationships swept under the rug or relegated to “romantic friendship.” This term, “romantic friendship,” refers to a relationship between two women where hugging and kissing may take place, but sexual relations do not. Today, the term is used to describe pre-20th century women’s “close relationships” since the term lesbian originated in 6th-century Greece but was not used in mainstream society until the late 1800s. Many books and articles have been published over the last 30 years to confirm the existence of lesbian relationships in history, yet at the National Women’s History Museum, a search for “lesbian” or “bisexual” does not reveal a single story.
What stories are we missing by excluding the possibility of what we would call lesbian – or more broadly, queer – relationships in women’s history?
So many. From Carroll Smith-Rosenburg’s exploration of a mid-19th century school friendship that became a lifelong passionate relationship (first published in 1990), to Rachel Hope Cleves’s book Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), historians are increasingly finding, analyzing, and recognizing that queer relationships have existed for a very long time (perhaps at least as early as the 6th century BCE!). In recognizing queer history, we not only recognize a large part of women’s history – we also recognize individuals like Juliette and Germaine, whose smiling portraits disguise a much more complicated story.
For more on the history of women who loved women, listen to Teaching Tolerance’s interview with historian Susan K. Freeman.
Want to help preserve Juliette’s story? Consider making a one-time or installment gift of $250 to conserve Juliette’s portrait.