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Mme Récamier was not the most beautiful woman in Paris, but the most in fashion. Her bizarre coiffure, her rare, almost mysterious appearances at the theater and in public places had given her…a celebrity that no other woman of her time possessed. All the English newspapers announced her arrival, and people came running from the three kingdoms to see the fashionable beauty.…Her portrait was sold everywhere.

Mathieu Molé, Souvenirs de jeunesse1

Madame Récamier’s renown is emblematic of the transformation of celebrity culture and its “feminine face” in the late eighteenth century.2 It also raises broader questions about how the celebrity apparatus operated and about the central role that images and the media played in producing and transmitting fame. How did an unknown banker’s wife from Lyon become the most celebrated beauty of the era and the toast of Europe? What factors help explain her meteoric rise and preeminence in the social stratosphere of post-revolutionary Paris? To what extent did Madame Récamier orchestrate the fabrication and dissemination of her image, and how did she retain her [End Page 163] cachet for over half a century? Adopting a cultural approach, this essay takes a closer look at the extraordinary international reach and durability of Madame Récamier’s celebrity, focusing on the reproduction and circulation of her image and the concept of serial portraiture.3 While other prominent women, such as Germaine de Stäel (1766–1817), achieved fame through intellectual, literary, or artistic accomplishments, or through marriage, as in the case of Joséphine Bonaparte (1763–1814), Madame Récamier (1777–1849) was famous primarily for her beauty and her ability to dazzle and charm. Writing in the 1820s, Etienne Delécluze expressed astonishment at Madame Récamier’s enduring celebrity and at the distinguished circle she continued to draw to her salon though she was no longer young and had lost her fortune.4

Neither inherited nor achievement-based, Madame Récamier’s celebrity was grounded, as Molé opined, in the convergence of beauty and fashion and in a complex dialectic of seduction and mystique, which was fueled by visual images and the media. In less flattering terms, some modern critics have characterized her beauty as “empty-handed,” or dismissed her celebrity as a “pseudo-event.”5 Although Madame Récamier’s legendary beauty is unrecoverable, the dazzling effects of her beauty and charm and the cult-like following she inspired were amply documented by her contemporaries and have continued to intrigue scholars.6 This essay reexamines how Madame Récamier’s public persona and celebrity were aligned with fashion and the neoclassical aesthetic, focusing on the celebrity apparatus and how her image was diffused and amplified through serial portraiture. I argue that her image, like her person, became a locus of public desire, which was widely reproduced and commodified, with celebrity functioning as cultural capital.7 The expanded reach of the press and the proliferation of images helped diminish the distance between celebrities and the public, fostering an intensified identification—a sort of “public intimacy.”8 The explosion of visual and print media, in conjunction with the public’s growing fascination with figures of art and fashion and the widespread preoccupation with theatrical staging and self-display, helped transform celebrity culture into a broad-based international phenomenon.9

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, portraiture dominated the thriving art market and played a central role in redefining selfhood and making personal identity legible, as Amy Freund has shown.10 During the 1790s, portrait painting became an arena for ambitious artists, like Jacques-Louis David, to showcase their talent at the annual Salons, and in turn, portraits by leading artists became highly desirable status symbols. As Ewa Lajer-Burcharth has argued, a new rhetoric focusing on female subjectivity, combining grand scale and intimate focus, emerged in the late [End Page 164] 1790s and early 1800s.11 In the case of Madame Récamier, portraitists had to contend with a meticulously fashioned “living work of art.”12 Fashion was an integral component of social and personal identity, especially in elite female portraiture. For women, whose individual agency and public prominence were curtailed by the return of more conservative political and social norms, neoclassical dress became an expressive vehicle for delineating gender differences, as well as a marker of wealth and refined taste.13 In the Directoire period (1795–99), Joséphine Bonaparte and Mesdames Tallien and Récamier emerged as fashion vedettes, whose toilettes drew widespread commentary and directly inspired the fashion plates in the Journal des Dames et des Modes. launched in 1797.14 As the editor Pierre de La Mésangère noted, “They [these great ladies] are the ones we follow to the theater, to balls, to promenades, and it is their costumes, copied with the most exact precision, that serve as models.”15 The shifting political alliances and fluidity of a society in the throes of reinventing itself, in which aristocratic models and socioeconomic distinctions were overturned, in concert with the rise of luxury consumption and the fashion industry, form the backdrop for Madame Récamier’s “celebritization.”16

Art, Fashion, and Social Ascendancy

In considering the representation and mass appeal of Madame Récamier, it is essential to contextualize celebrity historically—to consider how it functioned as a form of artistic and cultural capital and how female celebrity was coextensive with performance and fashion. As Ewa Lajer-Burcharth has argued, in post-Thermidor society female celebrity was primarily based on appearance and strategically staged public acts or performances.17 Madame Récamier’s body became an aestheticized object, incarnating classical ideals—part of a broader transformation of the female body into an “aestheticized and eroticized spectacle.”18 Although her social ascent relied heavily on appearance and performance, her modesty and the simplicity of her dress distinguished her from racier beauties like Madame Tallien. In his influential La Toilette des dames (1806), Auguste Caron extolled sartorial simplicity, noting, “The greater the beauty of a woman, the less occasion she has for ornament.”19 From 1797 on, Madame Récamier appeared at balls, receptions, and other fashionable venues, simply dressed in white, sometimes with a scarf wrapped around her head, as in Joseph Chinard’s portrait bust.20 In April 1797, her natural beauty (without makeup) riveted the public’s gaze at Longchamp; in December, when she rose from her seat at a reception outside the Luxembourg Palace honoring Bonaparte, she elicited a murmur of admiration, momentarily eclipsing the hero of Italy.21 Her salon and the brilliant company she attracted further enhanced her personal celebrity.22 [End Page 165]

Universally admired for her beauty and seductive charm, to which men and women alike succumbed, Madame Récamier became the object of a veritable cult. My analysis focuses on the central role of the arts, especially portraiture, in fixing and disseminating Madame Récamier’s image, and considers how celebrity functioned dynamically as cultural currency, both in the public sphere and in more intimate, semi-private settings such as salons. Her famous shawl dance, which Madame de Stäel described in Corinne (1802), was performed before intimate gatherings of friends at her salon. Madame Récamier’s portraits also speak to the shifting semantics of feminine representation as a multilayered, discursive mode in which public and private identities were conflated and art and fashion coalesced. Images have continued to play a preponderant role in her rich afterlife, keeping her in the spotlight and burnishing her posthumous reputation, as evidenced by the 2009 Lyon exhibition that celebrated her as muse and mécène.23 Although the number of portraits of Madame Récamier is not particularly great, they played an oversized role in fashioning and disseminating her image to the broader public.

What is more striking is the extent of her personal involvement in their production and display and their unusually wide diffusion through replicas and reproductions. Portrayed by the leading international artists, including David, Richard Cosway, François Gérard, and Antonio Canova, her image was widely disseminated in a range of media throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, from countless prints, to replicas of Chinard’s bust in different sizes and materials, to porcelain figurines based on David’s and Gérard’s iconic portraits.24 Renowned for her beauty, simplicity, and infallible taste, Madame Récamier took an active role in commissioning portraits, a number of which were shown at the Salon in the late 1790s. Furthermore, she strategically distributed her portraits to friends, relatives, and admirers and helped safeguard their posterity and public reach by bequeathing them to museums.

Besides serving as social legitimation attesting to her wealth and status, Madame Récamier’s portraits functioned serially, as a form of aesthetic and cultural currency. Serial portraiture—the practice of making multiple portraits of a sitter at different moments to constitute a temporal trajectory as in a biography or novel—has been discussed in regard to rulers’ portraits, notably Louis XIV.25 Here, the existence of serial likenesses also creates a complex dialectic of bodies—the unchanging sacred body of the king as opposed to the mortal body subject to decay and death. Rather than reducing the sitter to a single fixed image, serial portraits present a sustained visual narrative in which the individual appears in different guises and mutates over time, enriching and complicating individual identity. As Whitney Davis [End Page 166] has recently argued, the concept of serial portraiture is equally applicable to Joshua Reynolds’s portraits of celebrities, whose images circulated widely, functioning as cultural currency.26

Although the range of roles was perhaps greater for an actress like Mrs. Abington, Madame Récamier’s portraits likewise create a complex pictorial dialectic of projection and distancing, of intimacy and withdrawal, that mirrors the dynamics of seduction and her coquettish manipulation of admirers from Lucien Bonaparte and Prince Augustus of Prussia to Benjamin Constant.27

Even though Madame Récamier’s celebrity was socially grounded, she is invariably pictured as a solitary figure in a simple white dress, like a cult object. In François-Louis Dejuinne’s memorializing depiction of her salon at L’Abbaye-aux-Bois, she is viewed from a distance and alone, reclining on a sofa, waiting to receive her visitors (fig. 1). The notion of role playing and performance, which has been discussed in regard to actresses in particular, is equally apposite to the social arena of the salon in which the salonnière is the metteuse en scène, drawing out individual participants and orchestrating the social spectacle. Her starring role as muse and salonnière, reenacted over half a century, and her charismatic but elusive persona are both mirrored in the recurring dialectic of projection and withdrawal encapsulated in her portraits.

Despite her international celebrity and visibility, Madame Récamier, on many levels, remains a cipher. In undertaking her biography, Pierre-Simon Ballanche expressed his desire to become “like a historian of the mystery.”28 Endlessly evoked in memoirs from the Comtesse de Boigne to Chateaubriand and Lamartine, the majority of Madame Récamier’s letters, including countless love letters, were destroyed at her request. Her own voice is muted, recalling the statue of Silence that she owned. Most of what we know about her is mediated and refracted, as if viewed through a prism—fragmentary reflections and reiterations of the dazzling effects that her beauty and charm had on friends and admirers. Married in 1793 at fifteen to the wealthy, much older banker, Jacques Rose Récamier, who was probably her biological father, she emerged in the late 1790s as a vedette. The decisive turning point was 1798—the year that the Récamiers purchased the Hôtel Necker in the rue du Mont-Blanc, and that she first encountered Germaine de Stäel, which literally changed her life.

Neither an aristocrat nor an intellectual, Madame Récamier made her mark primarily as a salonnière. She received a broad cross-section of society, including aristocrats, politicians of all stripes, Napoleon’s generals, artists, and writers. A talented musician, she played the piano and harp, sang sweetly, and danced with exceptional grace. She studied drawing under Hubert Robert, read widely to refine her literary taste, and knew Latin, English, and Italian. [End Page 167] Although beauty and charm were integral to her success, her celebrity was socially grounded—based on her close relationships with literary luminaries such as Germaine de Stäel, Benjamin Constant, and Chateaubriand, and on the distinguished intellectual coterie that frequented her salon, as Edouard Herriot emphasized.29 Under the tutelage of her intimate friend, Madame de Stäel, whose salon she frequented, she met the leading literary and political figures of the day and created a formidable literary cenacle. Even after the failure of her husband’s bank in 1805 forced her to vacate her luxurious residence and downsize, her luster remained undimmed. Exiled from Paris in 1811 by Napoleon for her anti-imperialist politics and for her close ties with Madame de Stäel, she returned after his abdication and reopened her salon. After her husband’s second bankruptcy in 1819, she moved to L’Abbaye-aux-Bois in the rue de Sèvres, where Paris continued to come to her door.

Figure 1. François-Louis Dejuinne, La Chambre de Madame Récamier à l’Abbaye-aux-Bois, 1826, oil on canvas.
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Figure 1.

François-Louis Dejuinne, La Chambre de Madame Récamier à l’Abbaye-aux-Bois, 1826, oil on canvas.

Musée du Louvre, Paris ©RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

At her sumptuous townhouse in the nouveau-riche Chaussée-d’Antin quartier, Madame Récamier staged lavish receptions, holding court like a queen.30 Refurbished by the architect Louis-Martin Berthault, who later worked for Empress Joséphine at Malmaison, and decorated in the [End Page 168] fashionable neo-grec style by the finest artisans, it was the most elegant private residence in Paris. The salon was furnished with a neoclassical daybed and matching chairs, upholstered in blue and ornamented with sphinxes attributed to Jacob Frères. But it was Madame Récamier’s private apartments that dazzled Parisians and enraptured foreign visitors. When her guests arrived, she would graciously offer to show them her famous bed chamber, the pièce de résistance. Visitors breathlessly described the luxuriously decorated, symmetrically laid out chamber, like a throne room, surrounded by mirrored panels and rich violet draperies. The mahogany swan bed à l’antique, with its gilded bronze ornamentation, the pair of neoclassical night tables adorned with sphinxes and stars, the secrétaire embellished with winged genii, and an antique candelabrum completed the ensemble. The design was widely disseminated through Jean-Charles Krafft and Nicolas Ransonnette’s Plans, coupes, élévations des plus belles maisons et des hôtels construits à Paris et dans les environs (1801–2), plates 90, 91, 92.31 The English architect Robert Smirke recorded the equally luxurious salle de bains in a watercolor (1802). Surrounded by mirrors, it featured a bathtub dissimulated by a sofa and Pompeian style paintings.32

Besides her advanced taste in interior design, Madame Récamier was a fashion icon, revered for her elegantly simple, neoclassical style of dress. She favored white empire-style gowns, which showcased her elegantly proportioned body, delicacy, and swanlike neck. She wore her hair sculpted in long loose curls à l’antique, and little jewelry—occasionally pearls, but never diamonds.33 Her social intelligence and taste were unerring; for contemporaries, she exemplified ideal feminine beauty and refined coquetterie.34 Despite her numerous admirers, her personal reputation remained unsullied, differentiating her from more scandalous beauties like Madame Tallien and Madame Hamelin.35 She was also admired for her goodness, loyalty, and generosity to friends, and her charitable works. Indifferent to emoluments, she declined a position at Napoleon’s court and turned down Prince Augustus of Prussia’s offer of marriage, remaining loyal to her husband despite his financial ruin. In 1819, she retired to L’Abbaye-aux-Bois, a convent founded in the seventeenth century, where she devoted her final years to Chateaubriand.

Representing Madame Récamier

In addition to her intimate ties with writers, Madame Récamier befriended leading artists, notably Chinard, Gérard, and Canova, and she was close to the artist and antiquary the Comte de Forbin, who became director of the Louvre under the Restoration, and the painter and critic Etienne Delécluze.36 [End Page 169] The artists she commissioned portraits from were frequently members of her circle, like Chinard and Gérard, who hosted his own weekly salon, attesting to her double role as muse and mécène. At the 1798 Salon, two portraits of Madame Récamier were exhibited, a painting by Joseph Ducreux (unlocated) and a terracotta bust by Chinard. Eulalie Morin’s three-quarter length oval portrait was exhibited at the 1799 Salon. Depicted at twenty-one when she was on the cusp of celebrity, it is the earliest surviving painted portrait.37 Madame Récamier is portrayed outdoors, languidly leaning against a tree, wearing a sheer white classical tunic, no jewelry, and a white band around her head. Although the simple white dress and pared down classicism that would define her personal style for the rest of her life are present, the effect is more coquettish than mysterious. One shoulder is revealingly bared, and her pose and expression seem affected and sentimental, almost Greuzian.38

By the early 1800s, Madame Récamier’s celebrity was an international phenomenon. When she traveled to London in 1802, she drew admiring crowds wherever she went. For the spring festival at Kensington, she appeared in a full-length veil à l’Iphigénie, which caused a sensation.39 Richard Cosway’s lost miniature is known through Antoine Cardon’s colored etching, published on 20 June 1802.40 The image proved extremely popular on both sides of the channel as the multitude of prints and knock offs in different formats attests.41 In November 1802, it was reproduced in the Journal des Dames et des Modes captioned Costume Parisien, Voile et Tunique à la Vestale (fig. 2). Morphing from portrait miniature to fashion print, it blurs the distinction between individual portrait and fashionable type. The fashion plate is printed in reverse and the features are slightly coarsened; however, the dress and pose are virtually identical. Although Madame Récamier is not identified by name, she is clearly recognizable. Moreover, she appears veiled in other portraits, notably Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin’s miniature, exhibited at the 1801 Salon.42 This is a telling example of how Madame Récamier’s celebrity circulated internationally and was widely disseminated through prints and reproductions. It further demonstrates how her image became a recognizable “brand”—marketed as an icon of beauty and taste and subsumed into the fashion industry, testifying to the commodification and cultural currency of celebrity.

Joseph Chinard’s iconic bust of Madame Récamier, exhibited at the 1798 Salon, also exists in multiple versions with variants (fig. 3). Although it is not certain which bust was exhibited at the Salon, there is a related plaster bust (1798; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon).43Additional copies in both terracotta and marble were produced in the early 1800s, including a large marble bust, also in Lyon (c. 1805–06); a smaller marble bust cut off below the shoulders, which Madame Récamier owned (after 1801; Rhode Island [End Page 170]

Figure 2. Costume Parisien, Voile et Tunique à la Vestale, No. 425, published in the Journal des Dames et des Modes, 6 November 1802, hand-colored etching.
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Figure 2.

Costume Parisien, Voile et Tunique à la Vestale, No. 425, published in the Journal des Dames et des Modes, 6 November 1802, hand-colored etching.

Figure 3. Joseph Chinard, Juliette Récamier, c.1801–02, terracotta. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
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Figure 3.

Joseph Chinard, Juliette Récamier, c.1801–02, terracotta. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

[End Page 171]

School of Art and Design); and a terracotta bust of unknown provenance (c. 1801–02; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).44 With its intricately curled coiffure and simple classical drapery, Chinard’s bust recalls Roman portrait busts in its stunning juxtaposition of classical simplicity and feminine grace. Neoclassical drapery was closely associated with the art of the sculptor and the whiteness of marble, further conflating art and fashion.45 Chinard’s portrait encapsulates the simplicity, seductive charm, and mystique that captivated contemporaries, incarnating the dialectic of seduction and reflexive withdrawal, which proved challenging to portraitists including David. Reproduced in different sizes and materials, Chinard’s bust became a fixture in nineteenth-century bourgeois interiors.46 Among the numerous reproductions that circulated in the nineteenth century is a gilded bronze cast, which recently sold at auction. The statue of Silence in Madame Récamier’s bed chamber is also attributed to Chinard.47

It seems only fitting that the woman who commissioned such exquisite furniture for the rue du Mont-Blanc would remain closely associated with interior decor. The definitive image of Madame Récamier portrays her reclining on an antique chaise-longue, subsequently termed a “récamier” in her honor. David’s ambitious unfinished portrait, which remained in his studio, has continued to intrigue scholars and artists alike. Counted today among David’s masterpieces, Madame Récamier (1800); (fig. 4), which apparently dissatisfied both artist and sitter, was never completed or delivered. David abandoned the portrait, perhaps due to a falling out with the sitter, or the fact that she had commissioned a portrait from Gérard in 1800 or 1801.48 According to Amélie Lenormant, David abandoned the portrait because it had been criticized for failing to capture the sitter’s charm.49 The surviving correspondence between Madame Récamier and David offers tantalizing clues but no definitive answers. On 28 September 1800, David wrote that he wished to take up the portrait again in a different locale and apologized for his wrongs, which he wished to correct by creating a masterpiece.50 When Madame Récamier begged David for her unfinished portrait, he refused, noting that artists also have their caprices, and that he would keep it.51

David’s elegantly casual effigy launched a new portrait type—the reclining woman on a sofa, which is emblematic of his modern, historically engaged approach to portraiture despite its strong classical resonances. Since we know Madame Récamier did hold court reclining on a chaise-longue, the pose was an appropriate aesthetic choice. The most distinctive features are the history-painting scale and the sitter’s half-sitting, half-reclining pose on her antique chaise-longue. The reclining pose, which gained ascendancy in the eighteenth century with the rise of the sofa, had varied connotations, [End Page 172] from reclining Venuses through intimate, often titillating boudoir scenes, to the ceremonial display of bodies and Roman funerary sculpture.52 David’s portrait is also reminiscent of the Greek concept of the full-length portrait in which figure type, pose, and gesture, rather than individual physical likeness, took precedence in defining the subject.

Figure 4. Jacques-Louis David, Madame Recamier, 1800, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.
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Figure 4.

Jacques-Louis David, Madame Recamier, 1800, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

Ultimately, it could be argued that David’s timeless effigy is first and foremost about style and his veneration for classical antiquity and only incidentally an individual portrait.53 As in Madame de Verninac (1799; Louvre), the sitter is elegantly displayed on a neoclassical piece of furniture against a blank background, with an antique candelabrum in the foreground. From his letter to Raymond de Verninac of June 1800, we know that David intended to exhibit Madame Récamier’s portrait alongside that of Madame de Verninac at the Salon.54 Although David had a replica of an antique chaiselongue in his studio, the one he depicted is a slightly modified version of the one in Madame Récamier’s neo-grec interior, blurring the distinction between studio and salon. Fashion is also thematized: the barefoot subject wears a simple white empire gown and no jewelry, accessorized with a black band around her head. However, the apparent classical simplicity of her dress is [End Page 173] belied by its elaborate construction.55 The dress has an intricately constructed bodice attached at the waist and is surprisingly modest in cut. The surplus fabric, gathered at the back, creates a fashionable fullness, underscoring its contemporary cut, rather than its classical lineage, and the train pools on the floor below. David’s portrait, which remained in his studio, entered the Louvre during Madame Récamier’ s lifetime. Purchased from David’s studio sale by her son-in-law Charles Lenormant, it was acquired for the Louvre in 1826 by Comte de Forbin, a longtime friend and admirer.

It is instructive to compare David’s aloof reclining effigy with Gérard’s conquettish full length, which reprises the pose from Madame de Verninac, but places the model on a thickly cushioned chair against a curtained architectural backdrop, evoking her famous salle de bains.56 One of Gérard’s preliminary studies (c. 1801–02) portrays the subject, standing, partially draped, as if emerging from the bath (1805; fig. 5).57 In the finished portrait, Madame Récamier poses languorously in a revealing, diaphanous white muslin shift, her lower body draped in a luminous yellow shawl, subtly recalling her celebrated shawl dance. Commissioned in 1800 or 1801 and completed in 1805, it was one of the rare portraits that satisfied the sitter, who praised the “soft, dreamy expression,” which pleased her more than it resembled her.58 The portrait, which was never displayed at the Hôtel Necker, remained in Gérard’s studio. In 1822, Madame Récamier exchanged it with Prince Augustus for Gérard’s Corinne au Cap Misène (1819–21, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon).59 In Franz Kruger’s portrait-within-a-portrait, Prince Augustus is represented in military uniform in his private apartments, standing in front of Gérard’s Madame Récamier—a painted testament to his undying devotion.60 Although Gérard’s portrait remained in private hands until 1860, it was widely diffused through reproductions and became a popular icon, giving rise to what Gérard Bruyère has termed “bibelotisation.”61 Besides Gérard’s reduced replica (c. 1805; Versailles), there are a number of copies, including Tommaso Minardi’s undated drawing, and a multiplicity of prints, notably Pierre-Michel Adam’s full-length etching and Henri Grévedon’s half-length lithograph (1826), which Madame Récamier commissioned to preserve the memory of her portrait. In addition to miniatures and countless prints, there are three-dimensional porcelain figurines by French and German manufacturers (c. 1901) and an ornate Viennese guéridon, featuring Récamier’s portrait surrounded by eighteenth-century beauties (c. 1870–80).

In his biography, Ballanche asserted that Madame Récamier’s widely reproduced traits could also be found on porcelains from Japan and China.62 His claim is substantiated by the existence of glass paintings based on Cardon’s print, created by Cantonese artists such as Fatqua (active 1790–1810), who was known for painting both in oils and on glass.63 [End Page 174]

Figure 5. François Gérard, Madame Récamier, 1802–05, oil on canvas. Musée Carnavalet, Paris.
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Figure 5.

François Gérard, Madame Récamier, 1802–05, oil on canvas. Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

©RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

When Madame Récamier traveled to Rome in April 1813, she paid a visit to Canova’s studio and expressed her admiration for his sculpture. They became friends, and her beauty inspired several portrait busts. When she returned from Naples, Canova surprised her with two terracotta busts, one depicting her veiled, and the other coiffée en cheveux, which she failed to appreciate despite her high regard for his art. Although it is not clear why Madame Récamier disliked the busts, I suspect their severe neoclassicism may have seemed lifeless and devoid of charm, or overly generic. Canova later added a crown of olives to one bust, known as Tête ldéale, or Juliette Récamier as Béatrice (1819–21; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon).64 Madame Récamier played a dual role as muse and mécène. Her correspondence with [End Page 175] Canova attests to her close involvement with the creation of the large-scale marble version of The Three Graces (1814–17).65 She owned the magnificent terracotta maquette for The Three Graces (c. 1810), given to her by Canova, which she deeded to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.

For a woman whose celebrity was based on her image, the physical effects of aging must have been devastating. This process and her lifelong preoccupation with image management no doubt explain the paucity and oddly disembodied quality of the late portraits. In Gérard’s discreet pen and ink sketch (1819), she is viewed from the rear, wearing a white dress, enveloped in a shawl. She gazes backward, her face is lost in profile, as if communing with the past. In David d’Angers’s late portrait medallions (c. 1827–28), she is likewise shown in profile, highlighting her famous antique style coiffure and timeless beauty.66

By the time François-Louis Dejuinne painted his retrospective homage (fig. 1), Madame Récamier had entered the realm of legend. Living in retirement at L’Abbaye-aux-Bois, she entertained in her modest apartment, surrounded by the Jacob Frères furniture that had once graced her neogrec salon and the portraits of Germaine de Stäel and Chateaubriand.67 Dejuinne’s painted memorial was produced for Prince Augustus, who had requested a souvenir to remember her by. Given to Prince Augustus by Madame Récamier, it was returned to her upon his death in 1843. Dejuinne’s detailed, programmatic portrait differs from the others discussed so far. In 1826, it was displayed at the Galerie Lebrun in an exhibition in support of Greek independence. Madame Récamier is positioned so that she faces Gérard’s depiction of Corinne au Cap Misène (1819–21), paying tribute to the intimate friendship of the two women and reinforcing the topical association with Greek liberty. The mundane interior is filled with all the decor that is missing from David’s reductive canvas. Madame Récamier is depicted alone, surrounded by books, pictures, and a harp, underscoring her artistic, musical, and literary interests and her dual role as salonnière and muse. As Mario Praz noted, her goddess-like empty hand now holds an open book, and her feet are no longer bare.68 Painted the same year that David’s unfinished masterpiece entered the Louvre, Dejuinne has reprised it in miniature in a double artistic homage to artist and sitter, transcribing the pose and memorializing the ageless woman in white, reclining on her chaise-longue, seemingly untouched by time.

The most incongruous late effigy, whose attribution is not universally accepted, is Antoine-Jean Gros’s half-length (c. 1825; Stossmayer Gallery, Zagreb). The portrait, which belonged to the Marquis de Piennes, was exhibited in 1885 as a portrait of Madame Récamier.69 The legendary beauty, her head enveloped in lace, poses frontally in a long-sleeved orange gown, [End Page 176] her arms crossed, as she appears in earlier depictions. More than any other, this portrait speaks to the inevitability of physical decay and death, a key aspect of serial portraiture for Marin. Since there are no comparable images, it is impossible to assess the accuracy of the likeness.70 We do know that Gros and Madame Récamier worked to obtain David’s return from exile. Gros may have executed the portrait as a token of gratitude and homage to David. The series of portraits concludes with Achille Devéria’s lithograph of Madame Récamier on Her Deathbed (1849), commissioned by Charles and Amélie Lenormant.71 Devéria’s beatific symphony in white was distributed as a final remembrance to family and friends. Although she succumbed to the 1849 cholera epidemic, contemporaries were struck by the surprising beauty of her features, which had assumed the smooth perfection of marble.

Artistic Afterlife and Afterimages

It is David’s magisterial unfinished effigy that has continued to resonate most strongly with twentieth- and twenty-first-century artists. The Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, who was drawn to David’s aloof canvas, painted a haunting variant, Perspective: Madame Récamier de David (1951; fig. 6). Here the trope of death is literalized in the form of a coffin that takes the place of Madame Récamier’s rigid, unobtainable body. Magritte retains the austere interior and other key elements, including the footstool and the antique candelabrum. The most disturbing detail is the glimpse of the sitter’s white gown, sinisterly emerging beneath the coffin, interweaving the themes of death and seduction. In 1967, Magritte produced a three-dimensional sculpture in which the individual elements of the painting were separately cast.

The most recent iteration I have discovered is Kehinde Wiley’s 2010 postmodern tableau in which Madame Récamier, the woman in white, is transformed into a reclining African goddess, silhouetted against a vibrantly patterned backdrop, attesting to the enduring power of her image across time and space.

In this all too brief analysis of Madame Récamier’s serial portraits, I have focused on their reproduction and dissemination and argued for the centrality of images in the fabrication and diffusion of celebrity in postrevolutionary France. Although the invention of photography democratized portraiture and accelerated the process, a distinctly modern, image-based, media driven form of celebrity premised on performance surfaced in the late eighteenth century.72 I have further argued that celebrity functioned as a form of cultural currency—a dynamic multivalent system linking individual entities and social networks. Examining the celebrity apparatus as a culturally grounded [End Page 177] phenomenon and the central role of images enriches and complicates our understanding of how celebrity is produced, transmitted, and consumed. Last but not least, Madame Récamier provides an illuminating historical case study that highlights the key role of fashion, literature, and the visual arts, especially, in recasting and expanding celebrity culture at the end of the eighteenth century, and she brings into sharper focus the particular dynamics of feminine celebrity as a socially grounded form of cultural currency that flourished in hybrid spaces like salons.

Figure 6. René Magritte, Perspective: Madame Récamier de David, 1951, oil on canvas. National Galley of Canada, Ottawa. Photo Credit: Bridgeman-Giraudon/Art Resource, NY.
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Figure 6.

René Magritte, Perspective: Madame Récamier de David, 1951, oil on canvas. National Galley of Canada, Ottawa. Photo Credit: Bridgeman-Giraudon/Art Resource, NY.

©2017 C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

[End Page 178]

Heather McPherson

Heather McPherson is professor of Art History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is the autor of Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2017). Her current research project examines the artist’s studio and the shifting image of the artist in the nineteenth-century France.


An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 2015 ISECS conference, Rotterdam. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine. I wish to thank the anonymous readers for Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture for their helpful and constructive comments.

1. Mathieu Molé, Souvenirs de jeunesse, 1793–1803 (Paris: Mercure de France, 1991), 210. “Mme Récamier était, non la plus belle femme de Paris, mais la femme de Paris la plus à la mode. Sa coiffure bizarre, ses apparitions rares et presque mystérieuses aux spectacles et dans les lieux publics lui avaient donné…une célébrité que n’avait aucune femme de son temps. Tous les journaux anglais annoncèrent son arrivée, et l’on accourut des trios royaumes pour voir la fashionable beauty…. On vendait partour son portrait.”

2. On the feminization of fame, see Stella Tillyard, “’Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London,” in Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, exhibition catalogue, ed. Martin Postle (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 64. Also Claire Brock, The Feminization of Fame, 1750–1830 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

3. Although the literature on contemporary celebrity is vast, celebrity in postrevolutionary France has received less attention. On the status of women, see Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988).

4. Etienne-Jean Delécluze, Journal, 1824–1828 (Paris: Robert Baschet, 1948), 36, cited in Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, exhibition catalogue (Lyon: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 2009), 13–14.

5. Mario Praz, “The Lady on the Sofa,” in On Neoclassicism, trans. Angus Davidson (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1969), 245–54, coined the phrase “empty-handed beauty.” He characterized her as “above all, the picture of a pose: a beauty seated on a sofa” (246). In a similar vein, Jean Cocteau underscored Madame Récamier’s silence and passivity—likening her to a chaise-longue in Reines de la France (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1952), 103–6. See also Susanne Hillman, “Empty-handed beauty: Juliette Récamier as pseudo-event,” Celebrity Studies 7 (2016): 203–20, published after this paper was drafted. Hillman draws on Daniel Boorstin’s foundational text on mediated celebrity, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).

6. Amélie Lenormant, Madame Récamier’s niece and adopted daughter, played a central role in shaping her posthumous reputation and legend. See her Souvenirs et correspondances tirés des papiers de Madame Récamier, 2 vols. (Paris: Michel Lévy, 1859); and Madame Récamier et les amis de sa jeunesse (Paris: Michel Lévy, 1872). Also see Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, vol. 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1951); Anatole Lamartine, Cours familiers de littérature: Un entretien par mois, XLIVème entretien (Paris: chez l’auteur, 1859–69). The most useful modern studies are; Edouard Herriot, Madame Récamier et ses amis, 2 vols. (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1906); Catherine Decours, Juliette Récamier: L’art de la séduction (Paris: Perrin, 2013); and Delphine Gleizes and Sarga Moussa, eds., Juliette Récamier dans les arts et la littérature: La fabrique des représentations (Paris: Hermann, 2011).

7. Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), esp. 101–7, has noted the close connection between celebrity culture and the aestheticization of everyday life and the rise of fashion as cultural capital.

8. For the “It effect,” see Joseph R. Roach, It (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2007); for the “king-effect,” see Louis Marin, Portrait of the King, trans. Martha M. Houle, foreword by Tom Conley (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1988), esp. xi–xii. Lamartine apotheosizes her as a goddess of beauty in Cours familier, XLIVème entretien, 7, 9.

9. For celebrity, see also Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), esp. 401–3; Rojek, Celebrity; M. David Marshall, Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997); Roach, It; and Robert Van Krieken, Celebrity Society (London: Routledge, 2012).

10. Amy Freund, Portraiture and Politics in Revolutionary France (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2014), esp. 1–12, and 127–59, analyzes Jean-Louis Laneuville’s The Citoyenne Tallien in Prison (1796). Tallien was one of the “three graces” with whom Récamier was initially grouped.

11. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1999), 244.

12. Philippe Bordes makes this point in “Juliette Récamier et les codes du portrait autour de 1800,” in Gleizes and Moussa, Juliette Récamier dans les arts, 169–84.

13. See Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion in the French Revolution (London: T. Batsford, 1988), esp. 112, 124–32; E. Claire Cage, “The Sartorial Self: Neoclassical Fashions and Gender Identity in France, 1797–1804,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 42 (2009): 193–215.

14. The Journal des Dames et des Modes was the most widely read fashion journal, reaching an estimated audience of 11,000 in France alone during the Napoleonic era. See Annemarie Kleinert, Le “Journal des Dames et des Modes” ou la conquête de L’Europe féminine, 1797–1839 (Stuttgart: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2001).

15. Cited in Ribeiro, Fashion in the French Revolution, 127. “Ce sont elles que nous suivons aux spectacles, aux bals, aux promenades, c’est leur costume copié, avec la plus exacte précision, que nous donnons pour modèle.”

16. I have borrowed the term “celebritization” from Van Krieken, Celebrity Society, 15–39. Van Krieken uses it to signal the shift from fame to celebrity.

17. See Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 236–305; Stéphane Paccoud, “Juliette Récamier et les arts: Construire une image et conserver un souvenir,” in Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène 25–33. Also Laura Auricchio, “Madame Récamier et les femmes de la haute société,” in ibid., 97–103.

18. Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 258–59.

19. Cited in Aileen Ribeiro, Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2011), 214.

20. The fashion for the Creole-style knotted scarf (vehoule), launched by the future Empress Joséphine, was flattering to Madame Récamier, emphasizing her oval face and graceful neck (Decours, Juliette Récamier, 45–46).

21. Ibid, 52–54.

22. Vincent Laisney, “L’Abbaye-aux-Bois: Cénacle littéraire ou salon mondain?” in Gleizes and Moussa, Juliette Récamier dans les arts, 17–30; Steven Kale, French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2004), esp. 142–43;161–63.

23. The Lyon Museum has the largest holding of portraits and artworks from Madame Récamier’s collection. Her furniture was acquired by the Louvre in 1994; Dejuinne’s Madame Récamier à L’Abbaye-aux-Bois (1826) entered the Louvre in 2004. See Guy Ledoux-Lebard, “Un apogée du style consulaire: La décoration et l’ameublement de l’hôtel de Madame Récamier,” L’Estampile/L’Objet d’Art, no. 278 (March 1994): 64–89; Dominique Pety, “Madame Récamier et la décoration d’intérieur: Evolution d’un réseau d’images (XIXe au XXe siècles),” in Gleizes and Moussa, Juliette Récamier dans les arts, 185–211.

24. See Gérard Bruyère, “De l’oeuvre d’art au bibelot et retour,” in Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, 254–55. Other artists who portrayed her include Eulalie Morin, Clémence Sophie de Sermézy, David d’Angers, Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin, Firmin Massot, Giovanni Battista Bassi, Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard, François-Louis Dejuinne, Antoine-Jean Gros, and Achille Devéria, who sketched her on her deathbed.

25. Marin, Portrait of the King, esp. 7–15; 206–14.

26. Whitney Davis, “Serial Portraiture and the Death of Man in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain,” in A Companion to British Art, 1600 to the Present, ed. Dana Arnold and David Peters Corbett (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 502–31; Mark Hallett, “Experiments in Serial Portraiture: Reynolds and Mrs. Abington,” in Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, ed. Lucy Davis and Mark Hallett (London: The Wallace Collection, 2015), 70–85.

27. Hallett, “Experiments in Serial Portraiture,” 79. Hallett is referring to Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue (c. 1771–72).

28. Cited in Decours, Juliette Récamier, 18. Madame Récamier began to write her memoirs but had them destroyed.

29. See Herriot, Madame Récamier et ses amis, who argues that through her close ties to leading writers and politicians, she became an epicenter of the literary life of her era. Kale, French Salons, notes that Madame Récamier made Chateaubriand “the god of her salon” (162).

30. Chaussée d’Antin was a hybrid quarter, inhabited by financiers, but with considerable social mixing.

31. The plates are dated 1798. Although published under Berthault’s name, Charles Percier likely collaborated on the design. See Ledoux-Lebard, “Un apogée du style consulaire,” 68. Smirke also made a watercolor of the chamber.

32. The suite included a small boudoir, with a chaise-longue like the one in David’s painting, for receiving intimates.

33. Decours, Juliette Récamier, 45–46. Her coiffure evolved subtly over time. She abandoned the vehoule and wore a chignon with loose mèches or a coiffure à la Titus. Her signature white dress can also be construed as an anti-Napoleonic gesture since the Emperor denounced white muslin dresses and promoted the French textile industry.

34. Madame Récamier’s coquetterie and social success also inspired envy and criticism. See, for example, Joseph Turquan, A Great Coquette: Madame Récamier and Her Salon (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1913). In Souvenirs de Paris en 1804, 2 vols. (Paris: Chez Barba Libraire, 1805), 1:154–70. August von Kotzebue staunchly defended her character and morals against unwarranted calumnies.

35. Auricchio, “Madame Récamier et les femmes.” Madame Récamier’s marriage was unconsummated; in 1807, she asked her husband for an annulment so that she could marry Prince Augustus, but ultimately renounced the idea; she also refused Chateaubriand.

36. Seven letters from Madame Récamier are included in Correspondance de François Gérard, peintre d’histoire avec les artistes et les personnages célèbres de son temps, ed. Henri Gérard (Paris: Ad. Lainé and J. Havard, 1867).

37. Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, cat. I.1, 62–63.

38. This is an early example of Madame Récamier’s patronage of a female artist. The sentimentality appealed to Madame de Staël, who kept a replica at Coppet.

39. Decours, Juliette Récamier, 103. In Cosway’s miniature she wears a diaphanous veil, recalling that appearance.

40. Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, cat. I.3, I.4, 64. A second state was published in 1804, and several anonymous versions were produced, attesting to its popularity.

41. The British Museum has six different variants, many of which are anonymous knockoffs, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France has a number of anonymous prints after the Cardon etching. There is also a satirical print, Le Suprême Bon Ton, No. 4 (BM Satires 9957), published by Aaron Martinet (c. 1800–05), which depicts an elegant Parisienne (identified as Madame Récamier) bowing gracefully as she greets a rigid English family.

42. Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, no. I.2, 63–64. She gave the portrait to her cousin Brillat-Savarin.

43. Chinard’s bust must have pleased Madame Récamier since she ordered several additional copies for friends and relatives. See Madeleine Rocher-Jauneau, “Joseph Chinard et les bustes de Madame Récamier,“Bulletin des Musées et Monuments Lyonnais, no. 2 (1978), 133–45; Philippe Durey, “Les Sculpteurs de Juliette Récamier,” in Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, 207–13. Chinard, who was from Lyon, stayed with the Récamiers when he visited Paris in 1801. They owned a plaster cast of his Perseus and Andromeda and the statue Silence.

44. See Paul Vitry, Exposition d’oeuvres du sculpteur Chinard de Lyon (Paris: Emile Lévy, 1909), 16, 41–42; Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, cat. I.5, I.6, I.7, 65–67. Chinard, the leading Empire sculptor, created portraits of Napoleon and his entourage and additional depictions of Madame Récamier, an undated plaster medallion in profile (cat. I.8), a small terracotta bust (c.1795; pc), and a terracotta bust (Musée Cognacq-Jay), that may represent her. Clémence Sophie de Sermézy sculpted a bust of Madame Récamier (1805), modeled after Chinard’s.

45. Cage, “The Sartorial Self,” 205–7.

46. Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, 66. The pose and coiffure differ slightly in the various versions. Chinard’s bust was featured in Charles Roux-Meulien’s elevation, coupe, and plan of a classical style cabinet from 1916 (252).

47. Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, cat. IV.9, 191–92. It is based on a Roman statue, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence.

48. Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 236–305. The fact that Gérard’s portrait was completed five years after David abandoned his portrait undercuts that explanation. According to Delécluze, when informed by Gérard of Madame Récamier’s commission, David advised him to accept it. See the anonymous account, perhaps provided by the artist, in M. J-L. David (Paris: Dondey Dupré, 1824), 45–46. The commission to paint an equestrian portrait of Bonaparte for the king of Spain may also have been a factor.

49. See Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 245, n.32, who cites Lenormant.

50. Cited in Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 238–39. In this unusual letter, David admits his difficulties in painting her portrait.

51. M. J-L David, cited in Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 236.

52. On the pose, see Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 268–74; on the invention of the sofa, see Joan DeJean, The Age of Comfort (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 12, 113–20.

53. Bordes, “Juliette Récamier et les codes du portrait” underscores the significance of portraits as artistic creations for David (173).

54. Cited in Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 245. Ingres, who had recently entered David’s studio, is credited with painting the candelabrum, with making drawings of the tabouret and candelabrum, and with a study of Madame Récamier reclining (c.1800, Musée Ingres, Montauban). The status of the drawings is debated.

55. Ribeiro, The Art of Dress, 114.

56. See Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines, 276–91, who discusses Madame Récamier’s decor in relation to Psyche.

57. See Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, cat. I.21, 75. There is also a highly finished watercolor study (1802) that she gave to Adrien de Montmorency, duc de Laval (cat. I.23, 75).

58. Cited in Juliette Récamer: Muse et mécène, 77.

59. The portrait, which was commissioned by Prince Augustus in 1818, was given to Madame Récamier in 1821. She installed it at L’Abbaye-aux-Bois, and left it to the Musée dee Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Besides the replica commissioned by the state, exhibited at the 1822 Salon, there are replicas of just Corinne and three lithographs by Aubry-Lccomte.

60. Juliette Récamier: Muse et mecène, cat. II.33, 130–31. The undated portrait is in the Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

61. Gérard Bruyère, “De l’oeuvre d’art au bibelot,” in Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, 253–55. The term is derived from the French bibelot, a small decorative object or trinket.

62. Cited in Bruyère, “De l’oeuvre d’art au bibelot,” 254.

63. I wish to thank Kee II Choi Jr. for drawing my attention to the Chinese connection. See Margaret Jourdain and Soame Jenyns, Chinese Export Art of the Eighteenth Century (1950), 108; and The China Trade: Romance and Reality (Lincoln, MA: De Cordova Museum, 1979), 45.

64. Juliette Récamier, Muse et mécene, cat. I.35, 84–85. It was given to Madame Récamier by l’abbé Sartori. Canova’s half brother, in 1823 after Canova’s death. There is another version of the bust in Boston.

65. Ibid., cat. V.4, 227–28. The marble was carved for the Empress Joséphine. The Duke of Bedford commissioned a second version for the sculpture gallery at Woburn Abbey (1814–17; Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

66. Juliette Récamier, Muse et mecène, cat. I.39–1.41, 90–91. Her niece maintained she did nothing to combat aging and retained her charm and distinction, but hid her hair, which had whitened in 1824 (92).

67. Ibid., cat. I.38, 88–89; Decours, Juliette Récamier, 330–32. It depicts the small cell up three flights of stairs that Madame Récamier initially occupied; in 1826, she moved to a much larger apartment on the first floor.

68. Praz, “The Lady on the Sofa,” 246.

69. Juliette Récamier, Muse et mecène, cat. I.42, 91–92. It is not dated, and Gros’s signature vanished when the picture was cut down.

70. The closest analogy is a miniature by Nicolas François Dun (c. 1812–14; Metropolitan Museum) that depicts her wearing a white dress with a frilly bonnet and a tiered ruffle at her neck, not unlike her dress in the Gros portrait. Her sharply etched features tally closely with an undated sketch by Gérard (Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma).

71. Juliette Récamier: Muse et mécène, cat. I.43, 92. Exceptionally, the image was not commercialized.

72. On the acceleration of reproduction and its consequences, see Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968), 216–41.

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