Can an artist do justice to a beautiful woman?
This sensuous terracotta bust by Joseph Chinard captures the elegance and grace of legendary beauty Juliette Récamier, a socialite renowned for her wit and notorious for her love affairs. Holding a diaphanous drapery, she covers up her right breast, but leaves her left bare.
Here, she could be described as coy and coquettish—or demure and reserved. Is she feigning modesty with her downward gaze, or is the reserve genuine? Is the drapery concealing—or revealing?
I wonder how much Mme Récamier orchestrated her own image. No mere beauty, she was intelligent, accomplished, and respected by erudite men and women, from Mme de Staël (who based the heroines of some of her novels on her) to Théophile Gautier (who wrote of her “indescribable attraction, like the poetry of the unknown”). At her own request, replicas of this very bust were given to friends and family members.
What do you think: Is she demure or coquettish? Artless or artful? Does this bust conceal more than it reveals—not only of her body, but of her mind?
Question of the Week is a series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours, offered daily at 4:00 p.m. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week.