One of my favourite Parisian portraits can be found in Musée Carnavalet, the fabulously sprawling and rather randomly filled museum of the city’s history, located in the storied Marais district. It’s Baron Gérard’s dreamy depiction of Juliette Récamier, one of the leading salonnières and so-called Merveilleuses of post-Revolutionary Paris, a period known as the Empire, which gave its name to the sheer high-waisted gowns Juliette wore to seductive perfection, as she does in this painting. Propped upon the cushions of a neo-classic chaise, her feet bare, her sole accessory a tumbling cashmere shawl, her white muslin offsets deliciously creamy skin. But despite the come-hither pose and barely-there dress, she still manages to look butter-wouldn’t-melt.
Juliette, married platonically to an elderly banker who was happy to indulge her hosting and decorating whims, was commonly described as chaste — not that this stopped her from falling for François-René de Chateaubriand, the lauded founding father of French Romanticism (if an ice-queen is going to let herself melt, it might as well be for someone worth it). But for me, she has always brought most to mind the expression sang-froid. This literally means cold-blood but in French doesn’t have the ruthlessness the English translation suggests.
Sang-froid, rather, is about composure and poise and presence of mind. Madame de Sevigné — the famed 17th-century French letter writer and, incidentally, former resident of the Carnavalet mansion — was one of the earliest Parisians to write about sang-froid, at a time when women had themselves bled to stop their faces naturally flushing — a sign that hot passion might be coursing through their blue-blooded veins, ruffling their fashionably cool surface.
How I’d love to be one of those women described as having sang-froid but hélas, it’s the opposite of how I usually appear. Even when my mind is perfectly calm, my skin will be flustered, ruffled, ruddy. I look as though I’ve been furtively reading some hot-blooded romantic historical fiction under frilly pink satin covers. I’ve tried all sorts of soothing serums and heavy-duty concealers but nothing has yet worked to cool things down. Not that I’ve tried bloodletting, mind you.