Julie, Mme Recamier, became one of the most famous beauties of a troubled period of French history and her salon the favourite resort of literary and political society. Her fame as the very spirit of the neo- classical age in France has come down to us primarily through portraits of her. In a famous painting of 1800 by Jacques-Louis David, now in the Louvre, she is lying on a classical day-bed or chaise-longue, barefoot, in a simple white dress, her curls controlled by a filet around her brow. A tremendously Greco-Roman lamp stands on a tripod beside her. David used the same furnishings in his paintings of life in ancient Rome. Baron Gerard, David's pupil, painted her on another neo-classical seat, in another white dress.
Astonishingly, the furnishings of Mme Recamier's own drawing-room - magnificent examples of the neo- classical style - have remained together, and are to be offered for sale as a single lot by the French auctioneer Jacques Tajan on the evening of 15 December. They went on exhibition at the Hotel George V in Paris yesterday: six chairs, the arms embellished with carved lions and sphinxes; a stool; a table; and a chaise- longue. You would think that you were looking at the very day-bed from David's picture - though careful inspection reveals that Mme Recamier had a rather grander version of the seat she used in David's studio made for her own drawing-room. It has eight bobbly, turned legs that end in a point, as opposed to the four in David's painting, and the backrests are curved slightly differently.
There is no doubting, however, that the two pieces derive from the same inspiration and were made at the same time - David's by Georges Jacob, Mme Recamier's by his sons.
The very smartest craftsmen from whom to order your chairs in Paris at the turn of the 18th century were the freres Jacob, who made all the Recamier furniture due for sale; it is thought to have been designed by Louis Berthault specifically for the drawing-room in the hotel Necker. Georges Jacob had worked for Louis XVI and was nearly ruined by the Revolution. He was saved by David, who was close to the revolutionaries; Jacob made the neo-classical furniture for the artist's studio, to David's own design. Jacob's sons, Georges II and Francois-Honore-Georges, took over the business in the Consulate period (1799-1804) and their work was highly sought-after.
Mme Recamier's first salon at the hotel Necker was brought to a sharp conclusion by her husband's bankruptcy in 1805. He managed to recover, but then Napoleon exiled Julie herself from Paris on account of her royalist sympathies. She stayed with Mme de Stael at Coppet in Switzerland. Her return to Paris after the monarchy was restored was marred by further financial setbacks suffered by Recamier in 1819.
Julie, now in her forties, had to scale down her way of life. She obtained first a room, then an apartment, at a convent, the Abbaye-aux- Bois, on the road between Paris and Sevres. Here she established her second salon, whose leading light was Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, the great romantic author. Although he is recorded as having visited her at 3pm every afternoon for several years, some authors suggest that the relationship was purely platonic. No one is ever likely to know the truth since Mme Recamier, in bequeathing all her possessions to her niece Amelie Lenormant, instructed her to burn all her private correspondence.
Wednesday's Paris sale is one of the oddest that Jacques Tajan has mounted - and he has managed some pretty theatrical affairs, including an auction run simultaneously in the Eiffel Tower and a Tokyo hotel, connected by satellite. Tajan is a self- publicist to end all self-publicists, an ebullient talker, a man of the Left and, in his own estimation at least, a close friend of President Mitterrand.
The success of the sale depends on Tajan's ability to influence his friends. The Musees de France have made it clear that they will not permit the export of the furniture, while the Louvre, according to Tajan, lacks enough money to buy it. He is talking of a price of pounds 400,000- pounds 500,000 mark on behalf of the present owners, three sisters directly descended from Amelie Lenormant.
At the front of the catalogue Tajan has addressed a letter to Mme Recamier beyond the grave, in which he tells her that she has the most worthy descendants. He explains that her beloved Amelie scrupulously followed the instruction to burn her letters, thus 'casting a veil over your life and your love life - a precaution which has driven your biographers to desperation'.
He goes on to say that, on Amelie's death in 1893, her effects were auctioned at the Hotel Drouot, but luckily the family stepped in and repurchased Julie's furnishings from the Abbaye-aux-Bois. In 1991, he explains, her bed was bought by the Friends of the Louvre and he himself intends to do all he can to find a rich patron prepared to buy the rest of the furnishings and give them to the same museum.
'I am having lunch tomorrow with one of my childhood friends at Fouquet's, the famous restaurant in the Champs-Elysees,' he writes. 'He appears to be ready to make this generous gesture towards the French state, and I hope it will be duly grateful to him - since the state needs to encourage rich patrons, not drive them to despair.'
That may seem a very odd thing to write in an auction catalogue, but it is not quite as odd in France, where matters are regularly ''arranged' between art patrons and the state. It is standard practice in France to obtain export licences for your works of art by donating others to museums, or, indeed, to fix your taxes through suitable museum donations. It is all a matter of negotiation.
Reading between the lines of Tajan's catalogue letter to Mme Recamier, he has found a friend who is prepared to give the furniture to the Louvre if the state will play ball - probably over taxes. Tajan told me last week that he had failed to persuade 10 French millionaires that donating the furniture would be in their interests. So he had been driven back on 'a childhood friend', who is a foreigner. Let us hope, for the sake of the Louvre, that the 'arrangement' succeeds. -