(click image to enlarge)
Known as ‘La Belle Limonadière’ (the beautiful lemonade seller), Madame Romain (born circa 1783) was the celebrated hostess of the Café des Milles Colonnes, which, during Napoleon’s Empire and the first years of the Bourbon Restoration, stood on the first floor of 36 Galerie de Montpensier, at the Palais-Royal, in Paris.
Madame Romain and her husband had initially run the Café du Bosquet, which stood close to the Palais Royal in the Rue Saint Honoré. It was there that her beauty had first been noted and had helped attract a large clientele, contrasting as it did with the appearance of her husband, who has been described as small, thin, sallow and one-armed.
In 1807, the Romains took over the Café des Milles Colonnes, in the Palais-Royal, which, since 1784, had contained a shopping and entertainment complex. The café was reached by a beautiful staircase, and its rooms were lined with mirrors, which reflected 30 or more gilt Corinthian columns ad infinitum, so giving the establishment its name. Dressed in the height of fashion, Madame Romain presided over the tables from an ornate chair behind a marble-topped desk.
It is said that Napoleon himself was an habitué of the café in its early days. However, from his first exile, on Elba in 1814, it increasingly became the haunt of provincials and foreigners. John Nixon was in Paris during that summer, and produced the present watercolour at the time, along with its pendant, Madame Véry Restaurateur. Both were etched by Thomas Rowlandson for publication by Thomas Tegg, and Rowlandson produced his own image of La Belle Limonadière at her desk in the café as an illustration to William Combe’s poem, The Dance of Life (1817) (of which an extract is printed left).
A refurbishment of the café in 1817 increased the opulence of its interior, and replaced Madame Romain’s chair with one that was said to have once been the throne of one of two brothers of Napoleon – either Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples and later of Spain, or Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia – both of whom were deposed in 1813.
In 1824, Monsieur Romain died falling from his horse. Two years later, Madame Romain closed the café and entered a convent. The premises were turned into a gaming house.