MANY PERIODS OF French history interest and fascinate me but perhaps none more so than the period between 1871 and 1914, years characterised by optimism, relative peace, economic prosperity, technological and scientific innovation and a flourishing of the arts – a period that became known as La Belle Époque.
The term La Belle Époque, which means little more than ‘the good old days’, wasn’t coined until much later when the period could be viewed through the prism of history. Although debate surrounds the precise dates used to define the period, 1871 to 1914 seem the most logical since La Belle Époque was sandwiched between two catastrophes, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the subsequent bloody events of the Paris Commune and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Set against these events, it’s easy to see how the intervening years came to be seen as a golden age.
Hanging on the wall of a gallery in the Musée Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris, is a painting that for me at least epitomises La Belle Époque.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan (1909): Henri Gervex (1852 – 1929): Musée Carnavalet
Painted by Henri Gervex using oils on canvas, Une Soirée au Pré Catalan is 217 cm high and 318 cm wide and it depicts an evening scene at the prestigious Pré Catelan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne.
In 1905, the architect Guillaume Tronchet was asked by the City of Paris to build Le Pré Catelan, a luxury casino and restaurant. The casino didn’t materialise but the restaurant did. In 1908, the celebrated Parisian restaurateur, Léopold Mourier, owner of the restaurant Foyot, the Café de Paris, the Pavillon d’Armenonville and later Le Fouquet’s, bought Le Pré Catelan and made it one of the most fashionable places in town.
It was Léopold Mourier who commissioned Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, presumably to advertise just how fashionable a place Le Pré Catelan was.
So let’s take a closer look at the picture:
In the foreground we see a group of three people. The lady on the left in orange is Madame Gervex, wife of the painter.
The lady with her back to us is the celebrated American heiress and socialite, Anna Gould, daughter of the financier, Jay Gould. She was married to Paul Ernest Boniface de Castellane, elder son and heir apparent to the Marquis de Castellane. They divorced in 1906 after he had spent about $10 million of her family’s money. The gentleman in the group is Anna Gould’s second husband, Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Sagan, cousin of her first husband.
Inside the restaurant we see three more celebrated figures.
Seated at a table on the right is a rather portly gentleman looking directly at us. This is the Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne, pioneer of the French automobile industry. The Marquis and the engineers, Georges Bouton and Charles Trépardoux, formed a partnership in 1883, which became the De Dion-Bouton automobile company, once the world’s largest automobile manufacturer.
Seated at a table on the far left is the moustachioed figure of the Brazilian aeronaut, Alberto Santos-Dumont. He designed, built, and flew the first practical airship, demonstrating that routine controlled flight was possible. Following this pioneering work, Santos-Dumont constructed a heavier-than-air aircraft, the 14-bis. On 23 October 1906 he flew this to make the first verified powered heavier-than-air flight, certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
And seated at a table in the centre wearing a black hat and a coquettish countenance is Anne Marie Chassaigne, a former dancer at the Folies Bergère, now known as Liane de Pougy, a noted demimondaine and one of the most famous women in France at the time, constantly sought after by wealthy and titled men. Although we can’t see a companion we can assume that she’s not dining alone.
We can see three people leaving Le Pré Catelan.
One is Arthur Meyer, a French press baron. He was director of Le Gaulois, a notable conservative French daily newspaper eventually taken over by Le Figaro. With him are the Count and Countess Greffulhe who are about to get into their car.
Such was the fashionable clientele in Le Pré Catelan one evening in 1909.
Although now owned by Sodexo, the giant French food services and facilities management corporation (that’s a fancy way of saying they provide food and hire out meeting rooms), Le Pré Catelan under it’s head chef, Frédéric Anton, is still a very fashionable place. With three Michelin stars it’s among the best restaurants in Paris.
Today, from the outside, the restaurant is hidden from view behind a large hedge, presumably to deter the paparazzi but inside it remains pure Belle Époque.
Image: Le Pré Catelan
I’ve spent many hours looking at Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, absorbing the atmosphere of La Belle Époque. I can see the optimism in the faces of the Marquis de Dion and Alberto Santos-Dumont foretelling the day when the motor car and air travel will become common currency.
I can see the pride in the face of the Countess Greffulhe under her feathered hat knowing that she helped the artist James Whistler and actively promoted the artists Auguste Rodin, Gustave Moreau and Gabriel Fauré, who dedicated his Pavane to her. She is no doubt proud too that she was a patron of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and helped Marie Curie to finance the creation of the Institut du Radium and Edouard Branly to pursue his researches into radio transmission.
With my Belle Époque eye I can see that it would be perfectly normal for a rich socialite like Anna Gould, or a high-class courtesan like Liane de Pougy, or a press magnate like Arthur Meyer to be found at Le Pré Catalan. They were after all what we would now call ‘celebrities’ and after the ignominy of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the hiatus of the Paris Commune they were surely entitled to a little joie de vivre.
Maybe so, but La Belle Époque was never the reality of life in Paris or in France. There was a large economic underclass who never experienced much of the Belle Époque’s wonders and entertainments. Poverty remained endemic in Parisian urban slums for decades after the Belle Époque ended and the Dreyfus Affair exposed the dark realities of French anti-Semitism and government corruption. No wonder that some of the artistic elite saw the fin de siècle in a pessimistic light.
Today, a hundred years on from the end of the period we call La Belle Époque, Le Pré Catelan remains a preserve of the rich and famous. If you have to look at the prices on the menu then you shouldn’t be there.
But the gardens of Le Pré Catelan are free to all and it was while walking through the gardens that I had time to think and to contemplate how I could express Une Soirée au Pré Catelan not only in words but also in sound.
A simple water sprinkler gave me the answer … use the natural sounds recorded in the Musée Carnavalet sitting in front of the painting, morph to the natural sounds in and around the Jardin du Pré Catelan and then back again to the painting.
And this is the result.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan:
Even though I bristle at the excesses of the rich and the plight of the economic underclass, both then and now, and although I’m very aware of the danger of slipping into an overly romanticised view of history, I remain fascinated by La Belle Époque. I’m quite sure I shall return to the Musée Carnavalet to contemplate Une Soirée au Pré Catelan and visit the Jardin du Pré Catelan many more times. I shall though leave my rose-tinted spectacles at home!
STEPPING OUT OF the Métro station La Chapelle in the 18th arrondissement it’s easy to forget that you’re in Paris.
Historically a working class area with a predominantly immigrant population, the Quartier de la Chapelle is lively and extremely cosmopolitan. A large Sri Lankan community together with smaller Turkish, Pakistani and Chinese communities as well as an influx over the last ten years or so of ‘bobos’ (a term coined by the American journalist David Brooks to describe a group of “highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success”) make La Chapelle a diverse and fascinating neighbourhood.
The Quartier de la Chapelle straddles the array of railway tracks entering both the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est and it is in rue Pajol, a street alongside the railway approaching the Gare de l’Est, that an impressive urban renewal project has been undertaken.
Originally known as rue de la Gare du chemin de fer de Strasbourg, the name rue Pajol was adopted in 1865 in honour of Général d’Empire Pierre Claude Pajol, a distinguished cavalry officer in Napoléon’s Grande Armée.
An interesting fact about rue Pajol is that in 1870, Joseph Meister and Marie-Angélique Sonnefraud married and settled at N° 22. In 1885, their nine-year old son, also Joseph Meister, was bitten by a rabid dog. He became the first person to be inoculated against rabies by Louis Pasteur and the first person to be successfully treated for the infection.
Today, the Hindu Temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam dedicated to Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, stands at the southern end of rue Pajol while at the northern end, adjacent to the railway tracks of the Gare de l’Est, is the impressive Halle Pajol, which opened early in 2014 after three years of construction work.
The Halle Pajol
Funded by the City of Paris and designed by JAP (Jourda Architectes Paris) led by Françoise-Hélène Jourda, the new Halle Pajol emerged from an old SNCF warehouse built in the 1920s but long since abandoned. The City of Paris bought the site in 2004 and earmarked it for redevelopment. The idea was to enhance the district by providing increased public amenities and improving the urban landscape through the creation of green spaces while preserving the architectural heritage of the original building.
What had become an unsightly piece of industrial archaeology has now been transformed into a centre for the community comprising the largest youth hostel in the capital, a library – the Vaclav Havel Library (named after the former President of the Czech Republic), offices, an auditorium, shops, a bakery and cafés.
The Halle Pajol
The Halle Pajol has been designed with sustainability in mind. Along with its elegant wooden frontage it produces its own electricity from 3,500 M2 of photovoltaic panels in the roof.
As well as the Halle Pajol itself, this urban development also includes some 9,000 M2 of green space. Named after the philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, the Rosa Luxemburg Gardens comprise covered and uncovered gardens stretching alongside the railroad tracks blending in with the surrounding landscape.
As with the Halle Pajol, ecology rhymes with economy. Almost all materials used in the gardens, the crushed tiles, the pavers and the rails, all come from the original building.
Under the Halle Pajol, a 2,500 M² covered garden provides a quiet space; a place to stroll and discover a variety of plant species including birch, cedar, wild flowers and aquatic plants. The garden is irrigated by rainwater collected on the roof.
The covered garden extends outside and includes play areas for children. Outside, the garden is covered with decontaminated soil to a depth of one metre and is planted with local species including pine, ash, mountain ash and flowering cherry.
Alongside the rail tracks, two plots of 100 M2 kitchen gardens have been established and made available to neighbourhood associations. Local residents can go there and grow flowers or vegetables.
In addition, small plots are available for children to create their own gardens.
The sounds outside and inside the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg:
In the north, the garden follows the topography leading pedestrians by successive slopes out onto rue Pajol and rue Riquet.
In the last few weeks a 1,010 M² extension to the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg has been opened with two lawns and a wooden playground suitable for children from 3 to 8 years, which includes a giant wooden elephant, giraffe and crocodile.
Sadly, the award-winning architect and driving force behind the Halle Pajol and the Jardin Rosa Luxembourg, Françoise-Hélène Jourda, passed away on 31st May 2015.
This post is dedicated to her memory.
OPENED IN JANUARY 1825 as la Cimetière des Grandes Carrières (Cemetery of the Large Quarries), Montmartre cemetery was built in the hollow of an abandoned gypsum quarry previously used during the French Revolution as a mass grave. Located near the beginning of Rue Caulaincourt in Place de Clichy its sole entrance was constructed on Avenue Rachel under Rue Caulaincourt.
Avenue Rachel looking towards the entrance to Montmartre cemetery
Halfway between the traffic-strewn Place de Clichy and the fin de siècle Moulin Rouge cabaret, the Avenue Rachel may be a calm and reassuringly quiet street today but in February 1847 this street was lined with hundreds of people gathered to mourn the passing of a French courtesan and mistress to a number of prominent and wealthy men. Charles Dickens was there and reported, “One could have believed that she was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so deep was the general sadness.”
Today, her body lies entombed in the cemetery’s 15th Division. Few flowers adorn the tomb and even the picture once attached to the front of it has gone. It seems that she has been abandoned.
The tomb as it is today
The tomb as it once was: Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Many will know her as Marguerite Gautier, the main character in La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, or as Violetta Valéry, the leading soprano character in Guiseppi Verdi’s opera La Traviata but few will remember her for who she really was, Alphonsine Plessis, who died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three.
Alphonsine Plessis: Portrait by Édouard Viénot
Alphonsine Rose Plessis was born on 15th January 1824 at Nonant-le-Pin in Normandy. She was the daughter of Marin Plessis, an alcoholic who offered her to men from the age of twelve. At the age of fifteen she moved to Paris where she found work in a dress shop and by the time she was sixteen she had become aware that prominent men were willing to give her money in exchange for her company in both private and social settings. One of her suitors, Agénor, son of Duc de Guiche, took care of her education and turned her into a well-mannered lady. By now she preferred to be called Marie and she also added the faux noble “Du” to her name making her Marie Duplessis.
Watercolour of Marie Duplessis at the theatre, by Camille Roqueplan
By the age of twenty, Alphonsine Plessis or Marie Duplessis as she now preferred, had reached the height of the Parisian demi-monde. She was taken up by the elderly and very wealthy Comte de Stackelberg, a former Russian ambassador to Vienna. He kept her in high style, paying her bills, importing her carriage horses from England, and providing boxes in the best theatres in Paris. She was briefly married to one of her lovers, the French nobleman, Count Édouard de Perregaux, as a result of which she became the Comtesse de Perregaux.
Her apartment on the elegant boulevard de Madeleine was filled with 18th-century furniture, paintings, silks and her modest collection of 200 books. Here, many of the brilliant minds of France gathered at her dinner parties, including Honoré de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, and Alexandre Dumas, fils. For almost a year, between September 1844 and August 1845, Alphonsine was the mistress of Alexandre Dumas, fils and then, towards the end of her life, she is believed to have become the mistress of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who reportedly wished to live with her.
Alexandre Dumas, fils, was so enamoured of Alphonsine that he based his romantic novel, La Dame aux Camélias, on her. The novel appeared within a year of her death. In the book, Dumas became ‘Armand Duval’ and Alphonsine ‘Marguerite Gautier’. Dumas also adapted his story as a stage play, which in turn inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata.
Poster for the world premiere of La Traviata
In both Alexandre Dumas’ book and in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera the heroine’s death is described as an unending agony during which she is abandoned by everyone and can only regret what might have been.
In real life, Alphonsine died from what is now called tuberculosis but was then called consumption, a disease that in the nineteenth century accounted for one in four deaths. She was aged twenty-three. Within a few weeks of her death her belongings were auctioned off to pay her enormous debts.
Despite her appalling start in life, Alphonsine aspired to make her way in ‘society’. She became one of the nineteenth century’s grandes horizontales, courtesans who were able to maintain lavish lifestyles and who influenced the dress and tastes of cultured women while inspiring other pretty but poor young women with high ambitions.
She was a popular courtesan with a catalogue of lovers and was not shy about taking advantage of their wealth and position to enhance her own status. She hosted a salon where politicians, writers, and artists gathered for stimulating conversation, she rode in the fashionable Bois de Boulogne, she attended opera performances and had her portrait painted.
But, despite her apparent success, just like Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias and Violetta in La Traviata, Alphonsine died abandoned, regretting what might have been.
I’ve been fascinated by Alphonsine Plessis for a very long time. My first reading of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias captivated me and Verdi’s La Traviata can reduce me to tears in the blink of an eye. Both of course are fictions inspired by Alphonsine Plessis but both I think capture the essence of this ultimately tragic young woman.
Standing beside Alphonsine’s tomb in Montmartre cemetery the other day I decided to produce something to convey my fascination with Alphonsine Rose Plessis:
Alphonsine Plessis – Montmartre Cemetery:
Placing microphones around the foot of Alphonsine’s tomb I recorded the ambient sounds on a sunny summer afternoon. I then added the sounds of the ‘Fantasia sur La Traviata’ composed by Pierre Agricol Genin and played by two exceptional musicians, Barbara Hill on flute and Laurie Randolph on guitar. For those familiar with La Traviata, this music depicts the life and death of Violetta, and by extension, of Alphonsine Plessis. The subdued ambient sounds provide both a contemporary context and echoes of the past, they are after all the sounds that Alphonsine hears and has heard every day lying in this place.
My especial thanks to Barbara Hill for permission to use this recording of ‘Fantasia sur La Traviata’.
Poster for a performance of the theatrical version of La Dame aux Camélias, with Sarah Bernhardt (1896)
IN MARCH THIS YEAR I published a blog piece about the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, the botanical garden set within a large greenhouse complex at the southern edge of the Bois de Boulogne.
In that piece I recounted how these gardens, first established in 1761 under Louis XV, are under threat because of plans by the Fédération Française de Tennis to extend the neighbouring Roland Garros international tennis complex into the south east corner of the gardens. This extension, if it goes ahead, will include the demolition of the nineteenth-century Jean-Camille Formigé greenhouses to make way for a new, semi-sunken, tennis court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators.
At the time of writing my last piece about the gardens the Paris City Council had just unanimously adopted a resolution that a further study into an alternative plan proposed by local residents associations and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil should be conducted by an independent organisation so that the Paris City Council could debate and then vote on it.
But now, things have moved on again.
Last Wednesday, despite the unanimous resolution of the Paris City Council, the French Prime Minister, Manual Valls, issued a statement instructing Ségolène Royal, the French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, to sign the Permis de Construire, the building permit required before work on the Roland Garros extension can proceed. So far, Ségolène Royal has not done so.
On Sunday afternoon, as Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic were locking horns on the Philippe Chatrier court in the Men’s Final of the French Open Tennis Championship at Roland Garros, friends and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil were making their voices heard at the entrance to the gardens on the avenue de la porte d’Auteuil.
I went along to offer my support and I was able to speak to Madame Lise Bloch-Morhange, Speaker of the Comité de Soutien des Serres d’Auteuil, the lead opposition group to the proposed extension. This is what she told me:
The recently opened Fondation Louis Vuitton, the privately financed modern art gallery designed by Frank Gehry, has, with government acquiescence, encroached on to what was supposed to be an environmentally protected part of the northern Bois de Boulogne. The government claims to have conceded to the choice of site because of the prestige the gallery brings to the city.
In the southern Bois de Boulogne the Fédération Française de Tennis claims that retaining the prestigious French Open Tennis Championship at Roland Garros depends upon extending their facilities and that the only credible plan is to extend into the Jardin des Serres. In addition, France intends to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games and it is claimed that, as part of that bid, an extended Roland Garros is essential.
Undoubtedly, a Frank Gehry designed modern art gallery, the French Open Tennis Championships and the Olympic Games are smothered in prestige, probably adding millions if not billions to the economy. But one is surely entitled to ask, at what cost?
Imagine a desecrated Jardin des Serres with a semi-sunken tennis court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators standing empty and completely unused for fifty weeks of the year. The cost of that would not be measured in millions or billions of Euro’s but in a more intangible and equally important currency, what the French call patrimoine, our heritage, the value of which lies in our hearts not in our pockets.
My thanks to Lise Bloch-Morhange for taking time out of her very busy afternoon to stop and record these comments.