The Salon of comtesse Aimery de La Rochefoucauld1
Comte Aimery de
La Rochefoucauld is one of the most eminent and fastidious of our
scholars. M. Paul Bourget is often numbered amongst his guests.
The comte professes the admiration of all true connoisseurs with
regard to his cousin Robert de Montesquiou. And, having received
some or other princess a few years ago, he believed he could not
offer her anything more exquisitely regal than several pieces
from Chauves-souris2, spoken, if memory serves us well, by Mlle Reichenberg.
The following year, after an elegant dinner, it was comtesse
Mathieu de Noailles, née Brancovan, who, in the salon in the rue
de l'Université, gave the premise of her young glory.3 And the comte
never missed an opportunity to go and applaud the so very original
and powerful music of Prince Edmond de Polignac4, that artist beyond
equal to whom he is also allied by the marriage in the first
nuptials of the duc de Doudeauville and Mlle de Polignac. But
what if we enter for a moment into the mansion on the rue de
l'Université. To do that I must first introduce you to the
comtesse Aimery de La Rochefoucauld, née Mailly Nesle. Her
beauty, her wit, her kindness are legendary. Few women exude so much charm
around themselves, exercise so much prestige, do
so much good. If you have never seen her perhaps at least you are
familiar with her portrait by Chaplin5, exhibited a few years ago at the École des
Beaux-Arts. In which case you will have already admired the fine
nobility of her profile, her blue eyes, her blonde head of hair.
The exhibition of Amateurs at the rue de Sèze contained several
paintings of Mme de La Rochefoucauld, one of which features a
corner of autumnal forest with great precision of tone. Does Mme
de La Rochefoucauld attach as much importance to armorial
bearings as her husband? If, as is generally believed, it is true
that she does not, she has the tact and the good taste to never
let it be seen. If the opposite is true, she believed, through
her sweetness and her feminine charm, in never letting it be felt
(a merit which M. de La Rochefoucauld also possesses). That at
least is the impression that everybody forms in the rue de
l'Université, in its rooms decorated with so many wonderful
paintings by the owners and where is also featured, not far from
a portrait of comte Gabriel (the only son of the comte and
comtesse) by Mme André6, Chaplin's portrait of Mme de La Rochefoucauld that we
mentioned earlier. Despite the lifelong affluence of her friends
the comtesse has a friendly word for everyone. From time to time
one of her friends will take her to one side to invite her to a
dinner. But the quantity of invitations is so numerous that she
no longer knows on which days she is free and so as not to offend
anybody she sends her butler to consult a little book in which
all her appointments are written. Then, observing the relationships
between all present, she allows small groups to form to continue the
conversation, while she goes over to the new arrivals, offering
them her hand with a smile. Here is her sister the comtesse de
Kersaint, a splendid yet piquant beauty, with magnificent
shoulders and such beautiful eyes, who is chatting about
literature, art and music with the very pretty, rosy and lively
Princesse de Wagram, a woman of remarkable wit and an amiability
that her myopia must make very tiring for her. But she is too
much the great lady to let it show. The marquis de Lau and
admiral Duperré7 only break off from listening to them to gaze at
them. Farther off the comtesse de Briey née Ludre, a charming
woman whom some fools have called mischievous on account of the
sharpness of her wit, is laughing the way other people cry,
by hiding her face in her hands8, and perhaps she is weeping with laughter on hearing a
story told to her by one of the wittiest women in Paris, a
figure of exquisite delicacy, the comtesse de Broissia, née
Beaufort. The duchess de Rohan seems to be no less amused by the
tale, yet just then she moves off towards Mme de Broissia to
listen to these two speakers and she will have no cause for
complaint. Here is the comtesse Guy de La Rochefoucauld, the
duchesse d'Albufera, princesse Brancovan, the great artist9, the comtesse de
Chevigné, the comtesse Potocka, the duchesse de Luynes. What is
the marquise d'Eyragues telling to the marquise de Massa with her astonishing wit, with
her exquisite literary turn of phrase that she can give to
the most trivial thing? But these two
fine connoisseurs are enthralled, no less than the comte
d'Haussonville who, nevertheless, has the prerogative of being hard to
please in matters of wit. The fact is that the marquise de Virieu
and comtesse Odon de Montesquiou, inspired by the success of
their brilliant parentage and marriages, come to play their part
in this entertainment for which the marquis de Castellane is
already the incomparable adversary. Space does not permit us to
talk about comte Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, comte Aimery's son,
whose literary debuts were so very well received. We are tempted
to mention a short story in the style, sad on the inside,
impassible on the outside, by Guy de Maupassant.
All this time Mme de La Rochefoucauld has been chatting - all honour to all great ladies - with the comtesse de Brantes whose powder makes more blooming still her rosy and charming face, whose features are marked by delicacy, by majesty and archness, with a profile like a medal combined with French grace and whose towering intelligence has the force of law everywhere. Finally in come the marquise de Castellane, the marquise de Jaucourt, baronne Hottinguer, the comtesse de Chevigné and the comtesse de Ganay, the comtesse Tiskievitch. All this time we have left M. de La Rochefoucauld, who is busy receiving people, to one side. I would have liked to have had the chance to point out to you his walk, his steady gait, his neck invariably swathed with a silk handkerchief as advised by Dr Lubet-Barbon to protect him from catching cold. He would have responded to your greeting with that grave politeness that is so different from the kind of familiarity of so many others that beneath the surface is merely a form of insolence. I should have liked to have conducted you to Verteuil, the historic château of the comte and comtesse Aimery where the author of his Maximes10 retreated as you will have read in Saint-Simon. Several monarchs, notably Charles the Fifth, stayed under its shelter. You would have evoked times past in its huge rooms. To look around Verteuil is to leaf through the history of France.
1. From an untitled manuscript, probably written some time before 1900. Prince Edmond de Polignac and Vice-Admiral Duperré would certainly have been alive when it was written.
2. The first collection of poetry published by Robert de Montesquiou.
3. In 1895, at the age of 18, she had had four unsigned poems published in La Revue des Deux Mondes. Her first collection, Le Coeur innombrable was a great success in 1901.
4. He was to die in August 1901.
5. Proust is critical of Chaplin (1825 - 1891), and particularly of this portrait, in À la recherche de temps perdu.
6. Née Nélie Jacquemart (1840 - 1912) portraitist and genre painter, married Édouard André, the collector: she left her house in Boulevard Haussmann to the Institut de France, today the Musée Jacquemart-André.
7. Son of Louis-Philippe's minister, Vice-Admiral baron Duperré was to die in 1900.
8. Mme Verdurin does the same in À la recherche de temps perdu.
9. Mother of Anna de Noailles; she was a talented pianist.
10. Not the author of the Maximes, but his son, duc François VII de La Rochefoucauld.
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