The Lilac Courtyard
and the Studio of Roses
The Salon of Mme Madeleine Lemaire
Had Balzac been living today he may have
begun one of his novels in this way:
"Those who, in order to proceed from the avenue de Messine to the rue de Courcelles or the boulevard Haussmann, take the street called Monceau, named after one of the greatest noblemen from the ancien régime whose private parks have become our public gardens, and of whom our modern times would certainly have much to be envious if the custom of denigrating the past without making any attempt to understand it had not become an incurable mania of the so-called great minds of today, those people, as I say, who take the rue Monceau to the point at which it crosses the avenue Messine, in order to make their way towards the avenue Friedland, cannot fail to be struck by one of the archaic peculiarities, a survival, to use the language of physiologists, which inspires joy in artists and despair in engineers. At the point where the rue Monceau approaches the rue de Courcelles, the eye is agreeably tickled, and the passage of traffic becomes rather difficult on account of a sort of small mansion, of not very lofty dimensions, which, in contempt of all the highway laws, juts out a foot and a half onto the pavement so that there is hardly enough space to protect oneself from the many vehicles which pass through the area, and with an almost coquettish insolence stands out from the neat alignment, that ideal of pen pushers and the bourgeoisie, so justly loathed by connoisseurs and artists. Despite the small dimensions of the mansion which comprises a two storey building looking directly out onto the street, and a large glazed entrance hall, situated in the midst of arborescent lilacs the scent of which, around the month of April, causes passers by to stop before them, one senses straight away that the owner of this mansion must be one of those strangely powerful persons before whose whims and habits all the authorities must bow, for whom the regulations of the police headquarters and the decisions of the city council remain mere dead words, etc."
But this style of writing, in addition to not being appropriate to us, would have the great drawback, were we to adopt it for the entire length of this article, of making it the length of a book, which would preclude it from ever appearing in Le Figaro. So let us state briefly that this mansion on the street is the abode, and this entrance hall in a garden the studio, of a person who is indeed strangely powerful, as famous overseas as in Paris, whose name signed at the bottom of a watercolour, or printed on an invitation card, makes the watercolour more sought after than one by any other painter, and the invitation more precious than one from any other hostess: I speak of Madeleine Lemaire. There is no need for me to talk here about the great artist about whom a writer, I am not certain which, has said that she has "created more roses than anyone except God". No less has she created landscapes, churches, people, because her extraordinary talent extends to all styles. I should like very quickly to retrace the history, describe the appearance, to evoke the charm of this salon in its unique style.
And to begin with it is not a salon. It is in her studio that Mme Madeleine Lemaire begins by reuniting a few of her brotherhood and her friends: Jean Béraud, Puvis de Chavannes, Edouard Detaille, Léon Bonnat, Georges Clarin. They alone are initially given permission to enter into the studio, to come and see a rose set on a canvas, little by little - and so swiftly - in its pale or purple shades, from life. And when the princess of Wales, the empress of Germany, the king of Sweden, the queen of the Belgians came to Paris, they requested permission to visit the studio and Mme Lemaire could not dare to refuse them entry. Her friend princess Mathilde and her pupil princess d'Arenberg also come from time to time. But little by little we learn that some small reunions have taken place in the studio where, with no prior preparation, with no pretensions of a "soirée", each of the invitees, "working at his trade", and giving of his talent, the small intimate entertainment had included attractions that the most brilliant "galas" could never hope to assemble together. Because Réjane, who happened to be there by chance at the same time as Coquelin and Bartet, had a desire to perform a sketch with them, Massenet and Saint-Saëns were brought to the piano and Mauri even had danced.
All Paris wanted to gain admittance to the studio but never succeeded in gaining entry at the first attempt. But as soon as a soirée is about to take place, each friend of the mistress of the house coming as an ambassador in order to secure an invitation for one of her friends, as Mme Lemaire held them every Tuesday in May, the movement of traffic becomes virtually impossible in rue Monceau, rue Rembrandt, rue de Courcelles and a certain number of those invited inevitably stay in the garden, under the flowering lilacs, it being impossible for them all to be contained in the studio however vast it is, in which the soirée has just begun. The soirée begins in the midst of the interrupted work of the watercolourist, work which will be taken up again early the next morning, the lovely and simple setting of which remains, there to be seen, huge bunches of living roses still "posing" in their vases full of water, standing before painted roses, just as alive, their copies and yet already their rivals. Beside them stands a newly begun portrait, already magnificent in its pretty likeness, of Mme Kinen, and another of Mme de La Chevrelière née Séguier's son which Mme Lemaire is painting at the request of Mme d'Haussonville, attracting the admiring gaze of everybody present. The evening has scarcely begun and already Mme Lemaire casts an anxious glance at her daughter seeing that there are no more chairs free! And yet for anyone else this would be the moment to bring out the armchairs: here are the guests as they successively arrive: M. Paul Deschanel, the old president, and M. Léon Bourgeois, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian, German and Russian ambassadors, countess Greffulhe, M. Gaston Calmette, the grand-duchess Vladimir, countess Adhéaume de Chevigné, the duke and duchess de Luynes, the count and countess de Lasteyrie, the dowager duchess d'Uzès, the duke and duchess d'Uzès, the duke and duchess de Brissac, M. Anatole France, M. Jules Lemaître, count and countess d'Haussonville, countess Edmond de Pourtalès, M. Forain, M. Lavedan, MM. Robert de Flers and Gaston de Caillavet, brilliant authors of the triumphal Vergy, with their lovely wives; M. Vandal, M. Henri Rochefort, M. Frederic de Madrazzo, countess Jean de Castellane, countess de Briey, baron de Saint-Joseph, the marquise de Casa-Fuerte, the duchess Grazioli, count and countess Boni de Castellane. It does not stop for a minute, and already the latest arrivals, despairing of finding a place take a tour of the garden and take up position on the stairs to the dining-room or perch themselves bolt upright on the chairs in the antechamber. Baroness Gustave de Rothschild, who is used to being better seated, despairingly perches herself on a stool which she has had to climb up on to catch sight of Reynaldo Hahn who is sitting at the piano. The count de Castellane, another millionaire who is used to greater comforts, is sitting erect on a very uncomfortable sofa. It is as if Mme Lemaire had taken as her motto - as in the Gospels: "Here the first shall be last", where on the whole the last are the last to arrive, be they academicians or duchesses. But by a mimicry which her beautiful eyes and lovely smile make wholly expressive, Mme Lemaire makes it understood to M. de Castellane, from the other side of the room, how much she regrets to see him so badly placed. Because just like everybody else she has a great fondness for him. "Young, charming, drawing all hearts after him", brave, good, ostentatious without being arrogant, refined without being pretentious, he delights his supporters and disarms his adversaries (by which we mean his political adversaries because his personality knows only friends). Full of consideration for his young wife, he is anxious that she is not feeling the effects of the cold draughts from the garden door, which Mme Lemaire has left partly open so that her visitors can come in without making a noise. M. Grosclaude, who is in conversation with him, expresses his surprise at the way - which is very honourable in a man who has no time to concern himself with idle pleasures - in which he takes on the study of practical matters which concern his own arrondissement. Mme Lemaire appears to be very worried to see that General Brugère has had to stand, because she has always had a great liking for the army. But that becomes nothing more than a mild vexation when she notices that Jean Béraud is not even able to get into the hall; but this time she can put up with it no longer, moves off the people who are blocking the way in, and before the glorious young master, before the artist who is acclaimed by modern society just as much as the old, before the delightful creature who is sought out by everybody but none can possess, she makes a sensational entrance. But as Jean Béraud is also one of the wittiest of men, everybody stops him on his way through to exchange a few words with him and Mme Lemaire; realizing that she cannot tear him away from his many admirers who are preventing him from taking up the place that she has reserved for him, she gives up with a comical gesture of exasperation and returns to her place beside the piano where Reynaldo Hahn is waiting for the tumult to die down before starting to sing. Close by the piano a man of letters, still young and a great snob, chats familiarly with the duke de Luynes, who is a fine and charming gentleman, acting as though nothing were more natural. But mainly he appears to be delighted to be seen chatting with a duke. So much so that I could not resist saying to my neighbour: "Out of those two he's the one with the air of being the one to be "honoured"." A pun which will no doubt be lost on those readers who do not know that the duke de Luynes "answers", as a doorman might say, to the Christian name of Honoré. But with the advances in education and the spreading of knowledge one could be forgiven for thinking that those readers, if it is the case that any still exist, are no more than a tiny and moreover uninteresting minority.
M. Paul Deschanel questions the secretary to the Romanian legation, prince Antoine Bibesco, on the Macedonian question. All those who address this young diplomat with such a bright future as "prince", create for themselves an impression of being like characters from Racine, for with his mythological appearance he makes us think of Achilles or Theseus. M. Mézières, who is speaking to him now, has the air of a high-priest who is about to consult Apollo. But if, as is claimed by that purist Plutarch, the oracles of the gods at Delphi were written in very strong language, one could not say the same about the prince. His words, like the bees native to Hymettus, have swift wings and distil a delicious honey but even so they do not lack a certain sting in the tail. Every year, resumed at the same season (in which painters' salons are opened, the mistress of the house having less work to do), appearing to follow or bring back with them a universal springtime, the intoxicating efflorescence of lilac which you sweetly spread out to exhale their odour up to the studio window and to the threshold of her door, these soirées of Mme Lemaire's provide to the seasons whose return they initiate, the same every year, the charm of things which pass, which pass and which return without being able to yield up with them all that we have loved of their vanished sisters, the charm, and along with the charm also their sadness. For we who for so many years already have seen so many pass from Mme Lemaire's parties, from those parties on Tuesdays in May - those mild and perfumed months of May which are for ever frozen today - we think of those soirées in her studio as we think of our fragrant springtimes now vanished. Just as life mixes its charms, we often rush to those studio soirées, not simply, perhaps, for the pictures we will see there or the music we will hear. We rush out in the stifling stillness of the evening dew and sometimes beneath the fleeting, cool summer rainstorms in which petals of blossom are mixed with the falling drops of rain. It is in this memory-filled studio that initially delights us with such charm that little by little time has dissipated, by disclosing false illusion and unreality. It is there that during the course of these parties that perhaps the first bonds are forged of an affection which brings us nothing in their wake but repeated betrayals leading to ultimate enmity. Now, remembered within ourselves from one season to another, we are able to count our wounds and bury our dead. So each time that, in order to evoke it, I look back at one of those parties deep within my trembling and deadened memory, now melancholy after having once been delicious with possibilities and for ever unrealized, I seem to hear it telling me as the poet said: "Look at my face, try to look me in the eye; I call myself what might have been, what might have been, and which was not to be."
The grand-duchess Vladimir is sitting in the front row, between countess Greffulhe and countess Chevigné. She is only separated by a narrow gap from the little stage that has been set up at the back of the studio, and all the gentlemen, be they coming one after another to pay her their respects, or be they returning to their places, pass before her, count Alexandre de Gabriac, the duke d'Uzès, marquis Vitteleschi and prince Borghère, displaying their good manners and their agility as they skirt around the benches facing Her Highness, and draw back towards the stage in order to bow to her lower, without casting the slightest glance behind them to check how much room they have available. In spite of that none of them makes a faux pas, slips, falls to the floor or treads on the toes of the grand-duchess, all blunders which would create, it must be admitted, a most unfortunate impression. Mlle Lemaire, the exquisite mistress of the house, to whom all eyes are turned in admiration at her elegance, forgets to listen whilst laughing at the charming Grosclaude. Just at the very moment I was about to sketch a portrait of the famous humorist and explorer, Reynaldo Hahn begins to play the opening notes of Cimetière and I am forced to save my portrait of the author of the "Pleasantries of the Week" who has since, with such great success, evangelized Madagascar, for one of my later "salon pieces".
At the first notes of Cimetière the most frivolous public, the most rebellious audience, is completely subdued. Never, since Schumann, has there been a music that portrays sadness, tenderness, assuagement before nature with such genuine humanity and absolute beauty. Every note is a word - or a cry! With his head slightly thrown back, his melancholy mouth, slightly disdainful, letting escape the rhythmical waves of the most beautiful, the saddest, the most passionate voice that ever existed, this "instrument of musical genius" who is Reynaldo Hahn grips every heart, moistens every eye, in the thrill of admiration which he propagates from afar and which makes us tremble, as we bow our heads one after another like a silent and solemn undulation of wheat in the wind. Next M. Harold Bauer plays some Brahms dances with gusto. Then Mounet-Sully recites verse, followed by M. de Soria who sings. But more than one person is still thinking about the "roses in the grass" in the Ambérien cemetery, which was evoked so unforgettably. Mme Madeleine Lemaire makes to quieten Francis de Croisset who is chattering rather too loudly to a lady, who appears not to relish the prohibition that has just been decreed in such a way to her interlocutor. Marquise de Saint-Paul promises Mme Gabrielle Krauss a fan painted by herself and extracts in return a promise that she will sing: "I have excused myself" from one of the Thursdays at rue Nitot. Little by little the less intimate guests depart. Those who are on closer terms with Mme Lemaire prolong the soirée for a little longer as it is now more delightful by being less diffused, and in the half-empty hallway, closer to the piano one can now, with closer attention and concentration, listen to Reynaldo Hahn as he repeats a melody for Georges de Porto-Riche who has arrived late. "In your music there is something delicate" (slight gesture of the hand which seems to detach the adjective) "and mournful" (a new gesture of the hand which seems to detach the other adjective) "which gives me infinite pleasure", the author of Passé tells him, isolating each epithet as if he were gathering from it the elegance of the passage.
He says this in a voice which seems to be pleased to say such words, adding to their beauty with a smile, emitting them from the corner of his mouth with voluptuous nonchalance, like the ardent and vaporous smoke of a beloved cigarette, whilst his right hand, fingers drawn together, seems to be in the act of holding one. "After that all is extinguished, candles and music", and Mme Lemaire says to her friends: "Be sure to come early next Tuesday, I'll have Taomagno and Reszké." She can rest easy. We shall come early.
Article appeared in Le Figaro, 11 May 1903 and reprinted in Chroniques (Libraire Gallimard, 1927).
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