Monday 23 November 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 23 - A Salon

Last time : 69) King James I of Great Britain (1566-1625) had a “favourite” (i.e. toy-boy) called 70) George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628) who was immortalised in fiction in “The Three Musketeers”, whose hero d’Artagnan was also based on a real person, an ancestor of French dandy and aesthete 71) Count Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921).
71) Count Robert de Montesquiou was a prominent member of the Parisian cultural period of the late 19th century known as Belle Epoque. As a flamboyant aesthete he was also one of the most recognisable characters in the city. Just like his ancestor Charles de Batz-D’Artagnan the count found himself the inspiration for several fictional characters created by his friends and acquaintances. The most well-known in literary circles being the Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust’s novel “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (Remembrance of Things Past).

Count Robert’s flamboyant personality was perfectly suited to the then fashionable art nouveau movement and he became one of its main promoters through patronage and artistic criticism. His biographer Philippe Jullian referred to him as “the Professor of Beauty, the Commander of Delicate Odours … the gardener who planted and tended the bloom of Art Nouveau.”

As well as encouraging artists the count collected many art nouveau objects for his own enjoyment and filled his Paris residence with them. His passion for collecting outshone his skills in interior decoration, however, and a fellow French aristocrat once remarked that he showed “less taste than imagination”.

In his home Count Robert entertained many of his artistic, literary and aristocratic acquaintances, mainly to please himself rather than please his guests. And they, in turn, tolerated his snobbery and eccentricities, playing on his ego partly in fear of being on the receiving end of some devastating witty put-down in one of his essays.

But even if the count’s advice on interior design was never sought, that of one of his favourite artists was, and the contrast between them couldn’t have been wider.

72) Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) was an ex-pat American who arrived in Paris in 1905. She specialised in painting portraits and became influenced by another American ex-pat James McNeill Whistler, a close friend of 71) Count Robert de Montesquiou. It may have been this Whistlerian influence in Romaine’s portraits that attracted Count Robert to her work. Romaine’s first solo exhibition was in Paris in 1910. It was a huge success, and with praise from Count Robert her reputation as a major portrait painter was secured.

And this is the contrast. Despite his failings as an interior decorator Count Robert was a leading arbiter on good taste, and whereas his residence was overflowing with miss-matched art nouveau objects Romaine Brooks’s Parisian home was stark by comparison. Her home style attracted many visitors and admirers who asked for her advice on how to decorate their own homes. No-one would have asked for Count Robert’s advice on the subject.

At the start of the First World War Romaine began the longest of her relationships, with another American ex-pat living in Paris, 73) Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972).

73) Natalie Barney had not long since split from her partner Renée Vivien. They had set up a women’s poetry school on the island of Lesbos in homage to the ancient Greek poet 36) Sappho. In the end both the venture and the relationship failed and Natalie returned to Paris. In 1909 she set up a new venture which would be hugely popular and influential.

For over 60 years her Salon on Rue Jacob would be the focus for many artistic figures such as Marcel Proust, Truman Capote, Mata Hari, Isadora Duncan and Gertrude Stein.

Natalie’s relationship with Romaine was complicated by the former’s casual affairs. It didn’t concern Romaine at first because Natalie was well-known to have had such affairs during her previous relationships. Romaine, too, took up casual affairs during their time as a couple.

But Romaine was never really happy in Paris and she didn’t like many of Natalie’s Salon friends. She also liked her own space and some solitude. They had a summer house which had two separate wings, one for Romaine and one for Natalie, in which they lived apart, but it had an adjoining dining room. Despite this, their relationship lasted over 50 years.

There was one incident which could have ended their relationship a lot sooner. In 1927 Natalie met 74) Dolly Wilde (1896-1941) who began attending the weekly Friday gatherings at the Salon. Romaine noticed something more was going on between them. She thought it was just another of Natalie’s casual affairs but the impression she got from Dolly was that the relationship was beginning to get more serious. Instead of retreating to her wing of the summer house Romaine gave Natalie an ultimatum – to abandon Dolly Wilde or abandon her. Natalie chose to abandon Dolly. Dolly was not as understanding of Natalie’s casual affairs as was Romaine and she was hurt badly. At one point Dolly attempted suicide when Natalie began another casual affair, and she tried again after they split.

Dolly Wilde may have a name which will be familiar to followers of world literary and lgbt heritage. That’s because she had a famous uncle, none other than 75) Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and the connection between the two goes deeper in the person of ….

… But that’ll have to wait until next time, in the penultimate article of our trip “Around the World in 80 Gays”.

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