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).
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
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.
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).
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.
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