Paris 17th district

Image Of all the 8 new arrondissements incorporated into Paris in January 1860  (13th to 20th), the 17th is Baron Haussmann’s creation par excellence; for, despite the ‘deep chasm’ that seprated north from west, no arrodissement was as true to the new middle-class spirit of the Second Empire (and later the Third Republic) or promoted the values it stood for to the same degree.  

Moreover, all four classes of the new emerging society were represented on its territory – the very wealthy north of Parc Monceau, the bourgeoisie in Ternes, the lower bourgeoisie in Batignolles and the working classes in Epinette, a peaceful working-class which shared the same ideological aspirations as their slightly social betters who lived in neighbouring Batignolles. As did the Impressionists.

The mainstream, academic artists,  on the other hand, gravitated around Parc Monceau, and around the newly acquired money of the  ‘muhrooom aristocracy’. As did, naturally, a variety of characterful courtesans, attracted to the newly acquired gold of the ‘beaux quartiers’ of western Paris, as butterflies are drawn to light.

All the above mentioned artists, and many others, convened in the glittering salons of the Plaine Monceau. Leconte de Lisle and his Parnassien poet friends frequented the salon of the Marquise de Ricard at no. 10 Boulevard des Batignolles, while the members of the Academy were favoured by Madame Aubernon who invited them, in groups of twelve, to her weekly dinners on rue Montchanin (now rue Jacques Bingen). In order to express her respect for such honoured guests, her meals were accompanied by a dish of spinach, a far-fetched tribute to the prestigious green costume of the Académicien.

Not all the households of the Plaine Monceau could display such respectability, certainly not that of Emile Zola’s Nana, the laundress’s daughter from the gutter of La Goutte-d’Or (in the 18th arrondissement, east of Montmartre), although she too was living in a magnificent home, on the corner of avenue des Villiers and rue Cardinet. In a fluctuating society, where forunes were made overnight, respectability and thinly disguised prostituion lived side by side, the latter “advancing, gliding, dancing with the weight of its embroidered petticoats”.

Brief notes jotted down by Zola in his notebook inform us of “very well maintained hôtels in the ‘quartier Haussmann’, in particular on rue de Prony, with footman, powdered concierge, imposing staircase, huge landing, couch, armchairs, flowers…” Adrieu Marx acquiesces when he speaks of the “belles petites who swoop down on the new quarters, adding that “face powder has succeeded in replacing the dust of building paster”. “Semi-senile, debauched males were ready to abandon everything for an arse,” Zola jots down in his notebook. He also speaks of “the pack behind the bitch who is not on heat and who mocks the dogs that follow her”. She spends as much as 200,000 francs a year, and no sooner has she bought a hôtel particulier (townhouse), than she wants to sell it!

Around the year 1900 the 17-year-old Colette – Claudine in the novel – ran into her childhood friend Luce on Parc de Monceau. The poor country girl had been offered champagne, adorned in silk undies and stockings and set up by the sixtyish widowed husband of her aunt in a top-floor flat of a gleaming white building on rue de Courcelles. An enormous lift, lined with mirrors, carried Luce up to this flat, whose main items were a 1.5-metre-wide bed and a bathroom “paved with tiles, walled with tiles… glittering, like Venice, with a thousand lights and more”. Not unlike Nana, Luce lapses occasionally into her native speech,  which Colette finds “priceless”. The seducer, like his forerunners, is depicted as “hideous, fat and almost bald… he had a bestial look, with jowls like a Great Dane and big calf’s eyes”.

Some cocottes, courtesans and demi-mondaines were the talk of the scandalised town, such as the fiery Andalusian Otero on rue Fortuny, for whom more than one suitor had given up the ghost and for whom William II of Prussia had written a play. Others, such as Louise Delabigne, now Comtesse Valtesse (Votre Altesse de la Bigne, knew how to worm their way into society. She too had ruined a wealthy suitor, but she had the talent and intelligence to know how to be accepted and became the friend of Manet, Courbet, Boudin, Alphonse de Neuville and Detaille, which earned her the nickname “l’union des peintres”. When she first went on the stage, aged 15, as Hebe in Orpheus in Hell, a critic said that she was as timid and as red-headed as a Titian virgin – but it did not take her long to lose both timidity and virginity nor, for that matter, to leave the stage and sell her favours elsewhere instead.

From the arms of Prince Lubomirski, she flew to those of Baron Sagan, who financed the glorious mansion Jules Février built for her in 1876 on the corner of Boulevard Malesherbes (now Général Cartoux) and rue de la Terrasse, and was subsequently ruined. Although her home was the gathering place of artists, the Countess separated the sheep from the goats, admitting into her boudoir only those who could afford to keep her. When Alexandre Dumas fils asked to see her celebrated bedroom, she replied, “No, it is not within your means, mon cher maître.” And when she made an exception for Zola, it was merely on professional grounds, for he was then gathering material for his novel Nana, her fictitious alter ego. Zola was a reliable reporter, and provides us with a pretty accurate picture of that sacred place, notably of her celebrated bed, a gem created by the famous Cain and the altar of sex and the focal point of her bedroom, which can now be seen at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs,  on rue de Rivoli.

The highly acclaimed painter Henri Gervex was also made an exception, because he was her young lover.  She also served him as a model, notably for the bride (!) in his painting Le Mariage civil (at least it was not a religious wedding), which now hangs in the Salle de Mariage (the wedding hall) of the Mairie of the 19th arrondissement. Thus Mademoiselle Valtesse has come down to posterity fortified by the Third Republic’s attributes of chastity, matrimonial bliss and respectability. Middle-class morality, to which, after all, a quarter of France’s households adhered no less than Victorian England, had the final word!

 Thirza Valloisis the author of  Around and About Paris, Volume I, II, III published by Iliad Books (UK)  and  Romantic Paris, co-published by Interlink (US) and Arris Books (UK).  To find out more and order Thirza Vallois’s books, visit her website: //www.thirzavallois.com