Tag Archives: Second French Empire

Constantin Guys – A Grisette and Other Watercolours

19 Sep

M.C.G.[Monsieur Constantin Guys]loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty.” 

(Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life)

Constantin Guys, A Grisette, 1859, Pen and ink with ink and watercolor washes on wove paper

These watercolours and drawings by Constantin Guys have caught my attention these days. I just love how brilliantly they capture the vibrant and busy social life of the mid-nineteenth century rich and posh Parisians. Guys is almost like a precursor to a paparazzi, capturing every move, every laughter, every nuance of what is going on. These works were mostly made during the Second French Empire times; from 1852 to 1870, and lucky for us viewers, those decades were the decades of the sumptous and extravagant fashion for women, mostly because of the crinoline which made the skirts excessively wide thus making the women look like giant lotus flowers walking around. These sketchy and quick yet so vivid and detailed pen and ink drawings with watercolour washes give us a sneak peek into the era that is gone by. But Guys doesn’t just paint the wealthy ladies. His drawing of a grisette from 1859 can vauch for that. A grisette is a flirtatious coquettish working class woman. Guys stunningly captures the flounces of her dress and the way he painted the black fabric makes it appear like waves on the dark waters of Venice. His use of blue is equally thrilling in the drawing “Leaving the theatre”. Guys seems always to be walking on the tightrope between sketchiness and brimming with details.

I imagine these ladies and gentlemen are the characters from Gautier’s stories, from Chopin’s concerts, maybe one of these beauties is the fatal mistress of Mr Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, stepping out of the carriage and giving a kiss to her other lover while Mr Rochester awaits her on the balcony, hidden by the roses, heartbroken and disappointed. I imagine these are the kind of ladies that Balzac wrote about in Father Goriot, the kind of ladies who know every little gossip and secret of Parisian budoirs and bedroom, they are the flies on every wall and no one is safe from their watchful eye. But little do they know that all along Monsieur Guys is gandering at them from afar, his eyes catching scenes like the camera, his hand drawing on its own. It is for a reason that the decadent poet Charles Baudelaire called him “the painter of modern life” in his essay of the same-name. In that essay he especially praises Guy’s endless curiosity about life and the world around him, the same curiosity that children have and which makes them ecstatic about everything. This curiosity, tied with perceptiveness, artistic skill and a flaneur lifestyle make Guys the brilliant painter that he was. Here are some interesting passages from Baudelaire’s essay:

“Today I want to talk to my readers about a singular man, whose originality is so powerful and clear-cut that it is self-sufficing, and does not bother to look for approval. None of his drawings is signed, if by signature we mean the few letters, which can be so easily forged, that compose a name, and that so many other artists grandly inscribe at the bottom of their most carefree sketches. But all his works are signed with his dazzling soul, and art-lovers who have seen and liked them will recognize them easily from the description I propose to give of them.

Constantin Guys, Leaving the Theatre, 1852, Pen and brown ink, brush and black, gray, red, blue, and yellow wash

M. C. G. [Monsieur Constantin Guys] loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty. (…) when he heard that I was proposing to make an assessment of his mind and talent, he begged me, in a most peremptory manner, to suppress his name, and to discuss his works only as though they were the works of some anonymous person. I will humbly obey this odd request. (…) M. G. is an old man. Jean-Jacques began writing, so they say, at the age of forty-two. Perhaps it was at about that age that M. G., obsessed by the world of images that filled his mind, plucked up courage to cast ink and colours on to a sheet of white paper. To be honest, he drew like a barbarian, like a child, angrily chiding his clumsy fingers and his disobedient tool. I have seen a large number of these early scribblings, and I admit that most of the people who know what they are talking about, or who claim to, could, without shame, have failed to discern the latent genius that dwelt in these obscure beginnings.

Constantin Guys, Two Gentlemen and a Lady, n.d., Pen and brown ink, brush and brown, green and blue wash, over graphite; touches of red chalk

Today, M. G., who has discovered unaided all the little tricks of the trade, and who has taught himself, without help or advice, has become a powerful master in his own way; of his early artlessness he has retained only what was needed to add an unexpected spice to his abundant gift. When he happens upon one of these efforts of his early manner, he tears it up or burns it, with a most amusing show of shame and indignation. In this context, pray interpret the word ‘artist’ in a very narrow sense, and the expression ‘man of the world’ in a very broad one. By ‘man of the world’, I mean a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs; by ‘artist’, I mean a specialist, a man tied to his palette like a serf to the soil. M. G. does not like being called an artist. Is he not justified to a small extent?

He takes an interest in everything the world over, he wants to know, understand, assess everything that happens on the surface of our spheroid. (…) With two or three exceptions, which it is unnecessary to name, the majority of artists are, let us face it, very skilled brutes, mere manual labourers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins. (…)  Thus to begin to understand M. G., the first thing to note is this: that curiosity may be considered the starting point of his genius.

Constantine Guys, Reception, 1847, Pen and brown ink with brush and watercolor, over graphite, on ivory laid paper

Do you remember a picture (for indeed it is a picture!) written by the most powerful pen of this age and entitled The Man of the Crowd? Sitting in a café, and looking through the shop window, a convalescent is enjoying the sight of the passing crowd, and identifying himself in thought with all the thoughts that are moving around him. He has only recently come back from the shades of death and breathes in with delight all the spores and odours of life; as he has been on the point of forgetting everything, he remembers and passionately wants to remember everything. In the end he rushes out into the crowd in search of a man unknown to him whose face, which he had caught sight of, had in a flash fascinated him. Curiosity had become a compelling, irresistible passion.

Now imagine an artist perpetually in the spiritual condition of the convalescent, and you will have the key to the character of M. G. But convalescence is like a return to childhood. The convalescent, like the child, enjoys to the highest degree the faculty of taking a lively interest in things, even the most trivial in appearance. Let us hark back, if we can, by a retrospective effort of our imaginations, to our youngest, our morning impressions, and we shall recognize that they were remarkably akin to the vividly coloured impressions that we received later on after a physical illness, provided that illness left our spiritual faculties pure and unimpaired. The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always ‘drunk’. Nothing is more like what we call inspiration than the joy the child feels in drinking in shape and colour.

Constantin Guys, Meeting in the Park, 1860, Pen and brown ink, brush and gray, blue, and black wash

I will venture to go even further and declare that inspiration has some connection with congestion, that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less vigorous nervous impulse that reverberates in the cerebral cortex. (…) But genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed. To this deep and joyful curiosity must be attributed that stare, animal-like in its ecstasy, which all children have when confronted with something new, whatever it may be, face or landscape, light, gilding, colours, watered silk, enchantment of beauty, enhanced by the arts of dress.”

Mademoiselle de Lancey by Carolus-Duran

2 Feb

In the pallid light of languishing lamps,
In deep cushions redolent of perfume,
Hippolyta dreamed of the potent caresses
That drew aside the veil of her young innocence.

She was seeking, with an eye disturbed by the storm,
The already distant skies of her naiveté,
Like a voyager who turns to look back
Toward the blue horizons passed early in the day.” (Damned Woman, Baudelaire)

1876. Mademoiselle de Lancey - Charles Auguste Émile DurandCharles Auguste Émile Durand, Mademoiselle de Lancey, 1876

What is this high society beauty, this femme fatale from the glorious days of French Second Empire, thinking about? Reclined on the sofa, surrounded by ‘deep cushions redolent of perfume’, supporting herself with one hand and holding a fan in the other. Her white dress with silver embellishments is exquisite, surely the latest fashion, sumptuous silk or satin. Quite a daring cut of the bodice, revealing both her shoulders and decolletage. Notice how her skirt is elegantly lifted with the intention to expose her lovely ankles and tiny feet in white shoes. Her gown reveals much and at the same time exudes simplicity and elegance. Her crossed legs and the position of her hands indicate dominance both in her chamber, and on the canvas.

Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the painting is her face. Perhaps it is not perfect per se, but it radiates confidence and charm, and awareness of these qualities. Oval porcelain face, large blue eyes, lips in colour of rose hip, forehead framed with dark brown curls. Hair adorned with flowers, hands with a bracelet and a ring: this damned woman is luxury itself, the most desired mistress of Paris, Jezebel, Lilith, Salome, Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of the 19th century Paris. This femme fatale gets what she wants.

She doesn’t need no roses, chocolates, and kisses in the moonlight. You’ll rue the day that you were born if you encounter this enchantress. If she stood up right now, her elegant step would be that of a gazelle, and the sound of her ruffling dress would resemble the finest melodies. This is the kind of woman that Baudelaire wrote poems about

Behold these smiling lips, suave and voluptuous,
Whose ecstasies of arrant self-love give us pause;
The mocking pawkishness of that long languid stare,
Those dainty features framed in luminous light gauze,
Whose every facet says with an all-conquering air:
‘Lo, Pleasure calls and Love crowns my triumphant head!” (Charles Baudelaire – The Mask)

Seems like the painter, Charles Auguste Émile Durand or simply known as Carolus-Duran is less important than the lady he painted. I didn’t say that, but I don’t deny it either. Carolus-Duran is most memorable for his portraits of Second French Empire ladies, and his paintings, as beautiful and appealing as they are, can never compete with those of Monet or Renoir who were his contemporaries. He was accepted by the art critics which speaks for itself.

La Castiglione, Demi-Monde and Second French Empire

3 Aug

A vain and eccentric woman of mystery – Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione arrived in Paris in 1856, at the peak of Second French Empire. She was a rose of the Second French Empire garden, a rather exotic and extravagant rose that withered too quickly. She shone briefly, like a shooting star, but soon crashed into the darkness of her Place Vendome abode where she spent her last days in rooms without mirrors or daylight, mentally unstable and lonely.

1863. Photographie de la comtesse de Castiglione, dite à l'éventail, sous le titre de Elvira en1863 Photographie de la comtesse de Castiglione

La Castiglione, as she was later called, was born on 22 March 1837 in Florence. Her full name is legen (wait-for-it) dary: Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni. Before she arrived in Paris, La Castiglione was trapped in a loveless marriage to Francesco Verasis, conte di Castiglione, twelve years her senior. She was sent to Paris in 1856 to bolster the interest of Napoleon III in the cause of Italian unification. Her cousin, the minister Camillo Cavour, instructed her to ‘succeed by whatever means you wish—but succeed!

Succeeded she did, her beauty and extravagant clothes soon caught the Emperor’s eye, and she became his mistress, but not for long. Their love affair lasted only two years, and in 1857 it was all over. She was determined not to be forgotten nor by the Emperor, nor his poor wife Eugenie de Montijo, nor by the courtiers who were very much amused by the scandals, gossips and intrigues. By then, she was separated from her husband and bankrupted by her glamorous lifestyle. She returned to Italy in self-imposed exile in 1858. But, restless and mischievous as she was, she returned to Paris in 1861 and once again shook up the conventional nineteenth century society.

1862. Portrait of the Countess di Castiglione painted in Paris by Michele Gordigiani1862 Portrait of the Countess di Castiglione painted in Paris by Michele Gordigiani

Virginia was famous for her beauty as well as her extravagant lifestyle. Her long, wavy blonde hair, pale skin, and delicate oval face with eyes that constantly changed colour from green to an extraordinary blue-violet must have sparked the Emperor’s imagination when she was first presented at the court on 9 January 1856 at the ball. La Castiglione was two months short of her nineteenth birthday, the Emperor was forty-seven. They expressed their love in June 1856 in Parc de Saint-Cloud; the park that contains one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe: Marie Antoinette’s rose garden, English style garden and Le Notre’s French style garden designed for Louis XIV.

The Princess Metternich described her as having ‘wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the color of pink marble!  In a word, Venus descended from Olympus.  Never have I seen beauty to rival hers, not shall I see her like again!‘ In the portrait above, painted in 1862 by Michele Gordigiani, we see La Castiglione at the age of twenty-five, her beauty already fading (the contemporaries have said), but her cheeks are as rosy and fresh as ever, while her eyes radiate confidence, disinterest and a slight coldness.

1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 51858-62 Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione

La Castiglione couldn’t have chosen a better moment to arrive on the scene for the splendor and opulence of Napoleon’s court seem to have been created for her. Second French Empire (1852-1870) was a culturally interesting era in French history. After decades of turmoils and revolutions, the court shone again like it did once before in times of Napoleon Bonaparte. Forty years later, Napoleon III made sure that his reign becomes a synonym for extravagances and opulence. It was in these two decades that many works of art and literature were created: Edouard Manet painted his scandalous masterpieces Olympia and Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Gustave Flaubert published his notorious novel Madame Bovary, and Baudelaire Les Fleurs du Mal – the two literary masterpieces were published the same year (1857), but the latter proved to be a tad too modern for the audience. Haussmann rebuilt Paris, and created all the boulevards, parks and avenues that the Impressionists have later captured on canvas, and which gave the city its current appearance.

1855. fashion empress eugenie and the ladies in waiting1855 The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting – Winterhalter

Still, the Napoleon III had a quite conservative taste in art, preferring the works of Franz Xaver Winterhalter and Alexandre Cabanel to decadent and fluttery brush strokes of Manet and Whistler. Winterhalter was a German painter famous for his court portraits such as the portrait of Austrian Empress Elisabeth Sissi. One of his lovely, lovely paintings shows Empress Eugenie and her ladies in waiting. Painted in bucolic, 18th century manner, it displays the opulence and stability of Napoleon III’s reign.

Just like Napoleon Bonaparte’s Josephine, Napoleon III had Eugenie by his side. She faithfully performed her duties as an Empress: organised balls, parties, accompanied the Emperor to the opera, advocated equality for women, and turned her court into a never ending fashion show, instead of Dior or Chanel’s creations, the courtiers admired her dresses made by Charles Frederick Worth, a very popular 19th century designer.

1858. une robe de taffetas et la même robe de bal Victoria et Elizabeth1858. evening and day dress, Magasin des Demoiselles, December

Fashion at the time seems to have been created for the Countess of Castiglione for it is truly the most extravagant period in Victorian fashion. Crinoline was all the rage, and evening dresses were a little masterpieces, in pastel colours with countless flounces, lace decorations, carefully arranged with roses or other flowers. The neckline was open, revealing the shoulders. Sleeves were short and usually puffed but came in variety of shapes; petal, puff, flutter, bell, cap, basic short, gathered, petal and puffed combination, cap and puffed combination.

Neckline was usually decorated with lace, flower bouquets, jewels or single flowers; roses were quite popular. Little bouquets were often asymmetrically placed on the skirt. Most used fabrics were silk, taffeta, moire, organdie, muslin, tulle and lightweight brocade. Dresses created by Charles Frederick Worth were known for their lavish fabrics and trimmings and for incorporating elements from period dress. He was the dream of every Victorian woman and his individualistic approach gained him many faithful customers.

1857. evening dresses, Le Bon Ton, November

1858. evening fashions, Le Bon Ton

Upon arriving to Paris the second time, in 1861, the Countess of Castiglione transformed herself into a mysterious femme fatale and formed numerous liaisons with notable aristocrats, financiers, and politicians. She is said to have charged a member of the British aristocracy one million francs for 12 hours in her company. All she had was beauty, and when it faded, the her admirers and lovers abandoned her.

La Castiglione was almost pathologically vain and narcissistic. Not only did she arrange photo shoots with a prominent Parisian photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, but she also sent her friends photo albums filled with photos of her in different poses and dresses. Today, in ‘era of selfies’, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back then it was considered almost deranged. Her sessions with Pierson produced more than 400 photos that were created in three specific periods: her glorious first years in French society, 1856-57; her reentry into Parisian life, from 1861 to 1867; and toward the end of her life, from 1893 to 1895.

1870s Virginia Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione (1837-1899), was an Italian courtesan who achieved notoriety as a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III of France, Pierre-Louse Pierson 21862 Virginia Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione

In the photos, La Castiglione is seen wearing extravagant and luxurious dresses, in different poses and face expressions. Not only did she pose as her glorious self, but she also transformed herself into many different characters from The Queen of Hearts, Medea, and Nun, to exotic Queen of Etruria.

The Queen of Heart is probably her most interesting costume. The photo shows La Castiglione dressed in the very same costumes that she wore on a costume ball years earlier. It was the ball held on 17 February 1857 in honour of Ministry of foreign affairs. The splendid ball had an aura of nostalgia for the Marie Antoinette and Petit Trianon, peaceful days before the revolution. Also, Empress Eugenie was a big fan of the 18th century and she adored Marie Antoinette, even dressed like her on one occasion. As always, La Castiglione outshone everyone on the ball when she arrived wearing her ‘heart dress’.

The Countess is not lavish of herself. She seldom appears in society. Whenever she does so it is an event. Behold her entering the salons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the middle of the ___ She is dressed as the queen of hearts, a symbolic costume, for it is an allusion to the innumerable hearts which the Countess “draws after her,” as

Racine would have said. On her head glitters a crown formed of hearts. Her marvellous hair ripples around her forehead and falls in cascades on her neck. Her skirts and corsage are laced with chains composed of hearts. Her train is caught up on the hip. ‘Tis a bewitching costume.’‘(source)

1863. La comtesse de Castiglione en Dame de Cœur vers 1863, par Pierre-Louis Pierson à Paris.1863. La comtesse de Castiglione en Dame de Cœur vers, par Pierre-Louis Pierson à Paris

As to the Countess, she carried the weight of her beauty insolently. The proud Countess does not wear corsets ; she would willingly be a model to a Phidias, if there were one, and she would pose clad only in her beauty. La Castiglione is a courtesan like Aspasia ; she is proud of her beauty and she veils it only as much as is necessary to be admitted into a drawing-room.

1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 4 1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 7 1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 8 1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 101861-67. Dress that belonged to the Comptesse De Castiglione1861-67. Dress that belonged to the Comptesse De Castiglione

La Castiglione was a true demimondaine. With her extravagant lifestyle, hedonism, dependance on lovers, unusual demands, theatrical life choices she fully embodies the term demi-monde which was commonly used in the 19th and early 20th century Europe. According to the dictionary the meanings of this word are ‘(in 19th-century France) a class of women considered to be of doubtful social standing and morality‘ and ‘a group of people on the fringes of respectable society.

As most demimondaines, La Castiglione ended up as a victim of her own lifestyle. She spent all her money, she lacked charms and her beauty faded. In the last years of life, after the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, she lived a reclusive and eccentric life in the Place Vendome. She decorated her abode with black curtains which hid her from daylight. She smashed the mirrors for they revealed her true age and looks, a face that was once beautiful but isn’t anymore. Furthermore, she left her flat only at night when she wondered the streets of Belle Epoque Paris shrouded in a long black veil. We can draw paralells between La Castiglione’s lifestyle and photo shoots and those of Luisa Casati, an eccentric Italian heiress, muse, and patroness of the arts in the early 20th century.

1893. La comtesse de Castiglione, enveloppée de voile et châle en crêpe noirs1893 La comtesse de Castiglione, enveloppée de voile et châle en crepe noirs

Her final photos show the mental instability that led her lead that kind of lifestyle. She still dreamt of having her photos shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in a retrospective titled ‘The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century‘. This never happened and she died on 28 November 1899 at the age of sixty-two. Her life caused admiration and curiosity among the aesthetes of fin-de-siècle Paris. Among them was Robert de Montesquiou, a symbolist poet and a dandy, who spent thirteen years writing her biography La Divine Comtesse. It is also said that he was the inspiration for the character Jean des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel A Rebours (Against the Nature) and for the Baron de Charlus in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.