The French Panama Papers

Je Revois Paname‘ by Casimir Oberfeld & Albert Willemetz, Saint-Granier & Jean Le Seyeux, published by Salabert (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Paname is French slang for Paris. The origin of the sobriquet is not clear but this one is the most credible: it was inspired by the Panama Affair, the largest corruption scandal of the 19th century. The affair broke out in 1892, discrediting the government and shaking the foundations of the Republic.

In 1879 Ferdinand de Lesseps had proposed the construction of a 75 km channel, similar to that of Suez, in the isthmus of Panama. The project was expected to last 12 years and cost 600 million francs. Work on the Panama canal began in 1882. But soon technical difficulties and the death toll from tropical diseases undermined the project. Moreover in 1884, the funds of the French Panama Canal Company had dried up while only one-tenth of the  excavations had been completed. To overcome this financial crisis Ferdinand de Lesseps himself proposed to float a lottery loan. This kind of loan was especially attractive to small savers who could always hope for an immediate premium when their numbers were drawn for payback.

La Gigolette du Panama‘ by P. Dumont, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves.

To obtain the approval of Parliament for the lottery loan, the instigators plotted a multi-million bribery campaign which would be managed by three men. One of them was the financier Baron Jacques de Reinach who would try to persuade the big fish. He distributed money between politicians, journalists and the haut monde so that they would embellish the company’s situation and support the lottery loan. The adventurer Emile Arton (Aaron by his real name) managed the smaller fry, minor politicians and provincial newspapers. Arton was a dubious entrepreneur, boasting a career of bankruptcies. The third man was Cornélius Herz, an American charlatan and the greatest rogue of the three. In the end he even managed to blackmail his associate de Reinach.

A lottery bond for the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, 1888.

In 1888 the lottery loan for 720.000 million francs was authorised. But by now the Panama Canal company had come in even more dire straits. Only a year later the company went bankrupt and some 800.000 French investors lost their savings. Many amongst them could ill afford to lose anything at all.

In 1892 the French anti-Semitic political daily, La Libre Parole, started the scandal with a series of articles. Its first source was a disgruntled banker who had quarrelled with de Lesseps. Almost daily the paper added bits and pieces to the story, accusing an ever-widening number of individuals. When other Paris papers followed suit, an official investigation was started. Baron de Reinach killed himself while Herz and Arton both made a run for it. In the song Les Aventures d’Arton it is hinted that the French government was not eager to arrest him, afraid of new revelations.

Arton ou Le retour de l’enfant prodigue‘ by G. Delatouche, melody from ‘Ton ton, ton ton, tontaine, ton ton’, published by Repos (Paris, 1895)

The owner of La Libre Parole was Edouard Drumont, a devout catholic and the principal propagator of anti-Semitism in France. His book La France Juive, with full-fledged diatribes against the Jews, may be regarded as the beginning of the anti-Semitic movement in France. Drumont used the fact that the three main fixers of the lottery loan were of Jewish descent as a battering ram. His continuous rabid articles fed the growing anti-Semitism in France which soon led to the Dreyfus affair (1894) in which Drumont was one of the most strident accusers.

In the light of this, it comes as no surprise that the eager money-grubbers on the sheet music cover ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’ are depicted with enlarged stereotypical Jewish traits.

Les aventures d’Arton‘ by Léo Lelièvre & Emile Spencer, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves. Source: gallica.fr.

In the end, a large number of ministers were accused of taking bribes leading to a corruption trial against Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son amongst others. More than a hundred members of parliament were also charged.

With the Panama Affair politicians were no longer trusted in the public eye. And this brings us back to the start of the story: in ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’, he is called a ‘Panamiste’. Tripoteurs Panamistes imply persons who do shady business:

Il fit remettre des listes,
Et donna plusieurs millions
Aux tripoteurs panamistes,
Panamistes, panamistes,
Et bientôt les souscriptions
Firent monter les actions.

According to chronicler Claude Duneton, the first people to use the nickname ‘Paname’ were market gardeners who had to pay a daily tax on the produce in their carts when they entered Paris. At first, around 1903, only politicians and rich Parisians were called Panamistes. Later, it was Paris —the city itself where these sharks lived— which was tagged Paname.

Gradually, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Paname became a more gentle nickname. Around 1917 the French soldiers affectively designated Paname as the city of their dreams. ‘Revoir Paname’ was their intimate desire in the trenches.

Tu le r’verras, Paname‘ by Albert Chantrier, Robert Dieudonné & Roger Myra, published by Halet (Paris, 1917) and illustrated by Nergetris.

The word Paname spread further after the end of the war, especially in the cabarets and music halls of the twenties and thirties.

O! Paname‘ by Vincent Scotto, Géo Koger & E. Audiffred, published by Foucret (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Jack Roberts.

Today, using the phrase “I’m going to see Paname” to express a longing for Paris is terribly old-fashioned.

Umm, old-fashioned?

Time to update the titles of our collection: ‘La meuf de Sept-cinq’.

La Femme de Paname‘ by St. Servan, A. Benoit & A. Danerty, published by Pêle-Mêle (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Germy.

The battle of the red pants

Ballade des Trois Petites Soldats‘ by C. Rougier and Général Bruneau, published by Costil (Paris, 1914) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.
On this cover from 1914 three French soldiers are ready to serve their country. Despite their young age they bravely march in bright-coloured uniforms. All three seem unaware of being flamboyant targets for enemy fire.
Before WWI, the French army had good reasons for choosing a flashy outfit. The stylish uniforms made the soldiers proud and heightened a sense of camaraderie, notably by the elite who made up a large percentage of the military. Also, commanders could easily oversee the battlefield and armies. Moreover, close-quarter fighting didn’t require camouflage: when the smoke of the black powder made recognition difficult, a soldier with a striking uniform was able to stand out from his enemy.
Défilé des Enfants de troupe‘ by Désiré Piérard, published by Andrieu (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.
In 1914, the typical French uniform with its red pants and kepi and blue coat was almost a century old. It was in 1829 that king Charles X had ordered the use of the colour red for military uniforms, in order to revive the French culture of the garance des teinturiers or dyer’s madder. The dye was obtained from the roots of Rubia Tinctorum that, mixed with chemicals, resulted in a rich red colour. In France, garance was mainly cultivated in the Vaucluse.
From 1860 on, overexploited land and a decline in quality adversely affected the culture of garance. In the late 19th century the natural dye had to compete with the production of synthetic red colouring by the Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (BASF). This all led to the end of the French manufacturing of garance. From then on —quite ironically— German synthetic red was used for the French uniforms.
In the decades prior to the Great War most countries decided to abandon the bright uniforms. They reasoned that soldiers should blend into the landscape and therefore changed their outfits to shades of khaki or Feldgrau.
Pour la Patrie‘ by H. France, published by Etienne Rey (Lyon, s.d.) and illustrated by E. Buval.

But not the French. The General Staff had tested less showy outfits and came up with a greenish uniform in 1911. The press nor the politicians liked these drab uniforms in a ‘goose poop’ colour. They furiously attacked the proposal: “By trying to make our current uniforms less visible and less brilliant, we have gone beyond the goal. To remove all its colour and the cheerful aspect of the soldier, to seek dull nuances, is to go against the French taste and against the requirements of the military function (… ) The red pants have something national.” [translated from an article in L’Illustration, December 1911]

Even the minister of war exclaimed: Remove the red pants? No! The red pants are la France”.
Tous au drapeau‘ by L. Planel & Charles Morgat (1913)
It wasn’t until 1914 that the French agreed on more discreet outfits. But that was too late. The French soldiers had to start WWI in an obsolete and for that time ridiculous uniform. In 1915 the change in outfit became effective: the trousers became grey blue, and the bleu horizon uniforms were born. ‘Bleu horizon‘ refers to the indefinable colour that separates the sky from the earth.
Marche des Poilus‘ by Teddy Moon & A. Schaller, published by Mado (Brussels, 1919) and illustrated by V. Valéry.

It was General Jean-Paul Bruneau (1848-1922) who wrote the lyrics of the Ballade des Trois Petits Soldats which introduced our story. The general disliked the new uniform and preferred the pomp of the ancient one, which rightly emphasised the French fighting spirit. In his words: the Gallic Rooster does not need a helmet to roll over the enemy; he rather dons a kepi the colour of blood!

“Ah ! ne supprimez pas notre vieille capote,
Dont le drap, par l’azur de vingt cieux, fut bleui,
Laissez à l’étranger l’uniforme kaki,
Car il ne nous plaît pas d’être couleur de crotte.

Nous n’avons pas besoin de votre bourguignote,
Pour braver la mitraille et battre l’ennemi.
Le Coq gaulois préfère encore son vieux képi
Teint du sang de son cœur, à cette camelote !

L’épopée‘ by Paul Darthu & J. Guichot, published by Marcel Labbé (Paris, 1914) and illustrated by Henri Royet.

Garance is a colour, but it is also a movie icon. In the next trailer for the restored movie Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) we see Arletty playing Garance, an ethereal woman romantically pursued by four different suitors. The short extracts remind us of her particular voice. But we can also see a glimpse of what was once the lively Boulevard du Temple, subject of a previous post.

Louise Abbéma, quaint flower of the Belle Epoque

‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ by Gustave Charpentier & Charles Baudelaire, published by Heugel & Cie (Paris, 1895) and illustrated by Louise Abbéma.

This exquisite cover à la Japonaise is by Louise Abbéma (1853-1927), a successful but conventional Parisian painter from the Belle Epoque. The sensual flowers surrounded by butterflies illustrate a poem by Charles Baudelaire from his volume ‘Les Fleurs du mal’, set to music by Gustave Charpentier.

Louise Abbéma could boast a prestigious lineage. She was the great-great-granddaughter of Comte Louis de Narbonne. It was whispered that the Count was a royal bastard, the illegitimate son of Louis XV, no less. In his turn Louis de Narbonne, also out of wedlock —with Louise Contat, a famed French actress— had a daughter. This daughter was Louise Abbema’s grandmother, also an actress who married a Dutch noble man with Javanese blood in his veins, Jan Abbema. Hence probably Louise’s slightly oriental looks.

A young and older Louise Abbéma. Source: Gallica.fr.

The rather wealthy family of Louise encouraged their only daughter in her artistic endeavour. She started studying art in her teens, determined to do away with the sexism and obstacles that were still prevalent. She had to turn to private institutions since the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris did not enrol female students before 1897. And even in most private schools, life drawing classes with nude models were considered ‘dangerous’ for young ladies. One of her teachers was the painter Jean-Jacques Henner, noted for his use of sfumato and chiaroscuro as can be seen on the cover of Suprême Ivresse, the only cover illustrated by Henner in our imagesmusicales.be collection.

‘Suprême Ivresse’ by Fermo Dante Marchetti & Gaston Deval published by Marchetti (Paris, 1906) and ilustrated by Jean-Jacques Henner.

Louise Abbéma’s portrait of her friend, the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, was an instant success at the Paris Salon of 1876. From then on Louise, with the help of Sarah Bernhardt who introduced her to a very rich clientele, received a flood of commissions. Not only paintings on canvas, she also specialised in decoration, adorning ceilings and panels in numerous hôtels particuliers and theatres. At that time she was the only female decorator in Paris; in her own words, “je sens en moi l’âme d’un peintre en bâtiments.“

Detail from ‘Déjeuner dans la serre’ by Louise Abbéma, 1877. The woman in white is probably Sarah Bernhardt’s sister, Jeanne, sitting next to Louise Abbéma. The man standing is Louise’s father.

Louise Abbéma adored flowers and women, which abound in her artwork. The allegories of Spring and Winter, with their translucent and diaphanous complexions and garnished with lively flowers, were hailed in 1902 as masterpieces. On the other hand, nasty gossip professed Abbéma was the first female French painter… in alphabetical order!

Left: ‘Allegory of Spring’. Right: ‘Allegory of Winter’. Both by Louise Abbéma,

These romantic paintings are in stark contrast with Louise’s stern and masculine appearance. A simple straight skirt was the only concession to her sex. Her clothes had a virile cut. Furthermore, a waist coat, a cravat, a pocket watch, a white shirt with starch standing collar and a silk pocket handkerchief were signs that the wearer belonged to the lesbian sorority. Nevertheless Louise herself denied wearing masculine clothing:

“Non seulement, je n’ai de ma vie porté le costume masculin, mais j’ai toujours dans les nombreuses interviews que j’ai eu à ce sujet, protesté énergiquement contre l’idée absurde de nous faire porter la culotte. Le costume tailleur tel que le comprennent nos grands couturiers, est à la fois élégant, pratique et féminin. C’est celui-là que j’ai adapté ne me distinguant en cela d’aucune autre Parisienne.”
(Louise Abbéma in Le Matin December 12, 1912)

Strange indeed.

Louise Abbéma, 1914 source gallica.fr

The style of her hair was consistent throughout her life: tied up on top and with short-cut bangs. Louise wore a little cap in the morning and a tricorn hat in the afternoon. Her oriental air gave her the nickname the son of rajah, but later on people thought she resembled more a Japanese general.

A female Irish journalist who visited Louise at her atelier describes her as follows:

“Having found me a comfortable place on a pillow-strewn divan, and placed in my hands a book of press-cuttings, which she opened at a particular page, Mlle. Abbéma took a rocking-chair beside me and smoked a cigarette while I read. She is a little woman, this well-known artist, a woman rather Oriental in type. One cannot call her pretty, with her marked features and black hair combed flatly on her forehead almost to her eyebrows, but she is eminently interesting. Her dark eyes sparkle with intelligence, her quick movements, her animated conversation, and her mobile expression make up an interesting whole. She dresses like an Englishwoman, in a tailor-made gown, with shirt, waistcoat, and tie.” (Charlotte O’Conor Eccles for The Sketch in 1895)

Louise might have affected an eccentric appearance, in reality she was rather conservative and not a feminist at all. Or was she maybe forcibly denying her sexual orientation? Anyway, she vented virulent opinions on feminism and on female ‘artists‘ in several interviews.

“J’ai horreur du féminisme et des suffragettes, trouvant que la femme doit prouver sa valeur et non revendiquer ses droits.” (“I hate feminism and suffragettes, a woman has to prove her worth and not claim her rights.”) Louise Abbéma in Le Matin december 12, 1912.

Double Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt and Louise Abbéma at Belle-Ile. By Louise Abbéma.

So is it true, as they say, that Louise Abbéma was a lesbian? Highly probable. Is it true that Sarah Bernhardt and Louise Abbéma, had a sexual relationship? Possible. But the most important thing is that they had a lifelong intimate friendship, that spanned over fifty years. Loulou loved her Sarah and vice versa: to celebrate their friendship the two women made a mould of their entwined hands.
Sarah gathered around her not only her real family but also an adoptive family of LGBT intimates: the painters Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma and the composer Reynaldo Hahn, a closeted homosexual. The success of social events in le Tout-Paris often depended on the presence of this group. The clique also spent their holidays together. When Sarah Bernhardt bought a large holiday property at Belle-Ile, she added a villa with a studio where Geogeotte (Clairin) and Loulou could paint.

Both Sarah and Louise were adept at shooting, and went hunting together. On these occasions Louise always wore a revolver on her belt so that she could exercise with this weapon between two gun shots.

‘La Chanson de l’après-midi’ by Louise Abbéma, 1885.

La Chanson de l’après-midi gives us a good impression of Louise’s oriental atelier. Louise clearly had a horror vacui. Shades of green and teal suffuse the room embellished with Japanese embroideries, palm plants, rugs, a handful of cushions and antique pottery, creating the typical over-stuffed interior of the Belle Epoque. It is where Louise lived for the whole of her life.

Gounod‘ by Louise Abbéma. The musical notes from the opera Romeo et Juliette are by Gounod himself. (source: http://www.charles-gounod.com)

Every day, at five o’clock her atelier became a salon where she received a number of femmes du monde, actresses, artists and aristocrats looking for a new frisson. At times these social affairs were enlivened on the piano by no less than Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet or Augusta Holmès.

Sarah Bernhardt, in her spare time also a sculptor, made a bust of Louise Abbéma. She kept it until her death and left it in her will to  her lifetime’s friend.

‘Buste de Louise Abbema’ by Sarah Bernhardt, 1878 (Paris, musée d’Orsay)

Louise Abbéma drew at least two other covers for sheet music. One cover —yes with flowers!— for Le Prince Soleil, a light opera by Léon Vasseur.

Le Prince Soleil‘ by Léon Vasseur, published by Edition Mutuelle de Musique (Paris, 1889) and illustrated by Louise Abbéma.

The other for Hymne à Eros by Augusta Holmès, a close friend of Sarah and Louise. Augusta was a French composer of Irish descent and another interesting woman indeed, but that is for a next story.

Hymne à Eros‘ by Augusta Holmès, published by Grus (Paris, 1886) and illustrated by Louise Abbéma.

As a lyrical folly, I would like to conclude with a poem of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, which in my humble opinion could perhaps have been dedicated to Louise…

Remords posthume

Lorsque tu dormiras, ma belle ténébreuse,
Au fond d’un monument construit en marbre noir,
Et lorsque tu n’auras pour alcôve et manoir
Qu’un caveau pluvieux et qu’une fosse creuse;

Quand la pierre, opprimant ta poitrine peureuse
Et tes flancs qu’assouplit un charmant nonchaloir,
Empêchera ton coeur de battre et de vouloir,
Et tes pieds de courir leur course aventureuse,

Le tombeau, confident de mon rêve infini
(Car le tombeau toujours comprendra le poète),
Durant ces grandes nuits d’où le somme est banni,

Te dira: «Que vous sert, courtisane imparfaite,
De n’avoir pas connu ce que pleurent les morts?»
— Et le ver rongera ta peau comme un remords.

— Charles Baudelaire

source (and English translation):  fleursdumal.org


Further reading: Louise Abbéma, Itinéraire d’une femme peintre et mondaine by Tristan Cordeil. https://dumas.ccsd.cnrs.fr/dumas-00952015/document

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