Anny, the Most Beautiful Belgian Girl

pourquoi hesiter
Pourquoi hésiter‘ by Hippolyte Ackermans, published by Mado, Bruxelles in 1921.

On the cover of Pourquoi hésiter is a portrait of Anny Duny. She won the first modern national beauty contest in Belgium in 1921. The event, known as La plus belle femme de Belgique, was organised by Maurice Cartuyvels de Waleffe (1874-1946). He was a Belgian aristocrat working as a journalist and publisher in France where he was mocked for his Belgian roots and pompous rhetoric. Maurice de Waleffe was the founder of the only daily newspaper that came out at noon, Paris Midi. He became an important figure in the fashion world and had a keen eye for new trends.

Maurice de Waleffe (right) alongside the French lyricist Saint-Granier and Miss France 1936.

In 1920, after suffering the harshness of the First World War, Maurice de Waleffe took an initiative to raise spirits. He launched the first competition for the most beautiful woman in France ‘La plus belle femme de France’ in the newspaper Le Journal. More than 2000 young women answered the call. A jury of painters and sculptors (including only one woman!) shortlisted 49 contenders, aged between 17 and 23 years. With an original multimedia campaign, de Waleffe organised a popular vote to chose the winner. 

le journal belle femme
The seven finalists from the contest ‘La plus belle femme de France’ in 1920 organized by ‘Le Journal’.

Every day his journal published the portrait of one of the 49 young girls. At the same time, but on a weekly basis, the photographs of seven candidates were shown in the cinemas throughout France. Each competitor appeared on the screen in full length, in a head and shoulder shot, and in the group picture. To ‘preserve their modesty’ the girls didn’t appear under their real name. Each girl received a romantic stage name in accordance with the title of the group to which she belonged: Flowers, Precious Stones, BirdsGoddesses, etc. The cinemagoers received a voting paper. This might have inspired Roger de Valerio in 1922 when he illustrated the sheet music The Girl on the Film…

girl on the film
The girl on the film‘ by Joseph Szulc, published by Salabert, Paris in 1922 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

After seven thrilling weeks of mesmerizing the French audiences (and after thousands of newspapers sold), seven finalists remained. The final election was held at the Parisian premises of Le Journal.  It was one of the group Precious Stones, namely Emeraude or Agnes Souret, who won and could call herself Miss France. Some years after her victory she would succumb to a peritonitis, only 26 years old.
The contest was repeated in 1921 after which it was discontinued for five years.

agnes souretvoor en na
Agnes Souret the first Miss France in 1920. Left: at the start of the competition. Right: a revamped version at the start of the finals.

In 1921 Maurice de Waleffe organised the same contest in Belgium. He again worked with a newspaper (La Dernière Heure) and with the cinemas. Out of 800 contestants a shortlist of 21 candidates was split up in three series: Laces, Virtues and Opera Heroines.

miss belgie
Nine contestants of the 1921 Belgian shortlist. Upper row: Chantilly, Valenciennes, Bruges or Anny Duny (Laces). Middle row: Amiability, Honesty,Gentleness (Virtues). Lower row: Gwendoline, Mireille, Heriodade (Opera heroines).

Out of the group of Laces, it was Bruges (or Anny Duny from our sheet music cover at the beginning) who won, and started a modest career as La plus belle femme de Belgique.

Anny Duny winner of the beauty contest ‘La plus belle femme de Belgique’, in 1921.

Anny’s new title brought moderate fame: she appeared in revues but not for long and not in important roles. She is known to have performed in slightly racy tableaux vivants such as Indiscreet Baths, The Return of the Merry Widow or The Décolletage through the Ages. According to a newspaper these were a great triumph attended by the jet set. If you ask me, it seems a bit old-fashioned to patiently gaze at an artistic still, in the hope of catching a dash of nudity. Where is the appeal when –at that time– you could have attended a striptease burlesque or an erotic motion picture.

tableau vivant2
A typical tableau vivant from the twenties.

Speaking of tableaux vivants, this is our 2015 bubbly Miss Belgium ready to conquer the world. So, pourquoi hésiter (why hesitate)?

Miss Belgium 2015.

Further reading: Beauty and Big Business by Aro Velmet:

Le Rajah-teur

'Le Rajah', 1923
Le Rajah‘, a fox-trot and shimmy by L. Aga. Published by Agamemnon (Mantes-la-jolie, 1923) and illustrated by R. Marabout.

Sorry for the French jeu de mots in the title, a phonetic but silly link with a radiator… We try everything to catch your worthy attention, for sure! Similarly, the humorous image of Le Rajah was intended to promote the cheerful foxtrot-shimmy composed by the mysterious L. Aga. Le Rajah is one of those Orientalist sheet music covers caricaturing the South Asian world. It was published in 1923. We uncovered a photograph of what a Rajah looked like in the 1870s.

Majaraja of Benares and Suite,1870s (source: Sothebys)
Majaraja of Benares and Suite,1870s (author: Bourne & Sheperd; source: Sothebys)

The Orientalist iconography at that time shows a lot of uniformity. What with the resemblance between our cover and the following gentlemen?

Two old images of Rajah's
Old images of Rajah’s (left: s.d., source: – right: Illustrated London News, 1857)

On the Lahore-based Chugtai’s Art Blog we found this exquisite drawing or print of a rajah.

Image of Raja Sansar Chand
Portrait of Raja Sansar Chand (source:

The term rajah is often used synonymously with raja and maharaja, although there exist geographical and historical differences, and also distinction in rank. The rajah in Western culture is understood to be an Indian ruler or monarch. On the sheet music cover above he is represented as a bon vivant, perhaps powerful but still a genuine fatso. Probably unintentionally the cartoonish illustration also suggests that during more than a century Indian society hasn’t budged. The few hundred thousand inhabitants of the Établissements français dans l’Inde (the French colonies in India between 1769 and 1954) were thus supposed to never become part of the modern world. For a very long time, the Orientalist representation in Western culture gave the impression that all would be well if South Asia kept its culture and traditions unchanged, never to evolve.

Here is a collectible card of a series ‘Comptoir des indes‘ that seems to confirm this point of view.

'Comptoir des Indes', collectible card
‘Comptoir des Indes’, collectible card from Lion Noir, 1920s.

On the reverse of the card, it says:

Pondichery ‘Pondichéry, Karikal, Chandernagor, Yanaon and Mahé, together with a few small neighbouring villages, that’s all that remains of France’s great colonial empire it had created in India and that was seized by
England at the end of the 18th century.
Lost in the vast British domain, these ports are of little use. They are for France rather a matter of self-esteem and have only a sentimental value.’

Having learned all that, let’s savour a cup of coffee!

Publicity poster for Rajah coffee (Henri Meunier, 1897).
Publicity poster for Rajah coffee (Henri Meunier, 1897).

La Samaritaine

Devant la Samaritaine‘ by Gangloff, published by Delormel, Paris and illustrated by Faria.

The cartoon by Faria for the comic song Devant la Samaritaine shows a half-naked woman and a lecherous fisherman, the popular singer Paulus. The only Samaritaine in Paris we knew till now was the department store near the Pont Neuf (which closed definitely in 2005). This ignorance explains why we couldn’t make sense of Faria’s picture. So, it’s google time again.

The deparment store La Samaritaine and Pont Neuf in Paris before 2005.

Les Bains de la Samaritaine depicted on the cover was a floating construction on the Seine containing public baths. The stylish and stunning vessel contained 100 bathtubs, placed in small cubicles distributed over two floors. One could go there for a simple bath, or for medicinal baths, steam baths, showers and hydrotherapy.

Entrance to the Bains de la Samaritaine, ca 1900.
Bains de la Samaritaine, ca 1865-1870.

The hydraulic pump and the immense filters used to purify the water of the Seine were installed in the roof space of the building. The chimneys of the heating boilers with their decoration of metal palms were famous throughout Paris.

pompe samaritaine
The Pont Neuf with the building containing ‘La Samaritaine’ pump. Oil painting by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1777. Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

Les Bains de la Samaritaine, as well as the famous department store, took their name from a large hydraulic water pump. It was installed in 1608 to power the water of the Seine into the Louvre and the Tuileries. The pump was rebuilt in 1715. The facade of the building that housed the pump contained a sculpture representing Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, hence the name.

A view of the Bains de la Samaritaine on the Seine near the Pont Neuf by Charles Soulier, ca 1860.

It is not known when the baths were first installed next to the Pont Neuf. The first authorisation to build hot baths on a boat dates back to 1761. On a preserved plan for such a bathing establishment we see small cubicles. Some contain a bath, others also accommodate a bed or two baths. There is clearly a  physical separation for men and women, with different staircases.

baignoire plan
Plan of a boat with public baths in Rouen, 1762 . Archives départementales de la Seine-Maritime.

The Bains de la Samaritaine disappeared in 1919. They were sunk by a flood of the Seine.

The flood of the Seine in January 1919: the Bains de la Samaritaine inundated. Bibliothèque Nationale de France

We wonder if the angler on the following picture is hoping, like Paulus, for a flash of female nudity.

Angler fishing in the Seine next to Les Bains de la Samaritaine, ca 1900.

But of course to understand all this we could have read the text of the song. Life can be simple.

Devant les bains de la Samaritaine
Je pêchais sur les bords de Seine
Quand dans un cabinet voisin
Je vis une dame qu’allait prendre un bain
Sa fenêtre était grande ouverte
A cette vue qui m’était offerte
Je me dis …crédu Quel tableau
Ca vaut mieux que de regarder dans l’eau.