Category Archives: Literature, Lyrics & Poetry

Marie Krysinska: composer, poet and alas forgotten

Cover for the sheet music 'Le Hibou' by Paul Bergon & Marie Krysinska, published by A. Quinzard (Paris, 1897) and illustrated by Georges Bellenger.
Le Hibou‘ by Paul Bergon & Marie Krysinska, published by A. Quinzard (Paris, 1897) and illustrated by Georges Bellenger.

This drawing of a crucified owl illustrates a gruesome tradition. Not so long ago it was still practised in rural France. With a wingspan of nearly one meter and its nightly eerie shrieks (listen for yourself), the barn owl was thought to be a bad omen. To keep evil at bay superstitious farmers used to trap the bird and nail it, sometimes still alive, above their barn’s door.

The cover is by lithographer Georges Bellenger, the husband of Marie Krysinska who wrote the poem Le Hibou. As a young woman of the Polish upper middle class Marie Krysinska (1857-1908) entered the Parisian conservatoire where she studied composition and harmony. Soon however she would abandon her classes to follow a more offbeat course of life. Krysinska discarded the conventional musical forms in favour of a freer form of expression. She started to experiment with a new artistic form in which she would mix music, theatre and poetry.

‘Célebres poetisas y grandes escritoras’ – cardboard phototype, 4.3 x 3.2 cm, for a Spanish factory of matchboxes. (1905-1908)

She mingled with other free spirits and was the only female founding member of the literary circle Les Hydropathes (meaning those who are afraid of water and prefer alcohol). She participated in similar nonconformist gatherings: the Zutistes, Jemenfoutistes and Hirsutes. They all came together at Le Chat Noir, the famous cabaret in bohemian Montmartre that embodied the spirit of the Belle Epoque.

‘L’Argent’ by Marie Krysinska & Pierre Trimouillat, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Ibels. source: Van Gogh Museum

At Le Chat Noir Marie Krysinska became the house pianist for a while. It was an exciting place to be for a young artist. Moreover, as a woman her role was unique: she accompanied singers, composed songs, and also performed her own poetry on stage. At that time, interpreting romances by accompanying oneself was customary in intimate or mundane settings such as salons, but quite unusual in front of a large audience.

‘Ceux d’la Côte’ by Marie Krysinska & L. Durocher, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Ibels. source: Gallica.bnf.fr

Le Chat Noir published a weekly magazine which would regularly print Marie Krysinska’s poems. Most of the poems of her poetry collections Les Rythmes Pittoresques were first published in Le Chat Noir. Many were dedicated to artists or personalities of the cabaret. Her verse would also appear in other literary magazines like Gil Blas, La Vie Moderne, and in the French feminist newspaper La Fronde.

Gil Blas, October 1893 with the publication of ‘Danse Slave‘ by Marie Krysinska, illustrated by Steinlen.

Marie Krysinska was at the centre of the debate surrounding the birth of French vers libre or free-verse poetry in the 1880s. Free verse does not use the basic rhythmic structure, rhyme, nor any musical pattern but more or less follows the rhythm of natural speech. In the quarrels over the origin of free verse, Krysinska and Gustave Kahn, a male symbolist poet, vied for the title.
It was in fact Krysinska’s poem Le Hibou, published in La Vie Moderne in 1883, that triggered this debate. According to his own writings, Kahn came to see this poem, by accident, when he was serving his country in Tunisia. To his great surprise Le Hibou was written in free verse, looking precisely like his own try-outs. He claimed that it was signed by a person who knew him very well and who used his aesthetics during his forced absence. Thus Kahn christened himself father of the free verse while accusing Krysinska of plagiarism. Krysinska had to counter this if she wanted to stand up for her contribution to literature. She managed to prove that her free-verse poems had been published five years earlier than those of Kahn (*).

La Leçon d’Epinette‘ by Marie Krysinska & Marthe Lys, published by Ondet (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Falco.

In the ensuing public debate it became bon ton to mock Krysinska. The French essayist Laurent Tailhade, attacked her and other female performers virulently:

I never have encountered a more deplorable gathering of ugliness, or a more unpleasant version of feminine clothing. One or two pretty women, lost in the midst of these crooks, gave the eyes a needful rest. Meanwhile the other ones performed their show. Among these ladies was a poetess with some fame between Boulevard Saint-Michel and Montparnasse, the Polish Jew Marie Krysinska. She was seeking the attention of young men by childish airs and advances of an ape-like ingenuity. Big, fat and already far from morning glory, she undulated melodramas on a piano which had lost it sharps.”

Affiche pour La Fronde ; Clémentine Hélène-Dufau ; 1898 - source Gallica BnF
Poster for La Fronde, by Clémentine Hélène-Dufau (1898) – source Gallica BnF

The same writer further ridiculed Krysinska in a poem in which he named her Marpha Bableuska, making allusions to the Blue Stockings that had already become a pejorative term by the late eighteenth century.

Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club by Thomas Rowlandson, 1815.

Apart from this female gender bashing, Marie Krysinska had to endure criticism and rejection by the symbolist movement. At the time of her dead, an obituary didn’t even acknowledge her poetry. Only her heydays at Le Chat Noir were remembered. Because of her beautiful and musical poetry Marie Krysinska though —in my humble opinion— deserves a better place in literary history.

Le hibou

Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié, l’oiseau crucifié sur la porte.
Ses ailes ouvertes sont clouées, et de ses blessures, de grandes perles de sang tombent lentement comme des larmes.
Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié!
Un paysan à l’oeil gai l’a pris ce matin, tout effaré de soleil cruel, et l’a cloué sur la porte.
Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié.
Et maintenant, sur une flûte de bois, il joue, le paysan à l’oeil gai.
Il joue assis sous la porte, sous la grande porte, où, les ailes ouvertes, agonise l’oiseau crucifié.
Le soleil se couche, majestueux et mélancolique, – comme un martyr dans sa pourpre funèbre;
Et la flûte chante le soleil qui se couche, majestueux et mélancolique.
Les grands arbres balancent leurs têtes chevelues, chuchotant d’obscures paroles;
Et la flûte chante les grands arbres qui balancent leurs têtes chevelues.
La terre semble conter ses douleurs au ciel, qui la console avec une bleue et douce lumière, la douce lumière du crépuscule;
Il lui porte d’un pays meilleur, sans ténèbres mortelles et sans soleils cruels, d’un pays bleu et doux comme la bleue et douce lumière du crépuscule;
Et la flûte sanglote d’angoisse vers le ciel, – qui lui parle d’un pays meilleur.
Et l’oiseau crucifié entend ce chant,
Et oubliant sa torture et son agonie,
Agrandissant ses blessures, –ses saignantes blessures,–
Il se penche pour mieux entendre.

Ainsi es-tu crucifié, ô mon cœur!
Et malgré les clous féroces qui te déchirent,
Agrandissant tes blessures, tes saignantes blessures,
Tu t’élances vers l’Idéal,
A la fois ton bourreau et ton consolateur.
Le soleil se couche majestueux et mélancolique.
Sur la grande porte, les ailes ouvertes, agonise l’oiseau crucifié.


(*) The debate on the vers libre authenticity is still going on. While some scholars attribute its original creation to Marie Krysinska, according to other researchers the ‘real’ first free verse was not written by Krysinska nor by Kahn, but by Arthur Rimbaud.

Do I Worry?

Vem vet?
Vem vet? (Who knows?)‘ by Nils Loren and Gösta Stevens, published by Ernst Rolfs Musikförlags (Stockholm, 1929) and illustrated by Garmland.

This week’s article leaves us with big question marks. And no answers I’m afraid. Take the time to muse on the queries of life and love. Allow melancholy to mellow your mood, and let the Ink Spots do the worrying.

Do I worry ’cause you’re stepping out?
Do I worry ’cause you’ve got me in doubt?
Though your kisses aren’t right, do I give a bag of beans?
Do I stay home every night and read my magazines?

Le sais-je‘ by H. Mateo and Jean Lenoir, published by Mateo (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Jack Roberts.

Am I frantic ’cause we’ve lost the spark?
Is there panic when it starts turning dark?
And when evening shadows creep, do I loose any sleep over you?
Do I worry? You can bet your life I do

Ditt hjärtas hemlighet‘ (‘The secret of your heart’) by Henry Freeman and Sven-Olof Sandberg, published by Nordiska Musikförlaget (Stockholm, 1929) and illustrated by R. C. Hallquisth

Do I worry when the iceman calls?
Do I worry if Niagara falls?
Though you treat me just like dirt
You think I give a snap?
Are my feelings really hurt
When you sitting in somebody else’s lap?

You made me love you Why did You?‘ by Carmen Lombardo & Mickey Kippel, punlished by Witmark, M. & Sons (New York, 1929) and illustrated by ‘Hap’ Hadley.

Am I curious when the gossip flies?
Am I furious ’bout your little white lies?
And when all our evenings end
‘Cause you got a sick friend that needs you
Do I worry? Honey, you know doggone well I do

Le sais-tu?‘ by Omer Letorey and Lélian. Published by Ricordi Editions s.a. (Paris, 1929) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

Am I frantic ’cause we’ve lost the spark?
Is there panic when it starts turning dark?
And when evening shadows creep, do I loose any sleep over you?
Do I worry? You can bet your life I do

Who?‘ by Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach & Oscar Hammerstein, published by Salabert (Paris, 1926) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

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