Category Archives: Literature, Lyrics & Poetry

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

Merry Christmas, Sir Roger de Coverley

‘Sir Roger de Coverley’ (Gigue Anglaise) published by Emile Gallet (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Hyacinthe Royet.

Sir Roger de Coverly is an intriguing name for a dance. Some say its name refers to a fox. Surely, the wiggly dance steps suggest the jumpy flight of a hunted fox. As early as 1685 John Playford included the instructions for the country dance in his manual The Dancing Master.

dancing master 1
The Dancing Master, the 5th edition published by John Playford in London in 1675.

The subsequent popularity of the dance gave rise to the creation of a fictitious character, the debonair country squire Sir Roger de Coverley. In 1711 The Spectator started to daily publish the gentleman’s hapless adventures. These short pieces were entertaining portrayals of early 18th-century English life: “The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of ancient descent, a baronet, his name is Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country-dance which is called after him.” (The Spectator of March 2, 1711)

Fiction of course, but it led to ‘Sir’ being added to the dance previously simply named the Roger of Coverley. Moreover the Spectator articles described the gentleman as a philanthropist who always kept open house at Christmas and sent “a string of hog’s puddings to every poor family in the Parish“. Sir Roger de Coverley was thus a paragon of Christmas benevolence and charity. Possibly by association the homonymous dance became a typical Christmas dance. Often it was the closing dance of the ball: “this dance should be the finishing one, as it is calculated from the sociality of its construction, to promote the good humour of the company, and causing them to separate in evincing a pleasing satisfaction with each other.“

The Sir Roger de Coverley knew a revival in the 19th century and also became a success in the French ballrooms.

Christmas in a Country House – Sir Roger the Coverley, wood engraved print from The Graphic, 1885

Perhaps it is this print in The Graphic that inspired Hyacinthe Royet to draw the sheet music cover that started this post. A polite image of country gents and ladies who stiffly move around under the mistletoe, wearing bored expressions. No foxy ladies and no fun at all, if you ask me.

We found a more lively rendition of the dance in a cover drawn by Barbizet. An annotation in this copy indicates that the French preferred a more vibrant dance: “In England, the jig is concluded by a lady’s chain, but the length of the dance in that case renders it monotonous and for this reason, the finale has been suppressed in France.” Strangely, the Sir Roger de Coverley was in this case sold as a Danse Américaine.

‘Nouvelle Danse Américaine de Sir Roger de Coverley’ by Ph. Stutz, published by Au Ménestrel (Paris, 1875) ans illustrated by Barbizet.

Did you wonder how to dance the Sir Roger de Coverley? The 1951 film Scrooge might give you a good idea. It is an adaptation from A Christmas Carol, the book that Charles Dickens wrote 175 years ago. The fragment begins with the spirit showing to Ebenezer Scrooge the annual Christmas party thrown by his former employer, old Mr. Fezziwig.
Just tap your feet in time to the music and enjoy the Yuletide dance. Beware, this version is danced at a very swift pace.

Interestingly, in 1922 the English composer Frank Bridge arranged the folk song for a string quartet. To enhance the Christmas mood the composer mixed in the Auld Lang Syne melody (at around 3’50”).

I, for my part, will blithely put on my skates and dance the Sir Roger de Coverley on Ice. Merry Christmas!

Sir Roger de Coverley on Ice‘ from The Graphic, 1889. Illustrated by Arthur Hopkins.

The ‘real’ Garçonne

‘La Garçonne’ by Vincent Scotto published by Ernst Rolfs Musikförlags, (Stockholm, sd).

In the Twenties restrictive corsets became old-fashioned. Women opted for flat-chested dresses, they cropped their hair and started smoking cigarettes. This boyish look was called à la garçonne.

‘A la Garçonne’ by Henri Panella & Edouard Révérand, published by Margueritat (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Pons.

This year André Téchiné directed the film Nos Années Folles (The Golden Years). It is based on the true story of the French deserter Paul Grappe, nicknamed la Garçonne. The Great War broke out as Paul had nearly finished his military service. He was wounded in August 1914, and a second time in November when his index finger was ripped off. He was first accused, and shortly afterwards exonerated of voluntary mutilation to escape the battlefield. Facing his imminent return to the front in the middle of 1915, Paul decided to desert.

He returned to his wife, Louise. But a young man in good health walking around in Paris during the war would raise suspicion. So together with his wife they decided he should change gender. They moved to a new neighbourhood. At first he stayed inside, let his hair grow, removed his moustache and beard by electrolysis and learned to talk with a higher voice. His wife lent him some clothes, pierced his ears and gave him a pair of earrings.

Paul Grappe as Suzanne, between the caretaker or pipelette and his wife Louise, somewhere in the early Twenties (from ‘Détective’ magazine, November 1928).

Paul, or Suzanne as he called himself, got the hang of making his own feminine clothes. Little by little Suzanne ventured out on the street and even managed to get a job. He posed as a female friend of his own wife. Still his masculine traits must have been visible as Suzanne was called la Garçonne in the neighbourhood.

When the war was finished he continued to pretend and live as a woman because he still risked being convicted for desertion.

Headline from ‘Le Petit Parisien’, 5th of February, 1925

Not until 1925 France declared amnesty for its deserted soldiers. And Suzanne became Paul again, with the necessary media attention. But he struggled to get his life under control. He was unable to find a job, and from time to time he still felt the urge to go out in drag. One night in a bar, during a heated discussion with some other patrons, and in order to prove that he was a real man, he lifted his dress, showed his masculinity and was promptly arrested for indecent behaviour.
Trying to cash in on his fifteen minutes of fame he had made photographs of himself in male and female attire. With this album he wandered along the terraces of the Parisian cafés hoping to sell his autographed pictures for some change or free drinks. And he needed a lot:
he drank five litres of wine a day, if we can believe the newspapers of the time.

Paul Grappe as man and woman in 1925.

One night in 1928 according to his wife Louise, Paul Grappe couldn’t stand the crying of their baby boy who was very ill at the moment. He awoke from his drunken stupor, “roaring like a lion”, and started to beat his wife. Fearing that he might hit their child and weary of her husbands shenanigans Louise grasped a pistol and shot him dead. Adding to the tragedy, their little son would later also die while she was in prison.

Paul Grappe, known as la Garçonne, with his wife and their baby in 1926.

During her trial Louise stated that her husband had had more than 3.000 mistresses while living as a woman. She also told the court that he had been a regular at the Montmartre bars and among the prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne. I can’t make head nor tail of that account: was his disguise not foolproof? Did he have platonic affairs or was he bisexual? Or did these women adore a man in drag..?
Anyway, Paul’s neighbours testified that he was a vicious brute always carrying a revolver and menacing people with it. Her lawyer Maurice Garçon (what’s in a name!) argued Louise’s case eloquently and she was acquitted.

The 1939 edition of ‘La garçonne‘ by Victor Margueritte, published by Flammarion, Paris.

La Garçonne is also the title of a novel by the now almost forgotten Victor Margueritte (1866-1942). It was first published in 1922, the same year the French senate rejected the right to vote for women. It tells the story of a young woman promised by her parents to a wealthy fiancée who cheats on her. Disillusioned she drowns her sorrow in self-destructive libertinism. She starts to lead a life of pleasure, collecting partners of both sexes and frequenting fashionable boîtes to smoke opium or to indulge in cocaine.

La garçonne‘ by Victor Margueritte, published by Flammarion, Paris, the 1934 edition.

She tries to redeem herself in a tormented romance with a jealous, manipulating man determined to submit her, even quite literally. But finally she falls very much in love with a respectful, modern intellectual.

‘C’est la Garçonne’ by Yvan Fouyat, published by Antoine Ysaye (Brussels, 1923) and illustrated by Peter de Greef.

So, although Margueritte’s Garçonne repents by becoming a model of bourgeois virtue, the novel was still considered particularly shocking. The author was even stripped of his Légion d’honneur. That was bad. To illustrate this: last month President Emmanuel Macron said France should strip Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of his prestigious Légion d’honneur. So yes, it is was that bad.

‘Der er maaske en lille Pige’ (Voici la Garçonne) by Alexander Yrnèh & Henry Carlsen, published by Alfred Thorsings Musikforlag (Copenhagen, 1926).

The scandalous novel has been adapted into a film four times, the most notable one in 1936. The heroine is played by Marie Bell who is being kept by an astonishing blonde Arletty. She discovers the nightlife and the opium dens, and arouses the lust of two female singers.
One is embodied by Suzy Solidor, then a huge star of the music hall and openly lesbian. The other by a young Edith Piaf, acting and singing in her first film.

Still from La Garçonne (1936) with Edith Piaf standing in the middle.

What better way to end this story than with a tragical song from this film? Edith Piaf sings Quand-même. The music is by Jean Wiener and the lyrics are from Louis Poterat.

Le bonheur quotidien,
Vraiment, ne me dit rien.
La vertu n’est que faiblesse
Qui voit sa fin dans le ciel.
Je préfère la promesse
Des paradis artificiels.

Je sais qu’à la porte d’un bar
Où j’aurai bu jusqu’à l’extrême,
On ramassera quelque part
Mon corps brûlé sur un brancard.
Je bois quand même…

Que sous la drogue lentement,
D’extase en extase suprême,
Je m’approche implacablement
Du sombre asile des déments.
J’en prends quand même…

Je sais qu’en la femme fatale,
Dans les bras d’un amant trop blême,
S’infiltrera l’horrible mal
Dont on crève au lit d’hôpital.
J’aime quand même…


Further reading on Paul Grappe: La Garçonne et l’assassin by Fabrice Virgili and Danièle Voldman.