Hanging With the Wits and Dandies of the Belle Époque
Of special value in this book are the carefully chosen contemporary illustrations. Barnes gives close attention to the subtleties in some remarkable paintings, notably Sargent’s “Dr. Pozzi at Home” (the man in the red coat) and his arresting “Madame X,” who turns out to have been a dull and conventional person. Whistler also painted Montesquiou in “Arrangement in Black and Gold,” which its subject adored, though “as a painting, it began slowly to collapse toward darkness, thanks to bitumen in the black paint.” Another, equally striking portrait, by Giovanni Boldini, perfectly captures the count’s confident, posturing dandyism.
There are powerful photographs, too, notably a haunting portrait of Bernhardt by Nadar, and a disturbing image of Audrey Deacon, a young American (and intimate friend of Catherine Pozzi’s) lying dead among flowers in her open coffin. Contrasting with these images are some pleasantly absurd photographs — Wilde in Greek national costume, complete with a manly skirt; the waspish gossip Jean Lorrain as a dying warrior; and Montesquiou with his head on a platter to represent the decapitated John the Baptist. As a counterpoint to the art photographs, Barnes has included dozens of tiny celebrity portraits — of poets, politicians, actresses and popes — that were included with bars of chocolate in the early 1900s, together forming what he calls a “rich gallimaufry of fame.”
Endless verbal combats are recounted, and literal ones as well. Dueling was considered the appropriate response to an affront, however trivial: Two men disagreed about how thin Bernhardt was when she played Hamlet and settled the matter with pistols (they both survived, though one almost didn’t). Even Proust fought a duel, after a journalist hinted at a homosexual relationship, but no harm came of it since both participants deliberately fired in the air. It probably comes as a surprise to learn that the great statesman Georges Clemenceau fought no fewer than 22 duels during the course of his life.
Clemenceau’s bitterness against Germany helped inspire the postwar reparations that made Hitler’s rise possible, but the Great War figures only as an ominous background rumble, as does the Dreyfus Affair. We do learn that Pozzi was Dreyfus’s doctor.
The preening and self-consciously decadent elite were never the whole of Paris, and with few exceptions — Proust and Wilde being the obvious ones — didn’t leave much of interest behind. “Time,” Barnes admits, “is equally the enemy of the butterfly, the dandy and the epigram.” The aesthetic cult, that art of “strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions,” as Walter Pater called it, has lost much of its fascination. One may recall Max Beerbohm’s little masterpiece “Enoch Soames,” in which a minor poet bargains with the Devil to travel into the future, where he finds that he is known only as the subject of a story by Max Beerbohm. Soames’s book of poems, which Soames describes as “exquisite, and many-hued, and full of poisons,” is titled “Fungoids.”