Friday, January 8, 2010

chez la Comtesse Greffulhe

The season advances. Once again snow has smoothed out the wrinkles in our landscape and given a more gentle edge to once crisply outlined  trees and buildings. Snow is a beautiful sight, dépaysant, because it transforms our world for a certain time. This is a cold winter for Paris but not as cold as in 1942 when temperatures went down to -14°C (6.8°F).

What can be found for the Home-that-has-Everything in the winter of 1942?

The cold reality is that grand residences were impossible to heat because of restrictions during WWII and though one might be wealthy with the most splendid of apartments, the chilling weather spared no one. In fact, it was a definite disadvantage to have such large, luxurious rooms to heat. Necessity being the mother of invention, René Prou turned his back on le luxe and designed this warming cabin to permit heat and light for visits, reading, homework, meals - basic living. Thrift and good sense dictated even the lopping off of extraneous corners of the cabin, making heating more economical. The diagram does show the incorporation of a telephone and a transistor so not to be cut off from the world.

Among René Prou's many stylish art deco designs for furiture and interiors were dining cars for the Orient Express. This example is far cry from the strict utilitarian wheel-less cabin above. (The Orient Express, as of December 2009, is no more! Taking time for luxury to this extent is out of pace with today's world.)

Here is the Comtesse Greffulhe graciously demonstrating the convenince of her cabin in 1942. She ventures out into her hotel particulier in the 8-10 rue d'Astorg judiciously wrapped in fur and warm hat as if she were already in open air. Her enormous home was made by uniting several buildings and was known by Parisians of the day as "the Vatican" !
In posing for a magazine, she seems to take philosophically her camp-out in the salon of one of her glorious homes and stresses the ingenious side of the invention.

photographs by Nadar

I have no evidence that the Comtesse ever succombed to other designs by René Prou. All reports seem to speak only of 18 th and 19 th century furnishings in the Greffulhe collections which were mostly her husband's enterprise. Much of their collection was auctioned in 2000, including a remarkable carved goldleaf chair signed Jacob which had belonged to Marie-Antoinette. The chair went for four times its estimated price and found its way back to the collections of the chateau de Versailles.
portrait Walter Musée Galliera

Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay
of Belgian father and French mother Marie de Montesquiou Fezensac,
 was one of the most charming, intelligent, and beautiful women of her day.
Her many talents include painting, photography which she learned with Paul Nadar, and perhaps above all - music. Par the intermediary of her cousin Robert de Montesquiou, she was introduced to Gustave Moreau and Antonio de La Gandara and would help to popularize the art of Gabriel Fauré and Whistler. She also supported the pioneering scientific work of Pierre and Marie Curie.

portrait by Helleu

She is said never to have been pleased by her portraits and never to have given away her photograph to her many admirers. Robert de Montesquiou, perhaps her greatest admirer, resorted to secreting away a sketch of her chin by La Gandara from the artist's studio, and used to contemplate it untiringly from his bathtub.
The comtesse is also said to be the principal inspiration for Proust's Duchesse de Guermantes.

portrait by de Laszlo

Madame la vicomtesse Greffulhe sera chez elle les jeudis

With these words, the Comtesse de Greffulhe engraved her cards to receive the intellectual, artistic, and political elite in one of the most select salons of the Belle Epoque.

Proust speaks of Mme de Guermantes and the institution of the salon and we easily imagine
Elisabeth de Greffuhle:
"For instance at the Princesse de Parme’s parties there were a number of people whom her Royal Highness invited because she had known them as children, or because they were related to some duchess, or attached to the person of some Sovereign, they themselves being quite possibly ugly, boring or stupid; ... but Mme de Guermantes, who had politely acknowledged their bows for ten years at the Princesse de Parme’s, had never once allowed them to cross her threshold, considering that the same rule applies to a salon in a social sense as in a material sense of the word--- that is, to have furnishings one doesn't care for, but are left as so much filling and reminders of wealth, is enough to make it hideous. Such a salon is like a book in which the author could not refrain from the use of language to flaunt his knowledge, brillance, fluency. 
As with a book, so with a house, the quality of a "salon", thought Mme de Geurmantes -- and rightly --is based on a corner-stone of sacrifice."
Le Côté de Guermantes

A drawing of Chimay, the family chateau in Belgium by the hand of Elizabeth -
one of her many dwellings as a child.
The comtesse is associated with many imposing homes that would have been a challenge to heat!

Villa La Case, Dieppe, constucted in the Anglo-Normand style.was acquired in 1887 
by her father-in-law as a gift to the couple.

Château de Bois-Boudran to the east of Paris (Seine-et-Marne).
To the Comtesse's regret, the hunting season brought the couple here from September to January.

Curiosity: The splendid Regency boiseries of the salon that surrounded the scintillating atmosphere for many worldly and artistic gatherings were dismantled from Bois-Boudran in 1954 (two years after the death of the Comtesse Greffulhe) and found their way to Houston, Texas.

These panels are now part of the grand salon of the hotel La Colombe d'Or.

"Built in 1923, the Fondren Mansion is a distinguished Texas historical landmark. As home to the World's Smallest Luxury Hotel, La Colombe d'Or epitomizes Southern French hospitality, elegance, and warmth."

rue d'Astorg apophtegme
Journal des arts
Balade littéraire avec Proust à Paris terre des ecrivains
La Comtesse Greffulhe by Anne de Cossé Brissac
Le coté des Guermantes
Images de France


  1. I want to thank you for all the effort you put into this beautiful post. It was very interesting. I am shocked that the Orient Express is no more I sent away for info 2 years ago. It
    has been my lifes desire to take a trip on it. We are losing all signs of elegance.
    Thank you again,

  2. another absolutely fascinating post.

    right now in my city with -10 degree weather (that does not include the wind chill) huddled inside with ample heating, i could still use a warming cabin.

    also, how the interior panels do change in look and overall feel from France to Houston. it's just not the same...

  3. that is just crazy!
    i can't imagine what it might have been like.
    i must send my mom over to read this she will adore it.

    wonderful post!!!

  4. Your posts have a wonderfully complex, circular way of telling the story. Very beautiful and unique. As for snow filling out the wrinkles here, about 30 miles east of Kansas City, the snow is beyond Botox and it's starting to make the landscape disappear. I have a granite owl at the entrance to my side garden. He's been able to keep his eyes above snow until it began again day before yesterday. The sentry has gone under a bed of snow. Stay warm inside your cabin!

  5. Yes, HBD. When I wrote of the "the corner-stone of sacrifice" I wanted to show a certain irony to the situation in 1942, but I couldn't help but think how maybe I should sacrifice certain details in the post!
    Snow is novel enough for us that I love to go for walks in it, then come back to my nice warm home! No wonder you are so wise with an owl for your sentinel!

  6. A fascinating tale of economies. Before I had made my way down to what was obviously taking shape as a rail car, it was evident that the proportions were squeezing everything in to protect the heat and hearth. And I did catch the irony of "the corner-stone of sacrifice." Interesting that the Comtesse Greffulhe was chosen, or did she simply assume the role, as the conscientious spokesperson for the fiscal responsibility of the times.

    Also found the contemplations on the exquisite Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay and her chin by Robert de Montesquiou from his tub, endlessly delightful.

  7. Chilling post. As always with temptations interwoven into the story line. We do tent to storybook these women and their properties-How did they stay warm-Now we know. A woman uncomfortable with her image is usually a beauty- as her images attest. GT

  8. It is warming to know that one is truly read in even this multifarious post. Thank you all for your comments.

  9. I've sorted out my shipment now - a new (C18th) acquistion that is on its way from USA to UK.

    Your blog is very interesting, and I'm particularly taken by the cabin. What an important observation about weather being the great leveller in society, in times of deprivation, such as the war. I suppose that may have helped people get through the whole hideous episode, and encouraged comraderie.

  10. Thank you for your visit!
    Yes, weather, natural, and man-made catastrophes are all levellers. I think the Comtesse Greffulhe who was showing her patriotism here.

  11. I have been keeping my heat on a balmy 54F! I definitely need one these.

  12. Thought of as my owl began to melt its snowy grave. With the sun and wind patterns, his large eyes emerged but leaving on his head a sassy beret.

    Also thought you might enjoy Washington Cube's tribute to Miep Gies, who died at 100 years old. Gies was a friend to Anne Frank.

  13. What a French owl? Chouette!
    I'm not aware of this tribute, but will look into it.

  14. I came across your blog when trying to find out more about la Comtesse. I have just visited the Carnavalet and was dumbstruck by the most outstanding portrait of the entire museum, Élisabeth's portrait of the Abbé Mugnier.
    It's ahead of its time, amazingly warm and strikingly alive. What an achievement! I knew of her Guermantes connections bur would never have guessed she was such an accomplished painter.

  15. Hello Constanze: Thank you for your comment. It is a wonderful portrait by someone who knew him well. La comtesse Greffulhe was indeed a women of many talents. If you read French, you may find the biography by Anne de Cossé Brissac interesting.

  16. Il faut impérativement venir à Paris pour la superbe exposition consacrée à la Ctsse Greffulhe au Palais Galiéra

    1. Oui - superbe! Je l'ai vu juste quelques jours avant votre commentaire. Merci d'avoir laissé un petit mot.

  17. Bonjour,

    Merci pour ce post très intéressant. Sauriez-vous dans quel magazine a été publié cette photo entrant dans la petite cabine de René Prou ? Merci beaucoup et bonne soirée

    1. Bonjour. C'est une photo de "Images de France". Je ne sais plus le mois de parution mais vous trouverez sans doute avec seulement l'année. Bonnes recherches!