Paris homes of artists and writers
By Jerry Marterer
Several Paris homes of writers and artists are open to the public to commemorate their cultural contributions. Not surprisingly, there is a striking difference between the homes of the rich and those of the artists. Writers and artists were generally not born into wealth. Many struggled in their early lives to earn a living. Their homes were more often rented apartments or studios.
Victor Hugo was much more than a celebrated writer. He used his fame to champion democratic republicanism — today’s form of government in France, as well as social justice and freedom of the press. He suffered for it, at times branded a traitor and living in self-exile. His two most celebrated works, Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris, known outside of France as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, reflected his political and social leanings. One of his residences, the Maison Victor Hugo, in the place des Vosges is open to the public. This is a wonderful opportunity to go inside a 17th-century townhouse on the most beautiful square in Paris. His apartment contains several salons and drawing rooms, one of which is decorated and paneled in whimsical Chinese wall carvings that surround a floor-to-ceiling collection of porcelain plates that belonged to Hugo’s wife, Juliette Drouet. His books and manuscripts are displayed throughout, along with paintings by Hugo’s contemporaries. The views from the rooms onto the place des Vosges are postcard perfect. The museum is located at No 6 in the Square. No 69 bus stops at Birague and the No 1 or No 7 Métro at St-Paul.
Honoré de Balzac was broke! Creditors were hounding him day and night. He needed to disappear and find a quiet place to write. He fled to Passy, a village just outside of the city, adopted a pseudonym and rented a small country house with two exits so he could evade unwelcomed visitors. The next year he succeeded in getting his greatest work published, The Human Comedy, a series of stories highlighting human nature with a cast of dozens of colorful characters. He is considered by the French to be a pioneer of the Realism movement. He lived in this house, now called the Maison Balzac, from 1840 to 1847. Today it is surrounded by the 16th arrondissement of the city of Paris, but its hillside setting still evokes the village life. Inside, dozens of hand-engraved lithographic plates used for the pictures in the original volumes show the characters from The Human Comedy. The master’s writing desk sits in a humble alcove. The garden is open for strolling in Balzac’s footsteps. The No 6 Métro stops at Passy, and the 32 bus stops at the rue de Passy. The Maison Balzac is at No 47 rue Rayounard.
George Sand was the most famous female writer of the 19th century. She published under the male pseudonym to be taken more seriously. Le Musée de la Vie Romantique, at the foot of Montmartre is devoted to her work and to her love affair with Chopin. Both were regulars at the home of painter Ary Scheffer when he lived there from 1830 to 1858. This country manor and garden are from a much earlier time, when the neighborhood was a rural suburb called Nouvelle Athènes. The two-story manor has a beige exterior with green shutters and is set among rose gardens. It’s easy to imagine being in Provence. The museum’s name refers to the Romantic Era of art, music, and literature during the time that Scheffer lived there. His overly sentimental paintings have not gained him great fame, but his houseguests and salons included George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Lizst, as well as more renowned painters such as Ingres, Delacroix and his neighbor, Gustave Moreau. Chopin’s études play in the background throughout the sitting rooms. The home and grounds are at their best in the spring and summer when you can enjoy the outdoor café after touring the highly decorated rooms and the art studio.
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was a rock star in the art world during the period before Impressionism. A leader of the Romantic movement, he brought raw emotion and sometimes blood and gore to vivid heights in his depictions of real and imagined events such as lions attacking and devouring a hunting party. His iconic Liberty Leading the Peopledepicts a bare-breasted woman holding the tricolore leading a revolutionary charge during the 1830 revolution. The painting can be seen in the Louvre. This female icon has become the symbol of the Republic. She was the model for the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to America. In 1857, despite his advanced age and ill health, Delacroix agreed to paint frescoes in a chapel of the Church of St-Sulpice and needed to move close to his work. He located an apartment off the Place Furstenburg, a calm tiny square in the St-Germain-des-Près neighborhood on the left bank. A well-lit studio was set up on an adjoining garden. Just getting to the studio is a treat after entering a secret inner courtyard, traversing the apartment, and descending an outside staircase that overlooks another garden hidden to the outside world. Delacroix’s best-known works are in museums around the world, but smaller, more intricate pieces adorn the walls of his apartment and studio. All in all, the courtyard and garden setting make for a peaceful interlude. Use the No 4 Métro or the No 69 bus to St-Germain.
The well-preserved homes of the rich can appear to have been laid out to display the good taste and the collector’s eye of their owners, as if to shout, “We were more than just boring businesspeople who made a lot of money!” We are grateful for their beneficence. On the other hand, the feeling one gets inside the abodes of the artists and writers is of inner struggle culminating in success, often late in life, and ironically, a preference for the Spartan conditions of their youth. Their art, music and words endure and are enjoyed by generations, while the legacy of the wealthy is more likely to be their acquired wealth.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.