Church vs. State vs. Auguste Rodin
What started all the trouble was the performance by Vaslav Nijinsky in L’Apres Midi d’un Faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) first premiered in Paris at Théâtre du Châtelet on May 29th, 1912.
It was a very elaborate 15-minute ballet based on a musical evocation by Claude Debussy of a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The scintillating spectacle followed the gambols and frolics of a faun with a band of nymphs one summer afternoon. Impresario Sergei Diaghilev developed the piece with Nijinsky and set designer Léon Bakst for the groundbreaking troupe–the Ballet Russes.
Twenty-three-year-old phenom Nijinsky, instead of inspiring the enthusiasm of a room conquered by poetry, emotion, dreams and beauty as he normally did, was roundly hissed.
In part the reaction was because of Vaslav’s provocative costume: a skin-colored and spotted body-stocking with a wreath of leaves strategically placed to emphasize the faun’s crotch.
The crowd was confused by the choreography which was more stylized gestures with jerky, unnatural contortions and misplaced pauses, than graceful and harmonious danced expressions. During the whole ballet he made but one surprising (and illuminating) leap.
Faune was contested because the energy of Nijinsky’s performance overwhelmed… it was seen as completely incongruent with the musical structure of Debussy’s delicate, sophisticated score and Mallarme’s rich poetry.
Faune was pilloried for the final scene: the woodland creature spreads a nymph’s dropped veil on the ground and lowers his body onto it. Soft horns and a harp accompany a final flute passage as his body tenses and curls back into a perfect painting of mythological pagan sensuality. After some groin grabbing and pelvic thrusts, symbols crash. The faun relaxes into a postcoital afterglow.
Variety wrote, “Under the guise of ‘art’, Nijinsky portrayed a faune with bestial reality…The same show given in a vaudeville theatre would be banned as immoral.”
Le Figaro published a front-page diatribe by the editor-in-chief, Gaston Calmette, who was probably the most influential journalist in Paris, titled “Un Faux Pas.”
…We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent. That is all. And the over-explicit miming of the mis-shapen beast, loathsome when seen full on, but even more loathsome in profile was greeted with the booing it deserved. Decent people will never accept such animal realism.
A host of defenders of the ballet arose and swiftly assailed Faune’s critics as prudes and Puritans. The most eminent defender was the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. A response in a rival newspaper Le Matin was published the next day, penned by friend and associate Claude Roger-Marx and signed and backed by the great Rodin with all the thunder at his command and all the weight of his authority:
Here there is neither modesty nor immodesty, propriety nor impropriety. Such things have nothing to do with the case. What these artists show is nothing but the absolute joy of life. Conventional propriety may be good for the conventional drama. It has no business here. Artistic expression must not and cannot be confined within the narrow limits imposed by every day conventionality.
Rodin placed Nijinsky in the esteemed company with the renovators of modern dance Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan. “The intelligence of his art is so rich, so varied that it borders on genius.”
A few days after his controversial performance, Rodin sketched a naked Nijinsky in his studio at the old Hôtel Biron estate in the 7th arrondissement. Auguste Rodin, the maker of statues that stop motion was endlessly inspired by the fluidity and spontaneity of modern dancers. He sketched all the early 20th century stars: Fuller, Duncan, Nijinski, Ruth St. Denis… the Japanese dancer Hanako. When King Sisowath brought his Cambodian Royal Ballet to France, the dancers were welcomed into Rodin’s inner sanctum.
No one was inspired by modern dance more than the master sculptor, the Michelangelo of Paris, other than perhaps Madame Aimée Crocker Gouraud, who months earlier hosted a much publicized international free form dance soirée “The Dance of All Nations.” (she was the hit of the evening dancing La Madrilena, an Argentine tango, and, La Danse de Cobra, with a twelve foot snake twined round her neck). Crocker spent her life circumnavigating the globe collecting dance moves like others collect postage stamps.
A few months before that sensational shindig, Ms. Crocker lived in an artist colony, perhaps the most monumental and consequential artist colony of all time, with the great Rodin himself at Hôtel Biron. Everyone at the colony received an eviction notice in September of 1911 at the run down yet still opulent chateau after the government purchased the historic property. Everyone got their walking papers that is except Auguste Rodin. The sculptor had initiated negotiations with the State over remaining at the nearly 200-year-old compound in exchange for donating his works.
A few years earlier, nuns were evicted from Biron, back when the estate was a convent, a chapel and a boarding school managed by the Société du Sacré-Coeur de Jésus. Schools run by the clergy were closed all over the country by the government after an edict was formalized that separated church and state and secularized the country.
In a fit of incredible agitation, Le Gaulois published an article stating that an apology was due to the public over that Dionysian, decorous faun and the naughty nymphs.
Calmette obtained from the police an injunction to prevent the further performance of L’Apres Midi d’un Faune. Director Diaghilev was confronted. He was informed that the last gesture of Nijinsky, the faun mounting the nymph-scented veil, was the one to which the police objected.
The second performance of Faune was naturally performed to a packed house. Nijinsky toned down the final scene.
Calmette, still steaming, then turned his attack on Rodin, whom he accused of living at the tax-payers’ expense at Chateau Biron and exhibiting indecent drawings in the former chapel of the Sacre Coeur attached to it. He wrote:
The ghastly mimicry represented by the dancer on the stage the other evening moves me to less indignation than the spectacle offered every day by Rodin in the old convent of the Sacre Coeur to regiments of hysterical women admirers and self satisfied snobs… It is inconceivable that the State, in other words the French taxpayers, should have purchased the Hôtel Biron for $1,000,000 simply to allow the richest of our sculptors to live there. A real scandal is there, and it is the Government’s business to put a stop to it.
A world wide controversy exploded. The attack on the famous sculptor, in turn riveted the attention of major newspapers even across the ocean, and gave cartoonists a field day with the incident. Le Figaro published a caricature by the great Impressionist painter Jean-Louis Forain showing Rodin in his studio at the Hôtel Biron.
A model enters with a dress over her arm.
“Oh, Master, where can I put my clothes when I pose?”
Rodin: “Just there, in the chapel.”
The thought that the frankly and often frantically erotic works of Rodin occupied the chapel where the pure and gentle nuns prayed was horrifying to a large swath of the City of Light. Even the statues of Rodin blushed as they looked at the sketches, according to one commentator. The decommissioning of the virgin nuns and the installation of a pornographer’s smuttiest work in their house of worship outraged the public. A sacrilege was being paid for by all the taxpayers of France.
The outbreak crystalized into a serious effort to deprive Rodin of his delightful residence and his dream to build a Rodin museum.
A storm of protest was hurled back at Calmette. The admirers of Rodin were up in arms. A campaign in support of the sculptor began in which the names of the most eminent figures of France in the artistic, literary and political worlds were enlisted. The sculptor didn’t back down or change his tune about the ballet. “His dancing is a masterpiece–a masterpiece. I have not a word to withdraw from the article under which my name has been put,” Rodin exclaimed.
Following a successful run of Faune in London, the ballet’s composer Debussy proclaimed the choreographer a genius, thanking him for adding “a new dimension of beauty” to his music…
Hôtel Biron–The Backstory
After the handsome but penniless hairdresser Peyrenc de Moras married the daughter of a rich army contractor, he hired Jacques Gabriel the Elder, who had recently redecorated the royal apartments at Versailles, to build ”the most splendid house” in Paris. Completed in 1731, Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras was simultaneously a townhouse and a vacation home, and it was a triumph… a shining example of the rocaille architecture that was fashionable at the time. A series of unflappable and incorrigible owners and tenants held sway at the great estate on rue de Varenne over the next two centuries.
The Duc du Maine was a charming, witty, well-educated, and illegitimate son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. His father’s favorite child, he was legitimized, given a title, and married into one of the kingdom’s most prestigious families. Together the Duke and Duchess held lavish parties, hunts, ballets and theatrical productions on their grounds. The Duchess also created an illustrious literary salon. Zadig (or The Book of Fate), one of Voltaire’s most celebrated works, was written at the Varenne town house in 1747.
The Duc de Biron, (Louis-Antoine de Gontaut-Biron), one of Louis XV’s leading generals, transformed the mansion’s formal gardens into a picturesque fantasy that was opened to the public like other gardens, including those at Versailles. Eighteenth century guests marveled over the trellises forming porticoes, the arcades, grottoes, domes and Chinese pavilions, as well as the rare exotic flowers that the Duke raised in his greenhouse. His numerous banquets and balls included a fantazius fête given for future Czar Paul I of Russia in 1782.
The Duc de Lauzun, (Armand Louis de Gontaut), Biron’s heir, had served with Lafayette and Rochambeau in the American Revolution and appears in John Trumbull’s ”Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.” After repeated advances toward a young Marie Antoinette, she finally got swept up by his charms. She invited Armand to her balls at Versailles, watched him race horses at Longchamps, and accompanied him to all-night gambling parties at the most extravagant châteaux of Paris, probably including those at the Hôtel Biron. Throughout the 1780’s, Armand was often named in the long list of her reputed lovers. He died on the guillotine in 1793 during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror on December 31, 1793, after he was found to be too lenient in his treatment of prisoners.
The Duc de Chârost et d’Ancenis, (Armand-Joseph de Béthune), philanthropic mayor of the 10th arrondissement inherited the Hôtel Biron next, but never moved in. He died at the age of 62, a victim of his devotion, caring for deaf and dumb patients in Paris suffering from smallpox.
During the late 1790’s, it was variously a brothel, gambling den and dance hall. In summer, the gardens became a fairground featuring concerts, fireworks, acrobatic displays, jugglers, food stands, balloon ascensions… During Napoleon’s reign, the Hôtel Biron was the seat of the Papal legate Cardinal Caprara and then of Russian ambassador Prince Kourakin.
The Curtain Closes on the Nuns
Shortly before her death in 1820, the Duchess de Chârost bequeathed the Hôtel Biron to Société du Sacré-Coeur de Jésus, whose Dames du Sacré-Coeur, converted the hotel into a strict boarding school for girls from aristocratic families. They stripped the house of all luxuries, mirrors and boiseries and added a chapel in 1876. Among the pupils were Eugenia de Montijo, who became the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napolean III.
Catholic noblewomen and noblemen founded “ecoles libres” because of their families’ historic property-based and charitable ties to rural communities. The support that religious orders received from nobles was vital for increasing the numbers of schools in remote areas.
The Falloux Law of 1850 enabled nuns and monks to open schools without a teaching diploma, but by the end of the century, clerics and members of religious orders were by proclamation banned from teaching posts and education committees.
The government began to forcibly dissolve unauthorized schools and by 1903 over ten thousand were closed. Many nuns and monks would relinquish the names and clothing that identified them as members of congregations in order to remain teachers in the commune. Some of those who posed as secular teachers who had no teaching credentials or who taught religious studies were indicted. An estimated 272 cases were brought to trial with 637 found guilty.
In December 1905, a law was passed that prohibited the state from officially recognizing, funding or endorsing religious groups. The Société du Sacré-Coeur de Jésus was dissolved as part of this government-decreed separation of church and state, and the Hôtel Biron was scheduled for demolition. While awaiting this step, however, the government-appointed trustee subdivided the mansion, its service wings and some outbuildings into dozens and dozens of apartments and studio spaces.
In the fall of 1911, after the eviction notices were delivered, battle lines were drawn at the property on rue Varenne. On one side was perverted art, theatrical shamelessness and government corruption, on the other religion, modesty and persecuted innocence.
Enter Édouard de Max–Stage Left
Calmette demanded that the State expel Rodin from his apartments at the Hôtel Biron, because he hung obscene drawings in the chapel of the Sacred Heart. However, this chapel was absolutely not part of the spaces granted to Rodin. It had been rented to the famous actor Édouard de Max who was a more scandalous character than Rodin. He was also at the time a close companion of the great Aimée Crocker, Queen of Bohemia, heiress from one of the wealthiest families in America. Many publications announced that De Max would become the equally controversial Aimée’s fourth husband.
Édouard de Max is considered, by all accounts, one of the greatest actors and personalities who ever performed in the French theater. He triumphed on the stages of the Odéon, the Théâtre de la Renaissance and the Théâtre de l’Œuvre appearing in classic works by Shakespeare, Racine, Schiller, and Victor Hugo as well as new works by writers such as Oscar Wilde, Victorien Sardou and Gabriele D’Annunzio.
No role was too grand for the larger than life De Max, born Eduard-Alexandru Max Romalo in Romania. He played decadent emperors and princes, bishops and cardinals. He played Nebuchadnezzar, Napolean, Ramses and King Lear. He played Nero over a thousand times. He played the Buddha, Jesus and Satan. De Max was a leading man par excellence who played opposite ethereal theater goddess Sarah Bernhardt, “the Divine Sarah,” in twenty productions.
It was De Max’s personal desire to extend the theater beyond the stage. His off-stage personality mirrored the pomposity that he exhibited on stage playing Dionysian gods, overflowing, drunken and uncontrollable. De Max aligned with the aesthetes of the age who thought everything was art, leisure and fiction, and believed the beautiful should be made theatrical. He would say, “My whole life is contained in my art.”
De Max’s most exuberant success was in Prométhée, by Jean Lorrain, in 1900, when, naked and chained to a rock, he aroused shuttering reactions, but also astonished and mesmerized the audience with his very distinct voice, stormy and oceanic, tinged with a Romanian accent.
Édouard de Max was adored by a large circle of friends who made a hysterical cult out of him in the decadent Belle Époque landscape. The actor was a strong mixed cocktail–part Byzantine prince, part boulevard dandy and part Romani gypsy. He had piercing eyes, a statuesque body, shocks of long scary curls and the magnificent profile of old coins struck under the Roman Caesars. For his antics on and off the stage, he earned the nicknames “The Most Beautiful Man in Paris,” “The Lord of the Camellias” and “The Prince of all that must not be done.”
While Oscar Wilde was sitting in prison for sodomy, De Max, a friend of the playwright, was openly, flamboyantly carousing with young male suitors. His circle included gay icons Jean Cocteau, who De Max discovered and championed as a teenager and who became a tenant at Biron, and André Gide, who won the Nobel Prize and wrote a play for him. Édouard used his obvious, challenging obstacles–that he was foreign, Jewish and gay–to his advantage to create a bold and bankable outsider persona that both outraged and intrigued the Parisian public.
De Max was, however, a gender fluid dandy not insensitive to female charms. He certainly did not disdain the tributes of actresses and women of the beau monde. He received his favorites (a veritable harem of ravishing women) at his apartments on rue Caumartin. Before he was paired romantically with Aimée Crocker, he was mooted to marry the very lovely young Romanian actress Maria Ventura.
De Max vs. The Archbishop
Aimée Crocker, the famous Broadway “first-nighter” may have met De Max during Sarah Bernhardt’s 1905-1906 farewell tour of America after seeing him play the repulsive, demonic and diabolical Cardinal Ximenes in La Sorciere (The Sorceress), a church corruption themed play by Sardou set during the Spanish Inquisition. It spoke to the push by the government to secularize society. After his premiere performance, a reporter asked him what his Christian name was. He told him that he had no Christian name and to call him just “De Max.”
The anti-Catholic sentiments in the play and De Max’s performance led to denunciations by the Archbishop of Quebec and protests in Montreal. Roused by religious resentment, 400 university students threw eggs and tomatoes at him while shouting anti-Semitic epithets at both Bernhardt and De Max. Father Zacharie Lacasse, a Roman Catholic priest, was quoted as saying that the Divine Sarah and her troupe “launched thousands of arrows into the sacred heart of Jesus.”
After the death of Aimée’s third, the great tragedian was often her arm candy at grand Parisian social events. They made headlines after their joint appearance at legendary couturier Paul Poiret’s monumental soirée “The Thousand and Second Night.”
In the spring of 1911, both the zany Édouard and the flashy Aimée would take studios at the Hôtel Biron. The Bohemian heiress was enthralled by the property, its history and celebrity tenants and by the mystical gardens, unique in all the world. The once formal and meticulously cared for French gardens, rich with rare varieties, were now half wild and overgrown. Nature resumed possession of everything. The garden-plots with regular paths skillfully laid out, became an immense thicket. Benches were rotting. Statues were covered with moss. Balustrades were hooked with ivy. Weeds and field flowers sprang from the cracks. It was an enchanting fairyland.
They were also ideal grounds to run her dogs.
De Max was not interested in setting up camp in the old convent or the school, but the newer chapel building, located at the corner of the rue de Varenne and du boulevard des Invalides.
“Everything was in a state of misery, abandonment, even uncleanliness, which made the place impassable,” said the actor. A team of workmen were hired to make the old church livable. He had the walls and floors cleaned and washed. He needed a bathroom built and a kitchen. Little by little the cloister would become a picturesque shelter–part gypsy caravan, part Louis XIV boudoir, part Roman bathhouse. His plan was to lodge in one of the corners, and perhaps one day build a small theater inside.
The chapel was rented for a sum of twelve thousand francs. De Max rented at its own risk and peril and without a long term lease thinking that all the artists were safe as long as Rodin was there. The state would never throw out the great sculptor. Architecturally the chapel didn’t have anything in common with the Hôtel Biron. It was not of great historical or artistic interest. Its main prestige was to be part of the magnificent art colony with its glorious history and that there was easy access to the enchanting gardens.
When the pubic caught wind of the degenerate Édouard de Max’s plans to take over the Biron chapel, rumors of satanic rituals flooded the streets.
The actor set the stage, turned on the footlights and warmed up the audience for Rodin’s blockbuster scandal at the Church of Biron.
The Supporting Players
After removing the nuns, plans were afoot to demolish the mansion entirely and replace it with a block of flats. A government-appointed trustee instead subdivided the mansion and its service wings and outbuilding and gave it new life… as artist housing. It was hoped that income from the various rentals would be generated quickly and that the State could then pay for the estate outright. The trustee had the tenants sign only short term leases. After the property was purchased, the Bohemians would be displaced and Biron would be turned into a more respectable institution. To stop its rot and pay for upkeep, the new managers encouraged the ambitious artists to pay for some urgently needed restorations. Rodin, the anchor tenant paid 5,900 francs for his apartments and studios. He helped lure in other tenants. Occupancy would be held at nearly full capacity. The premises was cold and practically uninhabitable. But the Bohemian starving artists saw only its magnificence and filled it with light and love.
The first tenants included not only Rodin, but Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan and Henri Matisse.
Thirty-eight year old Matisse moved his family and his academy in the old classrooms across the garden from Rodin, at 33, boulevard des Invalides. Matisse founded Académie Matisse in January of 1908 at the request of two close friends: the German artist Hans Purrmann and the American art collector Sarah Stein (the wife of Michael Stein, the older brother of fellow expatriates and collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein). The academy quickly expanded into a mecca, and the principal crossroads of modern painting for a number of gifted European and American artists.
Matisse and Rodin, incidentally, never became friends. Matisse received a pointed rebuff from the sculptor back in 1899, when he took some simple line drawings to show his hero and was told to come back when he’d done some more “persnickety” ones. He never did. But later that year the struggling artist scraped up enough dough to purchase a plaster bust of Rochefort by Rodin.
American dance legend Isadora Duncan, who taught cousin Will Crocker’s daughters years earlier, also ran an academy at Biron. She taught dance and rehearsed performances in one of the garden galleries. But she paid plenty of visits to other artists in their studios. Especially Rodin, because he owned a gramophone. Miss Duncan called her students “the children of Pan,” and so they seemed when she whirled them in dryad waltzes.
Isadora was friends with Rodin. She had known him for nearly a decade before moving in to Biron. She wrote about meeting the master, who she referred to as “the Great God Pan”:
He gazed at me with lowered lids, his eyes blazing, and then, with the same expression that he had before his works, he came toward me. He ran his hands over my neck, breast, stroked my arms and ran his hands over my hips, my bare legs and feet. He began to knead my whole body as if it were clay, while from him emanated heat that scorched and melted me. My whole desire was to yield to him my entire being and, indeed, I would have done so if it had not been that my absurd up-bringing caused me to become frightened and I withdrew, threw my dress over my tunic and sent him away bewildered. What a pity! How often I have regretted this childish miscomprehension which lost to me the divine chance of giving my virginity to the Great God Pan himself, to the Mighty Rodin.
Another renter was 19-year-old wunderkind Jean Cocteau–poet, illustrator, playwright, and future legendary filmmaker, cinematographer, and director.
Cocteau was passing by the newly deserted monument when a chatty concierge told him there were spaces to rent. Cocteau immediately moved into the old nuns’ dance and music room. (He already had a place – in the swanky 16th – so he kept his mother in the dark about his ‘studio’). The cost, he noted later, was that of “a room in some sordid hotel.”
Although half-blocked by the overgrown forget-me-nots, his floor-length windows opened right into the 17-acre park. Cocteau found the gardens magical, even the enormous antique key which gave him access to them. He and girlfriend Christiane Mancini threw parties in the tangled gardens. They enjoyed the brambles and the fragrant wild roses, the circus of sand and weeds, the virgin forest, the impenetrable chaos of vegetation, the feral rabbits and the moonlight.
After a long gestation period, Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke completed one of his several masterpieces, the semi-autobiographic The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, aka Journal of My Other Self, at the Hôtel Biron. From his Paris garret, alter-ego Brigge records his encounters with the city and its outcasts, muses over the ghosts of his aristocratic family, and lays bare his earliest experiences of fear and tenderness, isolation and desolation.
Rilke met Rodin in 1902, after he was hired to produce a monograph on the sculptor. He befriended the master and was even hired as his secretary, only to be sacked within months, “like a thieving servant,” over a misunderstanding. After they reconciled, it was Rainer who introduced Rodin to Biron in 1908. He raved about the beautiful building with its abandoned garden where he could, “see rabbits jumping through the trellis just like in a Medieval tapestry.” Both Tolstoy, who Rilke met in Russia, and Rodin his “most revered master” would have a profound effect on the poet’s life and art.
Rainer was by turns inspired and appalled by the city’s high culture and low society. A library card was all that separated the impoverished poet from the city’s untouchables, yet its “grandeur, its near infinity” was an ongoing source of inspiration. Born in Prague, (then part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, and within the Austria-Hungary Empire), he would live in exile from his country in France, Russia and Italy most of his adult life transmuting his private obsessions into the themes that would shape his oeuvre: the mysteries of perception and consciousness, the dilemmas of love, and the search for the transcendent and the sacred in a godless world.
After completing his fictional memoirs, after moving out from under the lionesque figure that was Rodin and his pulsating ecosystem, Rilke would begin writing The Duino Elegies, the monumental masterwork that would set in stone his position as one of the greatest German-language poets of the 20th century.
Though it’s hard to know exactly who were paying customers, enamored visitors, overnight guests or squatters, the list of talented artists who spent time at Biron included: painters Ivo Hauptmann, (the son of a Nobel prize winning author) and Angelina Beloff, (Diégo Riviéra’s long term lover); Scottish soprano Mary Garden, “the Sarah Bernhardt of opera,” known for her beautifully lyric voice; and actresses Eleonora Duse, Germaine Gallois and Jeanne Bloch. Strikingly beautiful French dancer Cleo de Merode, (who had a torrid romance with Austrian painter Gustav Klimt), and French writer Comtesse de Martel de Janville, (who wrote under the pseudonym Gyp), were fixtures at Biron, as were the sculptors Odette Maugendre, (wife of renowned painter Jean Gabriel Domergue), and Clara Westhoff, (one time student of Auguste Rodin and one time wife of Rainer Maria Rilke).
Hôtel Biron, the glorious colony of legendary artists, became the honeypot, the belly button of the beast in cultural Paris–the cultural capital of the world.
The transfer for the benefit of the State of the Hôtel Biron and its outbuildings was authorized by a law of July 13, 1911. Part of the estate bordering the rue de Babylone was immediately reserved for a new secondary school (present-day Lycée Victor Duruy).
A new town hall for the 7th arrondissement where the Ministry of Justice would be housed was considered as was possibly the services of the Administration of Fine Arts. The chapel was requested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be granted to the Maronites for an Eastern Catholic Church. There was talk of turning the facilities into a national furniture or costume museum.
One by one the artists left, some sixty of them. Both Isadora Duncan and Aimée Crocker couldn’t abide by the building manager’s ever changing pet policy. After Duncan won a court case against Biron, Aimée’s beautiful St. Bernard dogs died mysteriously. It was rumored that food left for Isadora’s dogs had been poisoned, and that Aimée’s pets ate the tainted treats by mistake. The heiress had lost several French bull dogs a decade earlier by a miscreant serial dog murderer. Biron was only a seasonal outpost for rich American heiress Madame Aimée Crocker Gouraud. After leaving the chateau, she purchased a home from De Max’s Romanian friend Prince Antoine Bibesco, a six-story modified French art nouveau/Anglo-Normandy style summer villa in the 16th arrondissement.
Monsieur Édouard de Max, the great tragedian was asked to leave the premises even before having occupied them. He considered bringing an action against director Alphonse Primot, Honorary Inspector General of Finance, who signed the first receipt of rent to the tragedian. Both De Max and Crocker would instead turn their attentions to their greatest passion–the stage. Aimée was so enthralled with Édouard as an actor that, according to one San Francisco Examiner report, she staged, at great expense, a play called Le Typhon about Japanese expats in Paris by the great Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel, which premiered at Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt on October 11, 1911. Aimée offered up her insights about Asia and her life in Japan. She attended all the rehearsals, superintended the costumes and even gave stage directions.
Rodin, the lumberjack of genius with the beret of black velvet and the Michelangelo beard, made plans to move into a similar though less storied and magnificent former boutique hotel he found near the Palais-Royal. He lamented the “method of barbarism,” the carnage of beautiful things in the name of modernity in Paris. “That unfortunate Hôtel Biron! What storm has he not known?” he exclaimed.
Firewood. Summer prices.
Without further ado, the moribund hotel had to be delivered from its annexes, from all that filth, and from all the mosses which the waters had formed on the roofs, on the cornices, on the finest details of the sculptures. Biron became overnight a huge construction site of demolition. The state clipped the wings of the historic building that winter. The stables were also removed. Rodin yelled at consumers, lured onto the property by a sign “Firewood, Summer Prices,” who were bargaining with the foreman over the price of two or three cubic meters of firewood. They were eager to heat their homes with the remains of the outbuildings of the famous hotel.
Rodin, distraught and demoralized, published a book in 1912 during the Nijinsky affair, L’Art, where he gave the Nietzschean proclamation “Art is Dead.”
Today, artists and those who love artists seem like fossils. Imagine a megatherium or a diplodocus stalking the streets of Paris! There you have the impression that we must make upon our contemporaries. Ours is an epoch of engineers and of manufacturers, not one of artists…
The search in modern life is for utility; the endeavor is to improve existence materially. Every day, science invents new processes for the feeding, clothing, or transportation of man; she manufactures cheaply inferior products in order to give adulterated luxuries to the greatest number—though it is true that she has also made real improvements in all that ministers to our daily wants. But it is no longer a question of spirit, of thought, of dreams. Art is dead…
…today, mankind believes itself able to do without Art. It does not wish to meditate, to contemplate, to dream; it wishes to enjoy physically. The heights and the depths of truth are indifferent to it; it is content to satisfy its bodily appetites. Mankind today is brutish—it is not the stuff of which artists are made…
Formerly, in old France, Art was everywhere. The smallest bourgeois, even the peasant, made use only of articles which pleased the eye. Their chairs, their tables, their pitchers and their pots were beautiful. Today Art is banished from daily life. People say that the useful need not be beautiful. All is ugly, all is made in haste and without grace by stupid machines. The artist is regarded as an antagonist.
A plan was hatched. Rodin would fight to save Biron from the wrecking ball. He would convert his pavilion into a public museum that would group his considerable works including his sketches for other artists to study as well as his massive collection of ancient Greek and Egyptian art. The spacious and beautiful park would remain and serve as a promenade and monastic retreat for poets, a playground for children, and a sculpture garden for Rodin.
On the initiative of playwright and Rodin biographer Miss Judith Cladel, a committee made up of the most illustrious figures of fine literature, fine arts, science and politics was formed whose chief concern was to advocate for a Rodin museum and to hopefully place it at Hôtel Biron.
It was an offer that the French government had to seriously consider. Years earlier the State asked M. Rodin to paint the Luxembourg chapel in fresco and create his own Sistine there, which, they believed, could perhaps be the dawn of a rebirth of the fresco. Officials wanted to accommodate the revered French master.
After the Nijinsky debacle, detractors and critics formally voiced their opposition to honoring Rodin with his own museum to the Senate when they held public meetings about the offer. They spoke of how Rodin’s art tended to portray the diseased, distorted, depraved or perverted aspects of life. They spoke of how his studio in Paris was more like a brothel than a workshop. Rodin could afford to hire women to pose for him at all times, whether he had use for them or not. At any given time a model might be stretched out on a pedestal, while another was undressing behind a screen. Others just traipsed around in a robe looking bored. “The striking and excessive artistic manifestations of M. Rodin have had the most deplorable influence on the artistic direction of recent years,” claimed one speaker.
Though Rodin was considered the greatest of modern sculptors, an emulator and rival of the famous masters of all epochs, the senators were reminded that the art world was fickle, and that it was quite possible that after Rodin’s death $100,000 would be enough to purchase as many pieces of his works that they wanted. It could happen, they continued, that his works would so decline in value that the gift would in no way compensate for the use of the Palais Biron for the remainder of his life.
A great number of his sculptures, it was pointed out, were in the possession of museums or private individuals, who would never part with them; others were in the hands of great collectors, who would also refuse any offers of purchase. What was left was merely a collection only of minor works, replicas, and bronzes.
Others suggested that Monsieur Rodin should be given the same treatment as all the great artists throughout the history of the country and suggested a place of honor in Luxembourg, or perhaps a few rooms at the Louvre. But that was not what Rodin wanted. He asked for a very exceptional measure that had never been proposed for any artist at any time and under any regime. Under no circumstances had any artist, any master, been given a palace and a park to display their work in perpetuum.
Strong arguments were put forth to place Biron at the disposal of the Ministry of War to service relief efforts. The Odeon and Luxembourg Museums had their art put in storage in order to house refugees and orphans from the invaded regions. The State needed to lodge the war invalids. The grounds and the facilities could possibly accommodate ambulance services. Children were denied education after the World War broke. Turning the entire estate into a campus was proposed.
Finally, a motion to withdraw the chapel from the donation was brought forth. “There will be only twenty of the great masterpieces before which the mother, without danger, can lead her daughter,” said Senator Gustave de Lamarzelle from the Morbihan district. He wanted to restore it as a holy place of worship. Addressing the body of politicians he exclaimed, “You owe it to the Catholics of France.”
The Senate considered all of the testimony including the petitions of all the artists and all the writers in favor of the Rodin museum. One line of reasoning seemed to carry the most weight in the extended deliberations of the senators: Rodin Halls were cropping up in cities around the world. Rodin’s works were grouped at the Kensington Museum in London. There were three rooms devoted to Rodin at the Metropolitan in New York. San Francisco’s Adolph Spreckels assembled what some considered the greatest collection of perfect Rodins in the world. France, who could claim Rodin as one of its greatest artists, didn’t have a Rodin museum.
The result of the ballot: of the 239 senators who cast a vote, 212 were for a museum, only 27 were against.
In the final deal worked out on September 13, 1916, Rodin left to the State after his death, “all works of art, without exception, including his personal works, marbles, bronzes, terracottas and drawings; all his writings, manuscripts or printed matter, unpublished or not, as well as all his copyrights on the reproduction by image of his artistic works.”
Rodin promised his house and his studio in Meudon with the large plaster casts exhibited there.
In addition, the State received 562 pieces representing Egyptian art, 1,094 ancient ceramics, 398 pieces of Greek and Roman sculpture and many priceless paintings including pieces by Corot, Carrière, Renoir and Raffaëlli, as well as, “A View of Belle-Isle” by Claude Monet, and Van Gogh’s “Harvest,” “Moyettes” and “The Portrait of Father Tanguy.”
In return, in terms of the agreement:
M. Rodin will have, throughout his life, the entire and absolute disposal of his museum. He will recruit, appoint and remove, at his discretion, the personnel responsible for care and maintenance of the museum. Admission to the museum, which will be open six days a week, will result in to a collection of 1 franc per person…Mr. Rodin will have, throughout his life, the right to occupy, free of charge, the entire Hôtel Biron, and especially the nearby disused chapel.
The disputed chapel was his at last.
Rodin, the French pontiff of Art, died a year later.
Musée Rodin opened to the public in 1919.
“He is by far the greatest poet in France,” wrote Oscar Wilde about Auguste Rodin. The master’s home and studios at Biron, forever respected and protected, has become a lighthouse, a pilgrimage destination where admirers of Rodin meet and appreciate the infinite variety of his art and the feverish activity of his life. The latest and perhaps the final incarnation in the storied life of Hôtel Biron is as one of Europe’s Cathedrals of Art.
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