Hôtel Biron, Rodin and the dogs

Hôtel Biron in 1910

In October of 1911, The Washington Post (along with countless other provincial newspapers around the country) published a Sunday magazine feature about Aimée’s St. Bernard dogs being poisoned at the Hôtel de Biron in Paris and her subsequent engagement to the famous Romanian actor Edouard de Max. She had moved to the City of Lights a year earlier with her three adopted kids, her Buddhas, her dogs and her pearls to the run down but still opulent Biron. The palace was referred to as the Mount Parnassus of France, because of the nationally and internationally famous painters, playwrights, poets, actors, novelists, dancers, beauties and sculptors who lived and worked there.

Built between 1727 and 1737 by Jean Aubert, Architect to the King, for wealthy financier Abraham Peyrenc de Moras, the mansion is a shining example of rocaille architecture. The estate was occupied by a series of owners and tenants including Louis-Antoine de Gontaut Biron before it was sold to the Reverend Mother Madeleine Louise-Sophie Barat, founder of the Société du Sacré-Coeur de Jésus in 1820. The religious congregation turned it into a boarding school for girls from aristocratic families. They stripped the house of all luxuries, mirrors and boiseries and added a chapel.

By 1905, it was derelict and decaying and taken over by the state under a new law on the separation of Church and State. Plans were afoot to demolish the mansion entirely and replace it with a block of flats. A government-appointed trustee subdivided the mansion and its service wings into a dozen lodgings. To stop its rot and pay for upkeep, the new managers gave it new life… as artist housing.

Like hapless artists everywhere, the Biron tenants had no security. They were only temporary occupants, placeholders while the building’s fate was decided.

Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin by John Singer Sargent, 1884

“He is by far the greatest poet in France,” wrote Oscar Wilde about the master Auguste Rodin. By 1900, Rodin had emerged as the foremost sculptor in France. His pavilion at the Paris Expo of that year, though outside the exposition grounds, caused a sensation. Long lines of admirers came to pay tribute to the artist who had successfully defied the skeptics. In the minds of the critics and the public, Rodin represented the pinnacle of French artistic genius.

Rodin was routinely unfaithful to his long-term companion Rose Beuret with women including Gwen John, the artist and sister of Augustus John, and Camille Claudel, a capricious, highly strung student who was arguably the love of his life. Rodin left Rose after taking up residence with an enchanting aristocrat, the Duchesse de Choiseul, at the Hôtel Biron. He learned of the grand dwelling from Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rodin rented four south-facing, ground floor rooms at the rundown mansion opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios. Rodin was bowled over by the high, spacious halls and by the wild setting of the park. And although he knew the very existence of the hotel was threatened, he threw himself into his work with a frenzy and with passion. Soon he occupied the whole ground floor of the Hôtel.

Henri Matisse (far right) teaching students at the Academy Matisse

Equally delighted to acquire cheap studio space was 38-year-old Henri Matisse. In his studio, with the help of backers, the artist founded Académie Matisse in January 1908. It operated until the summer of 1911. During its brief existence the Académie became one of the principal crossroads of modern painting for a number of gifted European and American artists.

Matisse was not financially well off at the time. Heading up the school offered him free studio and living space. His Académie attracted over 120 male and female pupils, many of whom went on to become important artists in their own right. The student cohort was international from the outset, including a number of gifted Germans and Americans: Marg Mall and her husband, Oskar Moll, the young Hans Purrmann and the American Sarah Stein (wife of Michael Stein and the sister-in-law of the well-known collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein), Max Weber and Henri Patrick Bruce.

American dancer Isadora Duncan, who taught Will Crocker’s daughters years earlier, took a long gallery against the garden wall. Duncan also ran an academy. She taught dance and rehearsed performances in one of the garden galleries. But she paid plenty of visits to other studios. Especially chez Rodin, because he owned a gramophone. He eventually painted the revolutionary dancer. Miss Duncan called her students “the children of Pan,” and so they seemed when she whirled them in dryad waltzes.

American dancer Isadora Duncan

Among the early renters was superstar actor, Edouard de Max, “the Most Beautiful Man in Paris.” De Max had been born in Romania but was a huge success in France. At the time, Sarah Bernhardt was his frequent co-star. A brand of cigarettes was named after him. Proudly gay, de Max relished flamboyant clothes and interiors. If a play’s set design happened to disappoint him, the actor would just refurbish it on his own.

Another renter was 19-year-old Jean Cocteau. The future dynamic poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic was passing by the newly deserted monument, when a chatty concierge told him there were spaces to rent. Cocteau took one on the spot. (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 gardens.

A very young Jean Cocteau

Even this ambitious poet was a little in awe of his neighbors. Besides Rodin, Matisse and Duncan, the list of talented artists  included the cabaret singer Jeanne Bloch (a petite talent nicknamed la Colossale Chanteuse), German sculptress Clara Westhoff, wife of Rainer Maria Rilke, Scottish soprano Mary Garden, “the Sarah Bernhardt of opera,” known for her beautifully lyric voice that had a wide vocal range, French singer and actress Germaine Gallois, French dancer Cleo de Merode whose torrid romance with Austrian painter Gustav Klimt inspired the 2006 movie Klimt, and French writer Comtesse de Martel de Janville who wrote under the pseudonym Gyp. Gyp wrote humorous sketches and novels which brazenly denounced her own fashionable society as well as the French republic’s political class.

Eleonora Duse, by Vittorio Matteo Corcos

Another legend who lived off and on at the Biron was Italian actress Eleonora Duse, often known simply as Duse. She is regarded as one of the greatest actresses of all time, noted for her total assumption of the roles she portrayed. Duse became involved romantically and collaborated professionally with popular writer and Mussolini’s chief political rival Gabriele d’Annunzio. He wrote four plays for her. When d’Annunzio gave the lead role of the play La Città morta to Sarah Bernhardt instead of Duse, there was a furious fight, and Duse ended her affair with him. Duse is also rumored to have had affairs with Italian feminist Lina Poletti and in 1913 Isadora Duncan.

The guests at the famous Biron studios included Henri Rousseau, Ballets Russes founder Serge Diaghilev, the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and monstre sacré Pablo Picasso.

Rodin was captivated by the beauty and wild charm of the Hôtel’s grounds. The backyard shared by the artists was overgrown and out of control. Rilke was amazed by its wilderness and its feral rabbits (“They leap around like something right out of a medieval tapestry”). Cocteau found the gardens magical, even the “enormous” antique key which gave him access to them. He and girlfriend Christiane Mancini threw parties there by moonlight. However, only one spot was clear enough for them to use – a “crater” of sand with wild, tangled roses at the centre.

Before moving into Hôtel Biron, Aimée had survived one of the worst years of her life. Recently widowed and recovering from an operation, she also suffered the loss of her second husband, Harry Gillig, her friend Charles Stoddard and her cousin George Crocker. But push on she did. While recuperating she wrote a popular book of short stories, Moon Madness, which, with her money bags and her jewelry collection, qualified her as a Biron artist and tenant. Biron was a haven of bliss for Aimée Crocker that harked back to her rollicking San Francisco days at the Strong/Tavernier artist loft when she was a teenager. The dynamic company that she kept at the Biron studios certainly helped her regain her natural joie de vivre. In no time the press had her linked to five different men.

The Dogs

The building managers wanted to change the pet policy at Biron and targeted first Isadora Duncan’s dogs. After the dancer won her case against Biron, Aimée’s beautiful St. Bernard dogs died mysteriously. It was rumored that food left for Isadora’s dogs were poisoned and that Aimee’s pets ate it by mistake. The heiress had lost several French bull dogs a decade earlier by a miscreant serial dog murderer who killed prize winning dogs all over Long Island. Aimée was a dog fancier her entire life and in the 1890s won blue ribbons at Westminster.

Aimée and Edouard de Max, “The Most Beautiful Man in Paris”

De Max wrote an exquisite letter of condolence. The grieving Aimée buried her dead pets in wonderful mummy cases, in which, “centuries ago the bodies of beautiful Egyptian princesses had been placed.” Mrs. Gouraud invited him to the funeral of her pets and later to her new home at 12 Avenue Élisée Reclus. He visited often. Aimée and Edouard’s friendship would later make headlines around the world.

In the fall of 1911, the government formalized ownership of the Biron. But they couldn’t quite decide what they wanted to do with it. Should it become a new home for the Justice Ministry? Should they tear it down to make room for a housing estate? Or would it really work better as a music hall? In the end, they just sent the eviction notices. Everyone moved out – except for Rodin, who was granted a delay. Given his stardom, not to mention the weight of his studio, French officials found themselves face-to-face with a dilemma.

Rodin in the garden of Hôtel Biron

The 71-year-old Rodin made the French officials an offer. If they let him stay for life, he would leave his archives and the contents of his studio including his entire collection of sculptures to France. To sweeten the deal, Rodin threw in his hoard of antiquities that he had (which included paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir) on the condition that they turn the buildings into a museum dedicated to his works. The proposition led to five years of wrangling. But, in the end, the offer was accepted.

Rodin returned to his longtime companion Rose and they married two weeks before her death in 1917. When Rodin died nine months later, they were united in a grave under a giant statue of The Thinker at Meudon.

The Musée Rodin opened in 1919. The collection includes 6,600 sculptures, 8,000 drawings, 8,000 old photographs, and 7,000 objets d’art. The museum receives 700,000 visitors annually.

The Musée Rodin