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23.12.03

Evocation of a Royalist Past

Giovanni Boldini, Portrait of Count Robert de Montesquiou, 1897, Musée d'OrsayOf all the things that might inspire nostalgia, the joys of a monarchical society would seem to me to be somewhere near the bottom of the list. However, as an American, I am perhaps incapable of understanding the sentiment of a certain sector of French society that has wanted and still wants to reinstate a king on the throne of France. In an article (Nostalgies Ancien Régime, December 23) in Le Figaro, Eric Biétry-Rivierre reviews an exhibit on some people who devoted themselves to that very cause. The Musée Lambinet, a little museum in an 18th-century house on the Boulevard de la Reine in Versailles, is showing Versailles, Vie artistique, Littéraire et Mondaine, 1889–1939, until February 29.

One of the items on display is the first edition of the collected poems of Robert de Montesquiou (portrait by Boldini shown at right), from whose Sonnets historiques comes the line that became a royalist slogan, "Un lis est toujours un lis" [A lily is always a lily, referring to the fleur-de-lis, symbol of the Bourbon family. (Here is a selection of his poems and there are several portraits of him here and here.) Montesquiou was one of the foremost arbiters of taste, notoriously arrogant and scandalously degenerate, who was the model for the character of the Baron de Charlus in Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu. (Montesquiou also inspired other literary characters, including Floressas des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours [1884], the Comte de Muzarett in Paul Duval [Jean Lorrain]'s Monsieur de Phocas [1901], the Vicomte de Serpigny in Henri de Régnier's Le Mariage de Minuit [1903], and Peacock in Edmond Rostand's Chanteclerc [1907].) Proust first met Montesquiou's cousin, the Comtesse Greffulhe, on a visit to Versailles when he was 23. Proust memorialized his infatuation with her beauty and social grace in the character of the Duchesse de Guermantes.

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