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Saturday Art: Count Robert de Montesquiou by Paul Nadar

This photograph of Count Robert de Montesquiou is in A Proust Souvenir by William Howard Adams. Adams collected a number of photographs by Paul Nadar of people Marcel Proust knew and used as models for Remembrance of Things Past. Adams suggests that Montesquiou was one of the inspirations for the character of the Baron de Charlus. He describes Montesquiou:

Montesquiou could lay claim to the most eminent and the oldest of feudal connections, stretching back to the Merovingian Kings of France. The family name appears in the memoirs of Saint-Simon, and the family Chateau d’Artagnan still belonged to the descendants of the original builders. Montesquiou would occasionally use it as a retreat from his exhausting social life in the capital. Through marriage, he was related to most of the ducal families of France, and, like Charlus, he often spoke of “my cousins the La Rochefoucaulds”, my cousins the “Rohan-Chabots and my kinsmen the de Gramonts”. Anatole France detested these constant references to ancestry, and Charles Haas could perfectly mimic the Count’s gratin drawl: “My forebears used up all the intelligence; my father had nothing left but the sense of his own grandeur; my brother hadn’t even that, but had the decency to die early; while I — I have added to the ducal coronet the coronal of a poet”.

Page 76. Like many French aristocrats at the turn of the century, he mingled with the artists, poets and musicians of the day, and did indeed write poetry, including this, which I cannot find in English, but even with my poor French, I think that is just as well. He was a dandy, as the photograph clearly demonstrates, so much so that he rates a page in I can’t resist this quote:

Sir William Rothenstein once met him at an all-von Weber concert wearing a mauve suit with a shirt to match and a bunch of pale violets at his throat in place of a necktie “because,” he explained, “one should always listen to von Weber in mauve.”  . . .

His artist friends painted his portrait. Here is one by Giovanni Boldini, which hangs at the d”Orsay.

Montesquiou is seated, holding a cane, and turns his profile to the painter. His suit is mouse-gray, and his black cravat is artfully arranged to show off the line of his head. His moustache and his tiny goatee are waxed and his hair pomaded, to perfection. We must not overlook the sleek gloves, and the perfectly starched shirt-cuff. Here is another by his friend James Whistler, called Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, which hangs at the Frick Museum in New York.

The photograph captures an instant in time, fixing it in a solid medium forever. The art and artifice are in the preparation for that instant and in the manipulation of the image by the photographer. Nadar was a society photographer, skilled at capturing and presenting the image his subjects wanted. Painters have a somewhat different goal, to capture something about the subject that may be more timeless, but they too are about moments in time. Adams tells us that Proust loved photographs, and used them to remind himself of the people who inspired characters in Remembrance of Things Past.

One of Proust’s themes is time. We read about Montesquiou as remembered by Proust, in long winding sentences about the Baron de Charlus, words to be savored and intertwined with our own experiences, words which cannot be allowed to drift by but which demand our careful focused attention. We get not only physical descriptions but Charlus’ words to define him as a person. The tiny moment in the life of Montesquiou, perhaps captured in this Nadar photograph, turns in Proust’s imagination to a whole person. Perhaps the photograph served as the madeleine in this passage from Swann’s Way:

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

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