Marthe de Florian as painted by Giovanni Boldini
In 1940 as the German Army marches inexorably through the green fields of Belgium towards France. Many citizens of Paris begin hasty preparations to evacuate, throwing treasured possessions willy-nilly into hand carts, horse drawn carriages, the baskets of bicycles or, if your were indeed fortunate enough to own one, into motor vehicles. But the vast majority simply took to the road on foot, carrying their meager estate, tied in a bed sheet or stuffed into battered suitcases.
As in all catastrophic upheaval, be it a natural disaster or one caused by man, to choose what to take or what to leave behind can be, for some, just too overwhelming. These individuals simply walk away with nothing, melt into the chaotic, seething mass of humanity, never to look back and seemingly, to disappear and, even with the eventual restoration to normalcy, never again returning to inhabit their former lives.
And so it was for the pretty 21 year old Mlle de Florian. When confronted with the devastating decision of what to leave and what to take she couldn’t choose. She found herself careering wildly through the vast rooms of her deceased Grandmother’s apartment, pulling paintings from the walls, only to abandon them moments later or distractedly rifling through the drawers of cabinets and bureaus but taking nothing.
Eventually realizing she’s incapable of mobilizing coherent thought or action Mlle de Florian just simply locks the flat’s door and walks away.
The apartment and it’s contents are abandoned, perhaps deliberately forgotten. Cobwebs gather in corners, dust settles layer upon layer covering the furnishings in a diaphanous grey pall and over time the dripping tap above the kitchen basin leaves the pristinely white stone indelibly marked with a horrible greenish black stain.
Mlle de Florian lives to the venerable age of ninety-one, never once returning to the flat in Paris . After her death the executors of her Estate are intrigued to discover the existence of the apartment. It has remained locked, unvisited, untended, for nearly seven decades. What would they find inside?
The apartment lay in the ninth arrondissement, near the Opéra Garnier, Folies-Bergères and the Galeries Lafayette. This area of Paris owes much of it’s beauty to Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann’s determination to create a modern Paris. A Paris of grand boulevards green spaces and elegant architecture.
The Rue Condorchet is a typical example of classical Haussmannism with it’s monochromatic stone buildings, their façades organised around horizontal lines that often continue from one building to the next and balconies and cornices that are perfectly aligned without any noticeable alcoves or projections.
It’s on this charming street, early one morning, we find Monsieur Olivier Choppin-Janvry, hurriedly making his way to number 110. He had forgotten that rue Condorchet is a one-way thoroughfare and the subsequent lengthy detour to enter the street from the Place Lino Ventura has caused him to run late for his appointment with the apartment building’s concierge, Monsieur Gilbert.
The concierge waits patiently for him on the footpath, apologies made, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is ushered through imposing wooden doors into a gloomy vestibule and from there is shown up the handsome marble staircase to a door on the second floor.
Monsieur Choppin-Janry is here to conduct an inventory and evaluation of contents in the abandoned apartment at the behest of Mlle de Florians heirs.
Politely dismissing the assistance offered by the overly curious concierge, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is left alone to struggle with a resisting lock. After some determined jiggling the lock finally yields and the door reluctantly swings open. He is at last inside the apartment, the first person to have crossed its threshold in nearly seventy years.
There is an all pervading gloom for the power is either disconnected or the light bulbs have long stopped working their efficacy eroded by years of non-use. Making his way carefully along the wide hall towards the formal rooms that overlooked the street, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is acutely conscious of the smell of old dust and the mustiness of mildew.
Entering a large room he immediately moves to the large bank of windows facing the street and with some difficulty forces them open . That done he turns his attention to the wooden shutters. Their rusting hinges shriek in protest as he manhandles them open. The room is now flooded with morning sunlight.
He finds himself standing in a large dining room, a magnificent table covered by a yellow damask table cloth commands centre stage, ornate candelabra their candles showing use, sit either end of it. A large credenza covers almost the entire length of the back wall, its shelves groan under the weight of fine china and to the right of that, is a beautifully carved fireplace and gracing it’s chimney-piece are objets d’art and a sensual second Empire bronze statue of Persephone fleeing Hades.
Heart pumping with mounting excitement, Monsieur Chopin-Janvry quickly moves through the rest of the apartment, throwing open windows and shutters. Rooms that had not seen light of day for seventy years were now revealing their startling treasures. Paintings, gueridons with ormolu, Louis XV chairs, an exquisitely feminine bureau with beautiful inlays of fruit wood and in one of the small rooms overlooking the courtyard a collection of Disney toys including Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig and a moulting taxidermic ostrich.
But the room that interested him most was a room with exquisite moulded ceilings and walls covered in embossed, eggshell blue silk. Unfortunately here, water damage was evident causing the silk to fall away thus exposing the plaster beneath and a dark stain of mildew to disfigure the ornate ceiling.
The furniture is intensely feminine, brocaded Duchesse de Brisee chairs, a hand painted table for playing cards, marble busts and delicate gueridons on which stand, pretty porcelain vases. And along one entire wall is an enormous painted Louis XVI mirror bedecked with garlands of flowers and candelabra. Opposite this stands a marble fireplace and on it’s mantelpiece are large chinese porcelain ginger jars.
French doors framed by faded yellow silk curtains lead to a small balcony and beside this opening is a beautiful dressing table, ornately carved with fleur de lis and griffins. A lovely piece of whimsy. On top of this beautiful dresser were the accoutrement one would expect a lady to use when attending her toilette, silver backed hair brushes, crystal bottles of long ago evaporated perfumes and jars containing powder and unguents.
This room is undoubtedly a Boudoir. Today we might give a room like this the unimaginative title of a dressing room but in the Belle Epoque period this room was used for so much more.
The Boudoir of the Belle Epoque era – from 1870 to the beginning of the first World War in 1914 – was a combination of drawing room and dressing room. It was where a beautiful woman might entertain friends and lovers, or receive tradespeople such as jewelers, hairdressers and dressmakers.
She would also dress here in preparation for an evenings entertainment at the Opera Garnier or perhaps going to Maxim’s for dinner. Indeed if you look closely at the dressing table you will see candles long past their prime. They’re little more than stubs suggesting the last inhabitant of this room has needed their illumination to see better for applying her maquillage.
Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is suddenly of the opinion that this room has been closed much longer than the rest of the apartment. There is no evidence to suggest that the 20th century has ever intruded within these pretty walls.
In fact he is almost certain that Mlle de Florian never lived in the apartment she may have been a regular visitor but it was never her principal residence. There was too little of the 20th century and way too much of an earlier period. That period being the Belle Epoque.
He moves further into the room there is a chill in here despite the sun flooding in through the open French doors and a pervasive perfume of roses seems to linger in the air. A zephyr like breeze eddies around the room causing the pages of a letter to lift from the dressing table and flutter to the floor.
As Monsieur Choppin-Janvry bends to retrieve a page from the floor he notices tucked in behind the overflowing bookcase something wrapped in a silken shawl. It looks as if it’s a painting and a large one at that.
Carefully maneuvering the painting from behind the book case with it’s towering pile of dusty tomes and mindful not to damage the canvas, he carries it to the chaise-lounge. The temperature in the room has grown noticeably cooler and the scent of roses grows stronger almost cloyingly so.
Monsieur Choppin-Janvry hands begin to tremble as he gently disentangles the shawl from the painting. He is convinced he is about to make an important discovery.
The painting is a portrait of a beautiful young woman. She sits, leaning forward in a chair. A chair he recognizes immediately as the very one on which the painting now rests. Her face is in profile, the luxuriant dark blonde hair is piled atop her head, around her neck she wears a strand of baroque pearls and her long elegant fingers play flirtatiously at the extreme decolletage of a beautiful pink mousseline evening gown.
Choppin-Janvry intuitively understands he is looking at the face of the woman in whose apartment he now stands but even more exciting than that realization, is the painting itself.
He is mesmerized by the flowing brush strokes and the highly stylized positioning of the sitter. “Is it possible? An unknown work by the Master of Swish himself, Monsieur Giovanni Boldini!”
It is with the unconscious uttering of these words that the room is suddenly plunged into darkness. Momentarily confused Monsieur Choppin-Janvry realizes the shutters have somehow broken free from their moorings and have slammed shut thus blocking out the light.
Adrenaline courses through his body and a feeling of unease causes him to hurry towards the chinks of light shining through the closed shutters. And when the plethora of tables and chairs in his path impede smooth passage, panic threatens to extinguish all rational thought. He is convinced he is no longer alone.
With racing heart, he peers around the darkened room, his eyes desperately seeking reassurance that he is indeed alone. And just as he reaches to push open the shutters for better illumination he is distracted by a shadowy movement near where the portrait stands.
“Mon Dieu!” Through the aqueous gloom a chimerical figure materializes, and with the sibilant whisper of silken gown, suddenly before him, is the beautiful woman from the painting. Her pink mousseline gown glowing eerily in the nubilous shadows.
In that startling moment, just as Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is about to commit to a terrified shriek, two things occur simultaneously: his mobile comes shrilly to life and a mischievous breeze plucks the shutters from his grasping fingers and casts them wide open.
The room is, at an instant, once again flooded with sunlight and everything suddenly appears in it’s natural order. The room is just as it was, a pretty boudoir. Choppin-Janvry, with herculean effort, endeavours to calm himself. His mobile phone continues to ring and after a few moments of deep breathing, he lifts it to his ear and says in a tremulous voice, “Hello?”
“Monsieur Olivier Choppin-Janvry?”
“Yes this is he.”
“Marc Ottavi, I’m waiting downstairs.”
So engrossed had Olivier become with exploring the abandoned apartment he had quite forgotten that the renowned art dealer was to meet him here at the flat. An expert with considerable expertise in art and sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Monsieur Ottavi had been invited to help with the inventory. His role; to establish the authenticity and value of the paintings and sculpture belonging to de Florian estate.
Choppin-Janvry walks to the balcony, leaning over it’s ornate railing, he sees a well dressed man in a dark grey suit. The gentleman’s ensemble is saved from almost funereal sobriety by a silk, canary yellow kerchief, spilling forth from his jacket pocket. He stands patiently at the building’s entrance, a cell phone to his ear.
“The concierge will let you in. I’m on the second floor,” says Choppin-Janvry into his mobile, then, before his colleague can respond he breaks the connection and slips the phone into his trouser pocket.
Returning to the room he is again drawn irrevocably to the portrait. It’s allure impossible to ignore. A beautiful woman by anyone’s standards and if the tilt of her rounded but determined chin is any indication, a wilful and deeply passionate one, at that.
Who was she and why – if he was indeed correct in his speculation, the picture was a Boldini – would anyone leave such a valuable painting, seemingly forgotten for seventy years in the decaying grandeur of this lovely old apartment?
Monsieur Coppin-Janvry reluctantly removes his gaze from the portrait. He needs to compose himself, expunge from his fevered mind the ghostly image of the woman in pink mousseline and silk, materializing astonishingly from the confines of the painting and appearing wraithlike before him.
He is convinced he had experienced some sort of sensory overload. The apartment exercised a powerful allure causing him feelings of deep disquiet. It was almost as if he had stumbled into the castle of Sleeping Beauty, a place of glamor, beguilement and mystery. It’s seductive ambience, unleashing disturbing, fanciful and hallucinatory thoughts.
Monsieur Ottavi’s footsteps are heard coming along the passage.
“In here. The door on the right.” calls M Choppin-Janvry. Glancing at the splendid Louis XVI mirror he is appalled by his reflection, hair on end and a streak of grime contrasting darkly against the pallor of his complexion. “I look as if I’ve seen a ghost!”
Quickly setting to rights his appearance, he turns to greet his colleague. “I have something I want to show you. I think it maybe of major interest to you.”
Marc Ottavi moves unhurriedly into the room. He walks as if in a trance. His eyes, huge with wonderment, track slowly around the chamber. The boudoir is gorgeous, it’s faded splendor reflecting the exquisite taste of the era he’s most passionate about, the Belle Epoque Period.
So enraptured is he by the room and it’s contents, he doesn’t hear the urgency and excitement in his friend’s voice as Olivier tries, unsuccessfully, to draw his attention to the painting.
It’s only when his colleague takes his elbow and leads him forcibly to the picture does Ottavi begin to focus on the painting. He stands transfixed. Adrenaline immediately courses through his body and with shaking hand he reaches for the painting’s ornately gilded frame, almost as if he needs to reassure himself it’s not an illusion.
With the keen eye of a connoisseur, Ottavi carefully scrutinizes the portrait, eagerly taking in the dashing brush strokes, the vivid use of colour and the voluptuous beauty of the sitter. Breathlessly he searches the painting for the artist’s signature and there in the lower right corner, boldly executed with the confidence of a true master, is the name, Boldini!
“Is it possible? An unknown work by Boldini ?” Ottavi is feeling faint with the enormity of the discovery. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the famous painter’s work, Ottavi is certain the painting has never been exhibited in the public arena or indeed published in any catalogue recording the famous Portraitist’s work. It has most likely, only ever been enjoyed privately, here in this opulent and most intimate of rooms, the lady’s boudoir, seen only by Madame herself or possibly her admirers.
“And the woman ! Who is she?” asks M. Choppin-Janvry, not realizing the rawness and urgency in his voice has revealed the almost palpable fascination he feels for the mysterious beauty.
Marc Ottavi smiles sympathetically, for he too is not impervious to the woman’s allure. “Ah! The lady, if I’m not mistaken, is the beautiful and talented actress, Marthe de Florian. Muse to Boldini and courtesan par excellence to the very rich and famous.
The men stand in contemplative silence gazing at the painting each pursuing a different train of thought. Marc Ottavi’s main concern is to establish the provenance of the portrait. He needs a link tying Boldini to this picture. Taking a notebook and pen from inside his jacket, he records the physical details of the painting – style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions and frame.
That done he then turns the painting to the wall and begins to intently investigate the back of the portrait. He is looking for exhibition marks, gallery labels, dealer stamps in fact, anything that may indicate it’s pedigree.
Meanwhile Olivier has become uncomfortably aware the scent of roses is back in the room. It reminds him of a perfume worn by his grandmother, Guerlains L’Heure Bleue. A zephyr like breeze eddies around the boudoir, agitating the silken curtains framing the French doors and causing the pages of an ancient copy of La Mode Illustree to unfold, almost as if they were being turned by an invisible hand.
Ottavi seemingly impervious to his colleagues uneasiness, steps away from the painting and pockets his notebook. “I have to get back to the office. I’ll make arrangements for the painting to be collected tomorrow. It should be safe here until then.”
Laying a friendly hand on Olivier’s shoulder he continued . “ My apologies for leaving you here but I’m keen to get the research team up and running. We need to establish the portraits provenance. In the meantime, if you would search the flat for anything that may tie Boldini to this painting, a receipt of payment, a business card, anything ! Because without provenance the painting is near worthless. It will be always suspected of being a forgery.”
Olivier understands the importance of establishing provenance. “What does your gut instinct tell you?” he asks his colleague.
Ottavi smiles cautiously, “Oh I think it’s authentic alright. Marthe and he were lovers. It stands to reason he would have painted her at some stage during their affair. She was also a famous beauty, a successful actress and celebrated courtesan. The main reason for concern, there is no record of the painting having ever existed and with an uncatalogued work you’re always behind the eight ball when trying to establish its authenticity.”
The two men shake hands and Marc Ottavi takes his leave, promising to call Olivier first thing in the morning with information regarding the time the painting will be collected.
M. Choppin-Janvry is once again alone in the boudoir. The room looks benign, even cozy with sunshine spilling across the faded, but still beautiful aubusson carpet. The sun’s relentless rays however also cruelly illuminate the decades of inexplicable neglect.
The faint perfume of roses still linger in the air but Olivier barely notices its haunting sweetness. His mind is too much occupied by the monumental task of sifting through the room’s clutter, searching of something that may, or may not exist.
Pulling a Louis chair close to the overflowing bookcase, he ignores the grey cloud of dust that envelops him when his derriere hits the chair’s seat. There is not much point for fastidiousness when the entire room is covered in a pall of powdery dust.
Selecting a book randomly he carefully flicks through it’s pages. It’s not uncommon for people to secret things within the leaves of books but he knows he really is just delaying the inevitable. The enormity of the task that lay ahead, has him seeking distraction.
He chuckles when he sees the books title, Emile Zola’s “Nana”. The classic story of the rise and fall of a celebrated courtesan. An amusing coincidence he supposes.
He begins to read and in moments is lost in the world of gaslight , beautiful women and foolish men. The sunlight retreats and the room begins to fall into deep violet shadow. Its only when he has difficulty seeing the written word does Olivier become aware of time passing.
How long had he been reading? The shadowed room suggests some hours have passed. Consulting his watch he’s appalled to discover its nearing 4.pm He has lost the better part of the afternoon.
Unable to resume his search, for there is no electricity in the apartment to light his way. He decides to pack it in. Calculating an early start tomorrow will make up for the time wasted today. However, while there is still enough light, he needs to secure the apartment.
Placing the book back on its shelf he stands and starts for the French doors only to be overcome by feelings of intense light-headedness. Had he stood too fast causing the blood to rush from his head? Clutching the back of a chair he attempts to steady himself. The room is a blur, he tries to focus, to bring the wavering lines of the room back to their natural, stoic form.
Its then he hears the whisper of silken skirts or is it just the blood coursing through his ears? There is movement near the dressing table, the shadows seemingly alter, their nebulous quality becoming more defined, gradually a recognizable figure materializes out of the penumbra. It’s the woman from the portrait. There is a translucency, a kind of porosity to her form.
She stands with her back to him . “Marthe ?” he whispers uncertainly. She turns slowly, an enigmatic smile seeming to play across her exquisite features. Olivier is calm, although when he speaks his voice is hoarse with emotion. “What do want?” he croaks. The wraith says nothing but simply stands there. Then with languid grace she points to the dressing table draw.
He stumbles toward her, desperately rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. With cleared vision the apparition has suddenly vanished and the room is restored to static normality.
M. Choppin-Janvry slumps against the dressing table he’s acutely conscious of the intoxicating smell of L’heure Bleue filling the room. He feels disoriented and the loss of equilibrium has caused him a slight feeling of nausea.
With fumbling fingers he tries to pry the draw open. Finding it locked he begins searching among the detritus crowding the dressing tabletop. After moments of frustration he finally unearths from under a pile of what look to be lettres d’amour, a key.
It slides effortlessly into the lock and with a satisfying click the draw is open. Inside are calling cards, jewelry,and neatly bound letters, each bundle tied with different coloured ribbon. But the most intriguing item of all is a book. Across the front of it’s beautiful scarlet morocco binding, in embossed gold is the name “Marthe de Florian”
With great care and mounting excitement he opens the book. It is as he had hoped, a most thrilling discovery for there on the first page, written in hand are the words :
“I wasn’t always known as Marthe de Florian. I began life with the far less aristocratic sounding name of Mathilde Heloise Beaugrion. My parents, young, carefree and in the first flush of their love for each other, were ill prepared the for the event of my birth in September, 1864.”
He held in his trembling hands the journal of Marthe de Florian.
to be continued……