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The Romantic Nature of the Musée de la Vie Romantique

Neil and I stopped at the Musée de la Vie Romantique (the Museum of Romantic Life) at the tail-end of our walking tour of Montmartre. The museum is located at the base of the Montmartre Hill in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.

The main building, which houses the permanent exhibition, is a hôtel particulier that was built in 1830, now known as the Hôtel Scheffer-Renan.

From Wikipedia.

The Musée de la Vie Romantique contains exhibits on Parisian artists who were part of the Romantic movement. Romanticism was an artistic, cultural, and intellectual movement that swept through Europe between 1770-1850. It arose partly as a reaction to modernity in general and the Industrial Revolution in particular, and was influenced by the tumultuous political events of the time such as the French Revolution. Romanticism stressed the importance of nature, history (particularly that of the medieval period), individualism, and emotion.

The Romantics believed that intense emotion was the true root of aesthetic experience. They valued imagination, originality, and believed in the genius of the creative mind as it is moved by inspiration. A common artistic theme was the awe that one can feel when faced with the sublimity of nature. English Romantic poet William Wordsworth¹ is especially identified with the latter sentiment; renowned for his writings about the Lake District, he stated that poetry begins as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that is later “recollected in tranquility” and shaped into art. Although the movement was most powerfully reflected through art, music, and literature, it also had a major influence on politics, education, science, and history. For example, people began to take a greater interest in history during this period, and recognized that valuable historic landmarks had to be protected and restored. The movement also celebrated folk art.

Painter Eugène Delacroix was considered a leader of the French Romantic school.

Liberty Leading the People. Eugène Delacroix, 1830.

Nature and the sublime featured in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romantic landscape painter.

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Caspar David Friedrich, circa 1817. From Wikipedia.

In 1811, Dutch painter Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) arrived in Paris and began his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts. He was the son of two painters, portrait painter Johan Bernard Scheffer, and portrait miniature painter Cornelia Lamme (who was herself the daughter of landscape painter Arie Lamme, after whom Ary was named)².

Scheffer began exhibiting his work at the Salon de Paris in 1812. In 1822, he was hired by Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans, as a drawing teacher for Philippe’s children. Scheffer profited from the connections he made while in Philippe’s employ, earning lots of commissions for portraits and other work. In 1830, the July Revolution saw the overthrow of then-King Charles X (younger brother of Louis XVI and Louis XVIII). Scheffer’s employer became Louis-Philippe I, King of the French (reigned 1830-1848).

Self-portrait. Ary Scheffer, 1830.
Louis-Philippe, King of France from 1830-1848. Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1841.

Scheffer continued to prosper during the reign of Louis-Philippe I. In 1830, Scheffer moved to a part of Paris that was located on the slopes of the Saint-Georges district (below Montmartre). This area was located where the old Les Porcherons quarter had been, which had previously consisted of cafés, cabarets, and orchards (even farther back, there had once been a castle here³). Now, the orchards were being converted into a fashionable residential neighbourhood that attracted a large number of writers, painters, actors, and musicians (the cafés and cabarets remained). This area was called “La Nouvelle-Athènes”* after the ancient Greek design of the new townhouses and buildings in the district. It became the centre of the French romantic artistic circle.

Place Saint Georges, which features a statue of 19th century French illustrator and cartoonist Paul Gavarni.  This square is a 3-minute walk away from where Scheffer lived.

Scheffer rented a property at No. 7 Rue Chaptal (now number 16), in a residence that is now known as the Hôtel Scheffer-Renan**. Scheffer had two glass-roofed buildings added to the courtyard; one was used as a salon, the other as a workshop. Scheffer and his younger brother Hendrik, also a painter, taught students in the workshop. Scheffer was joined in his new home by a daughter named Cornelia (named after his mother), who had also been born in 1830. The identity of the child’s mother is unknown, perhaps kept a secret by Scheffer because she may have been from one of the noble families that had commissioned Scheffer’s artwork. Cornelia (1830-1899) later became a sculptor and painter. Cornelia and her father hosted Friday-evening salons, and they were attended by prominent figures including George Sand, Frédéric Chopin, Eugène Delacroix, and Charles Dickens, among many others. When Sheffer’s friends had some paintings turned down by the Salon de Paris, he had them displayed as part of an “Exhibit of the Refused.”

A picture of one of the glass-roofed buildings that Scheffer had built, now used as a tea room.

From the museum’s official website.

Upon Scheffer’s death in 1858, Cornelia purchased the property that her father had been renting. She preserved the house, the salon, and the workshop, and used them to exhibit her father’s work. In 1870-1871, during the Paris Commune, the workshop and the salon were temporarily turned into a hospital

When Cornelia died in 1899, she bequeathed her father’s paintings to his hometown of Dordrecht, in the Netherlands. The property then passed on to Noemi Renan-Psichari, a granddaughter of Ari Scheffer’s brother Hendrik, who had taught at the workshop with him. Noemi’s father***, Joseph Ernest Renan, was a French academic, critic, and philosopher. She converted the salon into a library dedicated to her father’s work, and then rented the workshop to other artists. Her daughter, Madeleine (Corrie) Psichari-Siohan, continued to do this after Noemi’s death in 1943.

Portrait of Ernest Renan. Antoine Samuel Adam-Saloman, 1876/84. From Wikipedia.

In 1956, the property was sold to the French state for a small amount on the condition that it be used as a cultural institution. For a number of years, it served as a university teaching and research centre for the study of sound and colours under the directorship of Madeleine’s cousin, Olivier Revault d’Alonnes.

Upon Madeleine’s death in 1982, the French state handed management of the property over to the City of Paris. The City, in turn, established the “Renan-Scheffer Museum” as an annex of the Musée Carnavalet (which is dedicated to the history of the city). The museum then underwent a massive renovation and reopened in 1987 as the “Musée de la Vie Romantique.”

From the museum’s official website.

The permanent exhibition is housed on two floors in the former residence of the Hôtel Scheffer-Renan. The first floor contains numerous household possessions, family portraits, memorabilia, jewelry, and watercolours painted by French romantic writer George Sand (1804-1876)****. The museum’s website heralds Sand as “the first modern woman in French literature.” By the time Sand was 27, she was the most popular writer in Europe, male or female (even more than Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac!), and her work would continue to be immensely popular throughout her life and after her death.

In addition to the subversive nature of her novels, Sand also flouted many of the rigid social conventions that applied to 19th century upper-class women such as dressing in male attire and smoking in public.

Sand was highly political, and championed the causes of the working-class, the poor, and women’s rights. If you read my blog post about the Musée de Cluny, you may recall that Sand wrote about  The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in her serialized 1844 novel Jeanne, bringing them to public attention. Sand often attended the salons held by Ari Scheffer and Cornelia at the Hôtel Scheffer-Renan, so there is a personal history that connects the property with her exhibit.

This painting is currently on display at the museum.

Portrait of George Sand. Auguste Charpentier, 1838. From Wikipedia.

A photograph of her that I really like.

George Sand by Nadar, 1864. From Wikipedia.

The second floor of the permanent exhibition contains paintings, sculptures, and other artistic objects that were made during the Romantic period. Ary Scheffer’s paintings are included, as well as those made by his contemporaries. There are also written and archival materials related to Ernest Joseph Renan, Noemi Renan-Psichari’s father.

Baroness Charlotte Rothsch. Ary Scheffer, 1828.

Unfortunately, Neil and I were feeling a little burned out by the time we made it to the Musée de la Vie Romantique. As a result, I didn’t take any pictures of the permanent exhibition. But I couldn’t resist taking photos of a temporary exhibition that they had on, entitled: “The Power of Flowers: Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) + A Contemporary Career in the Arts and Crafts.” The exhibit featured the work of renowned botanical illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté and his contemporaries.

One of Redouté’s illustrations.

A painting by Redouté’s teacher and mentor, Gerard van Spaendonck, that was part of the exhibit .

Still-life of an alabaster pedestal, enriched with bas-reliefs, on which is set a basket of flowers with a bronze vase on one side. Gerard van Spaendonck, 1787.

One of Redouté’s many illustrations.

Centifolia rose, anemone, and clematis. Pierre Joseph Redouté. From Wikipedia.

Redouté was nicknamed “the Raphael of Flowers” and has been called the greatest botanical illustrator of all time. The museum’s website explains that he “contributed to the golden age of natural sciences by collaborating with the greatest naturalists of his time. He responded to their concern for the classification and identification of plants from four continents, reproducing them in watercolour on precious vellums with unparalleled scientific rigour and artistic talent.” He published over 2,100 plates that depicted over 1,8000 species of flowers, many of them having never before been illustrated in this manner.

Portrait of Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Louis-Léopold Boilly, circa 1800. From Wikipedia.

Redouté was born in Saint-Hubert, in the southern Belgium province of Luxembourg (not to be confused with the country of Luxembourg, which it borders on the southeast). His father and grandfather were both painters, and his older brother, Antoine, was a scenery designer and interior decorator. At 13, Redouté left home to make his living as a painter. He traveled throughout Flanders, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. He made his way to Paris in 1782, and met up with Antoine to work with him as a stage-set painter and designer.

18th century wallpaper.

While working in Paris, Redouté attended lectures by Dutch artist Gerard van Spaendonck, who was the official Royal Professor of Painting at the French court. Spaendonck worked out of the Jardin du Roi, the royal garden of medicinal plants. (Now known as the Jardin des Plantes; I have a short post on it here).

In his free time, Redouté would go to the garden to sketch the flowers. While doing so, he met Charles Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle, a renowned French aristocrat, botanist, and plant collector. L’Heritier became Redouté’s teacher and mentor: he taught Redouté about plant anatomy, showed him how to dissect flowers, explained the Linnaeus system of plant classification, and instructed him on what botanists required in illustrations.

L’Heritier commissioned Redouté to produce more than 50 drawings that were included in a book of botanical illustration, L’Heritier’s Stirpes Novae (New Plants, 1784-1785).

A page from Stirpes Novae with an illustration by Redouté. The flower depicted is commonly known as a “silky camellia.”

Stuartia Malacodendron, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, from Stirpes Novae 1784. From Project Gutenberg.

In 1786,Redouté began working at the National Museum of Natural History where he catalogued the collections of flor aand fauna. He joined L’Heritier on a trip to London in 1786, where they went to study the plants at the Kew Gardens. L’Hertier completed a new work, Sertum Anglicum (An English Garland, 1788), that featured the rare plants growing at these gardens, and again Redouté was commissioned to do the illustrations.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

From Pixabay.

Back in Paris, L’Heritier introduced Redouté to the Versailles court. There, Redouté caught the attention (and patronage) of Marie Antoinette and became an official court artist. He tutored the Queen in her art studies, and was given the official title of “Draughtsman and Painter to the Queen’s Cabinet.” This connection also gave Redouté the opportunity to work with and learn from Spaendonck; the Dutch artist taught Redouté how to paint with watercolour on vellum. Spaendonck helped direct Redouté in the production of several works that were included in the Vellins du Roi, a famous royal collection of botanical watercolours******. (Spaendonck contributed over 50 of his own watercolours to the project).

Portrait of Gerard van Spaendonck. Nicolas-Antoine Taunay, circa 1813-1815. From Wikipedia.

Another painting by Spaendonck that was part of the exhibit.

Bouquet of Flowers. Gerard van Spaendonck, 1785.

Redouté managed to stay out of trouble during the French Revolution. In 1792, he started working for the French Academy of Sciences. In 1798, Empress Josephine Bonaparte (the first wife of Napoleon) became his patron. She commissioned him to illustrate the flowers she was growing in her gardens at the Château de Malmaison.

The château had a large garden with lots of rare and exotic plants and animals (including kangaroos, black swans, and zebras!), a heated orangery that contained 300 pineapple plants, and a greenhouse. Josephine’s gardens were where nearly 200 plants were grown in France for the first time. The garden was most famous for its rose garden, which contained around 250 varieties of the bloom.

Josephine is thought to have funded Les Liliacees (1802-1816), Jardin de la Malmaison (1803-1805), Descriptions des Plantes Rares Cultivees à Malmaison (1812-1817), and Les Roses (1817-1824).

In 1809, Redouté also taught painting to Princess Adélaïde of Orléans, sister to the later Louis-Philippe I (a slight connection to Ary Scheffer, who would later teach Louis-Philippe’s children).

Hundred Leaved Rose. Pierre-Josephe Redouté, from Les Roses (1817-1824). From Project Gutenberg.

Redouté struggled financially for a few years after Josephine’s death in 1814. In 1822, he became a master of draughtmanship at the National Museum of Natural History. He also taught art classes at the museum. He passed away in June 1840, at the age of 80.

Tulipes. Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840).

Here are a few other paintings in the exhibit that were done by Redouté’s contemporaries.

If anyone asks me how many flowers I would like, this is an appropriate amount.

La Jardiniere, Simon Saint-Jean, 1837.

I think these next two paintings are by French artist Antoine Chazal, who was another student of Gerard van Spaendonck.

This painting is by Antoine Chazal, and is of the grave of his and Redouté’s teacher, Gerard van Spaendock. He passed away in 1822. I really liked all of the different flowers in this painting, and so the following four photos are close-up details of the larger painting.

The tomb of Gerard van Spaendonck. Antoine Chazal, 1830.

The vase at the side of the headstone.

The roses found at the bottom of the headstone.

A garland of flowers draped across the headstone.

A cluster of hollyhocks growing to the right of the headstone. A fitting monument for the renowned artist, who shared his talent with the next generation of botanical painters.


¹ Other Romantic figures in English literature include Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake (Songs of Innocence and Experience), Mary Shelley (who invented the horror genre with Frankenstein; the Romantic movement placed new emphasis on the emotions of horror and terror) and Sir Walter Scott (who invented the historical novel with books such as Waverly and Ivanhoe; history also being a new focus of Romanticism).

² Scheffer’s mother, Cornelia, was the one to move Scheffer and his two younger brothers to Paris in 1811 after Johan died. Ari’s brothers were journalist and writer Karel Arnold (1796-1853), and painter Hendrik (1798-1862).

³ An old illustration of the area that would become Saint Georges and Le Nouvelle-Athènes from 1550. Note Montmartre (spelled “Monmartre”) and its hill at the top left of the picture. The former castle is located in the bottom right, labelled “Les Tor Cherons.” Note that the area is fairly undeveloped. “LaGranche Bataliere” on the right translates as the “Farm of the Barn.”

From the Plan of Paris in Colour 1550. Olivier Truschet, engraver (?), Germain Hoyau, designer (?). From Wikipedia.

View of the Porcherons Castle “seen from the side of New France” (a district located East of the Porcherons). The castle was built in 1310, then destroyed during the French Revolution. It was completely razed during Haussman’s renovation of Paris (1853-1870). This picture can be seen in the Montmartre museum (which I will shortly do a post about).

Building from the 14th century, illustration from the 17th century (?) by Marie-Louis Legrand. From Wikipedia.

* “La Nouvelle-Athens” was also the name of a café in the same area that was later frequented by Impressionist painters. Edgar Degas painted L’Absinthe in it. During the 1940s, the café was known as the Sphynx. It was a striptease club frequented by the Nazis. Sadly, the building burned down in 2004. There are so many layers of history in Paris, it’s impossible to stop at one story once you start digging!

L’Absinthe. Edgar Degas, 1876.

** The museum’s website says that the house was built by “the entrepreneur Wormser”, but I haven’t been able to dig up any more information about him.

*** Noemi’s mother, Cornélie Henriëtte was Hendrik’s daughter.

**** George Sand was her nom de plume. Her real name was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin.

***** Women who wanted to wear male attire in public were required by the police to apply for a special permit to do so. George Sand refused to comply with this.

****** Our old friend, Gaston of Orléans, saviour of the Château de Chambord (and eternal nuisance to his elder brother, Louis XIII), was also an enthusiastic botanist. He planted a garden at the Château de Blois and grew rare plants. In 1645, he invited botanical artist Nicolas Robert (1614-1684) to Blois. Scottish botanist Robert Morison, the director of the gardens at Blois, encouraged Robert to draw the many different species of plants growing there. This was the beginning of Les Velins du Roi. When Gaston died in 1660, the collection of illustrations was passed on to Louis XIV. Louis handed it off to the Jardin du Roi (now the Jardin des Plantes). Robert continued to contribute illustrations to the collection until his death in 1684. The collection was enlarged in the 18th and 19th century, incorporating artwork by other notable French artists (including Gerard van Spaendonck and Pierre-Joseph Redouté). Les Velins du Roi was moved to the National Museum of Natural History in 1793, where it remains.

An illustration of tulips by Nicolas Robert in Les Velins du Roi.

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2 Responses

  1. I have read a number of books about Paris and enjoyed them all. This was a great trip down a lane of great artists that I had not heard of. Your presentation was great and the storyline was very nice. I learned new things about a great city and enjoyed the experience. Keep up these great posts as they are much appreciated !

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