(Due to the richness of the topic, this post will be completed in 2 parts)
While I was flipping through a book about historic palaces in Paris, especially those rarely accessible to the public, a particular and quite unusual story caught my eye and sparked my interest. The fascinating story I am about to describe narrates the life of the mastermind behind one of the most emblematic monuments on the Champs-Elysées (Hôtel Particulier in French): Hôtel de La Païva, the only example left of the magnificent palaces that once lined the iconic avenue.
Hôtel de la Païva was built between 1856 and 1866 by the mysterious Blanche de Païva (also known as Thérèse and Esther Lachmann, Marquise de Païva or La Païva), one of the most admired but, at the same time, despised courtesan (a woman with high social position who had sexual relationships with rich and powerful men for money) of the French Second Empire (Regime of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870). (Photos source)
With different names, multiple lovers, 3 marriages and a willful ambition, La Païva was committed to dramatically changing her social status, infiltrating and conquering the upper-class Paris society and even outshining the elite by building a true architectural gem. In her own words, “the best hôtel particulier in Paris”. It is believed, not surprisingly given her character, that she built Hôtel de La Païva on the very spot where she had been humiliated in her youth. Without this palace, her name and story would have barely been known or remembered.
Blanche ran a targeted “campaign” to desperately get herself out of poverty by climbing the “prostitution ladder” and marrying wealthy men. Indeed, she rose from being a near penniless sex-worker to be the holder of a massive fortune once her “campaign” was finished.
While some biographies might describe her as an overly ambitious upstart, excessive in her need for material goods and uncouth in her way of showing her fortune and possessions, I’d rather explore the reasons that might have led her to adopt certain behavior and what really fueled that determined ambition.
Let’s put this story in a social context to better understand the life choices La Païva and other women in her position had to make in that era. In her book “La Femme Pauvre” (The Poor Woman) published in 1866, Julie Daubié (The first woman awarded the baccalaureate in France) described the misery of female workers in the 19thcentury: “The female worker has no choice other than to sell her body, even in times of industrial prosperity, because of the insufficient salary she received”. Women, as vulnerable second-class members of society at that time, had few to no prospects to make it in the world. An article about women’s living and working conditions in 1871 confirms just that: “The favored image of woman that pervaded the culture of Second Empire of France stressed women’s passivity and quiet suffering in the face of adversity, the alleged source of her moral strength. This docile, saintly, revered creature was mirrored by her rival sister, the “coquette” a guileful seductress who nonetheless remained dependent on men for her survival… Even socialist thinkers (of the time) limited women’s roles in society: housewife or harlot (prostitute)”.
This is the social environment where Blanche developed her character. She escaped poverty by using and relying on men. She remained, throughout her life, dependent on them for her survival, while rejecting her modest upbringing, reinventing herself, and lying about her childhood and her family of origin to seek material security and be considered as a solid member of the elite. I will write about her life in much more detail in my next post.
The style of the property, in my opinion, can be seen as a mirror of Blanche’s personality and indeed life. It is extravagant with excessive ornamentation and a myriad of sculptures, paintings and the most precious materials in every corner and on every wall and ceiling of the house. This is all aimed at dazzling and impressing a potential audience. As if there was a desperate attempt to try hard to compensate for the lack of something, seek recognition, incite admiration and maybe acceptance. Blanche was heavily criticized by the very people she was trying to impress who labelled the property in less than favorable terms.
Now, let’s look at what makes this property the finest example of private architecture and interior design at the height of the Second Empire:
The luxury mansion does not fail to dazzle. The design concept as imagined and created by the Architect Pierre Manguin, placed women, painted or sculpted, at the heart of the design theme: The female representation is found everywhere with the face of La Païva as a source of inspiration (Photos source)
The greatest artists creating the style of the Renaissance repertoire were commissioned to work on the property: the French painters Baudry (from l’Opéra Garnier), Picou, Gérôme, along with the sculptors Dalou, Carrier-Belleuse and Barrias. (Photos source)
The magnificent staircase is undeniably the showpiece of the property. It is almost entirely made of Algerian onyx (a type of marble). La Païva is represented, naked and covered with jewels, riding a dolphin! (Photos source)
The Grand Salon, the main reception room with five tall windows overlooking the Avenue of The Champs-Elysées, has kept its magnificent wall decoration and an imposing fireplace made of red and white marble. (Photo source)
The dining room, overlooking the patio and the greenhouse, is decorated with the most spectacular fireplace in the mansion with marble columns, sculptures of lionesses and a flying eagle.
The “Salon de musique” (Music room) is decorated with a fresco painted by Henri Picou. The gilded bronze mantel is decorated with a woman’s head, probably that of the hostess, and two statues of lionesses. (Photos source)
In the bedroom, a sizable bed can be found. But the most fascinating part of La Païva’s private quarters is the bathroom designed and decorated in the Moorish style: Algerian onyx with bright blue tiles create a very oriental atmosphere. The presence of three gigantic mirrors prove that La Païva was comfortable with her body. An exceptional silver-plated bronze bath, shaped by the Christofle factory, built in an onyx casing, can be found. (Photos source)
Next time, I will be looking at La Païva’s personal story and how her life lead her to building this impressive mansion.
I hope you liked my post!
Inass M. Jenner