Musee de la Vie Romantique is a charming, peaceful oasis at the foot of Montmartre in Paris. (Well, that’s what it was on a sunny spring day the other time I visited. On a recent rainy November day, it was dreary outside. People stood around wondering why they were there. The cheery garden cafe is shuttered and the chairs sit in puddles). Still, it’s worth a stop, especially since it’s free, with donations welcome.
On the way, I passed the Moulin Rouge, THE nightlife spot in Romantic times. From what I can see beyond the tour buses, it doesn’t look too appealing today. Plus I read that animals are used in the current show, in ways a lot of people find distressing. I’ll salute, but pass.
Art Scheffer, portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1840
The house, built in 1830, was the rented home of the painter Ary Scheffer, who was well-known at the time and had royal connections. Scheffer hosted weekly salon evenings attended by everybody who was anybody in the Romantic art, literature and music world.
Le Grand Atelier d’Ary Scheffer, Arie Johannes Lamme, 1851
Scheffer’s studio must have been a nice artistic hangout for his friends and students.
George Sand, bust by Auguste Clesinger, 1847
George Sand, one of the most notorious and talented women of her day, attended regularly with the most famous of her many lovers, the composer Frederic Chopin. Her real name was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. Her friends called her Aurore. Though her family was not aristocratic, there was some money, a good education, and entree into high social circles.
George Sand, portrait by Charles Louis Gratia, 1835, Public Domain
She married a Baron and had two children, but aristocratic life was way too confining for her. She ran off with her two children and famously started dressing in men’s clothing, which she considered more practical than the full skirts and flounces of the day. Dressing as a man also let her enter places where women were not allowed, like raffish cafes in Montmartre (where she scandalously smoked in public).
Here she is, presiding over her salon (furnished by her heirs after the house became a museum, with portraits, possessions and mementoes). This portrait is by August Charpentier, 1838. She was striking and charismatic no matter how she was dressed. The poet Alfred de Musset, one of her lovers, said she was “the most womanly woman.” To support and also to amuse herself, she began writing novels, essays, criticism and memoirs. Her colorful life gave her plenty of material, and she was not particularly shy about sharing all her experiences. Note to self: find a good biography, and also her letters.
Frederic Chopin was a regular at the house during his stormy 8-year liaison with George Sand. A plaster cast of Chopin’s left hand reaches wistfully for a plaster cast of George Sand’s right hand in a glass case, along with a pen and some love letters.
Daguerreotype of Frédéric Chopin, Bisson, c. 1849, Public Domain
Poor Chopin suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 39. I wonder whether his affair with George Sand lengthened or shortened his life. Note to self: find good biography and letters.
Regulars at the house also included Chopin’s friend the composer Franz Liszt, opera composer Gioacchino Rossini, and the painters Eugene Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, among many other artists of the Romantic Period. Later on, Charles Dickens, Ivan Turgenev, and Charles Gounod also stopped by often.
The actress Sarah Bernhardt was a regular, too. Here she is costumed as a character in a play based on one of George Sand’s works.
The house became a museum in 1982. Heirs of George Sand donated much of the contents.
The audioguide is worthwhile, but not really necessary because there’s a free little guidebook.
In the summer months, there is a pretty tea garden. The food is nothing special, but it’s a fine place to sit and soak up the atmosphere of La Vie Romantique.
Naturally, George Sand has been the subject of plenty of books and movies. My favorite is the 1991 movie Impromptu, often streaming on Netflix. I’ve seen it before, but I’ll be watching it again. Who can resist Judy Davis as George Sand and Hugh Grant as Frederic Chopin, right at the beginning of their tumultuous affair?
Actually I see that I have it on DVD! Reading the jacket, I remember the rest of the cast: Emma Thompson as a duchess, Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, Julian Sands as Franz Liszt, Bernadette Peters as the long-suffering wife of Liszt, Ralph Brown as Eugène Delacroix, and the list of treats goes on. James Lapine was the director.
I’m off! If anyone needs me, I’ll be in mid-1800s Paris.