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Art & History
September 2020

Immersed in Belle Époque art and elegance

Step into the Henner Museum, in a mansion in what was once Paris’ most chic neighborhood, and fly back in time to late 19th century society and culture.

Photo credit:

Hartl-Meyer

Ask a Parisian today where La Plaine Monceau is and few will be able to tell you. A little over a hundred years ago, however, the district was where you could find the who’s who of Parisian society.

In the 1850s, wise investors who could foresee that Baron Haussmann’s vast redesign of Paris was ploughing westward, started buying up newly available plots of land just beyond the city’s borders, in what were once the vegetable and orchid gardens of La Plaine Monceau. The suburb’s annexation into Paris in 1860 and the development of La Petite Ceinture railway ensured that la Plaine Monceau would become an integral part of the city.

Straight, wide avenues were laid out in the new neighborhood, but instead of being flanked by homogeneous Haussmann-style apartment buildings, they were lined by eclectic private mansions, each more flamboyant than the last. Often combining neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and Arabesque features, these extravagant homes reflected the changing tastes of La Belle Époque⁠ — the beautiful era.

Roughly encompassing the interwar period between the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and World War I, the Belle Époque saw rapid technological advancement and the innovative concept that this “beautiful” new society should be built by industrialists, scholars and artists. This collaborative new world would be played out on La Plaine Monceau.

“The whole neighborhood is inhabited by artists: painters, sculptors, musicians and men of letters. It’s a paradise of art, a corner of Paris that tourists who visit will never forget.”

This is how writer Alexis Martin described La Plaine Monceau in his guide to the districts of Paris published in 1890. By the turn of the 20th century, more than 2,000 artists, representing all genres, lived in the dazzling district.

Within a kilometer radius you could find composer Claude Debussy, actress Sarah Bernhardt, writer Guy de Maupassant and playwright Alexandre Dumas, the son. If you turned down one street you might catch sight of the Statue of Liberty rising out of sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s studio.

These were not avant-garde, bohemian artists. The Renoirs and the van Goghs were camped out on the heights of working-class Montmartre. These were bourgeois artists who were successful. They were members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. They followed the accepted norms of the times. They could afford opulent homes.

Sadly, over the years most of their sumptuous mansions have been destroyed to make way for larger, more profitable housing blocks. Nevertheless, one can still experience this effervescent cultural scene at one of the few such Belle Époque residences in its original state and open to the public: le Musée National Jean-Jacques Henner.

Originally built for Guillaume Dubufe, the third generation of a line of prominent 19th-century artists, the museum is exemplary of the studio-homes of the era, a new architectural concept which put the studio at the forefront to facilitate entertaining. Studio visits were one of the most popular events on the social calendar of La Plaine Monceau residents.

Since 1924 it has housed the works of fellow late-19th century artist Jean-Jacques Henner, whose erstwhile fame, like that of Dubufe, has been eclipsed by the Impressionists. Although Henner’s studio was elsewhere, he frequented the area, and the building was specifically chosen by his niece and heir to evoke the ambiance of his era.

Secret Journeys has crafted a unique experience at this special museum that takes guests back in time to this fascinating world. The exclusive tour explores la Plaine Monceau and how Henner fits perfectly into the archetype of the artists of the period. The visit ends in the winter garden, where we can view some special items from the museum’s archives, over a glass of champagne, just like the guests who might have visited the exquisite studio-home a hundred years ago.

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