(Due to the richness of the topic, this post will be completed in 2 parts)
As I was flipping through a book about historic palaces in Paris, particularly those that are rarely accessible to the public, a particular and rather unusual story caught my attention 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. It is the only surviving example of the magnificent palaces that once lined the iconic avenue.
Listen to the audio adaptation of this post:
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 be barely remembered.
Blanche conducted a calculated campaign to lift herself out of poverty by ascending the ranks of prostitution and marrying wealthy men. Through her determined efforts, she transitioned from being a nearly destitute sex worker to amassing a vast fortune by the time her campaign concluded.
If you like this type of stories, you can read about Marie-Antoinette and her beautiful home “The Petit Trianon” here!
While some biographies may portray her as an overly ambitious upstart, who was excessive in her need for material possessions and uncouth in her ostentatious display of wealth and possessions, I prefer to delve into the reasons that might have driven her to exhibit such behavior and what fueled her relentless 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 was the social milieu where Blanche’s character was molded. She used and relied on men to escape poverty and remained dependent on them for her survival. Rejecting her humble upbringing, she reinvented herself and fabricated stories about her childhood and family background to attain material security and gain acceptance as a respected member of the elite. In my next post, I will delve into her life in greater depth.
In my opinion, the style of the property reflects Blanche’s personality and her life. It is extravagant, with excessive ornamentation, numerous sculptures, paintings, and the most precious materials adorning every corner, wall, and ceiling of the house. All of this is intended to impress and awe potential viewers. It appears as though there was a desperate attempt to compensate for a perceived lack of something, seeking recognition, admiration, and possibly acceptance. Unfortunately, Blanche’s efforts were heavily criticized by the very people she was attempting to impress, who described the property in unflattering terms.
Now, let’s examine what distinguishes this property as the quintessential example of private architecture and interior design during the heyday of the Second Empire:
The luxurious mansion is nothing short of stunning. The design, conceptualized and brought to fruition by the architect Pierre Manguin, placed women- painted or sculpted- at the center of the design theme. Female representations can be found throughout the property, with La Païva’s likeness serving as a primary 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