The Duchess and her Palais

Beverly Held, Ph.D. aka 'Dr. B’

Figure 1. Palais Galliera, Place d’iéna

Today we are going to talk about the Palais Galliera, Paris’ Museum of Fashion. Not the exhibition which featured Gabrielle Chanel, which we have already discussed, although this will give me an opportunity to correct a photo misidentification which was brought to my attention by a very charming newsletter reader (yes, I know we are all charming, in our own way). JG informed me that the photo I found of the love of Coco Chanel’s life, was not him. I plead guilty to have chosen the photo of the handsomest guy identified as Boy Capel - turns out my taste in men and Coco’s aren’t the same.  Ah well. As you know from that review, the museum recently reopened after two years of renovations, during which time the exhibition space was doubled. The new space is called the Gabrielle Chanel Gallery because the cost was mostly underwritten by the House of Chanel. The new director of the museum, explaining that this is a fashion museum, asks us not to ask (in a fashion museum) what Coco did during the war.

This review is going to be in the spirit of the reviews I wrote during the first confinement, when all the museums were closed for the first time. That confinement was more of a shock to the system than this one is. At least to me. Now I (sort of) know the drill. Perhaps, too, it is an indication of what people can become habituated to over time. In 1785, George Washington explained it this way when asked to sit for his portrait. (Figure 2) “In for a penny, in for a Pound, is an old adage. I am so hackneyed to the touches of the painter’s pencil that I am now altogether at their beck…It is a proof, among many others, of what habit and custom can accomplish. At first I was as impatient at the request, and as restive under the operation as a colt is of the saddle. The next time I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now, no dray-horse moves more readily to his thills than I to the painter’s chair”. 

Figure 2. George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1779

George Washington became, over time, increasingly resigned to having his portrait painted, Is that what is happening to me? I hope I am never resigned to having the museums closed. Where was I? Oh right. Perhaps you remember that during Confinement #1, I wrote about the museums themselves, especially the people whose collections formed the core of those museums, whether collectors or artists. The Palais Galliera fits into the collectors category and has such an odd history that it is worth telling now that the renovations are finished and can (or will eventually) visit this gorgeous museum.

The museum is located in the very elegant 16th arrondissement, across from the Musée Guimet, the musée national des arts asiatiques, on the Place  d’Iéna, which is presided over by an equestrian statue of the aforementioned American hero, George Washington. (Figure 3) The museum’s story begins, as it should, with a Duchess. In this case, the Duchess of Galliera, who was born Marie Brignole-Sale in Genoa, Italy, in 1811. (Figure 4) Her family was a patrician one which counted among its ancestors, doges, ambassadors and senators. Marie’s education went beyond needlepoint, drawing and singing. In fact, she regularly accompanied her father, a diplomat, on his various missions. When he became the Sardinian ambassador to France, his family moved to Paris. Marie fell in love with the City.

Figure 3. George Washington statue, Place d’Iéna, 1900

Figure 4. Duchess of Galliera, née Marie Brignole-Sale

When Marie turned 17, she did exactly what wealthy young woman are supposed to do, she married a wealthy man. Her husband, Raffaele de Ferrari was the Duke of Galliera. She became its Duchess, as well as the Princess of Lucedio. Raffaele de Ferrari was not only wealthy by birth, but he is among the very few who rather than burning through his inheritance, augmented it by investing in a significant number of lucrative projects, from banking and real estate to railways and the Suez Canal. 

Yes, I hear you asking, if this is a story about an Italian Duke and Duchess from Genoa, why is the action taking place in Paris ?  Well, here is what happened. Soon after their marriage, Raffaele was cleaning his gun. And he unintentionally shot and killed one of his servants. He was so upset that even though the killing, I mean shooting, was deemed accidental, he felt he had to leave Genoa. His duchess convinced him to move to Paris. Their arrival coincided with Baron Haussmann’s bulldozing of Paris and there was money to be made in the rebuilding of the city, so he invested in that, too. After a while, the Duke was ready to return to Genoa, but Marie, who had enjoyed the city as a child, convinced him to stay and they did. 

Since they were so rich, when the time came, the former French royal family’s misfortunes became their good fortune. The Hôtel Matignon, (Figure 5) for example, went up for sale in 1850, after the death of Louis Philippe. You know, Louis Philippe, right? (Figure 6) The Poire? Well, whether you do or don’t, a little chuckle is coming your way.  The Poire business began in the 1830s, with Charles Philipon, a French caricaturist and editor of the satirical political journals, La Caricature and Le Charivari. As he became increasingly disenchanted with the reign of Louis Philippe, he began publishing more and more pointed political cartoons mocking the king. Which was not well received. Which led to trials and imprisonment. On trial once again in November 1831, Philipon, who was expecting to be condemned, figured what the heck and defended himself this way. He showed how in 4 drawings, the king’s face could be transformed into a pear. (Figure 7) Which meant of course that anything could be made to look like the king’s face. Which meant it wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t the fault of any other cartoonist. It was genius. The pear became a shorthand reference to the regime. It became a symbol of the revolution against the king. And it began popping up everywhere. Really. Everywhere. Not only in satiric drawings. It got so bad that public buildings had warnings on the walls: ‘Post no Pears’. 

Figure 5. Hotel Matignon, rue de Varenne

Figure 6. Louis Philippe by F.X. Winterhalter, 1839

Figure 7. Les Poires, Charles Philppon, 1831

So, as I was saying after this second French Revolution, the one of 1848 and the death of the king, Louis Philippe in 1850, the Duke of Ferrari bought, among other properties, the Hotel Matignon, on rue de Varenne. Renamed the Hôtel Galliera, this 18th century hotel particulier had the largest private park in Paris. Marie and her husband began furnishing it with her family’s art collection. Upon her death, Marie bequeathed it to the Austro-Hungarian Empire for its French Embassy, which I will explain below.  But wait, there’s more. France confiscated the Hotel Galliera in 1922, as war reparations. And gave it back its original name, Hotel Matignon. Since 1933, it has been the official residence of France’s Prime Ministers. I remember when I started listening to Le Quotidien, (weekdays at 19h30), the nightly news with late night humor and heard a reporter say “According to Matignon.” I had no idea what that meant. Now I know it is how a journalist tells you what the French PM said.

But getting back to our story. The Duke and Duchess had three children, their daughter died before her first birthday, one of their sons died at 16. As bad luck would have it, their only surviving son hated his father. detested his mother and disavowed his heritage. When the Duchess’ husband died in 1876, she was left with an enormous fortune and an estranged only son. So, she devoted herself to charitable works. She started humbly with a hospice and an orphanage near Paris. She was criticized for making the hospice too luxurious, to which she replied,  In Italy we love palaces: and I own several. Is it not just (by which is meant ‘fair’ or ‘correct’) that in France the poor should have their own?'  I am going to have to agree with her here. She also helped create the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, now the famous 'Sciences Po’. 

Next she decided to build a museum to house her art collection in Paris, which was already in Paris, in her residence on the rue de Varennes. For her museum, Marie chose a parcel of land the Duke had purchased adjacent to the Place d’Iena. She willed the land and the museum she was going to build on it, to France. The Notaire made a mistake (why does that sound so familiar?) and the building was deeded to the city of Paris. Despite her efforts to correct the error, it was never corrected (gosh that makes me feel better, if a duchess can’t undo a Notaire’s mistake, how could I possibly hope to?)  The building project got underway in 1878 when she hired the architect Paul-René-Léon Ginain. Interestingly, the same lament about the career of this architect is the one I read about the architect who built Edouard Andre’s home, Henri Parent. Both were marvelous architects, according to their biographers, who had the bad luck to be contemporaries of Charles Garnier. Had he not been around, each, we are told, would have been awarded the commission to design the new opera house (now called the Opera Garnier). 

Ginain is described as ‘the very embodiment of official 19th-century architecture’.  As a recipient of the prestigious Prix de Rome, he spent four years formative years in Rome, studying the architecture of antiquity, the Renaissance and the Baroque. Ginain designed the Palais Galliera in the 'Beaux-Arts' style, the prevailing style of the day. (Figure 8) Unlike other private museums which were ‘repurposed’ that is, which began as private homes (like the Jacquemart-Andre, the Picasso, etc.) or offices (the Uffizi) or as royal residences (the Louvre) the Palais Galliera was always intended to be a museum and it exemplifies the prevailing architectural conventions of museology in the second half of the 19th century. Its exterior is elegant and its substructure is sturdy. So, for example, the dark tone of the walls was intended to accentuate the paintings to be displayed on those walls, while the metal framework supporting the building was constructed by Gustave Eiffel’s workshop.

Figure 8. Palais Galliera, interior

Have you ever noticed that no one is ever satisfied with museums? No sooner are they built, they are deemed inadequate in one way or another. They are always being closed for renovation or reconfiguration. It is certainly true that our secular age has been the Age of Museums. But we show them no respect, unlike the other great age of monument building, the middle ages. The middle ages was the Age of Cathedrals, and we can follow the increasing sophistication of each generations’ structural knowledge by comparing 11th century churches with 16th century ones - the size of the window, the height of the building, the increasing lightness of the flying buttresses. (Figure 9, Figure 10) Churches were not knocked down to keep up. Sure, when the Cathedral of Reims was bombed during World War I, and the Rockefeller Foundation paid to have it rebuilt, the architects and engineers used modern techniques and materials, including prefabricated reinforced concrete, to strengthen the structure. The same will happen with Notre Dame in Paris, its structural underpinning will be enhanced but its appearance (even that suspect 19th century spire) will be retained. Museums always have to be adapted to new uses, new technologies, new bequests. And nobody seems to feel bad about getting rid of the old to make way for the modern, which will itself be replaced soon enough.

Figure 9. Notre Dame de Poitiers, France, 11th century

Figure 10. Notre Dame Cathedarl de Rouen, 16th century

Right, this museum. Well, all was not smooth sailing for the museum the Duchess was building. It was for the same reason she gave the Hotel Galliera on rue de Varenne to the Austro-Hungarian Empire for their French ambassador’s residence. France passed a law in 1883 expelling all previous ruling and imperial families (among whom were the Duchess’ dear friends from childhood, the children of Louis-Philippe). The next year, another law was passed making the Comte de Paris ineligible for the presidency. That was it. She was done. In a handwritten will dated 7 October 1884, she withdrew the bequest of her art collection to France and sent it instead to one of the many palazzi she owned in Italy, the Palazzo Rosso in Genoa. Her son may have refused his inheritance, but she disinherited Paris. The building project for the Palais Galliera went ahead and when it was built, she gave to the City of Paris, empty.

So, there it was, a museum without a collection, without a raison d’être. The city used it for a variety of temporary exhibitions before it finally became Paris’ museum of fashion in 1977, a century after the Duchess of Galliera first proposed giving her art collection to France. After the Chanel exhibition is over (hopefully its closing will be delayed again) the Basement level, aka the Garden level, aka the Gabrielle Chanel Gallery, will house the museum’s permanent collection. Temporary exhibitions will be on the upper levels. The Palais de Galliera is a beauty, a joy to wander around and in, as I hope you will discover soon !



Deedee Remenick November 24, 2020

I look forward to every issue with your written "lectures". I keep a list of all the unique and practically unknown museums so that eventually I can visit them in person. Thank you.

Jacquelyn Goudeau November 24, 2020

Merci Dr B for a most interesting review! Truly enjoyed your research & writing! Smile...

K Holliday November 25, 2020

What a marvelous read, once again. Please keep these treasures coming our way as we remain ‘quarantined’ and in great need of your scholarship and humor. Bless you!

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