« La curiosité est un vilain défaut! »
« Curiosity is a wretched trait! »
This well known French proverb – cited once upon a time to scold nosey children – perfectly captures the 19th century bourgeoisie’s aversion to indiscretion, thus sealing la curiosité’s fate as a vice rather than a virtue for generations to come.
And yet, as visitors to Paris know, there is no better guide to the city’s many delights than la curiosité. A state of mind that puts all the senses on high alert, la curiosité pushes us to go beyond the conventional to explore the unexpected.
Paris is a city replete with clues scattered along the pavements like so many bread crumbs, they enable the visitor to find their way back to the city’s kaleidoscopic past. Many a tourist will pass them by on their quest for Instagram fodder…those in the throes of la curiosité will follow their siren call.
One such expedition led me to the city’s literal hidden treasure, La Galerie des Bijoux, tucked away on the 2nd floor of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. To enter the gallery feels like discovering the shimmering spoils of a Pharoh’s tomb. Enveloped in darkness, each precious piece of jewelry is lit by a pinpoint of light and sparkles back at you like a star. The desire to bedeck the body with jewels is as old as civilization itself, and the collection takes you on a journey from talismans to tiaras. Each one mesmerizes with their meaning encoded in gold and encrusted gems, symbols of power, wealth, status, faith and of course, eternal love.
It is not uncommon to find oneself alone with this priceless trove as each unique jewel casts its scintillating spell on you. I will never forget the moment when one particular piece spoke to me. Far from one of the flashier numbers, it was a silver ring with a heart-shaped moonstone enveloped in the outstretched wings of bats. Pure Goth by today’s standards, it was made in 1899 by the master of Art Nouveau, René Lalique. In a heightened state of curiosité, my eye was riveted by the inscription, which has lost nothing of its magnetic eccentricity:
« Tant me plaît que tu souffres de me comprendre et de m’aimer… »
« How it pleases me that you suffer so to understand and to love me… »
In that instant, I plunged down the rabbit hole head first…
The ring was bequeathed to the museum by the estate of Natalie Clifford Barney. A wealthy American heiress, Natalie was the daughter of Albert Clifford Barney, whose colossal fortune was made manufacturing railway cars, and Alice Pike Barney, a renowned American artist who contributed to making Washington a center for the arts.
As a young woman, Natalie escaped the constraints of family and Washington society to lead the life of the ultimate bohemian – albeit with independent means – in Paris.
Paris at the time was in the throes of La Belle Epoque (1871 – 1914), a period of great cultural effervescence and scientific progress. When electricity lit up the grand avenues for the first time, Paris became known as the City of Lights.
If all the world’s a stage, Paris was the epicenter. The city’s thriving cultural scene boasted countless theaters, music halls, and newly-opened cinemas packed to the rafters. A select group of women artists were breaking ground, creating new means of expression and becoming the divas of their day. The legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, the first woman to play Hamlet in film, had a cult following for her performances both on and off-stage. American women artists were also at the fore of the avant-garde. In 1891, Mary Cassatt had her first one-woman show at the Durand Ruel gallery. By 1900, the great Loïe Fuller, who incarnated the esthetics of Art Nouveau in dance, passed the sacred torch to Isadora Duncan, who was in turn worshiped as the barefoot goddess of modern dance. Paris was fertile ground for artists who braved convention and dared to be different.
Into this creative whirlwind, stepped the young Natalie Clifford Barney.
Continue to Part 2 of this story.
Lorraine Chesterman Holl is a Canadian freelance writer who has lived in Paris for 27 years. She has an extensive experience in advertising, having worked as a Creative Director for international agency networks, both in Canada and in France.
Lorraine Chesterman Holl on Instagram @morvan_forever