The Boulevard Haussmann runs for more than two and a half kilometres from the eighth to the ninth arrondissement. It is one of the wide tree-lined Parisian boulevards created by Baron Haussmann during the renovation of Paris inspired by Napoleon III.
Gustave Caillebotte, a lawyer by training, was a wealthy young man. His father had made a fortune supplying Napoleon’s army with uniforms, bedding and other textiles. Gustave inherited part of that fortune at the age twenty-six. He took on painting as a hobby. His first submissions to the official Salon being rejected, he turned to the Impressionists, and in 1876 he was invited to submit work to their second Impressionist Exhibition. Not having to make a living from his work, the five hundred or so paintings he created stayed in the family. He was also a great patron of the arts. He purchased about sixty-four paintings from Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and others, which he left to the French State. His collection is now the crux of the Impressionist holdings at the Musée d’Orsay.
Caillebotte lived just down the Boulevard Haussmann, and painted the avenue in many different lights as the days and seasons changed. Most Impressionist paintings of Haussmann’s Paris depict a sunny city of socialites at leisure, dancing, shopping, boating or drinking. For Caillebotte, the modern metropolis was a darker and lonelier place. In his paintings, men leaning on new bridges seem engulfed by steel girders. Others stand on balconies, looking down at the Boulevard Haussmann – above yet dwarfed by the street (‘Un balcon: Boulevard Haussmann’, 1880). His perspectives and panoramic views seem to shade the images with loneliness and a sense of alienation. His best pictures pose a question. How does the modernization of a metropolis affect its inhabitants?
The Musée Jacquemart-André is located at no. 158 Boulevard Haussmann. Édouard André, descendant of a banking family, devoted his considerable fortune to buying works of art. He married Nélie Jacquemart, a well-known society painter. The couple amassed one of the finest collections of Italian art in France. When André died, his wife completed the decoration of the Italian Museum. Faithful to the plan agreed with her husband, she bequeathed the magnificent collections to the Institut de France.
The museum was opened to the public in 1913. The museum has also been largely responsible for the re-discovery of the work of the Caillebotte brothers. Whilst Gustave chose art from the outset, his brother Martial was a pianist and composer who later took to photography. They spent much time together, and the themes Gustave painted – street scenes, family life, bridges and trains, sailing and canoeing – Martial photographed. In 2011 an exhibition entitled ‘The Private World of the Caillebotte Brothers’ showed some thirty-five paintings and 150 family photos offering a window on their personal views of Paris in a time of change. Gustave’s large paintings were displayed in tandem with Martial’s small sepia-toned snapshots. Art and photography – no longer considered as rival arts, but exhibited in a juxtaposition of perfect harmony.
From 1906 to 1919, novelist Marcel Proust lived at no. 102 Boulevard Haussmann. There, he wrote the major part of À la recherche du temps perdu. Suffering from bronchial asthma and severe allergies since childhood, he created a space that sheltered him from dust, smells, noises and drafts. Sound and light were barred from his bedroom where velvet curtains created a semi-dark interior. All of the room’s apertures were shielded. The two sets of double doors were permanently shut or heavily curtained; a five-panelled Chinese screen stood behind the head of his bed; the single door leading to his dressing room was strictly regulated; the two windows shuttered. In order to create a barrier against noise from outside, Proust had lined the walls and ceiling with cork. Only by closing himself off could he live within the expanding domain of his novel. In the room the past was present everywhere. It was cluttered with unattractive furniture. His mother’s grand piano occupied a central place; his father’s velvet armchair was facing his bed; his mother’s worktable in front of two revolving bookcases blocked one of the double doors; there was, furthermore, a mirrored wardrobe; a rosewood chest with a marble top and mirror; a Chinese cabinet; a free standing clock; and an oak desk that was never used save for piling up papers and books. Proust’s writing place was his brass bed placed at the corner of the bedroom to enable the novelist to monitor the room. Warmed by woolly jumpers and hot water bottles, he wrote using his knees as a desk. Living in one of Paris’s most modern streets, Proust blocked all aspects of contemporary life from his apartment. Driven by technology the cityscape had changed dramatically, leaping forwards to a brave new future. In the midst of all modernity was a single soul who looked inwards and backwards in the nostalgic search for times lost.
It was this startling contradiction that must have inspired Alan Bennett. His short film 102 Boulevard Haussmann is set in 1916 and based upon an episode in Marcel Proust’s life. After 1907 Proust (played by Alan Bates) was an asthmatic invalid, writing and thinking in bed, and being looked after by his maid Céleste (played by Janet McTeer). Their cloistered relationship is the essence of the storyline. Proust’s demands deny Céleste’s husband, on short leave from the trenches, private time with his wife. He knowingly interrupts their love-making. She, in turn, intervenes to ‘protect’ Proust from his homosexual attraction towards a young viola player whom he lures to his apartment to perform César Franck’s beautiful phrase which recurs in À la recherche. She created the environment which enabled Proust to write. The ‘fictional reality’ of the film is very much Bennett territory. In a static world of repressed intimacy the incidental and seemingly insignificant become meaningful. It was the author’s intent to communicate the nature of artistic genius and the creative process at work.