For those in search of hidden corners of Paris saturated in literary history, far from the throngs at the musee d’Orsay or the Louvre, there are few calmer oases than the Maison de Balzac in the sixteenth arrondisement. One of the last surviving historic vestiges of Passy, a village on the western outskirts of Paris annexed to the capital in 1860, the multi-story apartment of the writer Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), perhaps the most celebrated French novelist of the nineteenth century, perches on the slope above the Seine. Surrounded by a verdant garden with a view across the river to the Eiffel tower, the Maison de Balzac, now converted into a museum, contains a collection of paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, mementos and furniture that illuminate the career of this literary titan.
Fleeing creditors after several failed business ventures, Balzac set up residence between 1840 and 1847 in the second floor of a former folly in the garden of a nearby hotel particulier. It is the only one of his residences that still stands. There, he assumed a pseudonym, Monsieur de Breugnol, a variation of the name of his housekeeper, Louise Breugniot. This ruse, together with the odd configuration of his house, and its isolated location, allowed Balzac to retreat from the tumult of central Paris and complete some of his best-known novels. While he complained in 1844 of the noise from children on the floor below him, his apartment was a generally peaceful refuge.
A labyrinthine series of rooms insulated the writer from the outside world. The writer and art critic Theophile Gautier described the peculiarity of the structure: one entered it the way wine goes into bottles. One had to descend three floors in order to arrive at the first floor. In 1850, The Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval recalled Balzac’s residence located on the rue Basse (now the rue Raynouard) as a maison inverse, or an upside-down house. Although the structure has been altered since Balzac’s tenure, one still walks down to the museum via a long external staircase from the main entrance on the rue Raynouard.
In 1842, Balzac wrote to his mistress Eveline de Hanska, a Polish noblewoman that he first met in 1832 and whom he was to marry in 1850, only five months before his death, that he lived in his hole in Passy like a rat. It was the out of the way site of his most prolific years as a writer. He is best known for his encyclopedic portrait of French contemporary life, explored in a series of novels and short-stories collectively known as the Human Comedy, which he corrected in its entirety at his Passy retreat. A visit to the museum offers the opportunity to see Balzac’s study, a modest chamber with south-facing views into the garden. He wrote of this spot that it was a place where books and flowers grow like mushrooms. At the simple table on display next to a marble bust of the author given to him by the sculptor David d’Angers in 1844, Balzac also composed at a furious pace several of the key novels in the Human Comedy series, including The Black Sheep, Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons. This output was the fruit of a work schedule that often led him to write for up to sixteen, and sometimes even nineteen, hours a day. In room IV, Balzac’s working method is illustrated with illuminated displays of the corrected proofs of his texts.
For those interested in posthumous tributes to the author, the museum possesses many of the models by various sculptors, including Henri Chapu, Alexandre Falguiere, and Paul Dubois, related to the project to erect a monument to Balzac. These are exhibited and explained in room VIII downstairs. The campaign to honor him was launched in 1880 by the novelist Emile Zola, whose realist project to portray social and political life in late-nineteenth-century Paris was profoundly influenced by Balzac. After a succession of artists failed to realize their designs, Auguste Rodin exhibited his modern conception of the standing, tortured writer at the Salon of 1898, where it was derided by critics and rejected by officials in charge of the commission. Kept by the sculptor at his atelier in Meudon, Rodin’s full-length monument to Balzac was finally installed at the intersection of rue Vavin and Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail in 1939, where it still stands. The Maison de Balzac has two works linked to Rodin’s design, both dating from the late 1890’s, showing the innovative treatment of Balzac’s head and facial expression.
These and other objects, including portraits of the author’s entourage, many of whom figured into his novels, ensconced in a peculiarly intimate setting in a little-visited corner of Paris, provide insight into one of the most fascinating literary minds in post-Revolutionary France.
– Peter Miller holds a Ph.D. from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. He is a freelance curator in Paris and leads a variety of itineraries for Context Paris.
Maison de Balzac
47, rue de Raynouard 75016 Paris
Tuesday to Sunday 10am – 6pm; Free admittance
Metro: Passy or La Muette
RER C Boulanvilliers and Radio France