Proust and His Circle

Proust's socializing began in the artistic salons of the late 1880s, but his desire to scale the heights of the Faubourg Saint-Germain—the wealthy and aristocratic section of Paris—to meet duchesses as well as the grandes cocottes ("great courtesans") of the Belle Epoque was strong and speedily gratified. The models for his later characters were found in these different settings. The character

Marcel Proust Caricature Images
Marcel Proust, 1932. While generally not linked to the world of clothing design but rather to literature, Proust's writings reveal his intense interest in fashion. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Baron de Charlus, for example, was based on Robert de Montesquieu, aristocrat and would-be poet, whom Proust first met in 1893. In the portrait of Montesquieu by the society painter Giovanni Boldini, the baron is raising his ebony cane like a rapier; the blue porcelain handle matches his large cuff links. His long-waisted jacket with wide lapels edged with broad ribbon and his white shirt with high, soft collar and dark cravat are part of the recognizable dress code of the fin-de-siecle dandy. His unusually high-coiffed hair, handlebar moustache, and small imperial-style beard, along with his arresting and extraordinary pose, created the kind of extreme image that Proust feared most, given its perceived links to homosexuality and to the writer Oscar Wilde, whom Proust had met and whose trial for homosexual conduct was thoroughly covered in the French press. Yet the young Proust himself was photographed with two close friends in a similar, though muted, mode of self-presentation.

Elisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe, one of the models for Duchesse de Guermantes, was a friend and cousin of Montesquieu. She posed for an unknown photographer at about the same time as Montesquieu sat for Boldini. She stands arranging flowers in a tall Greek vase, showing off the unusual back detailing of her dress, with its large white collar appliquéd with flowers and its pattern of light-colored flowers flowing down the dark dress, spreading out and underlining the shape of the skirt. Comtesse de Chevigné, another model for the duchess, wore cornflowers in her hat to emphasize her bright blue eyes, just like the Duchesse de Guermantes in the novel. She chose to be depicted, by another unknown photographer, in far more somber attire, as if to emphasize her intellectual credentials. This yoking of art and high society, which so fascinated Proust, caused André Gide, as a young publisher, to reject the first volume of the novel. In his later years Proust did not forgo the company of artists nor did he eschew high society completely. He became friendly with the writer Jean Cocteau and dined with the ballet producer Sergey Diaghilev and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, but his work took priority.

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