Five months in Paris

As our second years head off to Paris for their Study Trip, one of our lecturers, Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange, tells us about her recent fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study, based in the beautiful Hotel de Lauzun on the banks of the Seine…

From September until the end of January this academic year I was lucky enough to be a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Paris so I could pursue my research project on early modern women’s writings and libraries.

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Outside the Hôtel de Lauzun, home of the Institute for Advanced Study, with fancy 19th- century drainpipe…

The Institute offers residents an office in the beautiful Hotel de Lauzun, overlooking the banks of the Seine, and the opportunity to conduct their research in an interdisciplinary environment: amongst the other fellows were neuroscientists, musicologists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists from America, Europe and the Middle East. Being in Paris for five months meant I was able to access on a regular basis the archives and libraries that hold the majority of the primary sources for my project, as well as meet researchers and academics working in similar areas. In addition, I had the opportunity to see some amazing art, not least two very different exhibitions – one on Northern Renaissance artists at the French court and the other an installation by Sophie Calle, of which more in a later post.

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The gilded balcony of the Hôtel de Lauzun hints at the lavish interior

The hôtel particulier where the Institute for Advanced Study is based sits on the Quai d’Anjou, on the Ile Saint-Louis, a short walk from Notre-Dame cathedral.  It was designed by Charles Chamois and built between 1656 and 1660 for the financier Charles Gruyn (d. 1680), a member of the rising middle classes whose wealth allowed them to invest in property and engage in activities usually reserved for the nobility. The interlaced initials G and M can be found throughout the decorated rooms and might refer to Gruyn and his wife, Geneviève de Möy although it has also been suggested that the letters refer entirely to Geneviève herself, and that she may also have had a hand in the choice of the decoration of some of the rooms. Another symbol found through the hôtel is a wild boar: “Gruyn” being the noise that a pig makes in French,  Charles chose a wild boar (slightly more “heraldic”-seeming than a pig!) as his symbol.

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Top of the staircase, reworked in the 19th century

Unlike many other residences of this kind, the building still contains much of its original decoration. The façade, however, is quite plain, and was probably intended to draw attention away from the more elaborate interior. Only the gilded balcony perhaps gave a hint to passers-by of what lay inside. The positioning of the main living rooms on the first floor of the building allow for an impressive view of the river, as well as protection from any flooding (though during my last few weeks in Paris the Seine was incredibly high and many galleries and libraries were on standby for evacuation).

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The view from my office…with the Seine at over 6 metres high.

Standing in the ante-chambre on the first floor, one has a view through all the doorways which are designed to appear as if they fit one into the other, like Russian dolls.

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View through the doorways on the first floor

The rooms are decorated with gilded panelling and painted ceilings displaying themes from classical antiquity. Some of these, such as the Triumph of Ceres and Diane and Endymion, were painted by Michel Dorigny (1616-65), a pupil of Simon Vouet. The Hôtel acquired its modern name from a later owner, the Duke of Lauzun and it remained in the hands of various aristocrats until the French Revolution. During the 1840s, parts of the hôtel were rented out as apartments to Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier. Not only did Baudelaire write part of his famous Fleurs du mal while living here, but he and Gautier used the hôtel as a meeting place for the Club des Haschischins (the hashish-eaters), a society which was interested in experimenting with drugs like cannabis and opium. Other famous names, like the Three Muskateers’ author, Alexander Dumas, and the painter Eugène Delacroix, were also members of the club.

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Ceiling of the ‘Music Room’, with Paris and Venus (right) and Venus and Adonis (left). In the centre, above the grisaille cartouche, are the initials GM

Since the early twentieth century, the building has been a heritage site and is now owned by the city of Paris. The Institute for Advanced Study has been housed there since 2013.

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2 thoughts on “Five months in Paris

  1. Jon Stevens says:

    Your entertaining piece about the Hotel de Lauzan reminded me of Edmund White’s book ‘The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris’. In Chapter Four he describes his two favourite museums. The one open to the public is the Gustave Moreau Museum (which is one of the most idiosyncratic museums I have ever visited!) and the other museum, not normally open to the public, is the Hotel de Lauzan.

    White gives an account of the house’s colourful owners and then describes the house as it was in 1844 when Baudelaire rented an apartment on the second floor. He describes the lavish way Baudelaire furnished and lived in the apartment, quoting from an account by Thèodore de Banville. He also describes meetings of Le Club des Hachichins. According to White, the club, which was hosted by Paul Guilly, had a membership that included Balzac, Gautier, Manet, Daumier and Guys (as well as Dumas and Delacroix). It must have been quite an experience taking part. Apparently one person who joined then when they met in Baudelaire’s apartment was “a striking gender bending woman known as Pomaré” who dressed as gentleman and who Baudelaire lusted over.

    Is it possible to identify the apartment today?

  2. EL'E says:

    Thanks for your comments and glad you enjoyed the piece. The rooms that Baudelaire rented are now offices – not mine, though! – used by residents of the IEA but they bear no trace of Baudelaire or haschish, unfortunately! My colleague was hoping, however, that some literary inspiration might come upon him while working there…

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