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The Impressionists at the Maison Dorée,
A family story

An exclusive conference took place on June, 15th in the frame of Les Rencontres BNP Paribas in Paris.

Jean-Marie Rouart, writer and member of the French Academy, came to remind us the atmosphere of the XIXth century in the“Maison Dorée”. He spoke in front of 500 of the group's shareholders and clients.
In the XIXth century, the “Maison Dorée” was one of the most famous restaurants in Paris. Attended by the “bourgeois”, writers, painters and art dealers, the “Maison Dorée” welcomed the 8th and last impressionist exhibition in 1886.

Descendant of the painter Hernri Rouart, Jean-Marie Rouart also has common blood with Berthe Morisot, Edouart Manet, Edgar Degas.
“Impressionists at the “Maison Dorée” was, for him, a real family history.

Minutes of the 15 June 2006 conference


Introduction by :

  • Michel PEBEREAU, President of BNP Paribas


  • Jean-Marie ROUART, Of the Académie française


Michel Pébereauwhen welcoming Jean-Marie Rouart on the 15 June, stressed that it was 120 years ago to the day that ended the last exhibition of the Impressionists group at the Maison Dorée. He also pointed out that the building's façade had been restored by the BNP in 1974-1976. The president recalled, among other things, the role of the BNP Paribas foundation and the patronage actions undertaken in the field of culture.

The conference of Jean-Marie Rouart, scattered with anecdotes, personal impressions, and improvisations cannot possibly be put into a nutshell.


Here are however the main topics of his intervention.

He said how pleased he was to intervene in such a legendary place where were gathered all the very passions of his life: literature, painting, journalism, gallantry.
He then evoked the past of the Maison Dorée, the atmosphere of his own family so closely linked to Impressionism and painted a small picture of the situation.

Biography (27 ko) (27 ko)

maison dorée

The atmosphere of the Maison Dorée, anecdote.
One must admit that the Maison Dorée wasn't a very suitable place. This doesn't show anymore. The evidence of private rooms has of course been erased. An anecdote told by the Goncourt brothers, illustrates the life at the time. The messenger sent to bring in some girls and that is found later on reading Tertullien in the staircase. The bishop of his had told him that Paris was a den of iniquity. And therefore he read Tertullien…!

Literature: Proust at the Maison Dorée.
Gallantry rejoins literature. Literature rejoins painting. The Maison Dorée – readers of Proust know that well– is the place where Swann falls madly in love with Odette, a coquette, a loose woman. If at first it is not a question of sensual attraction, it is when coming to fetch her at the Maison Dorée and not finding her there that Swann feels his anguish turning into passion. As always with Proust, it is the anguish of loosing that blossoms love. That is how the Maison Dorée contributed in Search of lost time, to the history of love passion.

A family of painters.
The Rouart family had this particularity of being a family of painters. A monomaniac family where all conversations where centred on painting. As horrifying as it may seem, there perspired a wonderful ambiance.
In auntie Julie's flat – the daughter of Berthe Morisot – laid an enchanting atmosphere. The walls were covered with works by Manet, Renoir or Berthe Morisot. This did not, however, prevent the children from pacing the flat up and down with their lead guns; the paintings were riddled with dart holes. During a birthday party, a champagne cork unfortunately made a hole in one of Manet's works, portrait of Berthe Morisot with a bouquet de violets, a painting now shown at the Musée d'Orsay. The attentive visitor will, in that matter, be able to perceive a blister on that canvas.

Art was everywhere. The ambiance maintained itself to be never the less friendly. No one thought about the value of the paintings. Art was a spiritual value.
The harmonious link that bonded the great minds of the 19th century with the impressionist painters of the time was to be found in the heart of this « extraordinary » family.
JM Rouart is the great grandson of the painter Henri Rouart, pupil of Corot and Henry Lerolle; both great friends of Degas. The latter wrote in one of his letters « the Rouart are my family in France ».

A few portraits

Degas is a reference within the family, a « godfather » with his austere conception of art, his rather pessimistic and Jansenist vision of life. He was a man exemplary for both being malicious and funny. When speaking of the painter Eugène Carrière, he said : « c'est un Watteau à vapeur »_ a play on words as “bateau à vapeur” in French means a steamship, Watteau being the famous painter, and “avoir ses vapeurs” meaning having hot flushes… When speaking of Renoir: « Looks like he's painting with cotton ». During a supper, a woman tells him: « When I come to feeling old, I will kill myself ». « Fire! » replies Degas. He was also famous for his fits of anger. When Henri Rouart died, a part of his collection was put up for sale, including the famous Danseuses à la barre by Degas. The painting was sold; this piece of work was sold at the highest price: a considerable amount of money for the time. The journalists raced towards Degas to gather the impressions of the master. Sulky, he replied: « The one who painted this painting is no imbecile, but the one who bought it at that price is a damn fool! ».

Edouard Manet was from a family of the bourgeoisie. His father was horrified when he told him he wanted to become a painter. He forced him to sit the exam of the Ecole Navale (naval college) to become a naval officer. Young trainee on a ship, he leaves for Rio de Janeiro, a trip with heavy consequences as he contracted syphilis.
Manet is very close to Baudelaire, who was one of the first to recognize his talent. In a very beautiful letter, the poet wrote: « you are only the first in the decay of your art ».
Although Manet and Degas had great admiration one for the other, they spent most of their time quarrelling. Their similar character was never the less opposite. If Degas was austere and sulky, Manet was however fickle and light comedy going. An anecdote: In 1880, Manet sold to Charles Ephrussi, editor of the Gazette des arts, for 95 000 golden francs, a canvas called Une botte d'asperges (A bunch of asparagus). Ephrussi having sent 100 000 francs in payment, the artist painted just one asparagus that he sent with this note: «there was an asparagus missing to the bunch. ».
Manet was however often criticized, except for one of his fads: to obtain the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour). But this obsession was purely anecdotic. The true Manet was, to use the words of Proust, only in his art. When he died, Degas – very distressed – had this weird word: « We did not know he was such a great man ».

Méry Laurent
How could one not talk about Méry Laurent ? Daughter of a linen maid, she was not predisposed to becoming an oracle. She however played a very important role in the history of Impressionism. Of great beauty, she would seduce all men. She became the mistress of the fabulously rich doctor Evans – Napoleon III's dentist – and managed by that, thanks to the money of her lover and fancy man, to financially help her impressionist friends. She became also Manet's mistress, whom she met after buying one of his works. Mallarmé fell madly in love for her. Were they lovers? The mystery remains.
When Manet died, she stayed until the end, Méry Laurent withdrew to Auteuil. She met Proust that used her as model for Odette de Crécy.

Berthe Morisot
How not speak about Berthe Morisot whose work so luminous hides a painful personality? Painter of the every-day happiness, one could have associated her to Colette. But this would not correspond to reality. Uncompromising woman, in prey to doubt, she did not believe in her genius. This was the case for many of these artists, extraordinary men and women. All had tremendous feelings of self-doubt. In her notebooks, Berthe Morisot wrote that she did not think about posterity. She just wished to keep the souvenir of an instant: the souvenir of something going its way, a landscape, Julie...
Mother and daughter have known a passion that went on beyond death. Julie herself painted, not to blossom within the career of a painter, but to communicate with her mother.

Renoir is another great friend of the family. Ambassador of the Impressionists, he was a very good man that did his utmost to calm down passions, particularly during the Dreyfus affaire; an affaire that torn apart the impressionist movement and that led to the death of the « Revue Blanche ». This review epitomizes the very history of French painting and literature of the end of the 19th century. So many illustrious people have written in its pages: Félix Fénéon, Jarry, Proust, Gide, Léon Blum or Mallarmé. The Revue Blanche defended ardently the Impressionist movement, and most of all the Nabis.

Isn't it extraordinary to see that so many things happened within the Maison Dorée? There are things that can be said, others that had better be kept quiet. The Maison Dorée was a place of exception for the combination of so many passions and talents. As Barrès said, there are places where « blows the spirit ».