All of her perfumed history was kept within the apartment. Her pretty DNA of delicacy and shamelessness still drew breath in those rooms. Her life lay fainting, irresistable, beautiful beneath a veneer of sweet dust – the dust of dead flowers, crumbled powder and dried tears.
Curling throughout the room, like a candle’s dying smoke, were words – whispers, entreaties, declarations and secrets. Invisible filigrees of discussions hung in the air: the wit, irony and metaphor of a brilliant, hidden society. This was the world of Marthe de Florian: the demimondaine who held court here – a beauty who trod the line between courtesan and hostess: the consummate entertainer.
There were calling cards tucked into carved and rotted drawers – a miniature library of forgotten admirers, of passions kept at a distance. Yet some were accepted, for there were love letters too: tied with ribbons the color of memory, they harbor rivers of dialogue whose currents have long been still.
And there was also her portrait. Familiar, yet reverent, it depicts her nacreous body emerging from a froth of pink taffeta and mousseline, twisted and pushed into the popular ‘S’ silhouette of the 1890’s. Ruched and ruffled, her gown is a cyclone of color spinning around her figure, breathing light and dark, before it dissolves into a lavender twilight. One shoulder is exposed – a milky precipice over which a man could look into his doom.
The artist was Giovanni Boldini, a painter whose subjects lived in the sun of the aristocracy as well as others who prowled like cats in the velvety dark of the demimonde. This was the ‘half-world’ of artists and actresses, of courtesans and professional beauties; a world dedicated to beauty and pleasure. These were the languid ones who lived for grace and display, turning their carelessness into an intellectual exercise.
Boldini and de Florian were lovers – it was said that she was his muse. Perhaps. Surely Marthe realized that she was given her sculptural body and dramatic face to inspire art and destroy reason. Boldini chose to paint her in profile: he might have gazed at her in a besotted reverie and saw in that profile the strong Gallic line of nose and chin…the beauty that made a mockery of mere prettiness. Thus inspired, he rushed to the canvas to paint his love in a swirl of substance and cloud, creating an alchemy of flesh and fabric.
The apartment had been locked and shuttered for 70 years. Safe with her memories of refined decadence, she has been kept from cynicism and pettiness, from cruelty, from war…from the malice of an ugly world.
But her passionate rooms have been discovered. The key has been found; the door has been opened. Her image has been dusted off and sold; her apartment cleaned – no part of her life that can be felt with the senses remains. Her story has graduated into the imagination.