Letters from two painters to Marcel Proust (1915 and 1918)

By Malyoune Benoit, graduate student in French

 

Letter from Madeleine Lemaire to Marcel Proust (6 April 1915)1

 

The painter Madeleine Lemaire played an important role in Proust’s life and literary work, and their relationship was at times complicated. At the turn of the century, musicians, writers and well-known Parisians flocked to her artistic salon. When Proust first met her in 1891, she was 46, he was 20. He needed her connections to be introduced to an artistic and social world he longed for, even as it seemed out of reach.

When Madeleine Lemaire writes this letter in April 1915, the war has been raging for months; many of Proust’s friends have enlisted or been drafted. She begins by thanking Proust for his recent letter. It seems she had not heard from him in some time:

Letter from Madeleine Lemaire to Marcel Proust, April 1915 (excerpt 1)

My dear Marcel,

I rediscover you fully in the long letter2 you went through the effort of writing me. It touched and amused me. I hope writing it did not cause you too much fatigue. As for me, I assure you I found it delightful. I felt like I was chatting with you.

She regrets that Proust is not able to see her in person:

Letter from Madeleine Lemaire to Marcel Proust, April 1915 (excerpt 2)

How unfortunate that we cannot talk about all this, and how sad that we are not able to chat together like before, and share our two melancholies, which would perhaps give us the strength to withstand them.

Lemaire stresses the general feeling of despair shared by both correspondents:

Letter from Madeleine Lemaire to Marcel Proust, April 1915 (excerpt 3)

I assure you that our melancholies have much in common, since they likely have the same causes, and that our general disenchantment comes from the collapse we are witnessing. Do not say that your moral state is incurable: you are young, and you can hope to witness a rebirth, whereas I will not be given the time; I can only end my days in sadness.

Near the end of the letter, she also acknowledges Proust’s recent literary success:

Letter from Madeleine Lemaire to Marcel Proust, April 1915 (excerpt 4)

And yet the past year has been a good one for you: in your literary career you had a great success, which you so richly deserved. You must have been pleased, in spite of it all.

Running out of space on this last page, she finishes and signs the letter across her earlier lines:

Letter from Madeleine Lemaire to Marcel Proust, April 1915 (excerpt 5)

Fondly,

Madeleine Lemaire

Please forgive my rambling. I am tired.

Nostalgia for a society life no longer available permeates the letter, noticeable in a reference to Réveillon, the castle Lemaire owns, where Proust and his friend Reynaldo Hahn were once faithful habitués. However trivial the information they share about the different medicines might seem, such as the laxative tablets he recommended to her, it serves as a reminder of the psychological and physical disruption brought by the war.

Still Lemaire does not give up hope as she tries to recall her active life. An energetic person, a significant feature of her personality Proust admired in her, Lemaire was a talented painter and keen connoisseur of botany. She illustrated his first book Pleasures and Days (1896). A number of female characters in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time novel bear a resemblance to her, such as the emblematic figure of madame Verdurin, a domineering salon hostess. The unflattering portrayal of this character is believed to have created some tensions between the novelist and his former mentor. Lemaire was among the first to have noticed in the young Proust the literary talents many failed to recognize. She encouraged and supported him from the beginning. It is hoped that the remainder of their correspondence, yet to be found, will help shed further light on their relationship.


 

Letter from Jacques-Émile Blanche to Marcel Proust (4 February 1918)

 

Jacques-Émile Blanche, ten years Proust’s senior, was an established painter when the two met. Mainly known for his portraits, he painted literary figures such as Henry James and André Gide. In 1892 he painted the now famous portrait of Proust as young man with a white orchid in his buttonhole. Proust was particularly attached to this portrait, and kept it until his death.

The first part of this letter describes how Blanche is working on collection of essays, for which Proust has agreed to write a preface. Blanche worries about difficulties and delays in the publishing process, anticipating the end of the war:

Letter from Jacques-Émile Blanche to Marcel Proust, February 1918 (excerpt 1)

[…] it will be almost impossible to publish the great number of works waiting for publishers.

In early 1918, the writer and the painter are both in Paris, and the capital is under threat from bombardments. Despite Blanche’s concerns, his postscript provides evidence of a vivid social life in Paris. He encourages Proust to attend a show at the Casino de Paris that had particularly struck him. For Blanche, the sad spectacle of the crowd during intermission gives a taste of cultural apocalypse, accompanied by a cacophony of musicals instruments loud enough to rival the Gotha, the German heavy bomber introduced in 1917:

Letter from Jacques-Émile Blanche to Marcel Proust, February 1918 (excerpt 2)

If you feel well enough to venture out, you should go one evening to the Casino de Paris between 9 and 11 [pm]. This show, along with the Picasso exhibition at 108 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, is the most significant display of the moment, and it really is scary. This is just the beginning, or rather, the war may have been been a mere prodrome of the Great Terror.

Letter from Jacques-Émile Blanche to Marcel Proust, February 1918 (excerpt 3)

My friend Ghéon, who is on leave, told me very seriously yesterday: ‘it’s a sign of the end of the world!’ I would think so as well, if only I believed in God a little more deeply; but, again, it really is scary!

Letter from Jacques-Émile Blanche to Marcel Proust, February 1918 (excerpt 4)

I especially recommend the scene that takes place during the intermission, when the crowd rushes toward the stairs to the lavatory while the howling of the musicians (not Negroes, as Misia would have it, but Yankees), the cymbals, the whistles, the bells, the banjos, the saucepans, the drums etc. etc. crush those walking in the hall, while a poor little war cripple blinded at Verdun, with a whore sitting on each knee, offers expensive drinks to his comrades and tries very hard to have fun. Stravinsky has not yet given us, despite all his cleverness, the equivalent of these wild and exciting harmonies, that rival the cannonade of the Gothas.

The friendship between the two men would not last, and turned bitter after Proust wrote the preface. Their correspondence reveals how tirelessly Proust worked on the preface, but Blanche was disappointed and later added a second preface. A well-known painter, he still felt unsuccessful, and turned instead to literary criticism. Their differing opinions on painting further increased the distance between the two. Well after Proust‘s death, Blanche continued to write acrimonious articles about him.3

 

(Back to list of letters)

 


 1. Marcel Proust, Correspondance. Volume XIV. Edited by Philip Kolb. Paris: Plon, 1986. 93-96.
2. This letter has not been found.
3. Virginie Greene, Biographical Notice on “Blanche, Jacques-Émile.” In Marcel Proust, Lettres. Edited by Françoise Leriche. Paris: Plon, 2004. 1187-1189.

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