Unlocking the Mystery of Marthe de Florian
A behind-the-scenes look at the mystery surrounding Parisian courtesan Marthe de Florian, who was the inspiration for author Alyson Richman’s exquisite new novel, The Velvet Hours.
A few years ago, a friend of mine sent me an article about an apartment in Paris that had been mysteriously shuttered for over 70 years that had once belonged to an elusive courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian. When the apartment was opened, it resembled a time capsule. Thick veils of dust covered sumptuous antiques and gilded mirrors. Most striking of all was a magnificent portrait of Madame de Florian by the 19th century Italian painter, Giovanni Boldini, that hung over the marble fireplace. Adding to the allure, love letters written by the artist were found in Marthe’s vanity. No one knows why Marthe’s granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron, closed the apartment at the start of WWII, but as a historical novelist, I knew I had plenty of rich material from which to craft a novel.
Aside from the abundance of art and antiques that filled the rooms, I was immediately drawn to Boldini’s portrait of Marthe that eventually sold at auction for over $2.5 million dollars. Dressed in a sumptuous gown of pale silk with exuberant cloud-like sleeves that fell seductively off her shoulders and an exquisite set of pearls encircling her neck, one could see how beguiling Marthe was. The artist had painted her skin in such a way that, beneath the luminous flesh, she seemed to be lit from within. Looking at the painting, my mind filled with questions. Who was Marthe de Florian and how did she come to be painted by the famous Boldini? Were they lovers? Or was Boldini’s affection for Marthe unrequited? Who was Marthe’s granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron? And why did she shut the doors of her grandmother’s elegant apartment and never return to it, yet pay the maintenance on it until her own death in 2010?
Not only did I set out to answer these questions in my novel The Velvet Hours, I also wanted to explore the life and personal reinvention of Marthe de Florian. Factually, we know little about her except that she was born Mathilde Beaugiron, the daughter of a laundress, and after several years of working as a seamstress, she renamed herself Marthe de Florian. We also know she had a son by the name of Henri Beaugiron, who was Solange’s father.
Luckily, the photographs of the apartment that were published online when it was opened by Solange’s grandchildren in 2010, provided a great deal of visual inspiration for my novel. From the images of Asian porcelains and myriad oil paintings, one could see that Madame de Florian was an avid collector. The photographs also enabled me to reconstruct the furnishings and illuminate the eclectic taste of its owner in my book.
One of the themes of The Velvet Hours is that it’s not the monetary value of our possessions at the end of our life that is significant, but rather the stories that they hold. Rather than the pearl necklace that Madame de Florian wears in her portrait or the vanity that holds her love letters tied in satin ribbons, it was the people who gifted these items to Marthe that were the most precious.
Alyson Richman is the #1 internationally bestselling author of the The Garden of Letters, The Lost Wife, The Last Van Gogh, The Rhythm of Memory (previously published as Swedish Tango) and The Mask Carver’s Son. Her novels have been translated into eighteen languages and The Lost Wife is in development to be a major motion picture. The Velvet Hours which centers around the French courtesan Marthe de Florian and the mystery surrounding her apartment will be published in September 2016.
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