The House that Pleasure Built

Mlle Dervieux's boudoir

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by that singularly glamorous creature, the Courtesan.  Living outside of society's constraints and approval, hers was a life dedicated to mastering the art of pleasure in all its forms - intellectual and sensual.  

It was a job requirement to be dressed fashionably and sumptuously and her quarters, as an extension of her person, were just as exquisitely equipped.  The Opera dancer Anne-Victoire Dervieux (1752 - 1826) was one such mistress who was so passionate about her Paris neoclassical hotel particulier that she eventually married her architect François-Joseph Bélanger.* 

The house on the rue Chantereine (now the rue de la Victoire) was fabled for its elegance.  The Baronne d'Oberkirch was one of the many who toured it - while its mistress was out, of course - and described it in her memoirs: "It was a gem.  The furniture alone was worth a king's ransom.  Both court and city had contributed to its decoration."

The two story house was first constructed by Alexandre Brongniart, but was redesigned by Belanger in 1788 in the latest Pompeian taste.

The brothers Goncourt called it the most splendid of the small-scale hotels, "with its bathroom in the Etruscan fashion, the dining room preciously worked with silver arabesques, painted figures, and mahogany and lemon wood married together."  Most petites maisons were sited on the outskirts of Paris where men could engage in all sorts of unsavory pursuits away from society.  If interested, I highly recommend the 18th century novel La Petite Maison which narrates the seduction of a young woman through the architectural delights of a maison de plaisance.


Belanger was at the forefront of French neoclassicism which drew upon the arabesque decoration found in the Ancient Roman murals in Pompeii.  (Compare with his British contemporary Robert Adam who was similarly influenced.)

A rare exhibition of 20 watercolor designs was recently on view at Didier Aaron in London.  My dear friend Marc sent me a few images from the show, which I hope some of you had the good fortune to see.  For more, click here.

One of Belanger's most important clients was the Comte d'Artois who, surely no coincidence, was one of Dervieux's supporters.  I couldn't help but include Belanger's charming design for the comte's bedroom at the chateau de Bagatelle in the Bois du Boulogne.

*Dervieux was imprisoned during the French Revolution and her marriage to Belanger afterwards is said to have been more of convenience than of a shared passion enflamed over boiserie and mantelpieces.  Oh well.  The house was later inhabited by another lady of style, Hortense Bonaparte.  Click here to see Dervieux's boudoir in miniature.

For more reading pleasure, curl up with Katie Hickman's Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century and Mistresses: True Stories of Seduction Power and Ambition by Leigh Eduardo.  Of course, I am always looking to expand my library on licentious ladies, if you have any suggestions....