Not many people may know this, but there is something important going on behind the scenes in Paris. Art Nouveau aficionados are working on realising a museum at Hôtel Mezzara. Le Cercle Guimard is mobilising funds, politicians and volunteers to create a tourist centre showcasing the work of Hector Guimard and Parisian Art Nouveau. But as that museum is not yet a fact, and because the façade doesn’t reveal much, one could easily walk past the building without ever noticing it… So what makes this building so significant?
I had hoped to learn more from a book about its original owner Paul Mezzara, published in December 2018 by Mare & Martin. But unfortunately that book is only available in French. And I don’t read French… Therefore, I have asked author Bruno Montamat to give me a summary of his book. And with his help I managed to reconstruct the story below.
However, if you dó read French, please get a copy of this book and enjoy the whole story. Details of the book can be found at the end of this article.
The book I am referring to focuses on a forgotten Parisian personality of the Art Nouveau period: Paul Mezzara, the original owner of Hôtel Mezzara. Author Bruno Montamat based his biography on unpublished archives of the Mezzara family.
According to Bruno Montamat, Paul Mezzara (1866-1918) was a painter, a decorator, a writer and a maecenas. But first of all, he was a French industrialist at the beginning of the 20th century who founded the lace and embroidery house Melville & Ziffer. Through lace, intended for the home and for women’s clothing, Mezzara was engaged in the revival of French decorative arts. And in keeping with the philosophy behind the Arts & Crafts movement, he made sure his expensive lace production financed the more affordable lace production, making it available to all. Mezzara exhibited his modern lace patterns at national and international exhibitions and it is very likely that he knew the key figures from my story about Catalan Modernist lace.
Mezzara was also vice-president of the Society of Decorative Artists in 1907, 1910 and 1911. Yet today, he is a forgotten personality of a movement as ephemeral as it is unique: the Art Nouveau movement.
So what else can we learn from Montamat’s book? Paul Mezzara was the (illegitimate) son of Auguste Hennessy (1800-1879) and Adèle Mezzara (1828-1907), who came from a family of artists. He was the grandson of François Mezzara (1774-1845), a painter from Rome and his wife, Angélique Foulon (1793-1868), also a painter. He was the nephew of Joseph Mezzara (1820-1901), a Franco-American sculptor and brother-in-law of Edouard Manet (1832-1883). He studied at the Académie Julian and later at the École des Beaux-Arts.
(Interesting little fact from the book: nephew Joseph Mezzara had studied painting in Paris with Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), a painter from my home town in The Netherlands. When Scheffer passed away, Joseph Mezzara designed a monument to Ary in his native Dordrecht. The statue was inaugurated in 1862, in Joseph Mezzara’s presence. And I have walked past this statue at least once a month, for the last 40 years…)
Though he came from this dynasty of academic artists Paul Mezzara himself was more of a decorative artist. In 1891 he left France to live in Venice, where he founded the well-known lace workshop Melville & Ziffer. It was his aim to modernize and revitalize Arts & Crafts, in particular lace making, for which he took part in French and international exhibitions. Why he called his lace firm Melville and Ziffer, instead of Mezzara? According to Montamat he chose the name of Melville probably in reference to the autor of Moby Dick as he had just fled the island of Bréhat with his young sister-in-law, to settle in Venice. Of course, all the juicy details are explained in the book.
After Mezzara returned to France in 1900, he had boutiques in Venice, San Rémo, Saint Moritz, Berlin and Paris (Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré), sold lace via mail order and through haberdasheries. And in 1913, he opened another shop at Avenue de l’Opéra, which was decorated by Léon Jallot.
For his family, Mezzara decided to build a ‘Hôtel Particulier’, a private mansion, in Auteuil. And this mansion, now located in the XVIe arrondissement of Paris, was to become a quintessential showcase for the decorative arts of his time.
When you intend to build a house to showcase state-of-the-art decorative arts of 1910 Paris, who better to commission than Hector Guimard (1867-1942) himself to design the house? Luckily, Mezzara already knew Guimard as they were both members of the Society of Decorative Artists. Also, in 1907 Mezzara had a cross drawn by Hector Guimard to decorate the tomb of his mother Adèle Mezzara (produced by the foundries of Saint-Dizier).
Guimard was strongly influenced by the work of Belgian architect Victor Horta. And at Hôtel Mezzara he experimented with Horta’s favored skylight, as well as with Horta’s use of space and volume, as can be seen in the picture below of the central hall.
Even though Guimard was commissioned to design only part of the interior, his style is dominant in the dining room (executed in pear wood, consisting of a table that can accommodate five extensions, twelve chairs and a three-part sideboard designed to fit into an alcove), the study and the big hall. Inside‚ one can still enjoy his exquisite metalwork and stained glass panels. And also some of the stucco was designed by Guimard. The chandeliers though, are modern renditions of a Guimard model; they were installed during the restoration of the 1980s. The chandelier in the dining room is a copy of the one that used to adorn the dining room of Hôtel Guimard, at Avenue Mozart. The original can be seen today at the Petit Palais Museum in Paris.
But like I said, Guimard didn’t do it alone. The Hôtel was actually furnished and decorated by a number of remarkable designers of the time, mostly members of the aforementioned Society of Decorative Artists.
One of the collaborators was Léon Jallot (1874-1967), who in ecome director of the Art Nouveau workshop of none other than Siegfried Bing (1838-1905). Overseeing production for the shop as well as Bing’s installation at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, Jallot participated in the creation of some of the Art Nouveau movement’s most prized works – those designed by the firm’s renowned threesome: Georges de Feure (1868-1943), Eduoard Colonna (1862–1948), and Eugene Gaillard (1862–1933).
Paul Mezzara entrusted the decorating of the large living room of Hôtel Mezzara to Léon Jallot: a molding carved with flowers and geometric leaves runs along the wall. This Passiflora motif is found on the furniture of this room as well. In addition, it had a library that was adorned with wooden sculpted panels showing different wetland plants (Horsetail, Fern, Solomon’s Seals) by Gaston le Bourgeois. These panels by the way, were presented at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1913 (published in Art et Decoration, 1913).
Contrary to what I would have expected, the salon does not look very distinctly Art Nouveau in the contemporary pictures. But according to Bruno Montamat this geometrization of forms is perfectly representative of the second movement of Art Nouveau, that of the 1910s, a period of transition between the curve of the 1890s and the rigor of Art Deco.
Another contributor to Hôtel Mezzara was Francis Jourdain, a pioneer of the Art Nouveau style, who distinguished himself as a decorator of the famous Villa Majorelle in Nancy. His work was also shown at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. But what exactly he contributed to Hôtel Mezzara is still unknown. It is merely a memory of Paul Mezzara’s eldest daughter Yvonne Sadoul, a future communist activist.
Further decorators involved were Edgar Brandt, who contributed the chandeliers for the great hall and Charlotte Chauchet-Guilleré, who created a toile marouflé ‘Le Repos’ that can be seen in the dining room alcove. Paul mezzara had asked Charlotte Chauchet- Guilleré, with whom he had previously collaborated for exhibition decors, to complete the decor of the dining room with the neo-pointillist canvas “Le Repos”, a fragment of which was presented at the Salon d’Automne in 1912.
Unfortunately, Paul Mezzara did not manage to complete the decorating of his home. His third marriage ended in a separation that led to his departure in 1913. From then on, the mansion was rented out. And eventually in 1930, it was sold. Thanks to the rehabilitation of Art Nouveau, it saw its first restoration in 1979. After an inscription in the inventory of historical monuments in 1994, the entire mansion was classified as a Historic Monument in 2016 by the Ministry of Education, Ministry of culture and Ministry of Finance. Its façades and roof were restored in 2005. In 2015, the State decided to sell it. And since then, Le Cercle Guimard and the French entrepreneur Fabien Choné have joined forces, supported by the municipal authorities and the RATP (the Parisian metro company), to establish a museum at Hôtel Mezzara.
In 2005 and 2006, Hôtel Mezzara was briefly open to the public for exhibitions and events organized by Le Cercle Guimard. And between September and December 2017, it was exceptionally open as a venue for the exhibition “Hector Guimard, precursor of design” thanks to the support of the Ministry of National Education and Ministry of Finance. But when I was there in 2014, unfortunately, it was hermetically closed. So this recontruction – with the help of Bruno Montamat – is as close as I could get to piecing together its history.
Learning more about Paul Mezzara and this project leaves no doubt that the building is well worth preserving. Let’s hope that Le Cercle Guimard can manage to realise a museum at Hôtel Mezzara soon, so we can all visit this showcase of the best Parisian decorative arts of 1910, and make Mezzara’s dream come true.
Want to see more pictures of the interior? Check out this website or better yet, watch Stephen Frears’ movie Chéri with Michelle Pfeiffer (2009), as the movie was partially filmed inside Hôtel Mezzara. And if you – after watching the movie Chéri – want to have the same bed as Léa de Lonval, go here.
About the author Bruno Montamat
After working for many years in the conservation of the Musée d’Orsay, Bruno Montamat is currently in charge of cultural heritage at the French Ministry of National Education. His research focuses on architecture and decorative arts from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. Most of his publications are available online on the Academia website:
Paul Mezzara, Un oublié de l’Art Nouveau
Price: € 39,-
Format: 16 x 24 cm, 293 pages
Available on the internet (Fnac, Amazon…), and in bookstores.
Création et vie artistique à Paris du grand siècle à nos jours
Delicate Art Nouveau Lace in Arenys de Mar
Édition Mare et Martin
Hector Guimard: Art Nouveau to Modernism
Hôtel Mezzara and the Guimard Museum Project at IconicHouses.org
Le Cercle Guimard: Musée Guimard Hôtel Mezzara
Leon Jallot – Calderwood Gallery
Parijs Online: Hôtel Mezzara (Dutch)
Paul Mezzara sort de l’oubli
Wikipage – Paul Mezzara
Wikipage – Hôtel Mezzara
L’hôtel Mezzara, une demeure philosophale