Sunday, February 10, 2008
Cleanliness: A Matter of Beauty
Madame Eugenia Errazuriz in 1882, by John Singer Sargent.
Eugenia Errazuriz (1860-1954) was a style leader of Paris from 1880 into the 20th century, who paved the way for the modernist minimalist aesthetic that would be taken up in fashion by Coco Chanel.
Notably, for Mme. Errazuriz, cleanliness in the home was not for reasons of health, order, or godliness, but for reasons of style and beauty. Unfortunately there is only one short biography of her in Spanish and she wrote only letters herself. She was a Chilean by birth, the daughter of a silver magnate, and married a wealthy landscape painter, Jose Thomas Errazuriz, with whom she had three children. The family settled in Paris in 1880 and lived there until 1900 when she moved to London, returning to Paris and Biarritz after the death of her husband six years later. She was a patroness and close friend of Picasso and Stravinsky and played key roles in helping the careers of the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and pianist Artur Rubinstein. John Singer Sargent and other painters of the day painted her portrait.
"Queen of Clean" is the headline of a short article on her in the New York Times in October 1992. According to John Richardson's book, Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters, she disdained the fin-de-siecle froufrou (dust cathers, to be sure) and maintained a low-key style, whose principle was "Elegance is elimination." According to the Times, at her Biarritz villa she elevated simplicity and cleanliness to an art. "I love my house as it looks very clean and very poor," she wrote. She whitewashed all the walls, hung unlined linen for curtains, and cultivated what might be called a simplified, refined country style. The floors at Biarritz were red-tile, and her friend Cecil Beaton noted that they were "carpetless but spotlessly clean." "Everything in Aunt Eugenia's house smelled so good," wrote her niece. The towels smelled of lavender, and according to the Times, she was "ruthless on the subject of disorder--even down to the bureau drawers. She ordered: 'Throw out and keep throwing out.'" She unabashedly glorified cleanliness as a necessity for beauty: "If the kitchen is not as well kept as the salon... you cannot have a beautiful house." To her, says the Times, "elbow grease was a decorating ingredient as important as good taste."
In 1910, wrote Richardson, "she already stood out for the unconventional sparseness of her rooms, for her disdain of poufs and potted palms and too much passementerie.... She appreciated things that were very fine and simple, above all, things made of linen, cotton, deal, or stone, whose quality improved with laundering or fading, scrubbing or polishing. She attended to the smallest detail in her house." Her tea table offered simple fare (no "vulgar" cakes), according to Beaton, who noted that her toast "was a work of art." Her Paris home was featured in the Harper's Bazaar of October 1938, but I could find no pictures of it.
Mme. Errazuriz in 1890, by Jacques Emile Blanche
In her long life, she had an "indispensable" influence on the Dutch furniture maker and decorator Jean-Michel Frank (Anne Frank's uncle). And Beaton wrote of her: "Her effect on the taste of the last fifty years has been so enormous that the whole aesthetic of modern interior decoration, and many of the concepts of simplicity...generally acknowledged today, can be laid at her remarkable doorstep."
I generally don't like modernist interior decoration or architecture myself, but I do like a clean country style (preferably English or Swedish). Just last weekend, after cleaning my living room, I realized that the whole presentation of the room seemed different--all the colors were clear were more vibrant, and the room looked "put together" and serene. I thought to myself, "Gee, what a difference it makes to dust a bit and pick up the little bits from the floor." So I was happily surprised to come across this "Queen of Clean" in my meanderings early this week.
Mme. Errazuriz was educated by nuns in Chile, was a Catholic all of her life, and became a tertiary Franciscan nun in her later years.