Guide Tour of Maison de Balzac, Paris, France

The Maison de Balzac is a writer’s house museum in the former residence of French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). Located on the hillsides of Passy, ​​the Maison de Balzac is the only one of the novelist’s Parisian residences that remains today. Through the presentation of portraits of the artist or of his characters, paintings, engravings, drawings, and with the help of an original scenography, the museum encourages the visitor to wonder about Balzac and suggests original paths for lead to the discovery as well as the re-reading of La Comédie humaine.

It was in the place that Balzac corrected, from 1840 to 1847, the whole of La Comédie humaine. The modest house, with its courtyard and garden, is located within the residential district of Passy near the Bois de Boulogne. Having fled his creditors, Balzac rented its top floor from 1840-1847 under his housekeeper’s name (Mr. de Breugnol). It was acquired by the city of Paris in 1949, and is now one of the city’s three literary museums, along with the Maison de Victor Hugo and the Musée de la Vie Romantique (George Sand). It is the only one of Balzac’s many residences still in existence.

Balzac’s five-room apartment was located on the top floor, at three levels, and as today opened into the garden. Here he edited La Comedie humaine and wrote some of his finest novels, including La Rabouilleuse, Une ténébreuse affaire, and La Cousine Bette. Although the writer’s furniture was dispersed after his widow’s death, the museum now contains Balzac’s writing desk and chair, his turquoise-studded cane by Lecointe (1834), and his tea kettle and a coffee pot given to him by Zulma Carraud in 1832.

The museum also contains an 1842 daguerreotype of Balzac by Louis-Auguste Bisson, a drawing of Balzac by Paul Gavarni (c. 1840), a pastel portrait (c. 1798) of Balzac’s mother Laure Sallambier (1778–1854), an oil portrait (1795-1814) of his father Bernard-François Balzac (1746–1829), and 19th-century prints by renowned artists including Paul Gavarni, Honoré Daumier, Grandville, and Henry Bonaventure Monnier.

Since 1971 the house’s ground floor has contained a library of the author’s manuscripts, original and subsequent editions, illustrations, books annotated and signed by Balzac, books devoted to Balzac, and other books and magazines of the period. In 2012, Balzac’s House was renovated in order to meet current standards and now has a more modern appearance.

Honoré de Balzac, is a French writer. Novelist, playwright, literary critic, art critic, essayist, journalist and printer, he left one of the most impressive romantic works in French literature, with more than ninety novels and short stories published from 1829 to 1855, collected under the title The Human Comedy. Added to this are Les Cent Contes drolatiques, as well as youth novels published under pseudonyms and some twenty-five sketched works.

He is a master of the French novel, of which he has approached several genres, from the philosophical novel with The Unknown Masterpiece to the fantastic novel with La Peau de chagrin or even the poetic novel with Le Lys dans la vallée. He especially excelled in the vein of realism, notably with Le Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet.

Owing to his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature. He is renowned for his multi-faceted characters; even his lesser characters are complex, morally ambiguous and fully human. Inanimate objects are imbued with character as well.

His project was to identify the “social species” of his time, just as Buffon had identified zoological species. Having discovered through his readings of Walter Scott that the novel could aspire to a “philosophical value”, he wants to explore the different social classes and the individuals who compose them in order to “write the history forgotten by so many historians, that of the mores” and to “compete with civil status”.

The city of Paris, a backdrop for much of his writing, takes on many human qualities. The author describes the rise of capitalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie against the nobility, in a complex relationship made up of contempt and common interests. Interested in beings who have a destiny, he creates larger-than-life characters.

In addition to his literary output, he has written articles in newspapers and has successively directed two journals, which will go bankrupt. Convinced of the high mission of the writer, who must reign by thought, he fights for respect for copyright and contributes to the founding of the Society of Letters.

Read and admired throughout Europe, Balzac strongly influenced the writers of his time and of the following century. His writing influenced many famous writers, including the novelists Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, and Henry James, and filmmakers François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. Many of Balzac’s works have been made into films and continue to inspire other writers.

Balzac rented in the outbuilding of a hotel located at 47 of the current rue Raynouard, in October 1840, an apartment consisting of a dining room, a living room and a bedroom with a cabinet, with use of a cellar and the garden. Balzac’s house today offers the last testimony of the hillsides of Passy, ​​as they appeared under the Ancien Régime and in the 19th century.

Under the Ancien Régime, the hillsides were transformed into terraces where modest houses rubbed shoulders with luxurious mansions, transformed after the Revolution into apartment buildings. After its annexation by Paris in 1860, Passy became urbanized and in the 20th century the village became one of the finest districts of the capital.

After Balzac’s departure, the owner Etienne Désiré Grandemain undertook certain works, in particular the reduction of the dining room. On Grandemain’s death in 1878, the pavilion went to his daughter, Madame Barbier, who, having known Balzac, offered the honor of a visit to the writer’s former apartment to a privileged few.

It was during such a visit that in 1890 the man of letters Louis Baudier de Royaumont discovered Balzac’s former residence in Passy. The apartment was then occupied – for example by the architect Hénin from 1905 to 1907. In 1908, a man of letters, Louis Baudier de Royaumont saved the house by setting up a museum dedicated to the writer, which became a municipal museum in 1949.

In 1949, the State hands over the premises to the City of Paris, which decides to set up a museum there. In 1960 the museum reopened. The Maison de Balzac now extends over three levels between rue Raynouard and rue Berton; it includes the apartment on the ground floor as well as various rooms and outbuildings originally occupied by other tenants. The entire pavilion becomes the Maison de Balzac. The curators Patrice Boussel and Jacqueline Sarment develop the collections and organize the first exhibitions. The library Installated in the old stables in 1971, on the rue Berton side (formerly rue du roc).

Excavations carried out in 2002 showed that the cellars include troglodyte dwellings, these cavities which have been identified by pottery shards as former troglodyte dwellings dated to the time of the late Middle Ages. This discover is the only ones known to date in Paris, when the time Passy was only a village populated by farmers, winegrowers and quarrymen. These excavations, however, are not open to the public.

Museum Layout
The Maison de Balzac is a free museum. Currently, there are the author’s documents, his manuscripts, autograph letters, rare editions, some traces of his eccentricities such as the famous turquoise cane, and his coffee maker with the initials “HB”. Paintings acquired by the author, a great art lover, are also present in the various rooms. In his office, his chair and his small work table.

In another room, we discover many pages of proofs corrected by Balzac. He corrected the entirety of La Comédie Humaine in this house and wrote several other of his novels, notably Une ténébreuse affair. A genealogy of the characters of La Comédie Humaine is available to the public, in the form of a 14.50 m long table where 1,000 characters out of the 6,000 in La Comédie Humaine are referenced.

In the basement, a room offers busts of Balzac made by various sculptors, including Auguste Rodin. In addition to Balzac’s apartment, the museum occupies three levels and extends over several rooms and outbuildings formerly occupied by other tenants.

First conceived as a place of pilgrimage, the museum acquires original editions, portraits of the writer and illustrations of his works. Interest in biography led to the search for personal objects, and portraits of members of Balzac’s family and acquaintances.

From the 1980s, the priority given to writing resulted in the constitution of a collection of manuscripts. The widening of the curiosities allowed the opening to Théophile Gautier in 1997 as well as the progressive acquisition of a considerable collection of very high quality graphic works relating to French society between 1820 and 1850: Daumier, Gavarni, Grandville, Monnier, etc

The Maison de Balzac has also emphasized the way artists of the 20th and 21st centuries view La Comédie Humaine, and preserves original works by Pierre Alechinsky, Eduardo Arroyo, Enrico Baj, Olivier Blanckart, Louise Bourgeois, Pol Bury, André Derain, Paul Jouve, Albert Marquet, André Masson, Pablo Picasso…

The Human Comedy collection
The Human Comedy is the title given in 1841 by Balzac to the collection of works signed with his name. The Human Comedy encompasses the novels already written at that date – about seventy since 1829 – and about twenty others subsequently conceived within this framework.

For Balzac, the system of Society is comparable to the system of Nature and can be analyzed just as well; this is the objective of La Comédie humaine, which Balzac sets out to achieve thanks to a construction in three parts.

-The Studies of manners form the most important: they are divided into six sets of novels, qualified as “scenes”; scenes from private life, scenes from provincial life, scenes from Parisian life, scenes from political life, scenes from military life and scenes from country life.
-The Philosophical Studies seek to identify the causes of the vagaries of social life, and in particular the universal energy which was expressed in man through thought. “Society had to carry with it the reason for its movement.” According to Balzac, the exercise of thought exhausts the vital reserves of each man and to live one’s passions inevitably leads to death: this is the fate of Raphaël in La Peau de chagrin, that of Father Grandet, a type of miser in province, like that of Frenhofer, the painter of the Unknown Masterpiece ; for Balzac studies all the applications of this system, from the lowest to the highest.
-Analytical studies develop the theoretical principles that govern social life.

This construction remained unfinished and a catalog established by Balzac makes it possible to measure the extent of the gaps. The Analytical Studies include only the Physiology of Marriage and the Small Miseries of Married Life ; the Scènes de la vie militaire include only two stories whereas Balzac had foreseen twenty-five! We also observe that rural life is barely sketched in Les Paysans, while the peasantry formed the bulk of the French population in the 19th century.

It is risky to follow the classification proposed by Balzac, which has evolved considerably. Le Lys dans la vallée thus oscillates between scenes of provincial life and those of country life. César Birotteau was originally intended to be a philosophical scene but becomes in the Furne edition a scene of Parisian life. Nor can we rely on a chronological order since Balzac reworked his novels with each reissue and sometimes very strongly, changing the names of the characters, modifying notable character traits, etc. One can choose to browse Balzac’s work freely before resuming it, the pleasure often being heightened by re-reading.

Drawings and prints
The main fund is made up of graphic works, around 4,500 engravings and 225 drawings. These works are on the one hand illustrations for La Comédie Humaine, on the other hand works on life and customs in the first half of the 19th century (Daumier, Gavarni, Grandville, Monnier…). There are also portraits of contemporaries.

The most important work is Bisson’s famous daguerreotype depicting Balzac in a shirt. The museum also keeps a few glass negatives and a fund of about three hundred old photographs, classified by theme.

A literary museum, the Maison de Balzac has a library with an important heritage fund, built around editions of the works of Honoré de Balzac and Théophile Gautier as well as contemporary literature related to these two writers.

The library also offers a documentary collection comprising critical studies devoted to the two writers, to art and to literature during the era of Romanticism and, more generally, to the French 19th century. Located on the lower level of the museum, the library is accessible to anyone interested in its collections: pupils, students, amateurs, researchers, 19th century specialists.

The Théophile Gautier fund of the Maison de Balzac is regularly enriched by more modest works: film reviews, portraits of Gautier drawn or photographed, pocket editions, comic strips, or even scores.

To date, the Maison de Balzac retains the most dynamic collection devoted to Théophile Gautier. 1997 saw the opening of a specific fund, with the acceptance of ten works offered in memory of Ivan Devries, a descendant of the writer. All these works are listed in the inventory drawn up in 1879 by Émile Bergerat, Gautier’s son-in-law.