Montesquiou-Fezensac, Robert, comte de (1855-1921) | University of Illinois Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Robert de Montesquiou, born March 7, 1855, to Thierry, Comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac, and his wife Pauline (nee Duroux), descended from one of the oldest aristocratic families in France, and proudly counted among his distant ancestors Charles de Batz-Castelmore d'Artagnan, whose life was dramatized by Alexandre Dumas in Les Trois Mousquetaires. Montesquiou was raised against the backdrop of the busy life of the most fashionable Parisian salons, and with tout Paris--the French high society that inhabited the Faubourg Saint Germain--as his playmates. Society life inculcated a keen aesthetic sense in the count, and he grew to prize luxury, exoticism, refinement, and good taste. Throughout France's "Belle Epoque" Montesquiou gained a reputation as a dandy, literary snob, tastemaker, and critic, and was known to style himself "Professor of Beauty" and "Prince of Decadence." His circle at times included such artistic, literary, and celebrity figures as Maurice Barres, Sarah Bernhardt, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Alphonse Daudet, Gabriel Faure, Edmond de Goncourt, Stephane Mallarme, and Edouard Manet, as well as--most notably--Marcel Proust.
Everything about Montesquiou's life and appearance, from his attire, accessories, and furnishings to his gestures and his choice of paper and pen when writing, was carefully crafted and specifically selected in order to present the appearance of an effortless dandyism. In addition to surrounding himself with writers, Montesquiou was himself a poet, and published several volumes of his own work, including Les Chauves-souris, clairs-obscurs, Le Chef des odeurs suaves, and Les Hortensias bleus. His poetry was not particularly well received by critics, but is notable for its intricate aesthetic presentation: Les Chauves-souris was sent to his close friends in a small box wrapped in silk, and with a dust jacket designed by Whistler featuring a cloud of bats. Montesquiou even produced his own stationary with his by then signature "bat" emblem.
Besides his own literary output, Montesquiou is notable in literary history for the access that he provided to French society circles for writers such as Proust, and for the enduring (and often satirical) portraits and caricatures of him that emerged in the writings of more notable authors. Just as Montesquiou's ancestor served as an inspiration for Dumas, the Count himself was the model for des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans' A Rebors (published 1884) and for the Baron de Charlus in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (published 1913-1927). Proust--who also based the character of the Duchesse de Guermantes on Montesquiou's cousin, Elisabeth, Countess Greffulhe--probably offended Montesquiou with his interpretation, and a rift grew between the two men. Montesquiou died of kidney failure on December 11, 1921, less than one year before Proust's death. His memoirs, Les Pas effaces, were published posthumously.
Bertrand, Antoine. Les Curiosites Esthetiques de Robert de Montesquiou, 2 volumes. (Paris: Droz, 1996)
Chaleyssin, Patrick. Robert de Montesquiou: Mecene et Dandy. (Paris: Somogy, 1992)
Julian, Philippe. Robert de Montesquiou: a fin-de-siecle prince. Translated by J. Haylock and F. King (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967)
O'Keeffe, Brian. "Robert de Montesquiou (7 March 1855-11 December 1921), Nineteenth-Century French Poets, ed. Robert Lawrence Beum, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 217. (Detroit: Gale Group, 2000). pp. 203-212.