French writer Jean Lorrain was born on this day in 1855. Lorrain was a master of fin-de-siècle snark, using both novels and articles to take down many of the public figures of his day – sometimes with just cause, sometimes in service of pure sensationalism, as we saw in his treatment of poor old Mathilde de Morny. Having recently read Jean Lorrain, ou le Satiricon 1900, in which Philippe Jullian memorably describes Lorrain as “Sodom’s ambassador to Paris”, I was hoping to expand upon this bête noire of the Belle Époque. But every time I tried I found his essence eluding me.
I will definitely return to Lorrain, a figure who embraces much that is dear to Strange Flowers. In the meantime, a troll through contemporary images of Lorrain might prove just as instructive. He was one of the most-oft caricatured men of the age, his peculiar physiognomy, pompous air and aura of vice giving much for artists to work with. The “swollen” body and “amphibian” eyes remarked upon by Robert de Montesquiou (another victim of Lorrain’s journalistic cluster bombs) are certainly apparent. Lorrain had – to quote Ann Widdecombe (four words I never thought I’d type) – “something of the night” about him.
A number of these works are by the great French caricaturist Sem, whose early career owed much to Lorrain’s patronage. Sem was evidently disinclined to return the favour by flattering his mentor, although Lorrain in his declining years, when he used makeup to mask the effects of sickness and drug use, would have been a challenge to the most obsequious illustrator.