Modernist Muse: Eugenia Errazuriz

Retrospect

If you don't know about the social circles of Paris in the 1920s (wait, you DON'T?!), you might not know about a woman who was a link between several famous artists, including Picasso, Coco Chanel, John Singer Sargent, Le Corbusier and Jean-Michel Frank. No, I'm not talking about a courtesan or a lover, but a real honest-to-goodness muse named Eugenia Errazuriz…

Mme. Errazuriz (1860-1951) was one of the most independent thinkers of her time, and her influence and patronage made an enormous impact on some of the most important artists of the 20th century. Let's take a look at her prescient style and her still-relevant design dictums.

Eugenia Errazuriz was born in Chile to rich Bolivian parents who owned a silver mine. Educated by English nuns in Valparaiso, she ultimately married an amateur painter, himself a scion of a wealthy family, and they moved to Paris in 1882 (she soon tired of him and his "tedious landscapes"). Eugenia was a legendary beauty, and she must have had a magnetic personality, as well: she attracted a circle of artists, including many who would paint her portait: Sargent (image 1), Jacques-Emile Blanche, and Giovanni Boldini (remember him from that rediscovered Paris apartment?), among others.

Eugenia was a supporter of the arts, but she clearly had her own unique and strong point of view, as well. Contrary to the tastes of Belle Epoque and Art Deco Paris, she opted for simplicity over ostentation. Her villa, which she decorated herself in 1914, was a manifesto of spareness and restraint.

She whitewashed the walls and left the red-tiled floors bare — design elements associated with peasants' homes. "I love my house," she said, "as it looks very clean and very poor!" She hung unlined, blue-and-white striped linen in the windows, and put an old, rustic orchard-ladder in the entry of her Paris home. She favored 18th-century French furniture, which could be more spare and restrained than more contemporary designs. Mixing high and low, she'd place gardening baskets and watering cans on top of elegant antiques, put folding garden chairs in her salon, and upholstered her furniture in tailored white or indigo slipcovers.

Mme Errazuriz hated matching furniture, tufted ottomans, fussy passementerie and tchotchkes of any kind ("Pas de bibelots!"). The dictum she lived by — which would later be echoed by Diana Vreeland — was "Elegance is elimination," and she believed that one must "throw out and keep throwing out" anything that wasn't essential. She favored a home in constant flux: "A house that does not alter is a dead house!" When a guest noticed a broom whose handle was decorated with a red ribbon, she replied, "Everything has its place in life. Even objects guests don't normally see should reflect one's tastes and beliefs."

It is easy to see how this startling but graceful vision would have charmed the more forward-thinking artists of the time. She and Picasso had a 30-year-long friendship, during which he drew her portrait 24 times. His artwork decorated her whitewashed walls. She took the designer Jean-Michel Frank under her wing during his formative years, showing him how Louis XVI furniture could be reinterpreted in a modern way. He wrote about her influence on him, and it is also visible in many of his designs. Supposedly it was Eugenia who introduced Elsa Schiaparelli to her "shocking pink" signature color, showing her a fragment of antique Incan textile. And she was also an important support for Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Artur Rubinstein.

Known for having dresses made out of black-and-white striped mattress ticking (sounds so chic!), Eugenia was an early fan of Coco Chanel. Later in life she became a lay nun, and on religious occasions would wear a simple black shift designed by Chanel. She commissioned Le Corbusier to redesign her Chilean beach house, but never went ahead with the project.

Eugenia Errazuriz died in 1951 at age 91 after being struck by a car. A few years later, Cecil Beaton wrote that 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."


Recommended Sources: The best source on Errazuriz that I have found is John Richardson's Sacred Monsters Sacred Masters, whose first chapter, "Picasso's Other Mother," is devoted to her. Online, I recommend this Times article and this entry from Little Augury.

Images:
1 John Singer Sargent portrait of Eugenia Errazuriz, 1882, via Strange Flowers
2 The parlor of Eugenia Errazuriz's Paris home, photographed by Kollar for Harper's Bazaar, 1937, via Little Augury
3 William Orpen portrait of Mme. Errazuriz, 1915, in the Mildura Arts Centre in Australia, via Culture Victoria
4 Mme. Errazuriz, via An Aesthete's Lament
5 Mme. Errazuriz, looking very Chanel-y, c. 1929, via Little Augury