The Bois de Boulogne and Sem au Bois: Belle Epoque Paris and the Pageantry of the Passing Spectacle

by Admin on Tuesday, May 11, 2010

in Color,Design,Fashion,Printing,Recent Acquisitions,Uncategorized

Sem (pseudonym for Georges Goursat).  Sem au Bois (title stamped in gilt on front cover).  N.p. (Paris?) ca. 1908.   Signed and dated 29/4/08 in pencil on the last plate; 6 other plates with the artist’s printed insignia.  [45958]

La "Mercedes" des Commissaires

"La 'MERCEDES'' des Commissaires," panel 1 of Sem au Bois.

A jewel in the crown of Baron Haussmann’s modernized Paris, the Bois de Boulogne opened as a park in 1852.  Funded by Napolean III — who’s said to have been taken with London’s Hyde Park  during his exile there in the 1830s — the “Boulogne Woods” offered the social elite of Belle Époque Paris an ideal grounds for the public display of their accumulating wealth.  In 1908, Georges Goursat, who was known at the time by his moniker “Sem,” caricatured the ensuing parade of bourgeois vanity in a spectacular yet little-known accordion-format panoramic album entitled Sem au Bois.

Nearly 30 feet in length when fully revealed, the work shows a procession of carriages with men in top-hats, women in their finery, and even one horse decked out in high heeled shoes.   It is possible (though we cannot confirm it), that the procession is circular and that the final image is meant to connect to the first.  And although they’re unfamiliar to us, the figures depicted are clearly recognizable individuals, many of them likely social celebrities in their day.

Panel 8 of Sem au Bois.

"La 'MORS' du Starter," panel 8 of Sem au Bois.

"APRES LA COURS" beaucoup d'attele mais peu d'elus

"'APRES LA COURSE' beaucoup d'attele mais peu d'elus," panel 14 of Sem au Bois

La Panthere

"La Panthere," panel 11 of Sem au Bois.

Readers who’ve seen Gigi may find the images familiar, as the film’s opening credits play out against a montage of Sem’s illustrations for fashionable magazines of the era.   Cecil Beaton — hired by producer Vincente Minnelli as general production designer and visual stylist — is reported to have drawn inspiration for many of the film’s costumes and set dressings directly from Sem’s caricatures, among other sources.  After the Sem-inspired credits set the tone, Gigi opens with an extended view of the pageantry on display in the Bois de Boulogne (with Maurice Chevalier as your guide), including a parade of horse drawn carriages that bear a striking similarity to the ones in Sem au Bois.

(Sorry for the German-language YouTube link, it’s the only one I could locate with footage of the carriage procession…)

Is it likely that Beaton was aware of Sem au Bois and meant to reference it directly?   Quite possibly.  What’s more, the seamless panorama format of Sem au Bois almost seems itself a clever nod to the emerging art of cinema, innovated by the Lumière brothers in 1895 and still very much in its infancy in 1908.  It may also simply be that the film and the album are mutually resonant because they each celebrate and gently mock the follies and exuberant stylings of fashionable society in turn-of-the-century Paris.

The first 12 panels of the album appear below in stitched scans depicting 3 panels each.  Click away for high-res images.  And if you happen to be an historian of Belle Epoque Paris (clever you) and recognize anyone among the caricatures, please let us know in the comments field…

Panels 1 through 3 of Sem au Bois.

Panels 1 through 3 of Sem au Bois.

Panels 4 through 7 of Sem au Bois.

Panels 4 through 6 of Sem au Bois.

Panels 7 through 9 of Sem au Bois.

Panels 10 through 12 of Sem au Bois

Panels 10 through 12 of Sem au Bois.

FAB Item I.D. # 45958

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“Sem au Bois” Update: The Jockey Club de Paris, ca. 1908. | Recto|Verso
Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 2:51 PM

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Arthur Friday, April 15, 2016 at 7:36 AM

Thank you for your interest. However, we sold this item in 2012. Please look around our website and let us know if anything else interests you! Our inventory is always changing.

2 Andres Furger Wednesday, November 18, 2015 at 4:37 AM

Still for sale the Diorama?

3 Pam Lorentzson Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 7:41 PM

I have followed the delightful discourse on Sem’s panaorama with interest. On another page, there is information provided by Pablo Medrano Bigas. I must disagree with his identification for panel 14, which is as follows:

“Finally we have the infamous ‘Polaire,’ a.k.a. Émilie Marie Bouchaud (1874-1939), a very famous singer and actress in music-hall cabarets, the stage and silent movies. Next to her sits the scandalous Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), best known for her novel Gigi and the Claudine stories, published under the name of her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (aka “Willy”), with whom she shared a celebrated erotic triangle with Polaire. The couple divorced in 1906, so Sem obviously didn’t place him in the scene!”

That is certainly not Colette next to Polaire. I believe that it is La Belle Otero.

Colette is seen in panel 18. She is seated in the carriage next to Missy, the Marquise de Belboeuf. That is Willy serving as the driver. Colette and WIlly separated in 1907; Colette’s divorce from WIlly was finalised in 1910.

I am greatly enjoying this exchange of information. I am leaving this comment on this page because I could not find a place to leave one on that other page.

Pam Lorentzson

4 Arthur Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 12:32 PM

The item is still available, I will answer your inquiry off list. Warmly, Arthur.

5 avier CHIRON Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 3:22 AM


Is it possible to buy “Sem au bois de Boulogne”?
Thanck you for the reponse.

Xavier Chiron

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