State bed of Valtesse de la Bigne

Édouard Lièvre (1828-1886)
Paris, c. 1875
Carcase of wood, gilt bronze, green silk velvet
Bequest of Émilie Louise de la Bigne, known as Valtesse de la Bigne, 1911
The bed linen and hangings were made with the support of Madame D. Porthault and the Prelle factory
Inv. 18176
© Les Arts Décoratifs

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This bed was made for Valtesse de la Bigne, one of the most fashionable courtesans of late nineteenth-century Paris. Known as the “lioness,” she was attractve and intelligent and became extremely wealthy. The Prince de Sagan gave her a mansion on Boulevard Malesherbes, where she held dazzling receptions and granted her friends the privilege of seeing her bedroom. The writer Émile Zola found inspiration there for his description of the bedroom of Nana, the heroine of his most scandalous novel.

The decoration of the bedroom was entrusted to Édouard Lièvre, who had recently completed that of the painter Édouard Detaille, a close friend of Valtesse. He proposed a “state” bed, traditionally designed to receive visitors in one’s bedroom according to the ritual established by Louis XIV at Versailles; beds of this type were usually made of gilt wood, fitted with a platform and separated from the rest of the room by a balustrade.

The balustrade Lièvre designed for Valtesse had a completely different purpose: attached to the circumference of the bed and adorned with two flaming incense burners, it delimited the space reserved for lovemaking. At the bedhead, two plump little cupids hold a shield bearing a crowned letter “V.”

Masks of leering fauns (“clever little gods,” in Valtesse’s view), look down with sardonic smiles from the top of the canopy and appear again, in profile, on either side of the shield at the bedhead.

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