La bonne chanson

Year: 1936

Author: Paul Verlaine (1844 - 1896)

Artist: Hermine David (1886 - 1970)

Publisher: Creuzevault

La bonne chanson, title page

Paul Verlaine is the best known of the 'decadent' French poets, the poète maudit par excellence. He led a life of drunkenness, pornographic poetry, assault, imprisonment and scandalous affairs: a rewarding target for biographers. The collection La bonne chanson (1870) appeared in the year of his marriage to the sixteen-year-old Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, forming the reflection of his love from poem to poem, which nevertheless failed to result in a happy marriage. Their son Georges was born in 1871. Verlaine meanwhile mainly sought the company of Arthur Rimbaud, with whom he was in love. This shady relationship continued to last, until Verlaine unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Rimbaud in Brussels with a pistol and was convicted to 18 months of imprisonment. This ended his relationship with Mathilde, as well as his relationship with Rimbaud. Verlaine converted to Catholicism and lived in England for a while, where he made a half-hearted attempt to live the life of a farmer. He was more successful as a poet than he was as a lover. He divided his time in Paris between the gutter, hospital beds and prison cells, while two prostitutes took turns offering him a place to sleep. None of this diminished his popularity, and his funeral in 1896 took place under great public interest.

Love poems

La bonne chanson represents a brief period of hopefulness: it is an expression of the happiness that Verlaine had expected to find in his marriage with Mathilde. He met her through his friend, the musician Charles Sivry, and hoped that she would conquer his alcoholism. Besides, marriage was seen in that time as an effective measure against homosexuality. But a civilian's existence was not in the cards for him. La bonne chanson, a lyrical collection, brings together poems about their first meeting, the first period without Mathilde, and his approaching marriage. In the third poem he compares Mathilde's cheerful voice to music that drives away melancholy. In the 21st and last poem he describes the coming of spring, which brings a cheerful atmosphere even to the 'diseased' city of Paris. The poet, he says, has been celebrating the spring in his heart, he welcomes summer, autumn and even winter, now that he can bear each season thanks to her love for him. Verlaine had the book printed- at his own expense- by Lemerre. In June 1870 he handed out copies to friends, and several literary greats also received copies. Victor Hugo - that giant of nineteenth-century French literary life- reacted enthusiastically and called the book 'a flower inside a grenade', referring to the French-German war that was raging in Paris at the time. The mobilisation plans delayed the wedding, but on 11 August 1870, the marriage did take place, followed in 1874 by a divorce. The war and the Commune also upset the book’s publication plans, and La bonne chanson ('The good song') ultimately didn't appear until 1872, in an edition of 590 copies.

The Creuzevault edition appeared in 1936, with 21 etches by Hermine David. This artist was trained in Paris and made her début at the Women's Salon in 1904. In 1907 she met the painter Jules Pascin, whom she married in New York in 1915, and whom she considered her mentor. She painted sophisticated and imaginative aquarelles and gouaches, mainly of the landscape around Paris. She also produced lithographs and dry-point etchings. The scrupulous and tightly constructed etches have a spatial effect that attracted many collectors. David illustrated dozens of books, especially in the period 1920-1940, and continued to work until 1960. The illustrations conform subtly to the book's text, whether written by Byron, Maurois, Alain-Fournier or Verlaine. She also illustrated Verlaine's collection Romances sans paroles.

The smell of leather

Publisher Henri Creuzevault (1905-1971) was originally a painter, but applied himself to bookbinding from 1918 onwards, working in his father Louis Lazare Creuzevault's studio. After World War I, he began designing bookbindings: maquettes. The maquette was initially nothing but a drawing, but it could be developed into a full model. From 1928 onwards (when he won first prize at an exhibition in museum Galliéra), he collaborated with his brother: Henri did the design and decoration work, and Louis fashioned the binding. In France, strict division of work and specialisations like this were quite common. In 1936 the brothers opened their own bookstore and publishing business, but Louis died in 1937, at the young age of 25. Their publishing business produced about twenty books, for which Laboureur, Maillol, Laurens and others created the illustrations. Henri's bookbinding work received international acclaim. He later also designed carpets, and focused increasingly on the art trade. A six-volume homage to his work appeared in 1987.

The text of La bonne chanson was printed by Vaucher in 1936, and its etchings were done by Brunel. Two editions were published: 40 copies on Gaspard Maillol paper, with extra prints of the etchings and an original drawing of the artist, and 375 copies on BFK Rives. All copies bear the publisher's monogram. The copy owned by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands is printed on Rives paper (number 251), but it does contain an extra series of the black-and-white etchings, and a hand-coloured set as well. Finally, an original signed gouache by Hermine David has been included in the front. It is a preliminary study of the illustration for the last poem: a sloping Paris street, with boscage and a view of another quarter. The copy is bound in a half-leather binding by D.H. Mercher. The name probably stands for Henri Mercher (1912-1976) - he once claimed to have become a bookbinder because he loved the smell of leather so much.

La bonne chanson, colophon

Bibliographical description

Description: La bonne chanson / Paul Verlaine ; [ill. de pointes sèches orig. de Hermine David]. - Paris : Creuzevault, 1936. - [45] p. : ill. ; 25 cm

1st edition: 1870

Printer: Frères Vaucher (text) Brunel (etchings)

Edition: 415 copies

This copy: Number 251 of 375 on Rives

Bookbinder: D.-H. Mercher

Note: With an extra set of black-and-white etchings, an extra set of handcoloured etchings and an original gouache, signed by Hermine David

Bibliography: Carteret IV-392 ; In liefde verzameld 4 ; Monod 1591

Shelfmark: KW Koopm A 61


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