Home > 20th Century, Literary Escapades, Personal Posts, Proust, Marcel > Marcel Proust & Paris Exhibition – People and characters

Marcel Proust & Paris Exhibition – People and characters

February 28, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

I imagine that a lot of readers of In Search of Lost Time wonder who were the real people behind the main characters of Proust’s masterpiece. The characters are so striking that they stay with you years after you’ve read La Recherche and it’s natural to want to dig out who was who between the Narrator’s life and Marcel’s. It doesn’t help that the Narrator is named Marcel, it blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography.

The Marcel Proust and Paris exhibition that I mentioned in my previous billet showed real life person vs characters.

Odette de Crécy

Odette de Crécy is the courtesan who captures the imagination and the heart of Charles Swann. We meet her in the first volume, Swann’s Way. She’s also the mother of Gilberte, the Narrator’s first love.

Odette de Crécy is modelled after Laure Hayman. She was a courtesan, first the mistress of Proust’s great-uncle Weill, then of his father Adrien. The rumor says the Marcel wanted to take over the family tradition and propositioned her but she rejected him. She had a salon, 4 rue La Pérouse in Paris, where famous writers went. Some dukes too but not their duchesses. She wasn’t too happy to recognize herself in Odette de Crécy, even if Proust always denied that it was her.

Charles Swann

Charles Swann is the key character of Swann’s Way. He was friends with the Narrator’s parents, went to salons in the high society and his love for Odette led him to the bourgeois salon of Madame Verdurin. He was very cultured and refined, his love for Odette was a surprise in the higher circles.

Swann’s real-life counterpart is Charles Haas (1832-1902) He was a star of several salons, including Madame Straus’s. Like Swann, he was Jewish, well-introduced in the world and known for his intelligence, his excellent manners and his broad culture. He was the lover of several famous ladies, like the actress Sarah Bernhardt. (Herself a model for La Berma in La Recherche)

Robert de Saint-Loup

Robert de Saint-Loup is the Narrator’s dear friend. They confide to each other, spend a lot of time together. They have a really close relationship. The Narrator knows about Robert’s liaison with the actress Rachel and Robert knows that the Narrator hides Albertine in his home.

Proust had several friends from his high school days but two dear friends stand out in his life. The first one is Raynaldo Hahn. They were close friends during twenty-eight years, it ended with Proust’s death. Hahn was a musician and a composer. Their relationship started with a liaison that turned into a long-lasting friendship. I’d like to think that there is something of him in Robert de Saint-Loup. The specialists think differently.

Robert de Saint-Loup was modeled after two other friends of Proust: Prince Antoine Bibesco (1878-1951) and Bertrand de Salignac-Fénelon (1878-1914).

A scene in La Recherche, where Robert de Saint Loup goes for the Narrator’s coat when he’s cold in a restaurant has happened in real life between Marcel and Bertrand. Bertrand de Fénelon died in combat in 1914, his body was never found. Proust only learnt about his death in March 1915 and was very distressed by his loss. Specialists think that Fénelon misunderstood Proust’s love for friendship. He died the same year as Agostinelli and the grief has certainly fueled Albertine Gone.

The Baron de Charlus

The Baron de Charlus, brother of the duc de Guermantes is the most famous homosexual character in La Recherche. He’s an art afficionado, appreciated in salons for his artistic tastes. In La Recherche, we will see him in the throes of passion, we will follow him to gay brothels and discover the underground gay Paris. Proust knew it well too.

Everyone agrees to see Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) in the Baron de Charlus. Proust and Montesquiou met in Madame Lemaire’s salon. They admired each other greatly and Proust called him “professeur de beauté” (teacher of beauty)

Montesquiou was a dandy, a poet and a novelist. He was the cousin of the comtesse Greffulhe. Like Laure Hayman, he was furious to discover himself as a character in La Recherche. I’ve never heard of him as a writer, even if he wrote eighteen collections of poems, two novels and twenty-two art and literature critics. He was very influencial in Proust’s life, for introducing him in salons and for developing his artistic tastes. He was an early promoter of lots of poets and artists, with an incredible capacity to unearth new talents and adopt new forms of art.

I haven’t read Against Nature by Huysmans, but Montesquiou also inspired the character of des Esseintes.

Madame Verdurin

Madame Verdurin has a salon that grows from bourgeois to high society in the course of La Recherche. She has around her a little clique of writers, musicians, painters and other professions. Madame Verdurin is based upon Madeleine Lemaire.

Proust was a frequent visitor in Madame Lemaire’s salon. He met there several of his close friends or acquaintances, like Raynaldo Hahn or Robert de Montesquiou. Madame Lemaire had a famous salon where numerous artists met. She was a painter herself and illustrated Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, in 1896. Like Madame Verdurin, she was very peremptory in her likes and dislikes and regular visitors of her salon were expected to bow to her judgements.

The duchesse de Guermantes

The duchesse de Guermantes was the Narrator’s ideal. He dreams about her and maneuvers to go to her salon. Being a regular guest at Oriane de Guermantes’s soirees is the highlight of his society life. The enchantment lasts a moment but the Narrator quickly discovers his idol’s flaws and the duchesse de Guermantes turns out to be not so likeable after all. The duchesse de Guermantes was created after the Comtesse Greffulhe, Madame de Chévigné and Madame Straus.

The Comtesse Greffulhe was a star in the Parisian high society at the turning of the 20th century. She was a painter and played the piano. She promoted various artists and loved Wagner, whom Proust adored too.

The Comtesse Geffulhe met Proust in 1893, at a soirée at the princesse de Wagram’s. She was a lot more intelligent than La Recherche lets out. She helped artists but also funded Marie Curie, as she was also interested in science.

Proust met Laure de Sade, future comtesse de Chévigné in 1891. She’s the descendant of the Marquis de Sade and she had a famous musical salon in Paris, 34 rue de Mirosmenil. Like the Narrator with the duchesse de Guermantes, Proust used to watch out for her when she was taking her morning stroll. Proust was fascinated by her and in love with her too. They remained friends during twenty-eight years, until she was hurt when she discovered herself in Madame de Guermantes and refused to read Proust’s novel.

Some say that the duchesse de Guermantes was also inspired by Madame Straus (1849-1926)

She also had a famous salon where artists gathered. Maupassant was a frequent visitor (She’s the main character of his novel Fort comme la mort). Robert de Montesquiou went to her salon too.

This is where Proust met Charles Haas, who will become Swann. In 1898, the Straus move into their new mansion, 108, rue de Miromesnil.

The duc de Guermantes

The duc de Guermantes is a formidable character in La Recherche but he’s not as interesting to the Narrator as his wife Oriane or his brother Charlus. Indeed, he has nothing in common with the Narrator. He cheats on his wife, he’s rude, talks with a booming voice, and is not interested in the arts.

He’s modeled after the comte Greffuhle. He was fabulously rich, cheated on his wife repeatedly and as soon as they were married. He loved hunting, understood nothing to art and disliked his wife’s artistic friendships. Sounds like the duc de Guermantes to me, indeed.


And what about Albertine? It is admitted that Albertine was modeled after Alfred Agostinelli (1888-1914) He met Proust in 1907 when he drove him to Normandy. Agostinelli was a chauffeur who became Proust’s secretary. Agostinelli was passionate about aviation and he died in a crash in 1914. Proust was in love with him but his love was unrequited. Now you know where Albertine Gone comes from.

Artists in La Recherche.

Bergotte is THE writer in La Recherche. The Narrator loves his books. Bergotte is a frequent guest at Madame Verdurin’s, which confirms her ability to detect real talents. He seems to have been made of Anatole France and Paul Bourget. Ironically, unlike Maupassant or Zola, they are not a writers that people commonly read today. The irony. Anatole France had national funerals when he died but I think that his books are unreadable today.

Elstir is THE painter of La Recherche. He’s an impressionist based upon Monet, Manet, Renoir, Helleu, Whistler and Boudin. Proust must have met Monet, Manet and Renoir through Mallarmé, who was close to Berthe Morisot’s circle. He’s also a member of Madame Verdurin’s salon.

Vinteuil is THE composer of La Recherche with his sonata. There’s no actual link with a real composer.

La Berma. This actress features in beautiful pages about Phèdre and theatre. It is notorious that Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Réjane (1856-1920) inspired the character of La Berma.

After writing about all these characters of La Recherche and their real-life inspirations, it strikes me that it was really a small world. The salons were very close, geografically and they all knew each other. How was it to be surrounded with so many great artists? What has become of salons today and what replaced them?

A lot of Proust’s models didn’t like how he portrayed them in his novels. Was he too harsh or didn’t they like that he saw through them so well? I suppose there are some clues in Proust’s abundant correspondence. What they didn’t foresee is that their socialite friend or acquaintance would give them a form of immortality. Truly, all these people would have been long forgotten if Proust hadn’t used them in La Recherche. So, literature gave them their immortality. The only ones who survived through their own merits are the painters who shaped out Elstir and and in a lesser way the writers who inspired Bergotte.

I hope you had fun with me in peaking at what was behind the scenes of La Recherche and read about its who’s who.

PS : Another thought. We must be grateful that Robert Proust was not the same prick as Paul Claudel. Otherwise, you bet that some serious editing about homosexuality would have been done in the volumes published after Marcel’s death. And let’s not think about what could have happened to his correspondence.

  1. February 28, 2022 at 3:34 pm

    Excellent and exhaustive – I was aware of a few of those, but not all. Interestingly, Antoine Bibesco appears also in Mihail Sebastian’s journals (and possibly some of his fiction) – and was apparently a big disappointment to a friend in need.


    • February 28, 2022 at 6:04 pm

      Bibesco was Romanian, right?
      It’s always incredible how related all these artists were.


  2. February 28, 2022 at 11:01 pm

    Wonderful! Thank you Emma!


  3. February 28, 2022 at 11:38 pm

    I didn’t know any of this, so it’s fascinating, thank you.
    I bet some of those people were *very* unhappy about their presence in the book, but hey, now they are famous!


    • March 1, 2022 at 9:48 pm

      When I was preparing this post, I noticed a lot of Wikipedia articles about the people and the characters that are not available in English. I hoped my billet would be useful and I’m glad you enjoyed it.


      • March 2, 2022 at 12:44 am

        Ah, that’s interesting, thank you again. Next time I read Proust, and there will be a next time, I’ll check out the French WP to see what I’ve been missing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. March 1, 2022 at 3:35 am

    Wonderful post, thank you! Your description of how some of these figures were upset over Proust’s portrayals reminds me just a little bit of the anger of American socialites that Truman Capote was close to, when they found out how he had described them in his uncompleted and long-awaited book on that set.


    • March 1, 2022 at 9:46 pm

      I suppose that Proust used some literary licence in his descriptions and add to that the fact that nobody sees themselves as the others see them…
      We need to remember that La Recherche is a work of fiction, even if we know where Proust got his inspiration.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. March 7, 2022 at 1:38 am

    That is so cool! I know that when I have my Proust year I will definitely find this even more interesting! In the 1920s, bestselling Canadian author, Mazo de la Roche was a massively popular figure on the scene and she lived in England for a time as well, drumming up additional interest in her multi-volume family saga about the Wakefield family (which was also made into a couple of mini-series) and most of the key figures in it (it’s kind of like the lond and dramatic Galsworthy series, the Forsytes, if you know that one any better) are also based on real-life figures and the homes are real places too. I love those connections!


    • March 7, 2022 at 10:06 pm

      Glad this post will be of some use.

      I didn’t know that the Jalna series was based upon real people! It was hugely popular in France and I read it when I was a teenager. (I think it was among my mother’s paperbacks)
      I have fond memories of this series, like I have of the Louisiane series by Maurice Denuzière.


  6. March 13, 2022 at 11:28 pm

    Thanks for this, Emma! The novel did feel strongly autobiographical, so I was wondering as I was reading it who all the people were. This was fascinating stuff, so thanks for pulling it all together. I found the identity of Albertine particularly poignant. The accident in the novel felt so abrupt and came as such a shock, and now I can see where it came from. Also the fact that his love for Alfred was unrequited sheds some light on the portrayal of Albertine in the novel.

    I can certainly see why many of the people were upset when the books came out because they probably didn’t see themselves in the same way Proust saw them! I guess perhaps it felt like a betrayal for him to publish a lot of intimate details. Maybe it would also lead them to question how genuine his friendship was, or whether he was just using them as “material” for his writing! Anyway, you’re right that Proust gave them a kind of immortality, even if it wasn’t perhaps in the way they would all have wanted 🙂


    • March 16, 2022 at 10:16 pm

      I’m happy you found my billet useful. It’s great to know who’s behind the characters but we shouldn’t forget the thick layer of literature that Proust put on them. The main characters aren’t monolitic, they are composed of several persons, even if one stands out more than the others.
      And yes, Agostinelli’s death explains Albertine’s.

      I’m rereading Time Regained and I am very interested in his descriptions of Paris during WWI. This last volume is really excellent, especially when you think that Proust didn’t have the time to edit it before he died.

      I suppose that it must have been upsetting to be in his novels, especially since, at the time, no one really guessed what a literary figure he would become. He wasn’t a great success, at the time and there was no reason to be proud to be in his novels.
      Recognition came after and we are so lucky that his brother supported him, didn’t burn his letters but published them and didn’t cut some passages in In Search of Lost Time in the name of political correctness. (Think of some scenes with the Baron de Charlus)

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 16, 2022 at 10:39 pm

        Yes, I loved the descriptions of Paris and how they changed so much from his innocent days pursuing Gilberte in the Champs-Élysées to his later descriptions when so much has changed in his own life and in the world.

        And you’re right about the boldness of publishing the book intact, with scenes and themes that I presume would have been quite scandalous and controversial at the time. Especially with writers who don’t achieve success in their own lifetimes, we are so dependent on the whims of their relatives, and in this case we are certainly lucky!

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 16, 2022 at 11:00 pm

          Paris is almost a character in the novels, I really liked the passages in La Prisonnière about the sounds of their Parisian street.
          We need to keep in mind that his neighbourhood was brand new at the time. For us, it’s historical but at the time, it was new streets, recent churches, new mansions… He lived at a very interesting time with a lot of new technologies. Phone, airplanes, cars, the cinema, etc. Reading La Recherche is like diving into an impressionist painting.

          We are lucky that Robert Proust wasn’t too conservative and smart enough to see the genius in his brother’s work.
          I think there are 18 volumes of correspondance by Proust. Beside this edition, to encourage readers, publishers have gathered his letters by correspondent: Proust and his mother, Proust and Montesquiou, Proust and Bibesco…

          Liked by 1 person

  7. March 17, 2022 at 1:41 pm

    This was really great, as was the previous article. I had just finished writing my review of the exhibition on Berthe Morisot’s daughter Julie and Mallarmé was an important person in the Manet/Morisot household. So, it was good to read about the Proust connection. I’ll look forward to reading your posts as I continue to tackle the subject. Thanks again, Here’s my article: https://www.museemusings.com/blog/mission-accomplished-julie-manet-as-champion-amp-collector

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 17, 2022 at 10:14 pm

      Hello and welcome to Book Around the Corner!

      I’ve seen this exhibition about Julie Manet at the Marmottan-Monet museum too! Did you see the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay a few years ago? It was fascinating. I also read Morisot’s bio and even if I wasn’t pleased with the angle the author chose for her book, it gave me an overview of the Manet/Morisot household and the friends who gravitated around them. See here: https://bookaroundthecorner.com/2021/03/07/berthe-morisot-by-dominique-bona-a-biography/

      Like you, I love spending time in Paris to visit museums and attend exhibitions. I see you’ve been to the Morozov collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton and to the Botticelli at the Musée Jacquemart-André. (one of my favorite museums, the mansion is so gorgeous) Both exhibitions were worth the travel. I’m not as educated as you in art but I could stare at Botticelli’s paintings for hours.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. February 3, 2023 at 10:51 am

    What about Leontine.Lippman as model for.Madame.Verdurin?
    Your remark re Claudel is.gratuitous.


  1. July 24, 2022 at 5:18 pm
  2. January 1, 2023 at 5:02 pm

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