You don’t go to an exhibit on parks to see things about courtesans, but in 19th century France, courtesans are never far. The greatest garden in France of the early 19th century was, after all, Empress Josephine’s at Malmaison—and Josephine, if never exactly a courtesan, was a serial mistress of powerful men from the Revolution until Prime Minister Barras unloaded her onto his willing sidekick Napoleon, who eventually married her….maybe…. (there was a ceremony, but its legality was questionable). This painting too is like a postcard from the scandalous side of 19th century life. It is by Delacroix and represents a quiet nook in George Sand’s garden at Nohant, where Delacroix visited her with her lover Chopin. Delacroix and Chopin adored each other, though we do not believe occasional rumors that they were lovers or had a ménage-à-trois with Sand.
But certainly both Delacroix and Sand were scandalous people. Both had elite but scandalous backgrounds: Delacroix was almost certainly the illegitimate son of the statesman Talleyrand, and Sand came of a complicated family of aristocrats, illegitimate children, and courtesans. Delacroix’s scandalousness was relatively run of the mill: he had many lovers, and as a Romantic, he loved painting sexy and/or violent scenes, the more overblown the better. Sand’s scandalousness was, in any case, far more noticeable. She dressed in men’s clothing and smoked cigars, and after separating from her husband, she had a long series of lovers, including probably at least one woman, and certainly a number of famous men: the writer Prosper Mérimée (author of Carmen), the poet Alfred de Musset, and most famously Chopin. In short, this is an unusually peaceful scene for Delacroix—no slaughter, rape, or mayhem of any kind—but it is a quiet place where some very racy people hung out together….