Sunday, February 6, 2011


I keep waiting for a delayed character revelation to emerge from the bricks each time I pass his five-story high portrait as I go down my hill and up the next toward the center of Versailles. He looks so, oh gosh, Balzacian, dressed in his black redingote and white cravate, with his placid face framed by short dark curly hair à la Titus and those 19th-century sideburns. Painted in the early 1920s, the rare vintage toothpaste publicity features its enterprising creator, Dr. Pierre Mussot, a.k.a. Dr. Pierre, who has been smiling over decades of comings and goings on avenue des Etats-Unis, a main artery of Versailles. Ads like these, which could be seen from afar, were usually painted on the pignons of five- and six-story Haussmannian constructions in Paris. This location in Versailles was probably selected because the ad could be seen by train passengers arriving on the line coming from the Paris Saint-Lazare station.

The most well-known ad for the mint-flavored toothpaste which Dr. Pierre concocted and commercialized in 1837, is a poster or affiche designed by the famed children's book illustrator Louis-Maurice Boutet de Movel in 1894. But in the post-war giddiness of the Roaring Twenties it was the portrait of the good Dr. Pierre clad in 19th-century attire that was chosen for the giant mural advertisements; his person a symbol harking to a sense of tradition and stability of days gone by.

I sometimes wonder if the keenly observant Honoré de Balzac and the famous Dr. Pierre ever crossed paths, knowing that a multitude of social encounters fueled Balzac's inspiration for the some 2,500 characters in his panorama of 19th century French society, La Comédie Humaine. Then other times, thinking of  Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's eyes on the billboard in The Great Gatsby, I wonder, too, how F. Scott Fitzgerald might have reacted or been affected by the immense portraiture of Dr. Pierre, had he seen one of the mural ads during his séjour in Paris in the early 1920s. Slowly fading away with antiquated charm, the publicity today is discreet, but spanking new Dr. Pierre must have seemed an obnoxiously imposing and all-seeing voyeur.

Some vocabulary
redingote: frock coat
cravate: tie
à la Titus: as that of the Roman Emperor Titus (AD 79-81)
pignon: gable
pâte dentifrice: toothpaste
en vente partout: on sale everywhere
affiche: poster
séjour: sojourn

To read an article I wrote, Back to Balzac, about Balzac and the Maison de Balzac, a Parisian museum dedicated to his life and work,  join The Literary Traveler. An assay of the article is available free; the complete text requires membership.

©2011 P.B.Lecron

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