Sem (pseudonym for Georges Goursat). Sem au Bois (title stamped in gilt on front cover). N.p. (Paris?) ca. 1908. Signed and dated 29/4/08 in pencil on the last plate; 6 other plates with the artist’s printed insignia. 
“And if you happen to be an historian of Belle Epoque Paris (clever you) and recognize anyone among the caricatures, please let us know in the comments field…”
– UPDATE, May 2011:
When first I wrote about Georges “Sem” Goursat’s 1910 leporello Sem au Bois about a year ago, I ended the post with an invitation, asking readers to share any insights they might have as to the real-world identities of the faces caricatured in Sem’s well-heeled crowd of Boulogne woods revelers.
Last week, Pablo Medrano Bigas, Associate Professor of Design and Image at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Universitat de Barcelona answered the call. Clever him, indeed, and lucky us. Not only has he positively identified several of the processional’s key figures, he’s also supplied a wealth of historical background information to further our understanding the illustration’s form and content.
According to Pau, Sem au Bois gently skewers the members of the Jockey Club de Paris, a private sporting society that opened in 1834 as “La Société d’Encouragement pour l’Amélioration des Races de Chevaux” (the Society for the Encouragement of the Improvement of Horse Breeding.) It quickly established itself as a magnet for the social elite of Belle Époque. (Proust’s fictional character Charles Swann was member.) From 1863 to 1913, the Jockey Club was headquartered above the Grand Café of the Scribe Hotel, where on December 28, 1895, the Lumière brothers debuted their invention, the Cinematograph (lending credence to my earlier speculation that Sem’s use of the leporello format was in nod to the famous film makers…) The location was convenient to the group’s principal races at Longchamp.
What follows is a slightly edited version of Bigas’ e-mail, with a selection of his composite illustrations comparing Sem’s caricatures with photographs and illustrations of luminaries from the era. Take it away, Pau…
“This genre of illustration — showing group portraits of the era’s more prominent personalities — was a popular trope. In fact, ‘Sem au Bois’ is similar in many ways to works by Michel ‘Mich’ Liebeaux, Marius ‘O’Galop’ Rossillon, Bernard ‘Moloch’ Collomb and other well-known caricaturists for popular satirical magazines of late 19th & early 20th centuries. Sometimes they made a supplemental income by inserting caricatures of well-known people (including presidents and kings of foreign countries) into advertising illustrations, often implying an improbable product endorsement.”
“About the portraits shown in your original blog post, these are clearly members of the Jockey Club de Paris. It appears as if they’re headed through the Boulogne woods to the races at Longchamp, with one carriage ferrying the ‘Comissaires’ (judges), and several others the staff or owners of different newspapers and magazines, including Fémina and Journal, along with a host of well-known society figures. Here are my hypotheses about several of the specific figures shown in the drawing. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake or two, but I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible!”
“This plate shows a self-portrait of the artist, Georges Goursat, aka “Sem.” He was well known to readers of Le Journal, Le Rire, Le Gaulois, Les Modes, Le Figaro, L’Illustration, La Vie au Grand Air and other magazines of the era. With him in the carriage are Henri Letellier, director of the newspapers Le Journal and Les Sports and Marthe Fourton, Mr. Letellier’s wife. For reference, see the accompanying images, published in Femina on October 15, 1904 and Le Journal Amusant, on August 18, 1923.”
“The woman at left is Mademoiselle Madeleine Carlier (1885-1972), well-known in her time as both an actress and fashion model. She was a beautiful woman, portrayed in many drawings, paintings and photographs of the era. She was often featured in editorial fashion spreads for magazines including Les Modes. See the accompanying images for examples. As to the woman at her right, Mlle. Néri, I have no information to offer!!”
“In the red coach to the left, we have Louis Philippe (1869-1926), the Duke of Orleans, pretender to French throne as “Philippe VIII” (which was impossible, as you know, since France was a Republic by this time…) He is riding in the company of Mr. Charlet, who was director of Mercedes car company in France, which had a luxurious showroom on the Champes-Elysées.”
“I have no idea as to the identity of this old lady with the camera, called “Miss Kodak” on the plate. Perhaps she was a well-known photographer for the society magazines? But clearly Sem drew her costume in homage to the firm’s trademark ‘ Kodak Girl,’ who appeared widely in their corporate advertisements from the early 1900s to the 1950s… As you can see in the accompanying images, the most remarkable characteristic of the girl is that she is always wearing a blue-white striped dress.”
“And here we have Jagatjit Singh Bahadur (1872-1949), the Maharadjah of Kapurthala State under British Colonial rule. He made his first trip to the Occident in 1893, visiting the U.K. to attend the Duke of York’s marriage, also traveling to Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, and the U.S., to see the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He married several times and eventually settled in Paris with his fifth wife (a Spanish woman named Anita Delgado) in 1908. At this time he had several children (as the Sem caricature shows).”
“Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1855-1921), was an aristocrat poet and supporter of the avant-garde. He was a real dandy in every sense of the word, openly gay, with famous lovers including Gabriel de Yturri. He was close to Antonio de la Gándara, Sarah Bernhardt, Ida Rubinstein, Giovanni Boldini (painter of the accompanying portrait), and also a favorite of Sem, who portayed him often.”
“‘Mademoiselle Lantelme,’ i.e. Claire Geneviève ‘Ginette’ Lantelme (born Mathilde Fossey; 1887-1911), was a famous vaudeville actress and fashion model. She died tragically at 28, only two years after her marriage to Mr. Alfred Edwards, publisher of Le Matin. Here she is depicted sitting in a “Galliette,” which was a special two-seater version of the standard Gallia electric-car model (typically mono-place, with room only for the driver), produced by the Société Française l’Electrique. This car was extremely popular in France between 1905-1908.”
“Finally we have the infamous ‘Polaire,’ a.k.a. Émilie Marie Bouchaud (1874-1939), a very famous singer and actress in music-hall cabarets, the stage and silent movies. Next to her sits the scandalous Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), best known for her novel Gigi and the Claudine stories, published under the name of her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (aka “Willy”), with whom she shared a celebrated erotic triangle with Polaire. The couple divorced in 1906, so Sem obviously didn’t place him in the scene!”
How intriguing it is to find Colette in an all but forgotten album of caricatures by the artist who, fifty years later, would inspire Cecil Beaton’s art direction of the Academy Award-winning film of her most famous novel. Our sincerest thanks to Pau for bring the procession of Sem au Bois to life in such vivid detail. We had a hunch that each character in the thirty-foot long illustration represented a known figure from the era, but we lacked the resources to put names with the faces.
We can only repeat the original post’s invitation: Are there any other recognizable faces in the crowd? For those who care to look more closely themselves, here are the remaining panels of Sem au Bois (which we e-mailed to Pau for his help with this post), thus completing the initial set of illustrations we publicized a year ago:
For example, who is the “le Riche Étranger” riding in “Le Char De l’État?” If you have any guesses, please add them to the comments section, or contact us by e-mail.