28 May 2016

Gabriel Astruc - Paris' special theatrical impressario

In all our discussions about the Belle Epoque in lectures, it was been the impact of Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes that fasc­inated the students most. In 1906 Diaghilev took a major exhibition of Russian art to the Petit Palais in Paris, the first of many trips to France. He loved it, so I could understand why Diag­hilev wanted to travel to the Paris Opéra with six performances of Muss­org­sky's opera Boris Godunov in 1908. But why did he move his entire company from St Peters­burg to Paris permanently the next year?

Gabriel Astruc (1864–1938) was born in Bordeaux, the son of the ex-Chief Rabbi of Belgium. His family had no money, so young Gabriel had to begin his career working for a Polish publisher and book shop owner in Paris, Paul Ollendorff. In 1890 Astruc founded an art journal, l'Amateur.

Loving Montmartre's modernist Le Chat Noir cabaret, Astruc became friends with young Erik Satie and wrote critiques of theatre performances. Then his career began to diversify. In 1897 Astruc founded a music publishing company with his father-in-law Wilhelm Enoch, soon to be followed 1900 by a luxury magazine Musica. By 1904 Astruc was identifying himself as a concert promoter.

The Belle Epoque years leading up to WW1 were a revelation to Astruc. He brought every musical talent that he could attract to Paris to create his Great Season of Paris. Imagine the excit­e­ment for Parisians who saw, for the first time in 1905, a season with the Italian Enrico Caruso, Arthur Rubinstein or the Australian sop­rano Nellie Melba. Or the production of Salome, conducted by Richard Strauss in 1907. Or the Metropol­itan Opera conducted by Arturo Toscanini in 1910. And Debussy knocked their socks off doing Le martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911.

Gabriel Astruc, 
director of Théâtre des Champs Elysées 

Astruc and Marcel Proust (1871–1922) were close, Astruc having helped proof read the first edition of Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, Swann's Way in 1913. Proust was delight­ed and in return, he helped Astruc prepare his memoirs, Le pavillon des fantômes.

But the greatest achievement for Astruc occurred when he encouraged Diaghilev to bring the Ballets Russes to Paris permanently in 1909. Was there any indicat­ion that French audiences would respond warmly to an “invasion” of foreign culture? Jewish financial supporters were recruited by Astruc, Diaghilev’s producer, to underwrite the ballet. And educated, cultivated Jewish ballet fans were excited to fill the halls. Ast­r­uc’s Jewishness apparently connected him to the great Jewish audien­ces that established the success of the Russian ballet in Paris. These audiences seemed eager to associate with the new vogue from the East; even Chagall understood the marketing potential of his own origins. 

Astruc's and Diaghilev's favourite composer was Igor Stravinsky. And once they heard Fireworks, they quickly asked Stravinsky to arrange some music for the Ballets Russes. The first score comm­issioned from Strav­insky was The Firebird 1910, Pet­rushka 1911, The Rite of Spring 1913 and Pulcinella 1920. Together with the best set and costume designers in Europe, Leon Bakst and Pablo Picasso, the team in Paris was unstoppable.

Theatre des Champs-Elysees
Designed by Astruc and opened in 1913

Before WW1, Astruc produced his next huge project, the modernist Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Ave Montaige. Astruc needed a venue that would be suitable for opera, symphonies, drama and any other art form that he would, in time, be producing and integrating. His theatre opened its doors in March 1913 for the inaugural celebration and the first of six performances of Hector Berlioz’s long lost opera Ben­venuto Cell­ini.

After a dazzling and scandalous first season, Astruc started to lose money, probably not helped by the infamous riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Apparently the audience believed Nijinsky’s choreography, and the set designs and costumes, were far too suggestive.

Léonide Massine, Léon Bakst and Igor Stravinsky

There was an even worse price to pay. Léon Daudet and his brothers in the Action Française heaped anti-Semitic vitriol on the rabbi’s son from Bordeaux eg “The Jew behind the Grand Season of Paris is demolishing the Parisian season, as his ilk demolishes the French forest completely. Poverty, then ruin. A curse on the sedentary population. When Astruc is finished ruining Paris, he will do the same with Vienna or Berlin”. But Daudet was wasting his poisoned breath; nothing would stop Paris’ love affair with the Belle Epoque, especially the cultural activities produced by Gabriel Astruc.

After WWI Astruc worked in radio and advertising, and later served as the manager of the Théâtre Pigalle for Philippe de Rothschild. Over the decades Astruc had been an agent, theatre impresario, creator of a leading periodical, producer of music stage and ballet, music publisher. And he worked with many of the best-known and most important cultural figures of Belle Epoque Paris, both French and foreign-born. Not bad for one ambitious and talented Frenchman, working his way up the creative arts ladder.


Born into an educated Jewish family in Angers, Zacharie Astruc (1833–1907) was a French author of several novels, short stories and plays. He became an important figure in the cultural life of France in the later C19th as a painter, and participated in the first landmark Impressionist exhibition of 1874. As a sculptor his reputation was even greater, and won him medals at the Salons of 1882-1886, as well as at the Universal Exposition of 1889. In 1890 Zacharie Astruc received the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

Fantin-Latour, 1870 
Un atelier aux Batignolles 
Musée d'Orsay

As an art critic, Zacharie was a strong defender of Courbet, and was one of the first to recognise the talent of Manet, Monet, Whistler and Fantin-Latour. Perhaps to thank him, Zacharie appeared in Henri Fantin-Latour's signature work, Un atelier aux Batignolles.

In the atelier, Édouard Manet concentrated on the man sitting in the other chair Zacharie Astruc. Standing around and watching the artist at work were some of his friends. At the left of the painting was the German painter Otto Schölderer and Auguste Renoir in his hat. To the right of the painting were Emile Zola, Edmond Maître and Claude Monet. The tall man with the beard was Frédéric Bazille.

Was Zacharie Astruc an uncle to Gabriel Astruc?


Deb said...

Loved Astruc's theatre from the outside. Hope it is still preserved and used.

Hels said...


Thanks for mentioning Astruc's theatre. I added two photos to show its elegance.

The concerts these days are performed by local orchestras for chamber works and by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

bazza said...

What a fascinating well-connected man Astruc was. It's seems that the Dreyfus affair did not moderate the views of Léon Daudet.
The Fantin-Latour paintng is very interesting. His hyper-realism seems at odds with the Impressionism that was all around him! I had assumed that Zacharie Astruc was Gabriel's father but he clearly wasn't a Rabbi!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I knew the Fantin Latour painting very well, and even recognised many of the characters. But not Zacharie Astruc!

It was only when reading about Gabriel Astruc that it occurred to me to ask about their relationship. Even now, I still wonder if daddy (Rabbi Elie-Aristide Astruc) was a brother or first cousin of Zacharie Astruc. If they were all related, it was a VERY talented and influential family.

Re Léon Daudet, the less said the better. I hope he is rotting in hell somewhere.

Surtac said...

Thank you for these posts. I am a direct descendant of Gabriel's sister Myriam. I am unaware of a close familial tie to Zacharie Astruc - though it is possible there is a connection, though generations earlier. Gabriel had two siblings - my great great grandmother Myriam and a brother named Lucien. Bios that refer to a brother named "Henri" are incorrect. Gabriel and his beloved brother are buried beside each other in Montparnasse Cemetery.

Hels said...

Surtac, super nick for a blogger to use :)

Thank you for your family's details... an area I found to be problematic when reading up for my blog article.

Cesar Leal had written one paragraph and even that was uncertain. "The only known living relatives of Gabriel Astruc are linked to his sister Myriam Astruc
(1860-?) who married Lucien Mayer (?). Myriam Mayer and Phillip Sanfuentes and their
three sons, Vincent, Antoine, and Jean-Marie are the only living descendents from this
family. I am extremely grateful for their hospitality and generosity, for they granted me
access to their personal documents and shared relevant information for this project."

Surtac said...

Cesar is correct. Gabriel's brother Lucien did not have children and Gabriel's daughter Lucienne didn't either. So my family and relatives in Belgium are the only surviving descendants of Myriam.