Madeleine Castaing’s Singular Brand of Rebellion

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Madeleine Castaing

We look back at the revolutionary style of the artists’ patron, antiques dealer and interior decorator who brought poetry into the fabric of French homes

The chambers designed by interiors doyenne Madeleine Castaing were art installations as much as decoration commissions: “I decorate houses the way that others paint pictures or write books,” the 1894-born antiques dealer and artists’ patron had once said, in a statement that somehow eluded the very literal nature of her meaning. The rooms Castaing created – with their muslin-lined walls, Neo-classical furniture and Indian floral chintz – could send a guest straight into the pages of Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu, the novels of Balzac or the plays of Chekhov. Madeleine married the heir and art critic Marcellin Castaing – the legendary love of her life – and the duo befriended and supported countless artists at the Café de la Rotonde: Erik Satie, Blaise Sendrars, Amedeo Modigliani, Jean Cocteau (whose house she later designed to work in tandem with his wall ‘tattoos’), Marc Chagall, Henry Miller and Picasso. The couple were key to the career of Chaim Soutine, who painted Madeleine at least three times. The writer Maurice Sachs stayed with them often and once wrote, mesmerised by Madeleine’s efforts: “The constant transformations she made to the estate kept her as busy as the world can keep a socialite… They’d eat at any time of the day; they’d get up to run go see a painting. That woman amazed me because she worked on her happiness like an artist works on his masterpiece.”  

Le style Castaing was instantly recognisable via her trademark palette of red, bleu Castaing (a sky-blue “somewhere between turquoise and verdigris” as described by Castaing’s biographer Emily Evans Eerdmans) and the green of the gardens – all offset with black. Castaing had little interest in imitating other eras; instead she opted for an irreverent mix of styles, marrying English regency with Russian antiques and pieces from the Napoleon III era (distinctly unfashionable in France at the time); offsetting regal formality with wall-to-wall leopard print carpets, faux ivy leaves strung from chandeliers or banana-leaf wallpaper. She designed her own fabrics and wallpaper using the archives of Maison Hamot, her suppliers. To this day, these prints line the walls and floors pictured in French décor magazines and are responsible for an endless supply of imitations.

Defining Features
“Sometimes you need a bit of bad taste!” Castaing would declare; and, just as plastic flowers and lime-yellow leather peppered her wardrobe, she was known put a vacuum cleaner on reverse to add instant patina to freshly painted walls and to take new curtains off a rung or two – such was her desire for the imperfect and the lived-in. Over the years Castaing’s personal style changed: from her youthful penchant for couture (she famously held together a Balenciaga gown using huge safety pins) and fanciful millinery, her appearance became more cartoon-like – even painterly – in her later years. Castaing wore an outline of graphic red lip-liner painted well outside the lips, and thick false lashes, and painted lash lines onto the skin beneath her eyes. After her husband’s death in 1966 she began to wear a wig. Despite boasting a head of her own healthy hair, it was the chin-sculpting effect of the wig’s startlingly obvious elastic strap that she coveted. “Her vanity was for her eyes only,” Eerdmans explained. “She was well aware that others stared and mockingly referred to her as the ‘femme à l’élastique’ but she famously retorted that when she looked in the mirror, she liked what she saw.” As with her interiors, her sartorial style was unyielding. Thus, Madeleine began to resemble the works of her beloved friend Soutine as her appearance concretised, choosing Expressionistic graphic line and texture over realism.  

Seminal Moments
The facts and timeline of Castaing’s life are hazy, since she rewrote their histories with each telling for dramatic fact. She is known to have met Marcellin at 15 or 16, having spotted the “tall, dark blonde and handsome” gentleman, who was supposedly 20 years her senior, on a train set for the Pyrenees spa town of Cauterets. The story goes that (in a rather promiscuous act), she went to his carriage to declare her interest in him; he proposed they get off the train together at the next stop. Scared at first, she refused, only to accept hours later. When Marcellin eventually returned her to her mother, they were promptly engaged. After ending a short-lived career in silent films in the 20s, Marcellin bought her Lèves – a property that she’d been looking at longingly since her days in a convent school nearby. The house would become one of her masterpieces. Madeleine first posed for Soutine in 1928, before he spent every summer between 1930-35 with the couple at Lèves; the Castaings would acquire over 40 of his paintings.

It wasn’t until their funds dwindled during WWII and Marcellin sold one of their Soutines that Madeleine felt compelled to work, prompting her to open her own store on rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris. Castaing painted the store black and was teased that she’d opened a funeral parlour but it wasn’t long before passers-by stopped in their tracks to glance through the windows of her boutique-cum-residence. In the winding maze of little rooms, Castaing lit the fire and set out tea; open books were strewn throughout as if her imaginary characters were to return at any moment. Castaing crafted an idea of lifestyle that was hitherto unseen: romantic, poetic, lived-in but above all, new.

She’s an AnOther Woman Because...
Castaing’s innate sense of style was born from a disregard of fashion and societal norms. As eclectic and free-wheeling as it was, her taste was singular and unswerving, answering to one influence only: her own eye. Through nostalgia and the romanticisation of the 19th century, Castaing somehow crafted a kind of modernity – “fresh and unstuffy,” as New York interior decorator Miles Redd described. Castaing identified her talent as an ease in letting go, using “colours that were once forbidden and that are now accepted, the unexpected, the opposite of convention. And yes, part of it is always chance. I introduced mystery; there was never mystery in houses. You can feel mystery; it comes from a certain beauty. There’s always beauty in mystery. The unexpected is always there and it brings things to life.” A steadfast rule-breaker, Castaing reconfigured the formalities of the 20th-century home.