Issue 5, Spring 1954
The Livres d’Or are large leather-bound books kept by many restauranteurs and bar-owners in which their guests, especially if well-known, are asked to inscribe their names and if possible a sentiment or two in praise of the food and drink. These inscriptions are alike almost to the word; only the artist, by reason of his medium, is at home faced with the blank page of a Livres d’Or and a crowd peering over his shoulder, and though he rarely escapes the mental agony of trying to express his appreciation of an evening’s pleasure in an original way, in many cases he succeeds. The drawings on the following pages have been collected from those restaurants and bars of Paris, which are particularly artists’ haunts, and whose Livres d’Or are appreciated by the customers as much as La Specialité de la Maison.
Camille Renault’s restaurant in Puteaux, just outside Paris, has one of the best-known Livres d’Or—volumes of them, in fact, piled high on a special table in one of the dining-rooms. Camille Renault’s face, his contours and proportions are so impressive (he weighs 400 pounds) that on page after page of his Livres d’Or artists use him as their model, of which in the following pages the leonine Picasso and the Jaques Villon portrait are examples. A certain Arnould, a young French artist from Rouen who won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1939, was so impressed by the restauranteur’s bulk he made 145 line drawings and paintings for which Renault—friend of the artist to the core—spent some 480 hours posing.
Gaston Baheux is another friend of the artist, as Matisse notes above his sketch of a Madonna and Child. Monsieur Tonton, as he is known to artists, started in the restaurant business in 1925 with a place called the Triboulette, in Montparnasse. He now runs a night-club in Montmartre—Libertys—famed for its hard-working gaggle of off-key singing waiters. The bar is hung with a number of paintings by up-and-coming French artists, notably Bernard Buffet, the young painter whose self-portrait appears in this portfolio. Tonton started his Livres d’Or in 1937 and few well-known artists have not contributed to it. His Toulouse-Lautrec drawing was purchased from an old Livre d’Or and hangs in his home in St-Germain-en-Laye.
The late Christian (Bébé) Berard was responsible for bringing many fellow-artists to the Méditerranée, a fashionable restaurant in the Place de l’Odéon opposite the Comédie-Francaise. Here the Livres d’Or are filled with tributes to the restaurant’s specialités—sea-food—the contented Steinberg diner, the Picasso fish, the Keogh and Vertès octopus-worshippers, the Lila de Nobili dolphin-girl on the last page of the portfolio.
Not far from the Méditerranée, in the Rue Mazarin, is Chez George. The restaurant is just around the corner from the Beaux-Arts and has long been a meeting-place for artists. Monsieur George himself, however, knowns nothing about art. He prefers looking forward to his Sunday afternoons when he fishes for whatever it is that fishermen flock the banks of the Seine to catch. But he, as the other restauranteurs, takes great pleasure in his Livres d’Or. For not only are they valuable records of the restaurant’s history and its patrons, but they are books of enormous variety: pages by writers who have despaired of their own medium and tried their hand at design (the French novelist Marcel Aymé, the poets Jacques Prévert and Paul Eluard); or the self-portraits of such entertainment artists as Charles Chaplin, Grock, the famous Swiss clown, and Jacques Tati, the producer-comedian of the film Jour de Fête and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot; or even the sketches by those unknown to the world of art or entertainment but who have caught the line and spirit of the artist regardless—the collection of thumbs, the vivid cat, or the delicate sketch of the girl carrying the fish. Not only do they give pleasure to their owners, but to those who call for the books along with the after-dinner cognac, and sit over them, leafing through the pages until the kitchen is closed, the chef gone home, the restaurant deserted.