October 23: Tension


October 23: Our image for today was taken on this date in 1923.

Three individuals, a young man and a couple, watched from the background by a stout pipe-smoker, stand in front of two cars parked in an otherwise deserted, fairly seedy, run-down looking square, home to an Italian ice cream cafe selling Sicilian cassata, and a cycle shop. They are all tense and warily regard the camera, while the young man in the foreground watches for something stage left. They are cold in the mid-autumn air, the men heavily dressed and the woman wrapping herself close with her furs and huddling against the spare wheel of the automobile. The windows are still shuttered, the shadows of the wan sunshine are long. Is this early morning or evening?


The characters in this scene are actress Cora (Marie-Caroline) Laparcerie (48) and her husband of 22 years, Jacques Richepin (43), poet and playwright. The man on the left is their 21 year old son, François Richepin (28 March 1902 – 11 January 1981) painter. Their 11 year old daughter Jacqueline Juliette Jeanne Sacha Richepin does not accompany them. Known as Miarka Lapercerie, she became a songwriter. This is an artistic French family.

Their nerviness is understandable from the caption for this photograph which I have found amongst the thousands of wonderful images at the Biblioteque Nationale de France. Jacques Richepin is here to fight a duel with Francesco Giuseppe Lanza Branciforte, 13rd prince of Trabia, a region on the North coast of Sicily, in the province of Palermo. The prince is amongst the Sicilian nationalists then joining the growing Fascist movement in Italy.


In the image above the Richepin couple look sweet; what is Monsieur doing fighting in a duel?

The photographer was from Agence de presse Meurisse, wielding a glass plate press camera, and may only have taken this and only one other shot (below), which appears to be after the event since the sun has risen higher, but he documented none of the events between, so we miss the action and must be content with the almost melodramatic tension of the first image.

Despite its stillness, it provides entree into the state of mind surrounding the duel, a formal fight bound by ‘civilised’ restraint, but which must be provoked by an initial flight of passion, and which it is expected  to somehow resolve. Regarded from that perspective, the simple press photo conveys so much more than might one taken of the ‘event’ itself. By comparison, the other shot, with Richepin and Cora at centre and with son François behind the man at centre right in a grey coat (no sign of our man with the pipe here), is merely a record.


The photographer’s employer Agence de presse Meurisse was founded in 1909 by the Belgian photographer Louis Meurisse. It produced more than 205,000 images covering the political, artistic, scientific or sports of French and international news in the years 1909 to 1937 (all now individually catalogued in the catalogue of the BNF, and digitized,  available on Gallica). After 1937 Agence Muerisse merged with Rol World Photo Press to form the Safara agency (Department of French News Agencies and Associated Reportage).

The reason for this duel is not recorded anywhere that I can find. Duels in France in this period, while still taken seriously as a matter of honour, were not fought to the death. They consisted of fencing with the épée mostly in a fixed distance with the aim of drawing blood from the opponent’s arm. No sword can be seen in the first image (the fellow in the background is carrying a walking stick over his arm while he smokes his pipe). Richepin carries a brief case, and even though duelling with pistols loaded with wax bullets was a sport in France in the 1920s, it is unlikely the bag contains a gun.

This is not the first duel that Richepin has fought. On 13 March 1914, Richepin met Pierre Frondaie, also a poet and playwright, in a duel at Neuilly fought to resolve a quarrel that began when Mr. Frondaie made a comment to Cora Laparcerie (Richepin) who was an actress in Frondaie’s play Aphrodite. Mme. Laparcerie took exception to the comment and Mme. Frondaie stepped in. An argument quickly ensued between the women. When Richepin asked Frondaie to apologize to his wife for the initial remark, Frondaie refused and a challenge was made.


That duel was arranged for March 13, 1914 at Neuilly. Over 100 celebrities and press witnessed the match, including Richepin’s father Jean and a cine cameraman, whose silent film can be seen on YouTube in which you can see the seconds stopping the fight twice in order to check Frondaie’s arm. He lost the duel when it was clear he was wounded.

L’Épouvent, a film by Albert Capellani from 1911 shows a poster for Richepin’s Xantho chez les Courtesaines outside Téatre des Bouffes Parisiens, rue Maurigny, in the 2nd arrondissement.

A taste of Richepin’s writing, and popularity, and thus a glimpse of the romantic passion behind his penchant for duelling, may be gained from this review in a contemporary theatre magazine,

Objectionable Plays.

Coming with M. Desfontaine’s “Prostituee” under this heading I must also
class Jacques Richepin’s ” Xantho chez les Courtisanes,” which, however, has been
played to good houses. This young dramatist writes graceful verse, but his story,
which deals exclusively with courtesan life, is, to speak plainly, coarse. M. Brisson used the word “pornographic” in connection with this production, which has
brought money to the box-office, but can never cover with glory the honoured name
the dramatist bears. For the most part all that the women on the stage have to
do is to lie about on luxurious cushions or rugs, in voluptuous positions and the
lightest of clothing, of course. This may be easier of accomplishment than playing high-class comedy, but it is infinitely less creditable.

…and also from the costumes by the great fashion and costume designer Paul Poiret for another of his plays Le Minaret which was directed by Cora and starred Mata Hari.


Cora Laparcerie

The tiny L’Île Tristan,  at the mouth of the Pouldavid Estuary off the French port of Douarnenez in south-western Brittany, is intimately linked with the Richepin family. Jean Richepin, father of Jacques and also a poet, novelist and prolific playwright (1849-1926), often stayed at Douarnenez, where a boulevard was named after him in 1936. In 1910, Jacques, who was then 30 years old bought L’Île Tristan and welcomed artist friends to share the idyll, and so there they thronged and we’re hosted graciously in its Chateau des Trois Fontaines. Inspired by the first transatlantic flight from Europe to the United States by Dieudonné Costes and Maurice Bellonte in September 1930 Richepin built the Chapelle des Aviateurs on the island. Clearly all actions of a man and woman of impulse, romance and passion. 

The year Jean Richepin died (1926), Jacques and Cora and put the island up for sale. But the sale was not made. It took until 1995 to see the Coastal Conservancy become the buyer of this remarkable site, which is now public space. Jacques Richepin and Cora Laparcerie are buried on the island and their tomb is the only place on the island remaining private.


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