Thursday 15 March 2012

The Strange Journey of Victor Noir

In the 92nd division of the Père Lachaise cemetery lies the tomb of Victor Noir, one of its most well-known curiosities. The bronze sculpture, laying flat in position of death, fascinates and amuses visitors, some of whom even believe it has certain special powers (more of which later). Victor Noir though did not arrive here until 20 years after his death. Why did this very ordinary man become such a cause célèbre, and what happened between the moment of his death and his arrival at Père Lachaise?

Victor Noir, either seated
or very short
Victor Noir, the nom de plume of Yvan Salmon, was born in 1848 in the Vosges region of France. He trained first as a watchmaker then a florist, but after his brother Louis found success in Paris he decided to follow him to the capital. He became a journalist, and worked on several papers including a new title, ‘La Marseillaise’. It was whilst on a mission for this paper that tragedy would strike.

Both Henri Rochefort, the newspaper's owner, and Pascal Grousset, its editor, had entered into conflict with Prince Pierre Bonaparte, the nephew of the Emporer Napoleon III. Grousset was so incensed by the altercation that he sent two of his employees, Noir and Ulric de Fonvielle, to the home of Bonaparte to deliver a challenge to a duel. Bonaparte, himself something of a wild and hot-headed man, took umbrage to this challenge, and in the scuffle that broke out, shot and killed Victor Noir.

It was as his life ended that the cult of Victor Noir began. The reign of Emporer Napoleon III, who interestingly had been elected as the country’s first President in the year of Noir’s birth, was already in danger of collapse, but the murder of a journalist by a member of his family was exactly the kind of event his opponents were looking to exploit. News of Victor Noir’s death travelled fast, and on the day of the funeral, perhaps as many as 200,000 people had gathered around Noir’s home in Neuilly.

The plan had been to bury Noir in the small local cemetery, but the people demanded that he be taken on a triumphant procession through Paris and laid to rest at the city's Père Lachaise cemetery. Just as the scene threatened to get out of control, Victor Noir's brother Louis appeared and pleaded with the crowd, telling them that it was the wish of the family to bury him in Neuilly. The crowd eventually parted and let the coffin be taken to the cemetery for burial.

The Neuilly cemetery on the day of the funeral, and (quite possibly) the same scene today.
The Prince Pierre Bonaparte was arrested and imprisoned in the Concièrgerie - with the assent of his exasperated uncle - but was later freed after the court decided that he had been provoked and had accidently killed Noir during the scuffle. Although Victor Noir's death had lead to protests and demonstrations across the city, as well as a whole series of articles in the press attacking Napoleon III's regime, the empire survived - until later on that year when the Prussians invaded France.

Many of those who had been involved in the protests following the death of Victor Noir, including Louise Michel and Jules Dalou, took part in the 1871 Commune in Paris, and were forced into exile after it was violently put down. Revolutionary activities, to which the name of Victor Noir was now indelibly linked, were no longer in evidence, and the young journalist was able to lay undisturbed in Neuilly for the next twenty years as the Third Republic entered a period of relative tranquility.

Victor Noir may have been removed from the cemetery in Neuilly, but he lives on in the name of the street that surrounds it.
As the exiles slowly returned to Paris, the name of Victor Noir began to circulate again. Was it not now time to give him the monument he deserved? A public subscription was launched to raise the necessary funds, and one of those present at his funeral, Jules Dalou, was given the job of creating the sculpture in bronze. He chose a realistic model of his moment of death (taken from press sketches made at the time), his hat dropped at his feet. The remains of Victor Noir were then transferred to Père Lachaise in 1891, and his tomb became a shrine to revolutionaries - and much later, to another kind of public.

When Victor Noir was moved from Neuilly, not all of him made it to Père Lachaise. As the remains were being removed from his original resting place, his brother Louis asked to be left alone for a moment alongside the coffin. A witness declared later that he'd stumbled across the scene and found Louis removing his brother's skull. He said nothing to anyone else at the time, and Louis apparently kept the skull in a glass case in his home, talking to it regularly! After Louis died, the skull was eventually taken to his tomb in Père Lachaise where it joined the rest of his body.    

Looking at the sculpture today, we see a rather heroic, romantic figure, handsome and svelte, but in reality, Victor Noir had been an unexceptional young man. He was a rather overweight and plodding character who had been due to marry his 16 year old fiancée when he died. He had not been a revolutionary in action or through his writing, but just an individual who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and confronted by the wrong person in the wrong mood. 

It is the image of a man who became a revolutionary symbol despite himself. What is even more unlikely though is his current status - as a fertility symbol. He was someone who was quite possibly still a virgin when he died, but this reputation comes from two elements. For some reason, Dalou chose to emphasise a certain part of his anatomy, but nobody seemed to notice this until the 1970s, when certain tour guides at the cemetery invented the fertility myth.

Since that moment, women looking to fall pregnant visit the tomb and rub themselves against the sculpture, and some parts are very clearly 'polished' (nose, mouth and chin, the tips of his boots - and of course his genitals!). He also regularly receives flowers, as can be seen in the photo at the top of the page, as well as messages in his hat.  

His death may not have lead to the downfall of an empire, but who can say that it has not indirectly lead to the birth of a few babies in the city?


  1. Hey Adam. Great post! I've been wanting to learn more interesting stories about the residents of Pere Lachaise. Thanks for helping me out with that! I haven't stumbled across Noir yet (I leave my wanderings to chance), but I'll be on the lookout next time. I certainly will not be rubbing any part of the sculpture, however!

  2. Another of Père Lachaise's wonders !

    Thanks for digging up all this information... hope all is well with you Adam...

  3. Thanks for the lowdown on the unfortunate Mr. Noir. The bronze memorial may not be a great likeness, but it does grab one's attention when strolling through the cemetery.
    Another arresting artwork is the marker for the aeronauts Croce-Spinelli and Sivel. They expired on a high altitude flight of the balloon "Zenith"and are depicted side by side as if in bed, and holding hands.

  4. Was just looking at Google Images for Victor Noir, apparently a much-photgraphed site ! And a few of the photos there show in a bit more detail how all that polishing of bronze happens... Edifying ! :-)

  5. Owen - yes, there are some interesting photos! By the way, I thought your 'thanks for digging up all this information' comment was particularly apt here!

    John - it would be possible to do a blog just on Père Lachaise. Concerning those two, Owen - mentioned above, and who has already commented on this post - did an interesting feature on their story.

  6. I've spent a number of hours at Père Lachaise, but I didn't see this one. I can only imagine what else I missed. Thank you for this story though!

  7. There is also the notorious recumbent figure of Felix Faure in that cemetery.

  8. Duckbutt - ah yes, the man who was said to be more famous in death than in life! A rather non-descript president who became infamous for dying in delicato flagranto morto. He would surely have made a more logical monument to fertility!

  9. Adam, I always wondered at the photograph you published; we know that VN died when he was about twenty-two years of age but he looks like a middle-aged man on this photo. Even considering the fact that the exposures back then used to take extremely long time (up to several minutes with a photographer asking his 'models' to stay motionless) it is still a mystery...

  10. I knew the tomb and a little bit of the story, but what you have found out and what I really think is suprising is that the fertility issue dates as late as the 1970's! :-)

  11. I have seen this one on several visits to the Père Lachaise, but only seem to be able to find it by chance.

    Thanks for all the additional info.

  12. Having recently visited Père Lachaise, we came across this grave and I asked my husband that a. it was a strange grave and b. why was his crotch polished? My husband said his crotch also looked a bit on the large size maybe that was the reason. Anyways, thanks for the back story on this, very interesting!

  13. While I was there at the tomb, I heard a tour guide say that this is where the phrase, “Don’t shoot the Messenger” came from