A short architectural history of the Petites Maisons asylum

(This is the English version of an original French blog entry: Les Petites Maisons; if you notice any funny English or have any suggestion, please leave a comment.)

I would like to seize the opportunity offered by Paris Museums’ new open access collection1 to present some information about the Petites Maisons, the institution, managed since 1633 by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, that welcomed Georges Focus when his mental disorders became too strong to allow him a normal life. He might have died here in 17082. Architectural conservatism3 and the continuity of the hospice function of this set of buildings mean that documents from 1868 can probably be useful for understanding the living conditions of the last years of Focus, despite a time gap of more than 150 years.

The Petites Maisons cared about mad people, poor old people, people suffering from venereal diseases and skin disease patients. They no longer exist; they used to be located at the place of the current Square Boucicaut, behind the Bon Marché department store.

Around 1900; Public domain; https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24358607

The first document that can be found on the site of the Museums of Paris is a “Plan de l’hôpital des Petites Maisons“, drawn by Michelinot, and measuring 56.5 x 42.5 cm. The Museums’ website does not give any dating for it, but the map includes a mention of the year 1787; it is therefore posterior to Focus’s stay and the expansion of the hospital in 17314. I have indicated with black dots the “Courtyard of the Crazies”.

Michelinot, Plan de l’hôpital des Petites maisons; Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

It seems that this plan is a copy of a plan made in 17855 by Buron (del.) and Louis-Antoine Hérisset (sculp.). This plan is kept at the National Library of France and available on Gallica, which allows to see the following enlargement:

Enlarged detail from Plan de l’Hôpital des Petites Maisons (1785); public domain:
Bibliothèque nationale de France, GED-5562 ; https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84445197

According to the hospice founding edict of 1554, the rooms measured nine or twelve square feet, i.e. 3 by 4 meters rooms6.

The plan by Buron / Michelinot might be compared with the plan of Paris by Jacques Gomboust from 1652. We can see that the organization of the central part, a garden surrounded by small houses, has not changed. If the layout of the parts of the hospital was kept between 1652 and 1785, as the identical location of the skin disease patients house seems to indicate, Focus would have lodged somewhere in the wing on the side of the park opposite the church of hospital. I do not know whether he had a direct view on the garden of the Petites Maisons7.

Enlarged detail of the map Lutetia Paris by Jacques Gomboust, 1652; Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE AA-573 (RES). Public domain; http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb40707088m

It is also possible to compare the Buron/Michelinot plan with the map of Paris made by Jouvin de Rochefort in 1672.

Enlarged detail of “Paris en 1672 : fac-similé du premier plan de Jouvin de Rochefort, réduction de 1/4” (1870). Public domain; http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb42295229f

Next document is a plan of the “Hospice des Ménages“, that took over in 1801 the Petites Maisons 8 . It was drawn by A. Bienvenu in 1868, a few months before the buildings were destroyed. It measures 103 x 72 cm.

Alexandre Bienvenu, “Plan de l’hospice des Ménages, entre la rue de la Chaise et la rue de Sèvres en décembre 1868”. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

The part formerly inhabited by mad people is now occupied by the “Ménages”. The general layout of the buildings seems to be the same as on Buron’s plan.

Next document is a drawing by Léon Leymonnerye. It is a comparative plan of the Hospice des Ménages in 1846 and of the district situation in 1877, after the destruction of the hospice. We see that the future square Boucicaut only corresponds to the central part of the garden of the Petites Maisons and that all the buildings where Focus had lived have been razed.

Léon Leymonnerye, Hospice des Ménages; Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

Some drawings are joined as annex to this plan, and they show the exterior facade of several parts of the Hospice. The buildings have undergone several renovations, by mixing new constructions and re-using existing structures. I don’t know how much they have changed from what Focus may have seen.

Leymonnerye also drew a sketch in 1863 of a column surmounted by a cross that stood at the entrance to the garden of the hospice, as well as a detail of the facade of the presbytery and a well in the middle of the garden. The monument to the cross seems to be mentioned on the plan of Buron / Michelinot as well.

Léon Leymonnerye, Ménages (rue de Sèvres). Feuille 4(e) (1863); Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

Next document is a high-angle drawing of the garden of the Hospice, seen from I don’t know where in its entrance, by Charles Fichot. We can recognize the hospice church, the monument with the cross, the well and the buildings on the side of the small park. The houses opposite the church have kept their small size, with only a ground floor and a first floor, in contrast to the back wing, higher and impressive. According to Leymonnerye’s plan, this part of the hospice was built in 1786. It should also be noted that the alignment of the trees has not been changed and resembles that on the Gomboust and Jouvin plans.

Michel Charles Fichot, 1868; Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

Finally, the last documents I found on the Paris Museums website are photographs by Pierre Emonts which must also date from 1867 or 18689, just before the destruction of the hospice. On one of them, you can clearly see the church and the small buildings on the right, very similar to the building where, I think, Focus has lived.

“Hospice des Ménages (cour intérieure)”, Paris (VIème arr.). Photographie attribuée à Pierre Emonds. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

As for now, I cannot identify the part of the hospice that was photographed in the second photograph, but the state of abandonment of the structure is noticeable.

Pierre Emonts, Hospice des Ménages; Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

At the end of this small inventory of documents, it would obviously be naive to claim to have found the exact place where Focus lived, but I think that these plans, drawings and photographs allow to capture the atmosphere of the place where he made his extraordinary drawings.

Supplementary material

Georges Focus, Dessin Cat. 50; Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74088544
Cite this article as: Alexis D'Hautcourt, "A short architectural history of the Petites Maisons asylum," in Georges Focus, peintre et fou, 23/01/2020, https://georgesfocus.hypotheses.org/630.
  1. Paris Musées, Open content : plus de 100 000 œuvres des collections des musées de la Ville de Paris en libre accès (Sans date). []
  2. J. Coste, “Focus et les Petites Maisons”, in E. Brugerolles (éd.), Georges Focus. la folie d’un peintre de Louis XIV (Paris, 2018), p. 91-95 . []
  3. See F. et L. Lazare, Dictionnaire administratif et historique des rues de Paris et de ses monuments (Paris, 1844), p. 440. []
  4. Mention of the expansion by Coste p. 91. []
  5. Dating as proposed on Gallica website. []
  6. Coste p. 92. []
  7. The editors of the Catalog of the Focus exhibition think that the drawing Cat. 50 is “an evocation of the room of Focus in the Petites Maisons” and that “the small dome visible through the window seems to correspond to that of the Dix-Vertus convent, then Abbaye aux Bois.”, but this does not seem topographically possible if my hypothesis is correct: Focus’ room would have faced towards South or North, not East. []
  8. F. et L. Lazare, Dictionnaire administratif et historique des rues de Paris et de ses monuments (Paris, 1844), p. 440 []
  9. Probably not “Between 1869 and 1902” as indicated on the Museums website . []

Auteur/autrice : Alexis D'Hautcourt

Maître de conférence (Associate Professor), Université des Langues Étrangères du Kansai (関西外国語大学, Kansai Gaidai University)

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