The artist’s daughter, stage, screen and TV actress Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton, rediscovered the portrait and presented it to pianist Claudio Chaiquin in recognition of his commitment to recording the music of Florent Schmitt.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of creating content for the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog is coming across historical artifacts that add human interest elements to the story of the composer and his artistry.
And as the website continues to grow in content and visibility, such discoveries have come to light with greater frequency.
Another such occurrence happened recently at a recital of music presented by the Argentine-French pianist Claudio Chaiquin at Église Saint-Loup in Lanloup, France.
Chaiquin’s repertoire for the Lanloup recital was emblematic of this pianist, consisting of less-familiar fare rather than a program of “audience favorites.”
In fact, exploring the byways of classical music is one of Chaiquin’s special missions as a pianist – and an interest that led him to team up with Polish-born French violinist Beata Halska to record a CD of music by Florent Schmitt written for violin and piano.
Released in 2015 on the NAXOS label, the Halska/Chaiquin recording has received critical accolades. I had the opportunity to interview both musicians for an article that was published on the Florent Schmitt Website in December 2015. You can read that informative interview here.
At the conclusion of Chaiquin’s August 26 recital in Lanloup, he was approached by an audience member with a gift to present to him. She was the French actress Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton, and the gift was a sketch of Florent Schmitt that had been drawn by her mother, Denise Margoni, several days following the death of the composer on August 17, 1958.
Furthermore, Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton happens to be the younger sister of Alain Margoni, the French composer, author and Paris Conservatoire teacher who knew Florent Schmitt well as a student in the 1950s. In fact, Schmitt was something of a mentor to the younger musician, encouraging him in his composition studies with Tony Aubin and Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire – activities that led up to Alain Margoni winning the Prix de Rome first prize for composition in 1959 with his secular cantata Dans les jardins d’Armide.
As one of the few musicians still alive who worked with Florent Schmitt, Alain Margoni’s reminiscences of the composer make for fascinating reading. They are contained in this June 20, 2016 interview article (prepared with the help of French conductor Fabien Gabel, who had once been a student of Margoni at the Paris Conservatoire).
During his student days, Alain Margoni and Florent Schmitt met often at the composer’s home in St-Cloud in the 1950s, and it was there that Élisabeth Margoni- Beneyton came to know the aged composer as well.
Born eleven years after her brother, Élisabeth Margoni was a young child at the time, but her memories of Florent Schmitt are vivid. She recalls him as a man short in stature, but with a distinguished appearance with his white hair and beard — and a sharp mind as well. She remembers him as kind person who would always ask her brother to bring her along on his visits to Schmitt’s home and gardens in St-Cloud. It is a precious memory for her.
As for how Florent Schmitt came to become acquainted with the Margoni family, Elisabeth Margoni-Beneyton recounts:
“We moved to St-Cloud in 1950 in order to be closer to the capital, my brother having entered the Paris Conservatoire. In addition to being an artist, my mother sang in the choir of Val d’Or, a district in the city of St-Cloud, which was also our parish church. There she met Mme. Helleu, a daughter of the painter of the same name [Paul César Helleu] and a granddaughter of Charles Gounod. Mme. Helleu knew Florent Schmitt well, living just 200 meters from his house, and I think it was she who put us in touch with him.
We lived a little further away — around 600 meters [0.4 miles] — and I recall accessing Florent Schmitt’s house via a stone stairway. I remember him very well because he impressed me! He had a rather severe and rigid demeanor, but he must have been amused by me because he’d say to my brother, ‘Next time, come back with your little sister!’ I was very happy to visit and to play in the garden.”
Parallel to this period of time, in 1954 the American music scholar and author David Ewen penned this description of Schmitt, who at that point had been a widower for a decade:
“Florent Schmitt spends winters in Paris at the home of Mme. Frédéric Moreau, who guards him jealously from the distractions and annoyances of the outside world. In summers he occupies his own house in St-Cloud. His diversions, today as yesterday, include travel, long walks, attending five o’clock teas of friends, and going to the theatre and movies. He possesses extraordinary vitality and has magically retained his enthusiasms. His conversation is usually spiced with cynical humor.”
And what of the portrait of Florent Schmitt and how it came about? In addition to Denise Margoni possessing a fine singing voice (Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton recalls her mother singing at Florent Schmitt’s home – although she cannot remember the music performed), she was also an accomplished painter who had earlier worked in the decorative arts (including fabric and wallpaper designs).
Her artwork drew inspiration from some of the most notable attributes of the French school of painting, and as such her oeuvre has stood the test of time well.
Her paintings are prized by collectors not only in France but all over the world – and particularly in Japan where the artist’s reputation was established early on.
Denise Margoni’s initial focus on fabric and wallpaper designs stemmed from her studies at the École Supérieure des Arts Appliqués Duperré, along with later work at the studio of the famed poster artist and theatre set designer Paul Colin. She collaborated on designing the décor for the Dutch East Indies pavilion at the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition, working with the noted French art director Raymond Gabutti.
Denise Margoni was also credited with inventing a technique of painting-on-silk via direct application on a waxed (oilcloth) canvas without “setting,” which conferred more freedom from the “stiffness” of traditional drawings.
It was in the 1950s that Denise Margoni’s stature as a painter began to grow, leading to exhibitions of her artwork in Parisian galleries and in other French cities. She was represented by Galerie Kriegel in Paris, as well as Galerie Taménaga in Paris and in Japan.
For the next thirty years her art would depict an increasingly personal expression and style. Selectively integrating a range of outside influences, her paintings evolved into a “non-realistic pictorial” form — in essence a synthesis of the figurative and the abstract.
Extended stays at Côtes d’Armor at the abbey of Beauport (Paimpol) and later in Charente Maritime provided rich inspiration. Her later paintings — particularly those of seascapes and shorelines — became increasingly more meditative and refined in character.
Denise Margoni’s sketch of Florent Schmitt was signed and dated August 21, 1958, meaning that it was created just four days following the composer’s death. As in her paintings, in this sketch the artist is true to her philosophy of attaining a synthesis of the figurative and the abstract.
In Margoni’s Florent Schmitt portrait, one can really sense the personality of the man; we can see it in the quizzical expression on the face, the irony of an upturned lip, and in the sarcasm of an arched eyebrow. Clearly, these are clues to the true character of the man — attributes that were often noted by his acquaintances, not least in descriptions penned by music journalists such as Bernard Gavoty, Émile Vuillermoz and René Dumesnil.
As the familiar adage asserts, “A picture is worth a thousand words” … and Denise Margoni’s portrait sketch proves that rule yet again.
[In addition, there is a portrait painting of Florent Schmitt that was created by Denis Margoni several years earlier. According to Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton, her mother had once asked Schmitt to pose for her — a request that he kindly granted.]
The posthumous sketch of Florent Schmitt was found among Denise Margoni’s personal portfolio of artwork, where it had languished for decades following the death of the artist in 1987 … and this is where daughter Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton again enters the picture.
Best known as a stage and screen actress, she has numerous movie and TV credits to her name. Among her more notable roles are in Le Professionel (1981, opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo), Sexo por compasión (2000, opposite Álex Angulo), Love Actually (2003, opposite Colin Firth) and the TV soap opera Un si grand soleil (beginning in 2019).
She is also part of a family of actors. She is married to film star Yves Beneyton, while the couple’s son, Aurélien Beneyton, is a web developer who once was a child voiceover talent. Among his many web development projects is a site devoted to the artistry of Denise Margoni, which includes copious examples of her work in various media.
These days at age 78, Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton continues to make TV and stage appearances. Her most recent project is a show presenting classic and contemporary poetry on the overarching theme of “love.”
Titled L’Amour dans tous ses états (“Love In All Its States”) the show employs the verse of (mainly) French writers, ranging from the 16th century Louise Labé all the way up to Laurence Tardieu and Nashmia Noormohamed in the present day. All aspects of love are explored: conjugal, filial, platonic as well as torrid and friendly.
First mounted on August 18, 2023 at the captaincy of Paimpol in the Côtes d’Armor, the show is a true “family affair” in that it stars all three Beneytons (billed as the troupe Arts Vivants Armor). Additional performances are likely.
But beyond her acting activities and appearances, Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton is committed to promoting the legacy of her mother. She is a tireless advocate for Denise Margoni’s artistry — not only the approximately 1,000 paintings but also the fabric and wallpaper designs.
This advocacy has resulted in new exhibitions featuring a cross-section of Denise Margoni creations, such as a retrospective of 100 paintings featured in La Halle, France in 2022. That exhibit focused on Margoni artwork inspired by the region’s seashores and landscapes, including views of Poulafret, Kerarzic and Beauport Abbey.
At the opening of the exhibit Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton remarked, “My mother would have been delighted. She adored Paimpol — and even if many others have also painted the region, few artists focused as she did on the abbey of Beauport.”
Thanks to Élisabeth Margoni-Beneyton, her mother’s sketch of Florent Schmitt has been resurrected as well, some 65 years after its creation. Pianist Claudio Chaiquin has had the drawing museum-quality framed for proud display in his music studio, while also sharing the artwork with the world. We are grateful to both of them for their generosity of spirit.