Ferdinand-Sigismond Bach, known as Ferdinand Bac, (15 August 1859 - 18 November 1952) was a French cartoonist, artist and writer, son of an illegitimate nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. As a young man, he mixed in the fashionable world of Paris of the Belle Époque, and was known for his caricatures, which appeared in popular journals. He also travelled widely in Europe and the Mediterranean. In his fifties, he began a career as a landscape gardener. The gardens that he created at Les Colombières in Menton on the French Riviera are now designated as a Monument Historique. He also wrote voluminously about social, historical and political subjects, but his work has been largely forgotten.
Youth and early career
Ferdinand-Sigismond Bach was born in Stuttgart on 15 August 1859. His father, Karl Philipp Heinrich Bach (1811-1870), was a geologist, cartographer and landscape architect, the illegitimate son of Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia. Ferdinand was born of a second marriage of his father with Sabina Ludovica de Stetten, daughter of Baron Sigismund-Ferdinand Stetten. The baron, born in 1772 in Bohemia, had attended the Congress of Vienna and told his memories to his grandson. Ferdinand Bac, a second cousin of Napoleon III, was raised on the margin of the court of the Second Empire.
A few years after the collapse of the regime, he chose to leave Germany and his mother to live a quiet but bohemian life in Paris. He was introduced to the Parisian salon society by his godfather Arsène Houssaye and Prince Napoleon, and became a fashionable artist. Ferdinand Bac's friends and acquaintances included Richard Wagner, Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Guy de Maupassant, Giuseppe Verdi and Charles Gounod.
Ferdinand Bac's early drawings were published in the satirical weekly La Caricature, edited between 1880 and 1890 by Albert Robida, himself a cartoonist. Robida acted more as a friend than a boss to Bac and other cartoonists working for the journal. Bac became one of the leading designers and cartoonists of his time, with a reputation equal to contemporaries such as Robida, Job, Sem, Jean-Louis Forain and Caran d'Ache.
Bac's cartoons were often risqué, and reflected contemporary Parisian attitudes towards sex. His 1892 drawing Femmes Automatiques for La Vie Parisienne depicted a collection of women in different roles who could be animated by inserting a coin. It implies that in addition to their legitimate roles as dancer, chambermaid, actress and so on, the women would provide sexual services at varying prices. An erotic illustration for the same journal in 1899 showed a woman wrapped in snakes. Bac often drew pictures of models posing for artists that suggested an intimate relationship.
Bac was a romantic, inspired by Watteau and Fragonard. He travelled widely through Europe, visiting Turkey, Sicily, Spain and Norway. In 1880 he was in Morocco with the artists John Singer Sargent and Charles Daux, where the three men rented a small house in Tangier. He had a particular love for Germany, Austria and Italy. He was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1913, and recognized by the Académie française.
Villa Croisset in Grasse
Ferdinand Bac was over 50 when he discovered his vocation as a garden designer. In 1912, while dining with Marie-Thérèse de Croisset at her home in the French Riviera, he offered to transform the house and garden. The Villa Croisset was characterless but had a magnificent view of the country around Grasse. Bac started sketching plans of arches, courtyards and gardens, and began work the next day. The outbreak of World War I delayed the project, but it was completed by 1918. Bac aimed for a modern Mediterranean style. The structures had simple forms and were made of common local materials. The design united the house, garden and landscape with views framed by plants and structures. Colours were warm, including ochres, pinks and saffrons, offset by dark greens and Venetian red. A simple chapel dedicated to Saint Francis stood at the top of the garden.
Les Colombières in Menton
After this project, Ferdinand Bac transformed the Fiorentina villa in Cap Ferrat for the Countess of Beaumont. Bac's friend, Émile Ladan-Bockairy, and his wife, Caroline, bought the Les Colombières estate above Menton in 1918, it was formerly the property of the philosopher Alfred Jules Émile Fouillée. They invited Bac to come to live with them, and to rebuild and enlarge the building. His design for the house drew on his memories from visits to different Mediterranean countries. Bac painted the frescoes in the house and designed the Modernist furniture. He planned a garden around the house with pavilions, colonnades, bridges and secret gardens. There were quiet, enclosed spaces and open areas of wild plants with broad vistas. The garden, above the town of Menton, is said to have the oldest carob tree in France.
Ferdinand Bac wrote that ‘the soul of gardens shelters the greatest sum of serenity at man's disposal.’ The young Mexican architect Luis Barragán came across two books, Les Colombières and Jardins enchantés, that Bac had written about his eclectic Mediterranean gardens, and heard him talking about garden design at the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, which inspired him in his own work. Barragán visited France again in 1931-32, and managed to visit Bac's gardens several times.
From 1918 onward, when he was aged 60, Ferdinand alternated between Colombières and a beautiful mansion in Compiègne that also belonged to the Ladan-Bockairys. There he met Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, Gabriele D'Annunzio and Anna de Noailles. Until the end of his life, Ferdinand Bac continued to travel, write and draw, reflecting on the political and historical development of the world. For nearly 80 years, he was still spending three hours a day on correspondence. In his later years he would know popes, kings, presidents and all the elite.
He was forced into exile in 1940 and saw some of his work go up in smoke in 1944. His spirit was always alive, allowing him to draw and to comment on the books that were sent him. Still worried by the idea of dying too young, he strove to leave some of his work in numerous museums and libraries, including the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris, Municipal Library in Menton and Bibliothèque Cessole in Nice. Each paper is annotated with his hand.
Ferdinand Bac died in Compiègne on 18 November 1952, aged 93, surviving his friend Émile Ladan-Bockairy by three days. Ladan-Bockairy's wife lived on for several years. The tombs of the three friends are contained in a mausoleum in the garden at Les Colombières. The house and garden were classified as historic monuments on 3 October 1991. As of 2013 they were privately owned. The Villa Croisset and its gardens were largely destroyed by 1975. Some traces of the upper, North-East portion of the garden remains, including an arch and the chapel. A school in Compiègne bears Bac's name.