The Little Prince's rose is called Consuelo
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince to Léon Werth, his friend and unwavering supporter, a French novelist, essayist, art critic and journalist who was just as anti-militarist and anti-colonialist as he was, and whom he had met in 1931 when he was awarded the Prix Femina for "Vol de nuit". But he will always regret not having dedicated it to Consuelo, his wife and his love. For she is the rose in The Little Prince. And yet, "until the 2000s, she was ignored by biographies of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry", recalls the writer-biographer Alain Vircondelet, quoted in L'Oeil this month by Marie Sawisza, whose brilliant idea was to tell the story of Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry at the exhibition "A la rencontre du Petit Prince", which is being held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris until 26 June.
This is the first major exhibition in France devoted to this timeless masterpiece of literature, which has become all the more sacred since the tragic death of its author in 1944, when he died for France, as it has become his spiritual testament. A great humanist, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was more than a writer and an aviator. The innumerable drawings and sketches scattered throughout his manuscripts, letters and other written works make him a complete artist. Poetry is everywhere, which testifies to his spiritual elevation: the aviator did not only gain height by pulling on the dashboard handle.
He had just published his first novel, "Courrier Sud", when he met Consuelo in 1930 at a reception in the salons of the Alliance Française in Argentina. She was the widow of Enrique Gomez Carrillo, a writer born in 1873, Argentinean consul and owner of a fashion magazine, with whom she had spent two years in Parisian literary and artistic circles, frequenting Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, Colette and Georges Clémenceau. She was born Suncin-Sandoval on 16 April 1901 in El Salvador, a country of twenty-five volcanoes, as the planet of the Little Prince would soon be.
Enrique Gomez Carrillo, who had met the portrait painter Kees van Dongen in 1926, was Consuelo's second husband. The daughter of a Salvadoran coffee farmer, she had obtained permission from her parents at an early age to live and study English and art in San Francisco, but had to marry a Mexican soldier, Ricardo Cardenas, to escape the man chosen by her family. It was with him that she met the famous muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico City in the early 1920s, and Frida Kahlo. Consuelo was officially widowed in 1926 when Ricardo Cardenas died, but they had already been separated for a long time, as their rescue union had not lasted more than a year.
She was, however, devastated by grief at the death of her second husband, with whom she had been madly in love. Her chattering French immediately appealed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry when they first met. "She was dark and petite: there was such wild beauty in her dark eyes, there was such a wind of fantasy in her words that he was bewitched," writes Curtis Cate, her biographer. The man is ready to do anything to seduce and kidnap his lady. It was a good thing: he was the director of Aéropostale in Argentina. Rather than let her go home in a taxi, he invites her to make her first flight, right now. And he keeps on looping until she accepts his proposal of marriage in order to land!
Their love story will always be as extravagant as these beginnings. A rollercoaster ride, looping between madness and melancholy, pomp and poverty. They got married in Nice in April 1931, Antoine joined Air France, multiplied his infidelities, and his whimsical, even childish character made Consuelo suffer for the rest of her life. The couple's correspondence, published by Gallimard in 2021, testifies as much to their all-consuming love as to their inability to live together. Nevertheless, she is his muse. She draws, tells fabulous stories with an unbridled imagination, makes sculptures... She inspires him like a sort of poetic double.
When she met him again in New York in the early 1940s, Consuelo also found the artists and poets she had known in France: Ernst, Breton, Duchamp, Dali, Man Ray, Tanguy... Her new friend Peggy Guggenheim encouraged her to paint, as Picasso and Derain had done before her, praising her talent as a colourist. Consuelo gained confidence in herself. Her extravagance blossomed wonderfully alongside the eccentricities of Dali and Gala, she enchanted the company with her baroque playlets, while her husband felt uncomfortable with such creative fantasy. He isolates himself to write 'Citadelle'. From 1942 onwards, he fell into a depression.
Consuelo found them a house to take refuge in on Long Island, where the first drawings of The Little Prince were born. While she painted her brightly coloured canvases, Antoine used coloured pencils and watercolours in pastel shades to create a tale with a universal message. In which he puts all the substance of his relationship with Consuelo. In which a Little Prince meets a rose that is unique in the world... and in which each of them slowly learns to tame the other. "The Little Prince" was the last book published during Saint-Exupéry's lifetime, in 1943 in the United States, but it was not published in France until 1946.
The highlight of the Paris exhibition is the original manuscript of The Little Prince, which is kept at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and which crossed the Atlantic for the first time. Around it are more than 600 items celebrating the many facets of Saint-Exupéry, including many previously unpublished works of art such as watercolours, sketches and drawings, as well as photographs, poems, newspaper cuttings and extracts from correspondence.