Author's Note: The painting of Micaela Pontalba has been changed to show her extending her, now absent, left hand through a pane of glass. The sword, books, and writing set were owned by the Pontalba family. Her husband and father-in-law appear in small frames in the background. The room on her right is the house she built in Paris, now the residence of the American Ambassador. The room on her left is her apartment in New Orleans.
As a builder, the Baroness was adamant about working within a budget. This practice was her only way of successfully developing property as she could not assume loans without her husband's signature. For her house in Paris, she even recycled building components from a nearby mansion. Had she been a man, she might have been remembered as shrewd, frugal, and conscientious; however, as a woman she has been called shrewish, greedy, and meddling.
The public and private spheres, the state economy and the nuclear family, were interwoven matrices of control in Micaela's life. The legal systems of France and the US were both her enemy and accomplice in her long fight for economic and personal freedom. She used the promise of her financial independence to enlist the help of attorneys, an option not available to poorer women of her time. The Baroness chose to use her privilege and wealth to create; building, for her, was an act of emancipation.
The Royal Dream
Author's Note: This swamp surrounds New Orleans even today. The traditional French-style bed is covered by a mosquito net indicative of the period.The Baroness loved cities, especially Paris and New Orleans. However, due to her fear of yellow fever she spent summers in Louisiana sequestered with her children on the Gulf Coast. Reminded of her confinement at Senlis, Micaela dreaded this season away from urban life. Her decision to spend her final years in Paris could be attributed to her preference for city living. Her Pontalba Apartment buildings were a generous contribution of urban design to a place that she considered home.
The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die. It transcends our life-span into past and future alike..... But such a common world can survive only to the extent that it appears public. It is the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men [and women] may want to save from the natural ruin of time.
- Hannah Arendt
Partial funding for this project came from the Graham Foundation and the Louisiana Endowment for the Arts.
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