Raffaele Mainella’s Illustrations for Nos Invisibles (1907)

At first glance, it is difficult to conceive of Nos Invisibles (1907) as a controversial text. Its pages contain dreamy ruminations on the quest for spiritual serenity and “the mystery of eternal life”, interspersed with elegant illustrations by the Italian watercolourist Raffaele Mainella that conjure celestial bodies and the healing power of nature. But, as the old adage goes, looks can be deceiving. For a start, the author of Nos Invisibles — a certain Charles d’Orino — is in fact a nom de plume for Clotilde Briatte (1850–1910), a figure of Parisian high society married to a wealthy banker, Frederic Pillet-Will. Briatte received a degree of recognition in her lifetime for the six volumes of spiritualist works she published under the same pseudonym between 1904 and 1908, but was above all reputed for hosting lavish Saturday dinners and Tuesday salons. Today, she is perhaps best known as the finely dressed sitter in a portrait by James Tissot.

The collection of texts that make up Nos Invisibles purport to channel, via Briatte (or indeed Charles d’Orino), the voices of Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse de Lamartine, and other illustrious writers and thinkers from beyond the grave — the authenticity of which, readers can determine for themselves. Critics at the time certainly had their own opinions. One journalist, Jean de Bonnefon, described Briatte in the following terms: “Mme d’Orino is not the only woman who writes in the spiritualist world. But she is the only one who is dangerous, spending her fortune to peddle her books.” Reeling off a list of the various authors appearing in Briatte’s work, Bonnefon continues: “Unfortunately, the deceased all have the same style, make the same mistakes in French and repeat the same nonsense as soon as they’re channelled via the medium of Mme d’Orino.”

This reflects the broad critical consensus of the time: Briatte was a charlatan, dipping into her deep pockets to finance the high production costs of her lavishly illustrated volumes destined for other wealthy readers – or, as another contemporary critic put it, “people naïve enough to take an interest in such claptrap”. A major criticism was that works like Nos Invisibles purporting to channel the voices of famous authors created unfair competition for the actual works penned by those writers during their lifetimes. And yet, Briatte was far from the only one doing it.

After the development of spiritualism in the United States in the 1840s, France was quick to embrace the trend for communicating with the dead and publishers soon cropped up to profit from the fruits of their labours. Some of the country’s finest writers developed a penchant for the spirit world: Victor Hugo (1802–1885) presided over seances that contacted literary greats of the past, even assisting Shakespeare to conjure one last play from the afterlife. Briatte was therefore not alone. However, her wealth, the whiff of vanity publishing that hung around her oeuvre, and the fact that she was a woman whose every outfit was reported in painstaking detail in the society pages, made her an easy target.

Swirling galaxyScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

The critical backlash against Briatte’s publications was clearly not an obstacle for Raffaele Mainella (1856–1941), the Italian artist who provided thirty-three plates for Nos Invisibles. After training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, Mainella honed his skills painting Venetian landscapes and ephemeral scenes from everyday life, before travelling to Egypt in 1887 and the Holy Land in 1898, two trips that would have a significant impact on his work. Indeed, it was to exhibit a series of watercolours from those journeys that he was first invited to Paris in 1901. The exhibition at Galerie Le Petit was a success, cementing his reputation in Italy and abroad. He was soon called upon to decorate the châteaux and villas of well-heeled clients from Paris to the French Riviera. One of his clients was the Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, a man of extraordinary wealth who earned the nickname “the merchant of death”. By comparison, a few watercolours to accompany a volume of dubiously authored spiritual texts was child’s play.

As the preface to Nos Invisibles suggests, Mainella was given the task of creating “astral images” that offer readers a glimpse of “as-yet unknown spheres” and reawaken “the dormant memory in [the reader’s] soul that is asking only to rediscover its intensity”. A tall order for a man more accustomed to painting gondolas on canals or Middle Eastern bazaars. But Mainella diligently set about finding a visual expression for Briatte’s oeuvre, with thirty-three plates that all bear a Latin inscription. He tends to err towards the literal: beside the words “Ubicunque undique deus” (God is everywhere and all around), a man prays before a host of gods and goddesses from various world religions, as well as a secular scene of a bench beside a tree. A plate entitled “In luce universa non terra videtur” (In the light of the universe, the world is not visible) gestures toward the magnitude of the world via a spiral of galaxies that leads the eye endlessly upward, cutting off only with the top of the frame, thus offering an apt, if rather mundane, interpretation of the brief. And yet, Briatte chose her illustrator wisely: in a work permeated by an optimistic belief in the continuity of life after death, in a benevolent divine force that transcends individual religions and touches all things, Mainella’s paintings — beautiful, idyllic, and bathed in light — conjure exactly the right note.