Art, Books, Paris: The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal has been out in Picador paperback since this summer, but it took a personal recommendation by a fellow art history friend to get me to finally pick it up and read it.

My friend and I toured the Stein Exhibit at the Grand Palais together a couple of weeks ago, and she couldn’t stop raving about this book. “Speaking of collectors,” she’d said, “there’s this fabulous book about a Jewish family’s collection of Japanese netsukes.” To which I said kind of sheepishly: “what’s a netsuke?” (De Waal pronounces it something like “netski.”)


In case you don’t know either, netsukes are small wood or ivory carvings that originated in 17th century Japan.  De Waal’s ancestor Charles Ephrussi, a wealthy art patron who lived in Paris at the height of the Belle Epoque, bought a collection of 264 netsukes when Paris was all abuzz about Japanese art. The Ephrussi collection now belongs to De Waal, and one of his favorites is the Hare with Amber Eyes, pictured above.

De Waal’s netsukes were owned and treasured by truly fascinating people. The story begins with the rise of the Ephrussi banking family in Odessa, and follows them from late 19th century Paris to 20th century Vienna, through the horrors of World War II and beyond.

Charles Ephrussi was a fashionable salon-going Paris aristrocrat, an “aesthete,” after whom Marcel Proust modeled his character Swann in Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Ephrussi was a friend and patron of Renoir, Monet, Cassat, Degas and more. The walls of his study on rue de Monceau were filled to the ceilings with impressionist paintings.

When I read that Charles Ephrussi had been invited to be a model in Renoir’s painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party, I couldn’t resist pulling out my own tattered copy of the book of the same name by Susan Vreeland. (Another great art history/Paris read to add to your list if you haven’t already.) Charles is the man in the top hat with his back to the viewer. See the names I scrawled on the cover, as I worked to keep track of all of the characters? In fact, Vreeland’s website offers a summary of each model including Charles.


Source: Parisian Fields

Charles Ephrussi is such an interesting character it might be worth a field trip to 81 rue de Monceau to see the former Hotel Ephrussi and the Parc Monceau neighborhood. I think I will follow the lovely travel guide by a like-minded blogger Parisian Fields, whose photograph of the former Ephrussi home is pictured on the left.

Getting to learn about Charles Ephrussi is just one of the many discoveries you will make while reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes. As the story moves on to 20th century Vienna, you will read about the rise of anti-semitism through the eyes of Charles Ephrussi’s cousin Viktor and his young beautiful wife Emmy, who received the netsukes from Charles as a wedding gift. Their children, including De Wall’s great uncle Iggie, grew up playing with the netsukes at their mother’s feet as she donned her gowns and jewelry. Before long, however, the Nazi’s seized power in Austria and stole nearly everything in the Ephrussi mansion, including their furniture, their extensive collection of books and their Old Master paintings. The family barely survived the war. The remarkable and heartbreaking story of how their netsuke collection survived the Nazi horrors is one you will just have to read for yourself.

The latest news is that De Waal has just published an illustrated U.K. edition of The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I am dying to see. If you can’t get a hold of the U.K. edition, you can at least enjoy the photos of De Wall’s netsuke gallery on his website. They’re enchanting, just like the book.

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a beautifully told story of art, family history and the connection between our lives and the objects we appreciate. Highly recommended.


Paris Artists Walking Tour: The Impressionists’ Paris

 The Impressionists’ Paris by Ellen Williams (The Little Bookroom, 1997) is a wonderful little travel guide for art lovers in Paris. It offers three separate walking tours of some of the Impressionists’ art studios, homes and painting sites.

The first walk in the book takes you to the area around the Louvre and the Seine, over bridges known as Le Pont Neuf or Le Pont Des Arts to the Left Bank area near L’Ecole des Beaux Arts.

The young Impressionists would have spent much of their time in this area in the 1860’s, honing their skills by copying the paintings and sculpture inside the Louvre, and by studying under established artists at various ateliers in the city. If you were male (women were not accepted until 1897, and only then after years of bitter disputes) you hoped to be admitted to the finest art school in Paris, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts.

Unlike the female artists of the Impressionist era, I was able to walk right through the gates of L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. I was overwhelmed by its impressive surroundings, from the outdoor courtyard to a massive interior hall with a glass ceiling. There were several printmaking classes underway at the time of my visit, and the air smelled of ink and paint thinner, the happy scent of art in the making.
















Just across the street a few doors north of the entrance to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts is the birthplace of Edouard Manet, which is commemorated with a historical plaque (the street was known as rue des Petits Augustins until Napoleon III renamed it in 1852). Manet is recognized as the leader of the Impressionists. When you see where he lived, you understand how he grew up completely surrounded by art.









The next stop on the walking tour is the studio of Frederic Bazille at 20 rue Visconti, just a block away from L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1867, Bazille invited his friends Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet to paint with him in his studio. It has been immortalized in such paintings as Bazille’s The Artist’s Studio, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1867. Walking down this old narrow street in the fading afternoon light made me feel like there might have been a few friendly ghosts at my side.

And of course, to finish off the walking tour, I had to stop at Cafe La Palette, 43 rue de Seine, for a glass of wine and a little rest. Although La Palette doesn’t date back as far as the Impressionist era, it has been a local haunt for generations of art students since the turn of the century. I just wish I’d thought to bring a sketch pad to  memorialize it. I guess I’ll just have to go back!
The Impressionists’ Paris is a wonderful little guidebook with easy-to-follow maps as well as helpful cafe and restaurant recommendations. There are two more walking tours in the book besides this one: one for the Montmartre area and one along the Grand Boulevards. Pick this book up at your local independent bookstore and enjoy planning your own trip in the footsteps of the Impressionists. And let me know if you too can sense the ghosts.

Paris Author Event: Penelope Rowlands and David Downie

So many Americans dream of writing about Paris. But how is it possible without falling victim to clichés and worn-out themes, as common as all of the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine?  On Wednesday, November 16th, Penelope Rowlands and David Downie shared their thoughts on writing about Paris at author event at the American Library in Paris.

Penelope Rowlands is the author of the recent anthology Paris Was Ours (Algonquin, 2011) and David Downie is the author of the newly reissued Paris, paris (Broadway, 2011). I was thrilled when I heard that both of these authors would be making an appearance together. I read Penelope’s book before I ever dreamed that fate would bring me back to Paris, and I read David’s book after I learned it would.

In a packed room at the American Library at the feet of the Eiffel Tower, Penelope and David shared their insights on writing about Paris. The upshot of their remarks? If you dream of writing about Paris, don’t dream about selling your work.

Penelope joked that her agent cringed at her book proposal, and said, “the only thing I like is the title.” But Penelope persisted. She thought it was important that her anthology of Paris essays be broad and diverse, and not just about the upper one percent. She scrambled to find voices that would portray life in Paris “beyond the accordion music.” Although she hates to pick a favorite, she is proudest of the essay by the homeless woman who doesn’t aspire to be a writer. (Kind of refreshing, actually. Like a waiter in L.A. who doesn’t want to be an actor.)

 David Downie’s book Paris, paris is a collection of essays he wrote over a period of ten years for other magazines and newspapers. When he gathered them together, he didn’t set out to write a book that would “sell,” and in fact, the first edition was sold to a very small publisher. But because the book so beautifully captured the surprises of Paris — from its underground art nouveau toilets to the history of its cobblestones — Broadway recently reissued it as a part of their Armchair Traveler Series. When someone from the audience asked David what made him so “quirky,” he said that he considers himself a renegade reporter who loves to ask a lot of the “wrong questions.” And apparently, the wrong questions often lead to the right answers, and a really good book.

During the Q and A we had a lively discussion about Americans’ perception of Parisians. As Penelope said, there is just something about Parisians. Whether it’s the way they dress, the way they cook, or as David said, the “plucky” way they love to disagree, Americans are just fascinated by them. And so we dream and read and write about Paris.

The audience included other notable writers, including Diane Johnson, the famous chronicler of the expatriate life in such books as Le Divorce, Le Mariage and L’Affaire, who also wrote the introduction to Paris Was Ours.

If you haven’t already, you really should pick up a copy of Paris Was Ours and Paris, paris at your local independent bookstore. Buy one for yourself, and an extra for the armchair traveler in your life. I highly recommend them.

Lunch with Frankie Pratt

Yesterday I found myself exploring the Left Bank with a copy of The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston. Recently released in the U.S. by Ecco Books, this scrapbook-style novel tells the story of a young woman who dreams of becoming a writer in the 1920’s. She goes to Vassar College, Greenwich Village in New York, and finally to Paris, where she snags a job with a literary review that just happens to publish James Joyce.

This book is like eye candy for anyone who loves Paris in the era of the 1920’s. Frankie first stops at the Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare & Co., where Frankie meets Sylvia Beach and becomes a member of the expat “clubhouse.” Fun fact in the acknowledgments of the book: in real life, Sylvia Beach was godmother to Caroline Preston’s mother, Sylvia Preston.

Frankie Pratt breezes through the standard sightseeing highlights of Paris and then heads down to the corner of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse in the heart of the Latin Quarter, as recommended by her guide “Paris With The Lid Lifted.” Frankie sits outside at Le Select, where she orders onion soup and “observes the sideshow.” (p. 162).

I decided to to the very same thing myself, except I settled for an inside seat. When I showed my sweet gap-toothed waiter the scene from the book, he was absolutely thrilled. In our mix of Franglais, he ask me if it was alright to take the book to show the manager. Who knows, I might be the first of a long line of Frankie Pratt literary tourists. (The onion soup was delish!)

Frankie strikes up a romance with her editor Jamie, a Lost Generation war veteran who, like most of that generation, or so it seems, likes to hit the Left Bank bars a little too hard. Frankie and Jamie stumble through a series of hot spots in the Left Bank, from Le Dome to La Rotunde on Boulevard Montparnasse (p. 178). I followed their footsteps, but without the booze. Oh, okay, maybe an occasional glass of St. Emillion.

There’s so much more to this lovely little graphic novel, including the “inside scoop” on the release of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in 1926. According to Frankie, Jake Barnes is Hemingway “without testicles,” and Lady Brett Ashley is a more charmingly drunk version of the real life Lady Duff Twysden. (p. 187). Even Charles Lindberg makes an appearance when he lands his first Trans-Atlantic flight in Paris in 1927. (p. 191).

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is not just a clever faux scrapbook; it’s a story of a young woman coming of age in New York and Paris, illustrated with the contents of Preston’s own mother’s scrapbooks and memorabilia. It’s a beautiful tribute to an adventuresome mother and her interesting life and times.

I urge you to pick up a copy of this book from your local independent bookstore. And if you’re lucky enough to get to Paris, it’s a great idea for a literary tour of the Left Bank.

In The Footsteps of the Impressionists: Place de Dublin

Today’s Paris art adventure was a walk through the streets around Gare St. Lazare and the Pont de L’Europe, the scene of many impressionist paintings by Manet, Monet and Caillebotte. One of my favorite paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago is Caillbotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877. Every time I’m standing on an angled Paris intersection I am reminded of this painting, but today I finally found the real scene at the Place de Dublin. 

November Stroll Along the Seine

Saturday, November 12, 2011

It was a lovely mid-November day for walking all over Paris, starting near Place de Madeleine and walking toward the Tuileries. We stopped at L’Orangerie for yet another view of Monet’s largest water lillies, then popped over to the Left Bank for a cold beer at a Scottish pub. We crossed back over the Seine and wandered through the Ile St. Louis, which felt like a neighborhood from a different century. Parisians were busy strolling through all of the parks, enjoying yet another three day weekend, this time for Armistice Day.

Bohemian Girls and Their Careless Swagger

In 1893, the American Girls Art Club in Paris opened its doors at 4 Rue de Chevreuse near Luxenbourg Gardens. It was intended to provide “proper” room and board to female art students arriving in growing numbers from the United States. It was a rambling, four-story yellow building with a courtyard and gardens.

The sponsors hoped to discourage the bohemian behavior for which American girls were becoming known, including such threatening breaches as “loud voices and use of slang,” a “swaggering walk” and “careless gayety.” Some of them even drank, laughed, smoked and entered freely into the studios of male artists.

Imagine that.

This blog is In honor of those bohemian girls and their careless swagger. I’ll soon be walking the streets of Paris in their footsteps. With a little slang and gayety of my own, I hope.

Source: The American Girls’ Club in Paris: The Propriety and Imprudence of Art Students, 1890-1914
Mariea Caudill Dennison
Woman’s Art Journal
Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 2005), pp. 32-37
(article consists of 7 pages)
Published by: Woman’s Art, Inc.