Stumbling into History: Square Louis XVI

When you walk the streets of Paris you just never know what you’re going to stumble onto next. Back in November, I was walking in the Malesherbes neighborhood on my way to Galleries Lafayette and I passed a pretty little square, so I went in and sat down to read for awhile. It was only later that I realized what kind of history I had stumbled into.

I’d been sitting on top of a mass grave dating back to the French Revolution.

Square Louis XVI was a cemetery for the nearby Madeleine church back in the 18th century. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were buried here after their execution by guilloutine at Place de la Concorde. They were buried in a mass grave along with about 3,000 other victims of the French Revolution. Twenty-one years later, King Louis XVIII exhumed their bodies and moved them to the Bascillica of St. Denis for a proper royal burial.

There is some debate whether the King and Queen’s bodies were properly identified when they were exhumed. There is some evidence that the King and Queen’s bodies were the only bodies actually placed in coffins, or that their burial places were marked with trees and hedges. However, some claim that their bodies, like all of the others, had been covered with quicklime, so that their remains would have been too decomposed to identify some twenty years later. Enjoy some of the debate and discussion at author Catherine Delor’s blog.  Either way it’s pretty creepy.

Louis XVIII built the Chapelle Expiatoire in the square to commemorate the first burial place of the royals. I didn’t go in the chapel (it’s only open Thursday-Saturday afternoons), but for some great photos and more information about the sculptures and a crypt inside, go to Travel with Terry’s Paris blog. The crypt contains a black coffin that supposedly marks the original site of the King and Queen’s burial plot.

If you know me, you know that’s all I needed to get inspired to do some reading about the French Revolution. I highly recommend Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran (Broadway, 2011, now available in paperback), which I hear is going to be turned into a television miniseries by the same folks that brought us The Tudors. Count me in for that – the book was fascinating. Gruesome, but in a good way – did you know Madame Tussaud was compelled to make death masks of the key players of the French revolution? Ewww.

I need to add Mistress of the Revolution (NAL 2009) by Catherine Delors to my reading list now too. Check out Delors’ blog post  called “La Chapelle Expoatoire, and Marie-Antoinette’s smile” to learn about the connection between Square Louis XVI and her book.

Oh-oh, I can tell I’m going to get on another one of my “reading rolls.” Please leave some comments and let me know what French Revolution era books you recommend, whether fiction or nonfiction.









With thanks to Travel with Terry’s blog, here are the details you will need to visit the Chapel inside Square Louis XVI:

Chapelle Expiatoire
29, rue Pasquier – Square Louis XVI
Open Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays 1-5 pm; entrance fee 5 Euros (free to holders of the Paris Museum Pass)
Closed January 1, May 1, November 1, November 11, December 25.
Métro: St-Augustin

Art Nouveau Toilets Down the Drain

David Downie’s book Paris, paris: Journey Into the City of Light (Broadway Paperbacks 2011has been a great source of information and inspiration as I settle into my temporary home in Paris. Each chapter contains a lovely essay about another unusual part of this city, with some history, some photographs, and plenty of quirky information that you just can’t find in your ordinary guide books. I’ve been planning long walks around some of the chapters, and it’s made for a wonderful introduction to Paris.

One of my favorite chapters, The Janus City, or, Why the Year 1900 Lives On, is about how the Belle Epoque period of Paris is alive and well in the contemporary City of Light. One of Downie’s recommended 1900 era sites are the Art Nouveau toilets on the Place de la Madeleine. According to Downie’s directions, there is a spiraling staircase across the street from  Cafe Le Paris-London, where you could find “a lavish cavern of carved wood, brass, and mirrors, with floral frescoes and stained-glass windows in each cabinet.”

I looked forward to finding a site so weird and off-the-beaten-track, and it took me a little while to find the right spot. Unfortunately, the toilets are now closed. I asked the woman at the nearby flower stand, and she said they are closed for good, “c’est tout.” So for now, until the toilets are ever renovated, the photos below will show you all that you can find.

Art Nouveau Toilets at Place de la Madeleine

Art Nouveau Toilets in Paris pour les Dames

American Girls Art Club: History

American Girls Art Club Courtyard in 2011

The American Girls Art Club, which once stood at 4 rue de Chevreuse on the Left Bank of Paris, is now known as Reid Hall, and is owned by Columbia University’s Global Centers Program.

The property was built by the Duc de Chevreuse and way back in the 18th century it housed the Dagoty porcelain factory. In 1834, the site was turned into a Protestant school for boys called the Keller Institute.

In the early 1890’s, Elisabeth Mills Reid, a wealthy American philanthropist and wife of the American ambassador, got the idea to start a residential club for American women artists in Paris. She knew about an arts club for men on the rue Paul Séjourné, and when she learned that the Keller Institute property was available, she got together with her friends, Reverend and Mrs. William Newell. The Newells were evangelicals who had been hosting Sunday evening social hours for American girls at their own home on the rue de Rennes. With the help of the Newells and the larger expatriate community in Paris, Elisabeth Reid established The American Girls Art Club in Paris, a residential club for young American women artists that provided matronly supervision and spiritual guidance.

The club thrived because it was affordable and very social. There was room for approximately 40-50 women in either single or double rooms at approximately $30 per month. There was a “dainty blue” receiving room for playing the piano and serving tea, as well as a reading room full of English-language books and magazines. The residents often strolled and sketched in the gardens of the courtyard. Each Sunday the Newells arranged an informal religious service followed by a social hour. The club hosted an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner every year.

The club was within walking distance of the Luxembourg Gardens, L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and many bookshops and restaurants along Boulevard Raspail. Although the female residents could not study at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts until 1897, many of them did study at prominent private ateliers in Paris, including the studios of Bouguereau, Whistler and Carolus-Duran.

The residents planned and hosted their own art exhibits at the club, inviting their fellow students and art teachers. In 1895, they formed the American Woman’s Art Association of Paris to host the annual show. Mary Cassatt, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low and other prominent women artists who were permanent residents of Paris helped preside over the club, serving as jurors and officers. Prominent Paris artists and art teachers attended the exhibitions, providing the members with valuable critiques and praise. Each year, the Art Club purchased one piece of art from the exhibition for display in the Club.

Anne Goldthwaite’s 1908 oil painting of the courtyard of the American Girls Art Club in Paris is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Take a peek at it here.

During World War I, the property became a hospital, and was held by the American Red Cross until 1922. Elizabeth Reid and her daughter-in-law then arranged for it to become Reid Hall, an association for American college women abroad. Gertrude Stein even made an appearance in 1931 at the invitation of one of Reid Hall’s art students.

In 1964, Reid Hall was bequeathed to Columbia University. For more current and historical photographs, visit Reid Hall’s Photo Gallery.

The unassuming front entrance to 4 rue de Chevreuse, the home of The American Girls Art Club in Paris from 1893- WWI.

The unassuming front entrance to 4 rue de Chevreuse, the home of The American Girls Art Club in Paris from 1893- 1914.

The view outside toward the courtyard

The view of the Reid Center outside toward the courtyard. Toward the back is a high wall that borders rue de la Grand Chaumiere, a street that is still full of art studios today. The lodgers could take a shortcut to their classes at nearby Académie Colarossi by exiting through a gate in this wall. 

A green classroom shed that was once used as a hospital room for WWI soldiers

In the courtyard: a green classroom shed that was once used as a hospital room for WWI soldiers.

Courtyard seating at the Reid Center today. I wonder how old that tree is?

Courtyard seating at the Reid Center today. I wonder how old that tree is?

The view from the courtyard back toward the main entrance of the Reid Center

The view from the courtyard back toward the main entrance of the Reid Center

Few paintings or sketches of the American Girls Art Club remain, although I was able to find this rendering in a scholarly journal.

The American Girls Art Club

The garden of the American Girls Art Club, artist and date unknown. Source: Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 26. No. 1 (2005)


Sources: and Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005)

Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War And Memory in Paris

In the novel Pictures At An Exhibition, (Knopf Hardcover 2009, Vintage Paperback 2010) Sara Houghteling tells a captivating story of the Nazi looting of art in occupied Paris during World War II. Told through the eyes Max Berenzon, the son of a highly successful art dealer in Paris, this exceptionally researched and beautifully executed book is about lost paintings, lost love, the art of survival and the power of the imagination.

Max’s father is a leading Jewish art dealer with a gallery on Rue La Boetie in the 1920’s and 30’s. The gallery represents such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Manet and Morisot. In a wonderfully imagined scene in the book, Max’s father would pass by Picasso’s studio, just a couple of doors down from the gallery, and Picasso would raise his canvases up to the window for his dealer’s friendly thumbs-up.

Max grows up with artwork on his walls and and in his veins. Max’s father makes Max memorize the paintings of the wall at one of their exhibitions, in the exact order in which they appear. They are etched into his memory, a lesson that will prepare Max for the tragic mission that lies ahead.

Anti-semitism is building in Paris and Max’s family finally realizes the true danger and scope of the Nazi threat. They leave their gallery and artwork behind as they escape to a small village in southern France. Max’s youthful sidekick, Betrand Camondo, the grandson of Count Moises de Camondo, tries to stay in Paris too long and sadly becomes of les absents.

After three years in hiding, Max returns to liberated Paris and finds his father’s gallery completely looted. Max stumbles through Paris, searching for his friend Bertrand and hunting down his father’s lost art in the shady world of black market galleries and tight-lipped collaborators. Max seeks out his father’s former gallery assistant, Rose Clement, for whom he has long had unreciprocated feelings.

Rose is modeled after the real-life Rose Valland, who earned the French Legion of Honor for her work as a spy and gallery assistant in the Jeu de Paume during World War II. Valland covertly tracked most of the 20,000 pieces of the stolen art, enabling the Monuments Men to follow the front lines and rescue the art from Hitler’s private collection or secret hide-outs deep in the mountains of Germany.  In 2005, the French government placed a plaque on the outside of the Jeu de Paume to commemorates her heroism.

I enjoyed this book so much that I followed it up with Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholson. In addition, fans of old movies might enjoy watching The Train, a hyped-up version of the Rose Valland story starring Burt Lancaster and Jeanne Moreau. For Rape of Europa is also available as a documentary film, which I highly recommend.

I can’t wait to sign up for a Paris During the Occupation walking tour. In the meantime, I took a short walk down Rue La Boetie to find the site of the Berenzon’s fictional gallery and Picasso’s former art studio. Because Sarah Houghteling has a Master of Fine Arts and researched the book while on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, I wouldn’t be surprised if the addresses are based on historical fact. I really hope so. On my own visit, I sat down inside 21 Rue La Boettie (in what is now a Pomme et Pain restaurant) and enjoyed some hot vegetable soup, right in the spot where Picasso would have raised his canvas in a salute to  Daniel Berenzon.

I give my own salute to Sara Houghteling and Pictures At An Exhibition. Highly recommended. This would be a great book for a book club to read along with a trip to their favorite art museum. Or better yet, a trip to Paris!

23 Rue La Boetie: Berenzon Gallery

21, Rue La Boetie, Picasso's Studio

Rose Valland Plaque at Jeu de Paume

The Passy Cemetery Artists: Manet, Morisot and Marie Bashkirtseff

Passy Cemetery

They say that the Pere Lachaise Cemetery is the second most visited tourist site in Paris, which might be true. What I do know is that the Passy Cemetery in the 16th arrondissement is also wonderful place for a quiet stroll on a beautiful day, especially for the art lover.

Manet and Morisot Tomb, Passy Cemetery

Passy Cemetery is home to the tomb of impressionist artist Edouard Manet, his brother Eugene, and Berthe Morisot, who married Eugene at the age of 33.

Edouard Manet: Portrait of Berthe Morisot reclining (Source: Marmatton Museum,


Berthe Morisot lived most of her life in the bourgeois area of Passy, first with her parents, and later with her husband. Berthe’s mother actually gave up her flat on rue Guichard to Berthe and Eugene after their marriage.

Berthe was a muse and model to Edouard Manet, and posed for him many times. Whether or not they were ever lovers, you can feel how well he knew her in his portrait to the left. The painting feels exceedingly intimate, doesn’t it? I love how Manet captured her easy elegance, but with a touch of the defiance she must have had in order to succeed as a female artist during that era. You can see this astoundingly beautiful portrait for yourself at Musee Marmottan in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

There is a lesser known surprise at the Passy Cemetery: the tomb of the impressionist Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff, who studied at the Academy Julien in Paris until she died from tuberculosis at age 25. The tomb is a recreated art studio, not your typical religious monument.

But then Marie Bashkirtseff was not your typical 19th century woman. She is probably best known for her personal journals which were published posthumously in 1889, and which revealed her ambition, her feminism and her struggle for recognition in the male dominated world of art in 19th century France. They were considered radical, narcissistic and highly controversial at the time.

Marie Mashkirtseff's Tomb in Passy Cemetery










One of my favorite paintings by Marie Bashkirtseff is of female painters in a segregated art studio, the Academie Julian in Paris in 1881. Marie placed herself in the painting in the lower right-hand corner. At the time, it was considered highly controversial for women to paint from live nude models, so it is interesting that this painting shows a young model with a discretely draped cloth. I’m also a little amused by the fact that the artist holding a palette in the foreground appears to have lost her easel.

Marie Bashkirtseff: In the Studio (Source: wikipedia)

I highly recommend a walking tour of the Passy Cemetery on a nice day in Paris, followed by a visit to the Musee Marmottan. You’ll be walking in the footsteps of some exceptional women artists.