Cézanne A Life

I just finished Cézanne A Life by Alex Danchev (Pantheon Books 2012). I shouldn’t have bought this book for myself so close to the holidays. I could have hinted and received it as a perfect artist gift. But I succumbed when I saw the cover in person – it literally shines. And so does the inside.

The book tells the story of the artist and the person. Cézanne had a troubled, complicated life which began in Aix-en-Provence in 1839, where he was close friends with fellow student Emile Zola. He talked his difficult father into letting him abandon law school in favor of art, and moved to Paris in 1862, where he began his art studies at the Académie Suisse on the Ile de la Cité. It was there that he met and formed a deep, lasting fellow-artist friendship with Camille Pissaro. He also met one of the Académie Suisse models, Hortense Fiquet, who became his long-term mistress (they would have a son and finally marry after 17 years).

One of my favorite parts of the book was its treatment of Cézanne’s complicated relationship with Hortense, whom he called “La Boulle” (“the dumpling”). Cézanne’s father disapproved of the match, so Cézanne kept it secret for many years, even after the birth of their son. The couple lived separately for much of their lives, and it’s really hard to tell how close they were. Cézanne painted 27 portraits of Hortense over the years, and most of them are absolutely haunting. Cézanne didn’t aim to achieve a “likeness” in his portraits as much as a “thereness.” So, there is Hortense: always a bit inscrutable, sometime sad, angry, distant or intense – more of a presence (here I am, as I am) than a lover eager to please, or a muse conscious of her ability to inspire. But there she is, looking back at Cézanne. What do you think she’s thinking?

Madame Cézanne with a Fan (1886-88). Stiftung Sammlung Buhrle, Zurich. Once owned by Gertrude Stein.

Madame Cézanne (1885). Nationalgalerie, Museum Berggruen, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Madame Cézanne With Her Hair Down (1890-92). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Madame Cézanne in Striped Skirt (1877). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Portrait of Madame Cézanne (1888-90) Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Madame Cézanne with Hortensias (1885). Private collection.

And then, just when you think you are coming to understand who Hortense might have been, and who she might have been to Cézanne, you get to see this tender and emotional pencil and watercolor sketch on paper (above), which is in a private collection but is beautifully reproduced in Danchev’s book. And it is so intimate and beautiful, you can’t help but see that Cézanne did love her, and that they were indeed happy. At least for a time.

Cézanne would often return to his hometown of Aix-en-Provence, with or without Hortense. In the end, he bought a studio up on a hill, where he painted until his death. Today, it has been restored and is open as a museum, a must-see for an art lover’s trip in Provence. For more information and images, click on the link to the website below.

Cézanne’s Studio in Aix-en-Provence from 1901-1906 (currently a museum). The apples!

The door to Cézanne’s last studio in Aix-en-Provence. Guided tours are available in French and English.

Cézanne A Life by Alex Danchev: Highly recommended

Atelier Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, 9 avenue Paul Cézanne, 13090 Aix-en-Provence: HIghly recommended

Say Yes To The Dress: Claude and Camille and Fashion

So, I have to admit I’m a little nuts about the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. In my last months in Paris, I went four times. I had a lot of American visitors who wanted to go, but I truly did want to keep going back. Each time I found something new.

One of my favorite rooms of the exhibit was the last room, decorated to look like a park. That’s where you could find Monet’s oversized plein air paintings with Camille in her huge, fabulous dresses. I grabbed my visitors, and said, that’s Camille! Like I knew her.

But I kind of do. A couple of years ago, I read Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell, and I even hosted Stephanie at a literary luncheon at the Downtown Glen Ellyn BookFest, an annual event sponsored by my local library and bookstore. The book is all about Claude Monet and his first wife Camille. How they met, how she posed, where he painted.

So when I saw this painting (below) at the exhibit, a study of Bazille and Camille (1865), on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., I stopped and gaped. It was Camille and Bazille, shortly after she’d met Claude. I’d read about their summer trip to Fountainbleu in Claude and Camille. How the 18 year-old Camille had snuck out of the house without her parents’ permission, bringing along her older sister as a chaperone.

Claude Monet, Camille and Bazille (Study for Luncheon on the Grass) 1865. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This painting was just a study, painted quickly en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest, but I think it’s almost better than the final painting, Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), shown below. It feels fresh and immediate, as if you’re standing right there spying on this couple from the dappled shade behind the bushes. According to the article Fashion En Plein Air by Birgit Haase in the Exhibit Catalog, the dress that Camille is wearing would have been a highly fashionable outfit for women on trips to the countryside that year. Camille, who left her corset at home, is the perfect model for modern leisure wear in 1865. Monet obviously said yes to this dress – the embroidery, the cut and draping of the back of the dress and jacket seems to be the focus of the whole painting.

After the summer in Fountainbleu, Monet went back to Paris with the plan of turning his small plein air studies into a bold large canvas suitable for the Paris Salon. He made all kinds of changes to the dresses and the poses, but was so dissatisfied that he abandoned the project. What is left of the final painting appears in two giant panels at the Musée d’Orsay.










The story of how this celebrated painting got divided into separate panels is a good one. In Stephanie Cowell’s novel, Monet struggled all winter trying to paint Luncheon on the Grass, but he was so disappointed with the result that he decides not to enter it in the next Salon:

What he had seen so clearly on a summer’s day in the forest was not on the canvas before him. People were clumsily placed; the brushstrokes were all wrong. It had been repainted many times and he had never found the balance of human form and light, It was not a masterpiece at all. How could he not have seen it before? How could he have made such a mess of it?

In the novel Claude and Camille, Monet rips the canvas off the frame, rolls it up and moves on to the next painting. Thanks to the Musée d’Orsay, we have Monet’s own explanation for what happened next:

I had to pay my rent, I gave [Luncheon on the Grass] to the landlord as security and he rolled it up and put in the cellar. When I finally had enough money to get it back, as you can see, it had gone mouldy.

Monet retrieved the painting in 1884 and cut it into separate panels. Two of the three panels have survived and are included in the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit.

After abandoning Luncheon of the Grass, Monet decided to ask Camille into pose again, this time in a green and black striped taffeta silk dress with an enormous train. Art historians don’t know exactly where this dress came from. They speculate that because of its sumptuous fabric and fur, it would have been beyond the financial means of either Monet or Camille. Stephanie Cowell imagines that Monet’s friend Bazille rented it for a painting of his own, and was willing to loan it to Monet. In fact, there is evidence to support Stephanie’s theory. In an 1866 letter to his mother, Bazille mentions a green satin dress that he had rented.

Wherever it came from, it was a dress that inspired a painting. In the novel, Claude whispers to Camille: “I could make an unforgettable picture of you in that dress.”

Claude Monet. Camille (1866). Kunsthalle Bremen, on loan to the Impressionism and Fashion  Exhibit in New York and Chicago.

Camille said yes to the dress. She added with a fur-trimmed jacket and empire hat, and posed as if she was heading out the door. Once again, she appeared to lack a corset, a sign of independence and modernity.

Stephanie Cowell’s book goes on to describe the days that Monet spent in his studio, painting Camille in the green dress, the attraction between them building each day. Claude and Camille would later marry over the strong objections of her parents. Camille died in 1879 at the age of 32.

The painting would become known as Camille, The Green Dress (1866). It was accepted at the 1866 Salon.

This painting did not appear in Paris, but it will travel to New York and Chicago as part of the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit, along with a real green tafetta dress from 1865, thanks to the costume collection of the Manchester Gallery of Art in England.

I can’t imagine a better book club pick than Claude and Camille, paired with a field trip to see the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay (September 25, 2012 – January 20, 2013), the Metropolitan Museum of New York (February 26- May 27, 2013) or the Art Institute of Chicago (June 26- September 22, 2013).

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity: Highly recommended

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell: Highly recommended

Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing

Interested in a different day trip from Paris? Try visiting some scenic old art colonies in France. There is so much more to see besides Giverny. And these off-the-beaten-track places are much less crowded.

Venturing south of Paris you will find the old art colonies of the Fountainbleu Forest, including BarbizonGrez-sur-Loing, Moret-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery. Here they are, mapped out on Google Maps. These villages make for a wonderful weekend or day trip from Paris. All you need is a good map, but for really easy travel, I prefer a rental car with GPS. (My own GPS travel tip: use the postal code of the city to which you’re traveling.) It is possible to visit all of these colonies in one day, but if you prefer not to rush and to perhaps leave some time to sketch or visit the nearby Chateau de Fountainbleu, I would set aside a whole weekend.

On a recent visit with Barbara Redmond, fellow artist and founder of A Woman’s Paris, I began in Grez-sur-Loing (postal code 77880) at the southern edge of Fountainbleu.

Grez became a popular summer travel destination for American artists in Paris after a train station and new hotel were built In 1860. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot‘s painting View of the Loing At Grez (1850-60) may have worked like a Grez travel poster, inducing many art students to come and try to paint it themselves. Word about Grez circulated through the Academie Julian in Paris as well as Carolus-Duran’s studio.

The Bridge at Grez-sur-Loing by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1850-60). currier Art Gallery, New Hamshire.

The Bridge at Grez by American Robert Vonnoh (1907-11). Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. Just when we were thinking of getting out our sketchbooks, it started to rain.

Athough Grez was gray and quiet the day we visited, it was once hopping with artists and writers, both male and female. Its notable visitors included Robert Louis Stevenson, his cousin, painter Robert Allen Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister Abigail May Alcott (an artist like Amy in Little Women), American painters Kenyon Cox, John Singer Sargent, Theodore Robinson, Robert Vonnoh and Will Low, as well as a mother-daughter team of painters from California, Fanny and Nellie Osbourne. In fact, it was at Grez that Fanny Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson would meet and fall in love, although Fanny was ten years older and technically still married to her first husband at the time. (A hint of the bohemian pleasures of a nineteenth century art colony!)

These artists enjoyed the picturesque setting of the village as well as the open spaces nearby. The older French artists such as Corot, Millet and Rousseau had settled in nearby Barbizon a few decades earlier, but there was a new generation of artists looking for their own scenes and style. As Robert Allen Stevenson explained:

At Barbizon it was especially difficult to get away from the old men who had made it their own, and yet do anything like art. Forest interior composes with difficulty otherwise than as Rousseau, Diaz and Courbet imagined it. . . .  Shut in, full of forms, lit in one way, deprived of sky of space of air of the effect of large simple planes, it was no fitting nursery for the new school of painters (“Grez” The Magazine of Art, 1894).

It wasn’t just lofty artistic motives that brought this generation of artists to Grez. It was also a place for youthful exhuberance and bohemian camaraderie. The artists enjoyed the casual hospitality of two inns in Grez: Hotel Chevillon and Pension Laurent. Hotel Chevillon was the place of much bohemian merriment, including singing and dancing in the hotel dining room as well as a masquerade ball in sheets and togas. The hotel guests  often took canoe rides on the river together, playing such games as tip the canoe and shoot the chute. For a somewhat more reserved and respectable environment, the women would often stay at Pension Laurent just down the street.

A postcard image of the old Hotel Chevillon from the website of the Foundation Grez-sur-Loing.

Both hotels are still standing in downtown Grez. The Hotel Chevillon is now owned by Foundation Grez-sur-Loing, a Scandinanvian art organization that offers grants to visiting artists, authors, composers and scientists. According to their website, tours may be arranged with advance notice.

Hotel Chevillon in 2012, home of Foundation Grez-sur-Loing, a Scandinavian art organization. A popular hang-out for the artists who came to Grez. Robert Louis Stevenson met his future wife here.


Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter who lived and met his wife in Grez.

The present day site of the former Pension Laurent in Grez, just a few doors down from Hotel Chevillon. Abigail May Alcott may have  stayed here during her visit the summer of 1877.


The plaque at the former Pension Laurent in Grez

The artists came to Grez in several different waves. In the 1870s, it was mostly Americans and British; in the 1880s it was mostly Scandinavians, and by the 1890s, there were many Japanese artists. The Scandinavians have had the most lasting influence – one of the streets is named after Swedish artist Carl Larsson.
Robert Vonnoh might be the American artist most closely associated with Grez. Boston-born Vonnoh first came to Grez on his honeymoon with his first wife Grace in 1887. He continued to visit throughout the years 1887-1891 and then again from 1907-1911, returning with his second wife Bessie Potter Vonnoh, a sculptor from Chicago. He returned for some part of each year until the outbreak of World War I. His last paintings set in Grez are dated after the war from 1922-1925.
Vonnoh has often been called one of America’s first-rate Impressionists. It would have been in Grez that he truly developed his plein air style. Here are some of Vonnoh’s paintings set in Grez:

Beside the River – Grez by Robert Vonnoh (1890)

Grez-sur-Loing by Robert Vonnoh

Poppies (also known as In a Flanders Field) by Robert Vonnoh (1890)

Grez remains an artistic community today. On the day we visited, we met a French painter near the ruins of the old Tour de Ganne. She was clipping dried hydrangeas from the churchyard to use at her own art exhibition later that afternoon. She handed us a flyer and invited us to stop by.

Follow along on my tour of other French art colonies in future posts. Coming soon: a visit to Rosa Bonheur’s Atelier in Thomery, France.

Sources and Recommended Reads:

Grez Days: Robert Vonnoh in France (Essay and Catalogue by May Brawley Hill for Berry-Hill Galleries 1987)

The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson by Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez (Gutenberg Project ebook, 2008)

May Alcott: A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor (1928), available at the Library of Congress Internet Archive

A Chronicle of Friendships 1873-1900 by Will H. Low (1908), available at Open Library