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Books, wine, art and travel. Preferably all at the same time. If possible, in France.

The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

The Other Alcott is a novel I’ve been waiting for for a long time. I’ve known about Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister – the artist, the one after whom the fictional Amy March was created – and I knew the outlines of her story. But that is like the difference between sketching a skeleton and the full, live human figure.

In Elise Hooper’s able and generous hands, May’s story is fleshed out. It thrums with life, passion and imagination, and becomes one that we can relate to. It speaks to us across the centuries, a timeless story of one woman artist that can inspire, encourage and guide 21st century women still trying to figure it out today. What else could you possibly ask from historical fiction?

I have to admit that even I underestimated May Alcott. When I first saw the illustrations May drew for her sister Louisa’s book Little Women, I agreed with her contemporary critics. The drawings were amateurish, not lifelike enough, the product of an artist not without natural born talent, but still, with a long way to go.

The Nation’s critique was brutal: “May Alcott’s poorly executed illustrations in Little Women betray her lack of anatomical knowledge and indifference to the subtle beauty of the female figure.”

The criticism stung. But yet she persisted.

May might have been hurt, but she was humble enough to understand that she needed professional instruction. (Lesson #1: Accept valid criticism.) So she figured it out.

In 1860s America, art training wasn’t an easy thing for a woman to find, especially in a small town like Concord. Victorian society was squeamish about women looking at naked bodies or studying anatomy. Nevertheless, May found a doctor in Boston who offered anatomical drawing classes to women. (Lesson #2: Ignore the prudes.) Thanks to the money from the sale of Little Women, her sister Louisa was able to afford an apartment in Boston for the two of them to share. (Lesson #3: Accept help graciously.)

May absorbed everything in Dr. Ritter’s drawing classes, but there was no drawing from life. Day after day, the women copied sketches of hands and wrists or they drew from plaster casts of skulls and human bones. May’s skills improved; her eye for the human form awakened. (Lesson #4: Start at the beginning.)

In Elise Hooper’s novel, May meets a number of established women artists who show her the way. The first is Elizabeth Jane Gardner, a Paris-trained American artist who in 1868 was one of the first women (including Mary Cassatt) who had a painting accepted in the Paris salon. They meet at a Boston art gallery (Lesson #5: Go to art galleries) where Gardner holds court and tells shocking tales about her bohemian life in Paris: dressing like a man so she could have access to live models, dragging a sick lion into her studio in order to study animal anatomy. It might have been a bit of shock and awe, but it inspired May to go to France. (Lesson #6: Listen to the stories of those who’ve come before.)

Elizabeth Jane Gardner as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (her mentor, teacher and future husband) in 1879. I love how little this portrait reveals of her true spirit, except for that hint of a smile.

Inspired by Gardner’s stories, May and Louisa head off on a European adventure together in 1870. I’ve previously written on this blog about May’s first trip to France in a post titled Little Women in Dinan, France. I walked in their footsteps in the pretty historic village where May first stayed in Europe. May was frustrated that she couldn’t get to Paris for art lessons, but she spent the season exploring and sightseeing with a sketchbook in hand. (Lesson #7: Take your sketchbook.)

14 Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France, the location of Madame Coste’s pension where the Alcott sisters stayed from April to June, 1870. As Louisa May Alcott described it in a letter dated April 24, 1870: “We are living, en pension, with a nice old lady just on the walls of the town with Anne of Brittany’s round tower on the one hand, the Porte of St. Louis on the other, and a lovely promenade made in the old moat just before the door.”

May’s first trip to France was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but on their detour to Italy, May finally had the chance to see nude paintings and sculptures and to draw from a live nude model. In the book, May encounters the “sniggers and chuffs” of  from the men in the studio, but she ignores the sexual harassment and soldiers on, overcoming her own embarrassment in order to learn valuable skills. (Lesson #8: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.)

May’s studies would continue back in Boston with William Morris Hunt, advancing from live drawing to oil painting, and then in London, where she copied the masters in the National Gallery and discovered the wonders of J.M.W. Turner. (Lesson #9: Study the masters.) While sketching at the gallery, May met John Ruskin, the Trustee of the National Gallery’s Turner collection, who connected her to London art dealers interested in selling her Turner copies. May finally began to earn an income from her art. (Lesson #10: Make connections.) 

In 1874, May’s efforts to pursue her art in London would be interrupted by family caregiving demands. Her sister Louisa demanded that she come back to Boston to help take care of their ailing mother. But somehow May figured out a way to juggle her responsibilities at home with opportunities to study and teach art in Boston, all the while saving her money and dreaming about her chance to study in Paris. (Lesson #11: Become a skilled juggler.)

By 1877, May was making her way in the Paris art world. She got a painting accepted into the Paris salon, she met Mary Cassatt, and was seeking a way to earn a living by selling her own original paintings. In the lovely painting below, you can see how far May had come from her early days in Concord.

May Alcott Neiriker, La Nigresse, oil on canvas (1879). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abigail_May_Alcott_Nieriker

May’s final challenge would be to find a way to balance love and art, to make sure she continued to pursue her painting even after she fell in love and faced the responsibilities of keeping a home and starting a family. (Lesson #11: Find the nearest Planned Parenthood?)  

As you can see, Elise Hooper’s book is a lovely story about May Alcott Niericker’s struggle to overcome criticism, sexism, sibling rivalry and family caregiving demands in order to pursue her dream to become a professional artist. It’s chocked full of lessons in both humility and persistence, lessons we still need today. At least I do.

The Other Alcott: Highly recommended.

 

For further reading:

 

 

 

 

Cecilia Beaux: The Power of Paris (1888)

I’ve often thought about how my time in Paris, as short as it was, managed to change me. And it seems I can’t stop thinking about the change Paris may have had on other artists, other women, in other times.

I’ve taken a look at some of their lives to see if I can spot the power of Paris. American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), who lived and studied in Paris in 1888-89, makes a great example.

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Maybe you don’t know much about Cecilia Beaux, but she has some pretty amazing paintings at the Art Institute of ChicagoMetropolitan Museum of New York, or my favorite, Sita and Sarita at Musée d’Orsay.

Most people know her, if they know her at all, because William Merritt Chase called her “the greatest woman artist who has ever lived.” I’ve previously written about her struggle to obtain an art education in Philadelphia during the Victorian era. But what interests me the most is her time in Paris.

When Beaux took her shot to study in Paris, it seems like it changed her life. She only  spent a year and a half there, but when she returned home to the States in 1889 her career really took off. True, she was no slouch before Paris – she’d already studied for over a decade, worked as a professional and received numerous awards. She’d already had a painting accepted in the Paris Salon of 1887.

So here is Beaux before Paris:

beaux les derniers jours

Cecilia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance (1883-85), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This painting was awarded the PAFA Mary Smith Prize for best work by a local woman and was accepted into the 1887 Paris Salon. According to PAFA, Beaux considered this to be “a coup” that marked “a turning point in her career.”

 

And this is Beaux after Paris:

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (1895), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (1895), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

 

Isn’t the difference stunning? It’s as if she moved from one century to another.

And the difference wasn’t just in the vibrant new light in her portraits. As successful as Beaux was before Paris, her output of high profile portraits soared upon her return. She completed over 40 portraits in five years, including some of the most remarkable of her career. By 1895, Beaux was hired to be the first full-time female faculty member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, becoming the Head of Portraits.

If Paris did indeed spark Beaux’s success in the 1890s, what was it? The training in the Paris ateliers? The exposure to and networking with other artists? The chance to study from the masters in the Louvre? The experience of freedom as a traveler, an outsider and an expatriate? Or maybe it’s just in the air in Paris.

Before I set out to walk in Beaux’s footsteps through Paris I decided to read her autobiography, Background With Figures (1930). I wanted to hear her Paris stories in her own voice and her own words. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the time I spent reading her book – she had a wicked sense of humor and a masterful ability to walk the fine line between truth and discretion. Here was a woman who had seen and achieved a great deal at a time when women of her social background weren’t really supposed to.

Beaux is at her best when she tells the story behind her first trip to France. She had long dreamed of studying art in Paris. All the serious American art students were going. But Beaux had an additional, more personal draw: she was half French and was ready to claim her father’s heritage as part of her own. Once her first painting (Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance) was accepted at the Paris Salon of 1887, it seemed as though she’d earned the right to go.

But she couldn’t go alone. In spite of the fact that she was 33 years old and had been studying and practicing art for over 17 years, she still wouldn’t travel to Europe without a female companion. Beaux was no rebel; she wouldn’t be breaking the social code that her fine Philadelphia family still observed.

And so it was that Cecilia Beaux and her cousin May Whitlock arrived in Paris in a miserably cold January in 1888 and moved into an underwhelming pension at 12 rue Boccador, on the right bank between the Seine and the Champs-Élysée. Today this address would be considered one of the nicest in Paris, in the middle of the Triangle d’Or and just off of the incredibly expensive Avenue Montaigne. But in 1888 it was another story. Beaux described it in her autobiography with biting wit:

Our pension was in the quarter of the Pont de l’Alma, but not near to the river and its beauty. All that a skimping French pension could mean in mid-winter was ours. . . . I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. . . . Until May, we never saw the sun.

Beaux’s art training had developed her talent for looking at faces and recognizing the traits and quirks that nail a likeness, whether in pictures or words:

Mdlle. de Villeneuve, our keeper, bore her considerable years, which had borne much skimping too, under a brown wig and a long nose. She carried Fi-Fi, a tiny, old dog, with rattling teeth and a cracked bark, constantly under her arm. She had bony fingers, and for the first time I heard the rattle, also, of keys.

 

The visit of our blanchisseuse was one of our pleasures. She had apparently been forgotten in the gathering at the Judgment Seat of the Tricoteuses, left over from the Terror. She was huge, had an immense head with bold pompadour, and a beard.

Isn’t Beaux hilarious? Can you imagine how entertaining she was in person? A bit like another one of my favorites, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

quote-if-you-haven-t-got-anything-nice-to-say-about-anybody-come-sit-next-to-me-alice-roosevelt-longworth-17-86-74Together, Beaux and her cousin investigated the different private art studios open to women (L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts would not accept women for ten more years, in 1897) and chose the Académie Julien’s right bank studio at 28 rue de Faubourg. (This atelier would close at the end of the 1888 season and move to 5 rue de Berri, another address in the aristocratic part of the right bank. Also, I am following Beaux’s spelling here rather than the usual Académie “Julian.”) The Académie Julien was at the time the largest art school in Paris with over 17 locations, 7 of which were devoted to women. Beaux quickly learned that the rue de Faubourg location, housed in an attic near the Madeleine, was more for diletanttes than serious art students.

In spite of the relishable novelty of the cours, and the new world I had expected and found, in the Life-Class, I had to sustain a grand déception. More even than on the instruction, I had counted on an association of superiority.

I had worked alone, and fully believe that, in Paris, I should be among brilliant and advanced students, far ahead of a practically untaught American. I was to learn that the Académie Julien was a business enterprise, and could not be maintained for gifted students only. The personnel was heterogeneous (pp. 117-18).

“The personnel was heterogeneous.” I can just picture Beaux saying that with a wicked little twist of her eyebrow. It turns out Beaux was disappointed with her fellow students’ level of talent, the instructors’ level of input and the overcrowded classrooms. The famous instructors came in to criticize only once a week, and when they did they rarely spent time demonstrating or analyzing the student work. Instead, they would go around the class with comments like pas mal and a reserved smile. Each class was filled to capacity. Punctuality was key or you wouldn’t get an easel close to the model. Beaux gave up the painting class and concentrated on nothing but drawing because she found it too frustrating to try to paint without enough elbow room.

Atelier Julian, undated, so it is possible it is from the other women's atelier on rue de Berri. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

Atelier Julien, undated, and unknown which of Julien’s women’s ateliers this represents. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

Beaux had some limited praise for “the English girls” who came to study at Académie Julien, noting that they reached “a high average in their work.”

To my surprise they were all original types. Later, I accounted for this by the fact that at the time few English women broke away from custom and tradition, Most of them were clergymen’s daughters who had decided against gardening, tea-parties, and the old women of the parish. This had required energy, and also that they should have had a pretty good start already (p. 118).

Although there were some “original types” at the rue de Faubourg atelier, Beaux learned that another one of Julien’s ateliers was more competitive. Female students of the atelier at the Passages Panoramas included Russian Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884), and Americans Anna Klumpke (1865-1912), Lydia Field Emmet (1866-1952) and Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (1840-1879). Beaux looked forward to competing with her more accomplished peers, but when she did, she received a quick and sobering dose of humility.

Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julian's atelier for women

You can still walk through the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julien’s atelier for women.

In March of 1888, two months into her Paris art studies, Beaux realized that she had missed the deadline to submit a painting to the spring Salon. She still hoped for an opportunity to compete at a school show, so she decided to enter a concours against the students in The Passages atelier. Her competition included the Californian Anna Klumpke, who had been studying at The Passages for years and who knew it was faster and easier to pull off a competitive piece in pastel rather than oil. Beaux, on the other, hand, attempted a large oil canvas and in her own words, it was a “nasty failure.” (No images of this painting remain.) Beaux didn’t even receive an honorable mention. For a woman who’d already had a painting accepted in the Paris Salon? Ouch.

Beaux knew she needed to do something more in order to benefit from her time in Paris. The Académie Julien wasn’t going to change her life. But what could?

Beaux was drawn to visit the Louvre, where she admired the Old Masters and Greek and Roman sculpture. One of her favorite things to do was to visit the drawing gallery early on Saturday mornings, before it opened to the public, and copy from the drawings of Raphael.

Like most visiting Americans, Beaux made time to socialize with other Paris artists. Her aunt, Sarah Leavitt Austin, lived in Paris and studied with John Singer Sargent’s teacher, Carolus-Duran. Beaux’s Philadelphia art school friend, Florence Esté, enjoyed a nice little apartment and studio across the street from Luxembourg Gardens, near the heart of the art community on rue Notre Dame des Champs. Esté introduced Beaux to the prominent Philadelphia artists Alexander Harrison and Charles Lasar, both of whom had graduated from L’`Ecole des Beaux-Arts and had settled in Paris.

Beaux fully expected to befriend and network with fellow artists Harrison and Lasar. They were all from Philadelphia, they’d each studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, and they were all in their mid-30s. They’d all had paintings accepted into the Paris Salon, and were about to exhibit their work together at the Pennsylvania Academy’s Annual Exhibition. The big difference was that Harrison and Lasar had studied at L’`Ecole des Beaux Arts. And of course they were men. Harrison gave Beaux the cold shoulder the first time they met, putting her in the category of all of the other “American girls” who were mere amateurs at art.

That first spring of 1888 Beaux would attend her first Paris Salon, but it left her feeling discouraged. Although she was familiar the famous artists’ names on the plaques, she didn’t recognize them when she saw them in person. She remained an outsider, looking in: “The world of Art in Paris was in no wise opened to me, and in fact was too far out of sight to even be longed for.”

And then came the summer that changed everything. And it wasn’t it Paris at all.

When the Académie Julien closed for the summer, all of the artists of Paris deserted the city for visits to the countryside. Some left for the art colony in Giverny, while others heading south of Paris to the artistic villages near Fontainebleau like Barbizon or Grez. (Read my prior post, Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing). Beaux’s friend Lucy Scarborough Conant, a fellow American artist, was planning to spend the summer in Brittany with her mother. The Conants invited Beaux and her cousin May to join them in the artistic village of Concarneau.

The seaside village of Concarneau today

The seaside village of Concarneau today

 

Alexander Harrison, Concarneau

Concarneau then: Alexander Harrison, Haunt of the Artists (no date), Pen and ink.

 

Beaux discovered that the same male artists who had snubbed her in Paris were friendlier in the countryside. Alexander Harrison and Charles (“Shorty”) Lasar were in Concarneau that summer too. Away from the gender politics and good-old boy networks of Philadelphia or Paris, they didn’t mind socializing and painting with women artists. They often went out to paint in plein air as a mixed group.

Beaux started turning out lighter, looser canvases, learning to play with rich outdoor color, bigger brushstrokes and bolder cropping.

Beaux, Seaside Inlet (1888)

Cecelia Beaux, Seaside Inlet, (1888), oil on cardboard, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Cecilia Beaux, A Country Woman, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts

Cecilia Beaux, A Country Woman, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine  Arts

1888. Concarneau, France. oil on canvas, 11x14in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Cecelia Beaux, Landscape with Farm Building (1888), oil on canvas, 11x14in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

 

Beaux was now welcome in Harrison and Lasar’s studios, and they began to visit hers as well. They soon became her friends and mentors.

You can watch Beaux’s transformation take place in the course of one painting. She decided to paint two Breton women in their traditional collars and coiffes. Following Harrison’s example, she started with several preparatory oil sketches. It was the only way to capture the fleeting, blending colors of twilight, (as Beaux herself said)  “the tones of coiffe and col mingling with the pale blue, rose and celadon of the evening sky.”

It seems that it was right then and there that Cecilia Beaux learned about color and light. That white is never white, and that surfaces absorb and reflect the light around them. That a change in color and light can create your form.

 

Cecelia Beaux, Study of Two Breton Women, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Cecelia Beaux, Study of Two Breton Women, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

 

 

Cecelia Beaux, Twilight Confidences (1888), oil on canvas, Private collection

Cecelia Beaux, Twilight Confidences (1888), oil on canvas, Private collection

 

Harrison and Lasar began to believe in Beaux and urged her to continue her art studies in Paris if she truly wanted to “clinch it.” Their support was important. Beaux had proven she was no amateur and that she deserved to be taken seriously.

Beaux’s summer in Concarneau gave her a taste of the power and joy that can be found within a circle of artists who have mutual respect and admiration. She finally found encouragement, affirmation, criticism and collegiality among her peers. And refreshingly, there is no evidence of any romantic entanglements in the group that could have complicated or compromised their professional relationship. In fact, Beaux rejected the proposal of an American suitor that summer, believing she couldn’t combine her promising career with marriage.

Urged on by Harrison and Lasar, Beaux wrote to her uncle and talked him into financing another season of art studies in Paris for the winter of 1889.

I believe it was the turning point of her life. And maybe it wasn’t the power of Paris at all, but rather, the the power of a summer outside of Paris. And now, her palette is now in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian.

Cecelia Beaux, Palette and 2 Brushes, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art

Cecelia Beaux, Palette and 2 Brushes, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Muse by Jessie Burton: An Artist’s View

Art makes for great stories. Because there’s always a story behind the making of art.

In The Muse by Jessie Burton (HarperCollins 2016), there isn’t just one, but two interwinding stories – set 30 years apart – about a mysterious painting. One story is set in a 1960s London art gallery, the other in a beautiful Spanish villa at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

the muse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spain, 1936. A Viennese art dealer and and his family have recently arrived at a dreamy villa on the warm southern coast of Spain. Their daughter Olive has just been admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but doesn’t know how to ask her father for permission to go. He wouldn’t approve. He doesn’t think women should paint.

So instead of confronting her parents, Olive sneaks upstairs to the attic in order to paint in secret. Her new canvases are infused with the passion and inspiration she feels for her new home – the heat, the sun, the landscape, the orchards, but especially, the dark, handsome villager named Isaac Robles who has stirred up something new and deep inside her. Isaac is an artist too, but mostly he’s a young revolutionary intent on organizing and agitating for his cause.

In the middle of this lush and provocative setting, Olive creates a painting that sounds just gorgeous: a loose, surrealistic view of the villa (they call it a “finca”) from the bottom of the orchards, with fields painted in “ochres and grasshopper greens, the folkloric tenderness of russet furrows and mustard browns.” Olive even surprises herself:

She never knew she was capable of such work. She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked.

Olive hides The Orchard under her bed and works on sketches of her muse Isaac (Isaac Chopping Wood, Isaac with Coffee Cup) until she is inspired to try an even more complicated painting.

Isaac and his sister have told Olive about a old Spanish legend in which two sisters, Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, become Christian martyrs. (It’s a real story, but I’d never heard of it before so of course I had to Google it.) Two sisters are persecuted for their Christian beliefs during the Roman Empire. After breaking a pot with a pagan image of Venus, one sister is thrown down a well and the other is thrown to the lions.

Somehow, Olive figures out a way to paint it. She calls it Santa Justa in the Well.

The new piece was a surreal composition, colorful, disjointed to the gaze. It was a diptych; Santa Justa before her arrest and after, set against a dark indigo sky and a shining field. . . .

The left half of the painting was lush and glowing. Olive had used ordinary oils, but had also experimented with gold leaf, which glinted in the light as she held the painting up. . . .

In the middle of the healthy land on this left-hand side stood a woman, her hair the color of the crop. She was carrying a heavy pot with deer and rabbits painted on it, and its centre was the face of the goddess Venus. Both the faces of the woman and Venus looked proud, staring out at the viewer.

I tried to imagine what this painting might look like. I can definitely see The Orchard in my mind’s eye, but not this one. There’s sky and crops and the full figure of a woman and a pot so detailed you can see the little deer and rabbits and the face of Venus. And then the other side of the diptych it gets even more complicated.

On the right half of the painting, the crop was deadened and limp. The woman appeared again, except this time she was curled inside a circle, hovering over the crop. This circle was filled with an internal perspective to make it look as if it had depth, as if the woman was lying at the bottom of a well. Her hair was now severed and dull, her pot had smashed around her, a puzzle impossible for anyone to piece together. Around the rim of the well, full-sized deer and rabbits peered down, as if set free from the broken crockery. Venus had vanished.

My goodness, what a difficult project for Olive to take on as a beginning painter. As I say to myself sometimes when I’m struggling with a difficult painting: “maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew with this one.” Olive has had no formal training – not that’s the only route to artistic genius, but it sure helps. And how quickly did she paint it? This complicated a composition would take days, weeks, even months. And how did she keep her act of painting so secret? What about the strong smell of oil paint (which her father the art dealer would’ve recognized)? Apparently Olive’s parents were quite distracted during this part of the book.

The Muse relies heavily on the myth of original genius. It makes a good story. An untrained but inspired young woman creates a breathtaking piece of art without any training, instruction or advice. It sounds lovely, but I don’t happen to believe in it.

That’s not to say the subject would have been impossible to paint. Other famous Spanish artists have taken their turn with the legend of Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, including Valasquez, de Goya and Murillo.

From Jessie Burton's Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya's "Santa Justa y Santa Rufina" (!817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid Spain

From Jessie Burton’s Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya’s “Santa Justa y Santa Rufina” (1817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Old Master Paintings Sale Sotheby's, London - July, 4 , 2007 Velazquez (1599 - 1660) Saint Rufina Estimate: 6,000,000 - 8,000,000 Copyright in this image shall remain vested in Sotheby’s. Please note that this image may depict subject matter which is itself protected by separate copyright. Sotheby’s makes no representations as to whether the underlying subject matter is subject to its own copyright, or as to who might hold such copyright. It is the borrower's responsibility to obtain any relevant permissions from the holder(s) of any applicable copyright and Sotheby’s supplies this image expressly subject to this responsibility.

Diego Valasquez, Saint Rufina (circa 1630-1635), oil on canvas, Foundation Focus-Abengoa, Seville, Spain

 

Murillo, Santa Justa

Bartolomé Murillo, Santa Justa (c. 1665), oil on canvas, Meadows Museum, Dallas,  Texas. In fact, there is an interesting side story about this Murillo painting and its companion piece, Santa Rufino. When the Meadows Museum initiated provenance research in accordance with the recent effort to identify Nazi era looted art, it was discovered that these two paintings had indeed been stolen from the Rothschild family during World War II. The Monuments Men Foundation is currently researching whether or not the paintings had been  properly restituted  before they were donated to the Meadows Museum.

 

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Juan Barreto, Justa y Rufina (1989), oil on canvas, University of Seville, Spain

Fortunately, I was able to put aside my misgivings about how Olive’s paintings came to be, because the story soon becomes a fascinating mystery. The Spanish Civil War intervenes with its tales of danger, tragedy, loss and confusion, and we’re not quite sure what’s become of Olive’s secret paintings, much less Olive’s family and friends.

London, 1967.  Odelle, a young Caribbean immigrant with dreams of becoming a writer nabs a typing job at a fancy London art gallery. She stumbles upon a long-lost painting that her professional colleagues attribute to a Spanish artist named Isaac Robles, who is rumored to have died in the Spanish Civil War decades earlier. (Remember that hot young revolutionary, Olive’s muse? Yes, him.)

The gallery prepares for a show announcing its exciting new discovery and highlighting Isaac Robles’ short but apparently brilliant career. Odelle digs deeper into the painting’s provenance and makes an unlikely ally. As Odelle uncovers the truth behind the painting, she find the inner fuel to pick up her own neglected journals and return to her dreams of becoming a writer.

In the end, it turns out that Odelle has encountered a muse of her own. As Odelle says in the last wonderful line in the book, “in the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being.”

 

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And that, friends, is how you write a terrific book. Art makes for great stories, doesn’t it?  Oh, and by the way, the author Jessie Burton has a fabulous Pinterest Board for The Muse. Check it out!

 

 

The Muse by Jessie Burton. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

I’m thrilled to tell you about a new book featuring The American Girls Art Club in Paris. It’s called The Light of Paris, authored by Eleanor Brown, who also wrote the fun and quirky The Weird Sisters a few years back.

light of paris

Whether you’re a longtime follower of this blog, or you’re interested the history of the Reid Hall in Paris, or maybe you’re just a fellow Francophile, then you’ll love reading about Margie, a young American débutante who defies her family’s traditional expectations to spend a Jazz-Age summer at the American Girls Club in Paris, writing in cafés, meeting avant-garde artists and working at The American Library in Paris.

My name is Margie too. How fun is that? It feels a little like reading one of those children’s books that you can have personalized with your child’s name.

I was like, “Go Margie Go!”

Margie’s story is told through the lens of her granddaughter Madeleine who finds Margie’s old diaries in a trunk in her mother’s house. The diaries reveal Margie’s secret life in Paris, inspiring Madeleine to rediscover her artistic talents and to pursue her own dreams.

The plot might be a bit predictable, but who doesn’t enjoy a story set in Paris? And especially, who wouldn’t love to visit the Left Bank scenes around the Rue de Chevreuse and The American Girls Art Club in Paris?

Here is a post I wrote during my own year abroad about the history of the American Girls Art Club in Paris, which includes some of my own photos to accompany the book. I’m posting a few more below. They may not be the best quality, but hey, I was there and it was cool. You get the idea.

 

 Courtyard Image 2011

Reid Center Courtyard  (The former American Girls Art Club in Paris)

 

Reid Center 1

 

Reid Center 3

 

 

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

 

 

There are more (and better quality) photos on the Reid Hall – Columbia Global Centers – Paris website. You can watch a video on their website too, which shows some fabulous historical photos and informs you about their current global initiative.

Isn’t it good to know that new generations of students and travelers get to have their own adventures in Paris, like those of Margie and other young women of the American Art Club?

 

Recommended Art History Novels

As readers of this blog know, I’m a little obsessed with art history books, both fiction and nonfiction, and there have been quite a few good ones lately. I just took a stack to my painting class and passed them around. Here’s your chance to find out my recent art history reading recs too.

last paintig of sara de vosThe Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April, 2016). Haven’t heard of it yet? You will. It was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, earning this fabulous review from the New York Times.

This novel is a mix of your favorite art history novels, but it’s still uniquely its own. It blends themes from The Goldfinch (with fast-paced suspense, a mysterious art theft and its grasp of what power a painting can have over its beholders), The Girl With a Pearl Earring (in its gorgeous, tender depiction of painters in 1600s Holland) and The Art Forger (fascinating passages about forgery techniques; insightful consideration of the psychological effects on an artist who uses her skills to commit artistic fraud).

To summarize, an art history grad agrees to “copy” a valuable but lesser known Dutch painting, At the Edge of a Wood by Sara de Vos (an imaginary painting by a real artist), knowing full well that it is probably going to be used as a forgery. The original is stolen and replaced with the copy. Decades pass. The art forger is now a respected curator and art historian specializing in female Dutch painters of the Golden Age, and when she mounts an exhibition, both the original and her forged copy of At the Edge of a Wood arrive on loan to the art museum. Which one is real? How can you tell? Will the curator’s shameful secret be revealed and her career destroyed? And what about the woman who painted it so many centuries ago?

I especially appreciated the author’s enlightened approach to the psychological evolution of the female characters. (Is it relevant that the author is a man? Does that make it more of a writerly/moral accomplishment — or is that lowering the bar for men? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Too often in historical fiction, whether the author is male or female, women become powerless pawns in service of plot, or victims of gender-based restrictions. While it might be true to the period, it can make for dull, uninspired reading. And yet, to give a historical female character too much agency can feel false and anachronistic.

In The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, Dominic Smith manages to capture the truth of the historical era without sacrificing the depth of female character development. Seriously, I almost stood up and cheered at the end when I learned the full story of the last painting of Sara De Vos. So bravo to the author for pulling that off.

In addition, the author has a wonderful website you really need to visit to check out such things as: How to Forge a 17th Century Dutch Painting and “Forgeries and Figments.”

Very highly recommended.

 

improbability of love

I just burned through The Improbability of   Love by Hannah Rothschild (Knopf, November 2015). I just love the U.S. cover — very clever turning  palette into a heart, don’t you think? I’m pleased to recommend it as another suspenseful art history novel.

Once again we have an imaginary painting (“The Improbability of Love“) by a real artist, this time a French Rococo painter from the 1700s, Antoine Watteau. Check out the author’s website where she answers the question, Why Watteau? A young chef named Annie McDee stumbles upon the painting in a second-hand shop where no one knows its true value. Annie buys is for a song, and then curious, begins to research its provenance.

The fun part of this book — a really clever move, if you ask me — comes when the painting speaks for itself. He has a distinctive voice, funny and full of insult and injury about the state of his neglect. As the painting says in his first turn to speak:

I knew I’d be rescued but never thought it would take fifty years. There should have been search parties, battalions and legions. Why? Because I am priceless and I am also the masterpiece that launched a whole artistic genre. And if that isn’t enough, I am considered to be the greatest, the most moving, and the most thrilling representation of love.

. . .

Imagine being stuffed away in a bric-a-brac shop in the company of a lot of rattan furniture, cheap china and reproduction pictures. I would not call myself a snob but there are limits.

In addition to the droll little quips from the painting, you have Russian oligarchs, greedy art dealers, clueless art experts and a Nazi art hoarder who has tried to cover up his past. Not all of these elements work, and some of the characters just clutter up the less-than-perfect plot. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed the passages about the cleaning and restoration of the painting as well as the research into its provenance. The plot is suspenseful, and you’re never sure whether Annie will be able to keep the painting safe from the many interested parties who would do anything, pay anything, to lay claim to it.

Recommended.

 

georgia

Another art history novel I’m really excited about is Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe by Dawn Tripp. I am hoping my Chicago book club will read it this summer, paired with a visit to O’Keefe’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago.

We all know Georgia O’Keefe from her later years as a painter of the Southwest. Maybe you’ve even been to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. I knew that O’Keefe was born in Wisconsin and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, but then what? Hmmm, wasn’t there something about an affair with a New York photographer?

Dawn Tripp’s novel begins in New York City in 1916, the year Georgia O’Keefe meets Alfred Stieglitz, “the father of modern photography.” Stieglitz and O’Keefe form a passionate partnership as lovers and fellow artists. Tripp was lucky enough to have access to the recently released letters between O’Keefe and Stieglitz  as she wrote the book (they’d been kept under seal for 25 years after O’Keefe’s death in 1986). All of those powerful, tumultuous scenes between her characters are the real deal. As Tripp has said herself, “their love affair was a loaded one: Ambition. Desire. Sex. Love. Fame. Betrayal. A search for artistic freedom.”

This story is about a woman’s fight to create and retain her own artistic identity. Stieglitz wants to control her but she’ll have none of it, even after their marriage. O’Keefe fiercely guards her independence and insists having “a room of her own.” (The key to any artist’s happiness, right?) In the end, O’Keefe’s “room of her own” was her home and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she spent over 50 years of her life. In charge of her own life and art.

The author’s website is worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about Georgia O’Keefe, including a fabulous Book Club Kit I plan to use myself.

Very highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

The Rivals of Versailles: Sally Christie Interview

The Rivals of Versailles

 

 

I just finished The Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie (as well as the first book in the Versailles series, The Sisters of Versailles) and I’ve just got to share them with you. My book club is going to love them. Who can resist historical fiction from the “other woman’s” point of view? I literally burned through both books and still feel like I’m sneaking through the secret halls and corridors of Versailles.

 

 

The Rivals of Versailles is about King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour. When I lived in France, I heard a lot about her but never knew her story. I was surprised how much the French knew about her (so American of me — shocked at the lack of French shame about affairs and mistresses).

I enjoyed the book so much I reached out to Sally Christie and she was generous enough to answer my questions.

Margie:  How much time did you spend researching in Versailles, and how did it inform your writing?

Sally: I’ve made two research trips to Versailles and both times spent about a week there, staying in the town of Versailles (the palace is literally in the town). The town is almost as interesting as the palace itself, and dates from the 17th century as well. Many of the high nobles that had apartments in the palace (a sign of great prestige) also had houses in town, for their overflow of servants, clothes and horses.

Those research trips were absolutely critical for capturing the sensory details and imagining how the sisters lived.  Seeing the reality of their lives, standing at the same windows and looking out over the same gardens, walking through the stables and kennels and gardens made imagining the scenes of their lives so much easier.


Margie: If you were a tour guide at Versailles and in charge of an exciting new tour called “The Mistresses of Versailles Tour,” (sign me up!) where would you take us? Can we see any of the back staircases, hallways and little attic apartments in the book?

Sally: That tour already exists! I was fortunate on my first trip to be able to take a backstage tour that took us to the apartments of the Marquise de Pompadour (which were previously Marie Anne de Nesle’s apartment) and then also to the apartment of the Comtesse du Barry (Louis XV’s final mistress and the subject of my third book, The Enemies of Versailles).

Wow – it was simply amazing. The tour is very expensive and before doing it, I was skeptical that it would be worth it, but after I did it – no doubt. It was so fascinating to get out of the magnificent state rooms (which quite frankly I find rather boring and overwhelming) and leave the crowds behind. Take back staircases, walk along narrow corridors, experience the smaller, more intimate apartments and see some of the servants’ cubby holes that give a real sense of the “rats nest” that the majority of the palace was away from the public rooms.

The tour was arranged by the wonderful Deborah Anthony at http://www.frenchtravelboutique.com/

Now what I wish there was is a “Versailles Carte Blanche” tour which would allow you access to EVERYWHERE in the palace. Only such a small portion is open to visitors, and every time I go there I find myself looking longingly at the windows of all the other apartments that are off limits to the public, wondering what’s behind the scenes….

Margie: Where can we see artifacts from the Marquise’s era with Louis XV? I seem to recall seeing some Louis XV antiques with fish decorations on them, and now I wish I had known more at the time. Does the Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre have some?

Sally: Versailles is quite empty of furniture and is only furnished with pieces that can be authentically traced to the palace. The palace administration spends enormous amounts of money to acquire authentic pieces – think millions for a sofa! The Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre has several items of Madame de Pompadour’s, and of course many, many contemporary items from her era – she was hugely influential in the decorative arts and was a keen supporter.

I think it’s really interesting how timeless Pompadour’s 18th century interior design esthetic is. We would feel perfectly at home in it, and it is still a desirable “look” for a house: really the epitome of class, sophistication and elegance. The Musee Cognacq Jay and the Musee Jacquemart Andre are two excellent museums with lots of 18th century furniture and art.  A day trip to the factory at Sevres is fascinating, and it has a great collection of pieces developed under Pompadour’s patronage.  The Biblioteque Nationale has her engraved gem collection – it’s quite impressive and well worth a visit. If you’ve read The Rivals of Versailles, you’ll know the significance of the gem engraving for her and Louis!

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Thank you so much, Sally for the interview! If you’d like to read more and see photos of the places and scenes in the book, be sure to visit Sally’s website, which is a treasure trove of information. Check out her fabulous photos here.

Thank you also to Emma of France Book Tours for arranging this blog tour. Such a treat to read the Rivals of Versailles before it was released. Lucky me!

Sisters of Versailles - Sally Christie

Sally Christie, author of Sisters of Versailles

 

 

Seven Novels Featuring Women Artists

It’s been a wonderful year for historical fiction about female artists! Check out this post by Jeaninne Atkins, the author of Little Woman in Blue.

Views from a Window Seat

Many of us enjoyed crayons or paint as children, but artistic confidence often falls away as we grow. Women who continue to pursue art through high school, college, and grad school find themselves ever-increasingly among male colleagues and instructors. According to the fabulous researchers who go by the name Guerrilla Girls, art made by women makes up less than five percent of the holdings of most major museums and most galleries aren’t much better.

If it’s tough for women artists to find respect now, how did they deal with obstacles decades ago? Using fictional devices to develop scenes rich with dialogue and detail, each of the following novels published in 2015 features a real woman who was well known at the time, then mostly forgotten.

artbooks2

In The House of Hawthorne, we meet Sophia Peabody as a young woman with artistic talent that her mother considered a holy gift she…

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