About americangirlsartclubinparis

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

Vanessa and Her Sister

I just finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2015). And I loved it.


It’s the story of the Stephen siblings of London (Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian) who formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group when they moved into a bohemian Gordon Square neighborhood together in 1904.

Vanessa Stephen is 25 years old at the beginning of the novel, and has already studied art at the Royal Academy School of Art, taking painting instruction from John Singer Sargent. Her younger sister Virginia, also single, is recovering from a bad spell of mental illness after the death of their father and has yet to write her first novel.


This novel has as its heart the story of two intensely intelligent, unconventional and competitive sisters. Virginia is jealous and toxically dependent on Vanessa, and feels threatened by Vanessa’s first successes in art and romance. The two sisters are happiest when Virginia poses for a portrait by Vanessa, which she does often. As Vanessa says in the novel:

I always paint Virginia. I tell myself that it is the lean planes of her beautiful face that draw me, but really, it is her company I seek. . . .

She posed for an hour this evening, until the June light failed, her eyes closed in comfort, and her face settled into her hand in a way it never does when she is in conversation. Her fine hair, a paler brown than mine, was swept back from her elliptical face into a loose knot and lay in the shallow curve of her long neck. She did not speak nor try to break the moment but kept impossibly still. When Virginia knows I am watching her, she does not try to be anywhere else.


Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1912) Virginia Woolf (c. 1912), © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf (1912),  Estate of Vanessa Bell


Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London


























Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf once said that this portrait was "more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.")

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, once said that this portrait was “more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.”)




















Vanessa and Her Sister more than a tale of sibling rivalry and codependence: it’s also about the differences between two forms of art: writing and painting. Priya renews our appreciation for the talent of Vanessa Bell, the lesser known sister, and does a fabulous job exploring and expressing the mind of an artist, which is less accessible than that of a writer. Priya understands that Vanessa feels slighted because their highly literate Bloomsbury crowd seems to prefer words to images. Vanessa broods (p. 66):

Painting does not qualify as work in this family of literati. Work is not work where words are not involved. The unfixed mark of paint alters when it alteration finds. The distribution of colors is a curious sort of hobby to them. A lightweight experiment with insubstantial shade instead of the integrity-bound dimensional shape of letters on a page.

I love how Vanessa (p. 33) explains the mind of a painter:

I think in mass, In color and shape and light and volume and texture. Not in words. Words delicately sewn around an abstract idea leave me feeling large and awkward and with nothing to say. What is the meaning of good? My mind asks “What is the color of good? What size? What light? Where to put the bowl of poppies?”


In 1905, Vanessa experiences the thrill of her first exhibition. A commissioned portrait of her friend Lady Robert Cecil (“Nelly”) is exhibited at the New Gallery in London.

Photograph of VAnessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.

Photograph of Vanessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.















In the novel, Parmar has Vanessa describe the feeling of seeing her own painting on the walls of a gallery for the first time, knowing it has changed her experience of being an artist (p. 29):

We stood in the gallery. Watching people watch the painting. It was exhilarating but mixed with an elusive bittersweet I could not place. Nelly looked lovelier hanging on that wall than she ever did resting on my easel, but she had grown unfamiliar in the weeks since I handed her over to the gallery. It is true that we do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another. I loved being an artist today.


Vanessa expands her circle of artist friends and her view of the art world. Clive Bell, a Cambridge pal of her brother Thoby becomes a frequent visitor to their Gordon Square Thursday Night “At Homes.” Bell is an art critic, and he and Vanessa share their interest in the leading-edge art scene in Paris, including Manet, Cézanne and Picasso. They discuss the recent Durand-Ruel exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, debating whether “it take[s] vision to understand beauty.”

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London (painted at Gordon Square – check out the red slippers!)

Vanessa and Clive will marry in 1907 and head off to Paris, where they spend time with their bohemian British ex-pat friends, including Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. Their artistic newlywed idyll will be interrupted by the birth of their first child Julian within a year of the wedding. Vanessa is blown away by childbirth and her love for the baby. Clive, not so much.

Vanessa Bell, Portrait Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell [Sleeping] (1908)

















The year Julian is born Vanessa learns that Clive and Virginia have become involved in what is (at the very least) an emotional affair. Their betrayal shakes her to her core and leaves her marriage forever altered, but Vanessa is able to turn to her painting for relief.

In 1909, Vanessa finishes what is now known as one of her most famous early paintings: Iceland Poppies

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1909-10)

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1908-9), The Vanessa Bell Estate, The Charleston Trust, Sussex, England.















The painting is chilly and deeply psychological. As Vanessa says in the book:

I am painting well, given all that has happened. I am pleased with my quiet still life and have decided to call it Iceland Poppies. Each time I come back to it, I am surprised at how well I like it: the wintry palette, the antique medicine jar and pale matching bowl, the green glass poison bottle, and the contrasting poppy. Yes, they are right together. Of course, I could fall out of love with it in an afternoon. Rightness can be a transitive thing.

Clive wanted to know if the painting is about Virginia’s suicide attempts. How very obvious of him. He did not see the triplicate nature of the canvas. The three stripes on the wall. The three vessels: two white, one tree. The three flowers flying in the foreground: the two white, turned to the wall, and the one short-stemmed, poppy facing outward and painted in a fresh bolt of red. I alternate. Sometimes I am the white flower and sometimes I am the red.


Vanessa is thrilled when Iceland Poppies is exhibited at The New English Art Club, right alongside John Singer Sargent, Augustus John and Duncan Grant: “So something good has tumbled out of this appalling year.”

In 1910, Clive and Vanessa renew their acquaintance of Roger Fry, famous art critic and former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fry asks Clive to help plan his exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” The show stuns London with the avant-garde art of France, including works Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Derain, Matisse, Van Gogh, Seurat and Picasso. After this exhibit, Vanessa’s view of art expands, her style matures and she becomes more and more liberated from convention.

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

In 1911, the Bells travel to Constantinople with Roger Fry, and Vanessa and Roger spend much of their time painting side by side. Free from the constraints of a conventional marriage any longer, Vanessa allows a romance to commence with Roger.

Roger invites Vanessa to exhibit in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit at Grafton Galleries in 1912, where Vanessa Bell’s painting Nursery Tea will appear in the same room as works by Matisse, Picasso, Braces and Cézanne. Vanessa Bell has become one of Britain’s most noted Post-Impressionists.

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)









Vanessa Bell, Monte Olivet (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Monte Oliveto (1912), Art Gallery of South Australia

Although Vanessa and Her Sister ends here, in 1912, Vanessa will go on to have a long, satisfying career in art. And as we also know, her sister Virginia will have a brilliant writing career, but a tragic life marred by the ups and downs of mental illness. Virginia Woolf will take her own life in 1941. Vanessa survived until 1961, leaving two surviving children, Quentin and Angelica. Her first child Julian would be killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.


Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya  Parmar: Highly Recommended

For Further Reading:

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone


Portrait of a Woman in White

portrait of a owman in whitePortrait of a Woman in White by Susan Winkler is the story of a family of wealthy Jewish art collectors in Paris that begins before World War II. That’s all I need to say, and you can imagine the rest. You already know what tragedy will befall them even if they don’t. We know they will be forced to flee France, or worse, and that their art will be looted.

But it’s what we don’t know that makes us keep turning the page. Who will survive and how? What becomes of the family’s most precious possession, a Matisse portrait of their mother? And finally, what will become of the young lovers who are separated at the border of France and Spain?

By now most of us know about The Monuments Men, the story of how the Nazis systematically looted the art of Paris. We’ve seen the images of Hermann Göring marching into the Jeu de Paume in Paris to claim more trophies for his art collection under the watchful eye of Rose Valland. But to hear the story from the point of view of one young woman, Lili Rosenswig, brings it all to life and makes the tragedy that more real.

First, Lili witnesses her mother posing for Matisse in his studio on Boulevard Montparnasse in a lovely white satin gown. The portrait becomes a prized family possession, and hangs from the wall of the Rosenswig’s salon in a gilded wood frame. As the Rosenswigs prepare to flee France, they hide the Matisse at their relative’s country villa, planning to see it again soon. Instead, the family is betrayed and the portrait is seized by the Nazis along with most of their other valuables, and taken to the Jeu de Paume.

As Winkler explains in the book:

The Jeu de Paume was a serene pavilion set in the northwest corner of the Tuileries Garden, opposite the Louvre, in the center of Paris. Napoleon had built it to house tennis courts, and its high white walls had served most recently as an impressionist museum. But when the Nazis arrived in Paris and began seizing private Jewish collections, the initial storage rooms in the nearby German embassy were soon filled to overflowing. Urgently, four hundred cases of work were moved to the Jeu de Paume, which then became the official repository and sorting center for all the art that the Nazis confiscated in France.


Rose Valland is the lone French member who remained on the staff of the Jeu de Paume after the Germans requisitioned it, and managed to keep a secret record of all of the stolen art that came in and out of the museum.

Jeu de Paume Plaque

The plaque on the side of the Jeu de Paume commemorating Rose Valland’s heroism on behalf of French art. It explains that from the fall of 1940 until the summer of 1944, the building was requisitioned by occupying German forces storing art stolen from the French. Rose Valland took great risks to record the location of the stolen art, which resulted in the restitution of over 45,000 works.


Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946

Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946. Source: Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si/edu

In Winkler’s book, Valland watches as Göring marches into the Jeu de Paume with his entourage of German officers and curators. The Matisse portrait catches Goring’s eye and leaves him breathless. Lili’s mother looks just like Göring’s deceased wife Carin. Göring claims the painting for his personal collection in his hunting estate near Berlin, named Carinhall after his first wife.


Goring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia

Göring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia


The painting has its own journey, just as Lili Rosenswig and her family do. What became of the thousands of pieces artwork that Göring had installed in Carinhall by the war’s end? As bombs fell near Berlin, Göring was loading trucks and trains with his 1,375 paintings, 250 sculptures, 108 tapestries, 75 stained-glass windows and 175 objet’s d’art, sending them to secret locations in various mountain villages, including a mine shaft in Altausee, Austria and Bertchtesgaden in Bavaria.

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

The story of A Woman in White is even more interesting because a very similar art mystery was just resolved earlier this year. A real-life Matisse painting called Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace was the property of Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg, was looted by the Nazis and sold to an unscrupulous French art dealer. A Norwegian art collector bought it in 1950, unaware of its provenance, and proudly installed it in the Onie Onsted Art Museum near Oslo, Norway. In 2012, Rosenberg heirs asserted a claim against the museum, and in March, 2014, after its own investigation, the museum agreed to give the $20 million painting back to its original owners, in accordance with the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, to which Norway is a signatory. To read more, click here.

The road to reunite pre-war owners of Nazi looted art is long and complicated. And so it is for Lili and the Portrait of the Woman in White. Will Lili and her family every see their beloved painting again? You’ll just have to read Susan Winkler’s book to find out.


For further reading:

A previous post reviewing the book Pictures at an Exhibition by Sarah Houghteling












My prior post about The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal



Mary Cassatt’s Chicago Mural

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman Mural (1893)

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman Mural, as photographed in the Women’s Building of the Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893.

In 1892, Mary Cassatt and Mary MacMonnies, both of whom were American artists living in France, were commissioned to paint giant murals for the Chicago World’s Fair. Bertha Palmer, a Chicago philanthropist and wife of the rich and powerful Potter Palmer, had been named the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the fair, and was determined to fill the walls of the Women’s Building with original art by talented women.

Cassatt was not Bertha Palmer’s first choice. Palmer preferred the more traditional style of Elizabeth Gardner, an American painter who lived in Paris with the famous French academic painter William Adolphe Bourguereau. But Gardner turned down the commission, claiming that it would be too physically demanding for her at the age of 55.

Sara Hallowell, an American art dealer who had been appointed Assistant Chief of the Fine Arts Department of the fair, urged Palmer to consider the more modern Cassatt. Although Bertha Palmer was familiar with her work, Cassatt was not well-known in America at the time, despite the fact that she was nearly 50 years old and had been painting for over 30 years.

Cassatt had mixed feelings about the commission, as shared in a letter to her friend Louisiana Havemeyer:

I am going to do a decoration for the Chicago Exhibition. When the committee offered it to me to do, at first I was horrified, but gradually I began to think it would be great fun to do something I had never done before and as the bare idea of such a thing put Degas into a rage and he did not spare every criticism he could think of, I got my spirit up and said I would not give up the idea for anything.


Degas considered “decorations” such as mural work beneath a true artist, but his opposition “got her spirit up” and convinced her to accept the commission. The theme was Modern Woman, which Cassatt would explore with the smoldering feminist point of view of a successful single female at a turning point in history.

Cassatt’s mural was a 58×12 foor triptych that featured women picking fruit, dancing, playing instruments and interestingly, young women chasing a flying nude female figure. Cassatt fully intended all of the underlying feminist symbolism (women picking the forbidden fruit for themselves and passing it on; young women chasing fame, being chased by a gaggle of geese) but the subtext and the modernism of Cassatt’s technique shocked Chicago audiences.

Cassatt received horrible reviews for the work, which disappeared after the fair and has never been found. Some speculate it was destroyed while in storage at the end of the fair, while others hope that it might still be uncovered in the back room of some small midwestern college.


I already knew the story of the mural when I set out to see Chateau Beaufresne, Mary Cassatt’s country home in Le Mesnil-Theribus, feeling a special connection between my hometown of Chicago and France. I also knew that Cassatt didn’t buy Chateau Beaufresne until 1894, so I knew she didn’t paint the mural there. In fact, Cassatt painted the mural at another country home that she rented in nearby Bachivillers, France. I was determined to find it.

Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt's summer home in 1891 and 1892, not far from Le Mesnil-Theribus

Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt’s summer home in 1891 and 1892, not far from Le Mesnil-Theribus


Chateau Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt's rental home north of Paris the summers of 1891 and 1892, the place where she painted the Modern Woman Mural for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

Chateau Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt’s rental home north of Paris during the summers of 1891 and 1892. This is where Cassatt painted the Modern Woman Mural for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

I never would have found the right house were it not for the help of Marianne Caron of the French organization Les Amis de Mary Cassatt. The home is privately owned, and there are no plaques or commemorative signs to identify it. Caron and I drove over from the nearby village of Le Mesnil-Theribus on a narrow little country road surrounded by farmland. Caron confirmed that this would have been the very same road on which Cassatt and her father would have traveled in their horse-drawn carriage. The smell of moist soil rose from the newly tilled fields. It felt like we were a million miles from Paris and decades – if not centuries – back in time.

Caron told me that the current owners of Chateau Bachivillers are aware of the house’s history and have actually hosted a Mary Cassatt lecture in the home, which Caron participated in.

And then I asked her about the trench. I had read that Cassatt built a special outdoor glass-roofed studio at Chateau Bachivillers in order to complete the mural. She had workmen dig a giant 60×6 foot trench into the soil below. This way, Cassatt – who was almost 50 years old – wouldn’t have to climb on ladders to reach the upper portions of the mural. Instead, the workmen would lower the mural into the trench.

I wondered, would remnants of the trench remain all these years?

While I wasn’t able to enter the property and examine the yard for myself, Caron told me the story about the time she did exactly that. When she was there for the Mary Cassatt lecture, she walked out to the side yard (indicating to the left of the home) with another local expert, and they spotted some disruption in the soil. However, something about its location made them skeptical, it being more likely that the studio would have been located to the rear of the chateau where there was no evidence of a trench.

As I stood outside Chateau Bachivillers, I tried to imagine Cassatt’s trusted friends and family arriving to witness Cassatt’s progress on the mural, including Chicago art dealer Sara Hallowell, Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and possibly Cassatt’s friend and neighbor in L’Oise, Camille Pissaro. Cassatt longed for Degas’ advice, but never invited him out to see the mural for fear of his savage opinions.

In the end, Cassatt was paid $3,000 for the mural, which was the same amount that men were paid for their similar murals for the fair. It was enough to compensate Cassatt for her many expenses, including the cost of the models, the workmen, the studio and the trench. Cassatt was able to shake off the criticism of the unsophisticated American audience and continued to work quite happily on new paintings with some of the same models. Just as the Chicago World’s Fair closed, Cassatt’s first major Paris exhibition opened at Durand-Ruel’s gallery, featuring 100 of her paintings.

A talented and independent woman still hitting her stride at the age of 50. In 1894. I’m humbled and inspired. . . .


For further reading: Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt by Sally Webster and Mary Cassatt: A Life by Nancy Matthews

Eve's Daughter








Cassatt A Life, Mathews

Mary Cassatt’s Gravesite

I recently wrote about my trip out to Chateau de Beaufresne, Mary Cassatt’s country home north of Paris in Le Mesnil-Theribus. There, I made the acquaintance of Marianne Caron, local tour guide and Cassatt expert, who took me on a short walk from the chateau to the Cassatt family gravesite.

On the way, we talked about our shared interest in Cassatt and the local stories about Cassatt’s involvement in the community. Cassatt employed many locals as domestic staff, gardeners and models, and thus had very deep connections to the community.

Many of the local women worked in a button factory, and according to local legend, Cassatt intervened on their behalf in a wage dispute and strike against their employer. Cassatt cared so deeply about the local children (many of whom were here little models) that she built them a small schoolhouse and arranged for them to go to public school. On our way to the cemetery, Marianne Caron pointed out the building that once housed the school that Cassatt built.

Rumor has it that Cassatt gave some of her artwork to local friends and supporters as gifts. In fact, she once offered her gardener (whose descendants are known to Marianne Caron) to take his pick of a selection of canvases that were propped up against the wall. He declined and lived to tell his children that he wished he hadn’t.

Once we reached the gravesite, I was struck by the fact that both of Cassatt’s parents were buried here, along with her sister Lydia and her younger brother Robert (“Robbie”). Cassatt truly did consider France her home, and wanted her loved ones nearby. Robbie died of bone cancer in Germany in 1855, and was originally buried in Germany. (I believe Caron told me that Cassatt moved his remains to France after World War I.) Lydia died in 1882 at the age of 45. Robert Cassatt died in 1891, before Mary purchased Chateau de Beaufresne. Mary and her mother lived there together for just one year before her mother passed away in 1895. Ever since 1926, they have all rested peacefully together in Le Mesnil-Theribus.

The cemetery gates of Le Mesnil-theribus

The cemetery gates of Cemetiére Saint Louis in Le Mesnil-Theribus


The sign honoring Mary Cassatt in French and English, donated by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt

The sign honoring Mary Cassatt’s legacy in both French and English, donated by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt


Locals donated this plaque to remember Mary Cassatt and her contribution to the community

Locals donated this plaque to remember Mary Cassatt and her contribution to the community. Le Moulin Vert is the current name of the old Chateau Beaufresne, named after the green water mill on the property.


Mary stevenson Cassatt (1845-1926)

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) – but doesn’t the grave say 1843?


Family Cassatt's grave marker

Family Cassatt’s grave marker

A building in Le Mesnil-Theribus that Cassatt is said to have built as a schoolhouse for the local children

A building in Le Mesnil-Theribus that Cassatt is said to have built as a schoolhouse for the local children. It is located just down the street from the cemetery.


The lovely chemin from the chateau to the cemetery.

The lovely tree-covered chemin from the chateau to the cemetery.



For Further Reading: I Have Always Loved You by Robin Olivera, in which the story begins and ends at Chateau de Beaufresne, as Cassatt is remembering her relationship with Degas.

My Review here: Cassatt and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you

Mary Cassatt’s Chateau de Beaufresne

Mary Cassatt was an American painter who lived in  most of her life in France. If you’re curious about Mary Cassatt’s years in Paris during the 1870s and 80s, and would like to see photos of the different Paris apartments in which she and her family lived, click here for a prior post.

Mary Cassatt in 1907

Mary Cassatt in 1907

But it turns out there is much more to Cassatt’s story than Paris. Cassatt led a long productive life, and spent much of her time in summer homes in the country. In fact, from 1894 until her death in 1926 Cassatt lived in a summer home in Le Mesnil-Theribus, France, a country village north of Paris. Her home was called Chateau de Beaufresne (“Beautiful Ash”) named for the large ash trees that grow in the area. I was lucky enough to visit this beautiful old chateau, which is currently owned by Le Moulin Vert, a group that provides horticultural education for troubled teens.



At the time of my visit, efforts were underway by a group called Les Amis de Mary Cassatt to purchase the chateau and turn it into a museum. I think it’s a spectacular idea. The home and grounds could be as popular as Monet’s in Giverny and the Van Gogh sites in Auvers-sur-Oise. Le Mesnil-Theribus is located about an hour north of Paris on the way to Beauvais, several miles west of A16.

I made arrangements to meet with Marianne Caron, a member of Les Amis de Mary Cassatt, who shared with me many local legends and stories of fellow villagers whose ancestors had known Cassatt. She was a wealth of information.


Chateau de Beaufresne, Le Mesnil-Theribus, France. Currently home to Le Moulin Vert, a horticultural program for troubled teens.

In 1893, Mary Cassatt learned that Chateau Beaufresne was for sale. She had been renting another beautiful country home in nearby Bachivillers during the summers of 1891 and 1892, when the owner told her he wouldn’t be renting it out anymore. Cassatt was determined to stay in the area, and made the impulsive decision to buy the Chateau Beaufresne, despite the fact that it needed many repairs.

Chateau Beaufresne (source: http://cassatt.eu)

Chateau Beaufresne (source: http://cassatt.eu)









The back of Chateau Beaufresne, then.

The back of Chateau Beaufresne, then.

Cassatt spent most of the summer of 1894 renovating the old chateau. In a letter to  Paul Durand-Ruel, she expressed her frustration and told him she intended to sell the house, that it was just too much trouble:

We are finally settled here and, even before we came, I had had enough of my role as landlord; I have given nearly three months of my time and I know that I still have a part of the summer to devote to giving orders, and I ask myself when will I find the time to do a bit of painting! Madame Aude [Durand-Ruel’s daughter and Cassatt’s neighbor in the Chaumont-en-Vexin area] knows the landowners of Trie, would she be so kind as to tell them I am putting Mesnil-Beaufresne up for sale?

The house is very good, very sound. I had water &c put in, Indeed I cannot say that everything is not well, but I do not want to give any more orders to workmen, who don’t follow them anyway.

. . .

What I want is the freedom to work. My mother is no longer of the age or the strength to concern herself with the outdoors, and I don’t have the interest.

My brothers will surely laugh at me, but I won’t say anything until I have sold it and won back my freedom. Certainly it is the best thing in the world.

I am completely fed up with the trouble I had to get a bit of work done (Mary Cassatt to Paul Durand-Ruel, Summer 1894).


What emerges so strongly from that letter is Cassatt’s burning desire to get back to work on her painting. Doesn’t she sound like a 21st century woman, frustrated with all of the distractions and obstacles that stand in the way of our freedom? In any event, Cassatt changed her mind about selling the house. Soon she is working away at her painting and pastels. In another letter to Durand-Ruel, Cassatt says:

I am now settled here for the summer and working hard. I hope to submit to you some pastels before long; if I were a landscape painter, I would [have] no trouble in seeking beautiful subjects – The country looks lovely not withstanding the drought – . . . (Mary Cassatt to Paul Durand-Ruel, May 19, 1896).


Indeed, the property is very lovely, and would be the ideal setting for a landscape painter.

The back of Chateau Beaufresne,  (2014)

The back of Chateau Beaufresne (2014)

The view of Chateau Beaufresne from the back of the property, across a lovely little lilly pond.

The view of Chateau Beaufresne from the back of the property, across a lovely little pond full of cat tails and lily pads.



The grounds of the chateau including a brook and acres of weeping willow and pond vegetation.

The grounds of the chateau include a brook and acres of weeping willows and pond vegetation. It was hard to get the lighting right for a photograph, but it would have been a picturesque place to set up an easel for some plein air painting.






At the back of the property there still stands the small building that Cassatt used as her printing studio. She used the mill to provide electricity, and strung electrical lines to the very back of the property. She would spend as much as 8 hours a day in her little printing shed.

At the back of the property there still stands the small mill that Cassatt used as her printing studio. She would spend as much as 8 hours a day working here.


The back entrance to the chateau

The back entrance to the chateau


The sunny room at the back of the chateau that was known as the gallery. It is supposedly where Cassatt used to paint. Imagine that.

The sunny room at the back of the chateau that was known as the gallery. It is supposedly where Cassatt used to paint. Imagine that.


A framed photo on display in the chateau shows a car parked outside the back door in front of the gallery.

A framed photo on display in the chateau shows a car and a donkey cart parked outside the back door in front of the gallery. Note the window treatments that Cassatt used to control the amount of light entering her gallery.


A view of an interior room of the chateau with curved walls and a fireplace.

A view of an interior room of the chateau with curved walls and a fireplace. Various old photographs of Mary Cassatt are displayed on the walls. The room is currently used for meetings and conferences.


The main stairwell of the chateau

The main stairwell of the chateau


An exterior spiral stairway around the back of one of the chateau's two turrets.

An exterior spiral stairway around the back of one of the chateau’s two turrets.


A commemorative plaque that has been placed along a walk leading from the parking lot up to the front entrance of the chateau.

A commemorative plaque that has been placed along a walk leading from the parking lot up to the front entrance of the chateau.


This sign appears at the entrance of the chateau, placed there by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt.

This sign appears at the entrance of the chateau, placed there by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt.


Chateau de Beaufresne is now located on rue Mary Cassatt.

Chateau de Beaufresne is now located on rue Mary Cassatt.

After Cassatt’s death in 1926, Cassatt’s niece Ellen Mary Cassatt Hare (daughter of Cassatt’s brother Joseph) and her family continued to use the home for summer visits from Pennsylvania, and they continued to employ a small staff to tend to the home in their absence. At sometime toward the end of World War II, General DeGaulle spent one night at the chateau on his way from London to Paris (Encyclopedia Picardie). The chateau fell into disrepair and in 1961 was donated to Le Moulin Vert, a social service agency of L’Oise region.

Ever since my visit to the chateau, I have enjoyed checking out Cassatt’s paintings to detect a hint of the chateau or its grounds in her work. Check out the beautiful window scene in the background of this one, Children Playing with a Dog (1907). Perhaps?

Cassatt, Children Playing with a Dog (1907)

Cassatt, Children Playing with a Dog (1907)


















For further reading: Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, ed. Nancy Mowll Mathews

cassatt letters


Flirting with French

flirting with french

I just fell in love with a new book: Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander (Algonquin US paperback 2014). People might raise an eyebrow when I say that a book about learning French is hilarious, but it really is text-your-friends-and-family-funny-quotes-from-the-book funny. I’m spreading the word with all of my friends in my Alliance Française classes. They’re going to love it.

William Alexander is a middle-aged American guy, who like so many of us, has a giant crush on France. He hopes to (finally) learn French, even though he is well aware that at age 57, he is on the downward slope of the cognitive and learning curve. He tells us his story with a light and snarky humility, laughing at himself so we can too. Over the course of a year, we follow Alexander as he blunders alongs on his learning challenge, only to find him facing an even greater health challenge. Through it all, Alexander’s love of France and his enthusiasm for accomplishing an elusive goal will charm and seduce you too.

So for my fellow Francophone-wannabes out there who are tormented by their own efforts to (finally) learn French, here are some delightful tidbits from the book.

The French . . . always tangle up everything to that degree that when you start into a sentence you never know whether you are going to come out alive or not.” –Mark Twain

Because it is female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine.” –David Sedaris

” ‘Je suis a stranger here,’ I said in flawless French. ‘Je veux aller to le best hotel dans le town.’ ” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Alexander has delightful three-page rant about the way the French count past sixty. Finally! Someone who shares my frustration! How many times have I tried to explain to my French teachers how silly it is that the number eighty in French is “four-twenty.” They say, “it’s just the number for eighty.” And I say, “No, it’s multiplication!” And then they look at me like I’m the crazy one. Not Alexander. He’s on our side.

And then. And then! A whole chapter on gendered nouns. Thank you! Here’s a fun list that demonstrates just how nonsensical the whole system is: a vagina and a woman’s breast are both masculine, while a beard, a screw and a necktie are all feminine. Hens are females, roosters male, and chickens (as David Sedaris knows well) are male. Alexander traces the history of gendered nouns, explaining how they came to be abandoned in the English language (the only one of the entire Indo-European family of languages to do so, believe it or not.) Apparently, we have the English peasants to thank: “Life was too short and too hard for a peasant to worry about how to address the bloody cow.

I’ve always been curious about those Immersion French programs you read about in the back of French magazines, and Alexander actually went to one. He went for two intense weeks at Millefeuille Provence, a bain linguistic (linguistic bath) in southern France. His conclusion? “The immersion approach is assumed by everyone in the field to be the best way to learn a language, and it probably is, but there’s a fine line between immersion and drowning.” So maybe that’s not the panacea for our French language acquisition either!

Every French student will be able to relate to Alexander when he describes his self-consciousness speaking French to a Frenchman. As Alexander says:

The real problem for Americans and Brits, according to some linguists, is that the phonemes of French, with its rolled r’s and nasal intonations, sound so silly to us that when we pronounce them properly we feel like we’re doing an Inspector Clouseau parody, so we shy away from the correct pronunciation.

I know exactly what he means. I call it the “A-hole American Tourist” syndrome, when we come back to the States and try to keep using our hard-won French accents, calling Paris “Paree” and the croissants “cwahssahn” — until our friends and family all roll their eyeballs and beg us to stop. Pas plus!

But still, against the odds, despite the frustration, and in the face of linguists who insist it is just not possible (c’est impossible!) to become fluent in another language post-childhood, we keep learning and trying and practicing our French. And thanks to William Alexander, we are not alone. And we’re laughing along the way. Pas mal, pas mal.


Flirting With French: Highly recommended


For Further Reading: (Only kidding a little bit. Don’t know what I’d do without it.)












–The American Girls Club in Paris, by Margie White

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val: The Hundred-Foot Journey Village

Make Your Own Hundred-Foot Journey



It’s impossible to see the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey and not fall in love with the scenery. It’s as enticing as a vintage French travel poster.

On a recent trip to Bordeaux, I realized I’d only be a three-hour drive away from the village where the movie was filmed, and because I had an extra day on my calendar, I said why not?

And that’s how I find myself in the beautiful medieval village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the Tarn-et-Garonne, along the banks of L’Aveyron.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val isn’t all that easy to get to (click here for a map), depending where you’re starting from. It’s probably the easiest to reach from Toulouse, but you can also find your way from Bordeaux like we did. Just build an extra day into your itinerary if you can. It’s worth it.

As we drove toward the village from Cahors, down the D958, we suddenly found ourselves in a spectacular little valley surrounded by limestone cliffs and wooded hills that swept down to the Aveyron River. You come around a bend and there it is – you know it from the panoramic shots in the movie. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.


Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, still beautiful in fading sunlight.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, still beautiful in fading sunlight.


We found parking just outside the city center (which with its narrow medieval streets is pedestrian only) and wandered into the middle of town where we easily found the Tourist Office at 10 rue de la Pelisserie. They just happened to have the most marvelous movie-site map of all the film locations throughout the village.


With the handy-dandy map in our hands, we started with the “cute-meet” accident scene at the beginning of the movie where Hassan’s (Manish Dayal’s) family crashes to a halt on a country road outside of town and meets Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). The tourist center map told us it was along Côte de la Rodanèze, so we drove along the road until we found the only uphill driveway. Guessing we were in the right place, we staged our own cheesy reenactment of brake failure. (I wonder, how many visitors have been doing the very same thing, most likely annoying the locals?)


Next came the Place de la Halle at the center of town with the distinctive covered market and cafés. We stopped for a glass of rosé and looked around, wondering if the village mayor was at a table nearby, patiently listening to the citizens’ complaints. This is where Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) and Papa (Om Puri) came to bend the mayor’s ear with their complaints about each other’s restaurants.

Place de la Halle, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Place de la Halle, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val


Café in the center of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Café in the center of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Up next was the street where Marguerite lived and where Hassan came courting. The map told us that was filmed on rue Darasse.





We were left to wonder: which one is the Romeo and Juliet window?




Then it was a short walk across town, past the Mairie and over to the Quartier des Tanneries. This was the area where Marguerite and Hassan took a walk upon his return to the village. This quarter was once home to tanneries, flour mills and and thriving drapery business.





We continued to stroll through the charming little streets until we stumbled upon the local theater, Le Querlys at 14 bd des Thermes. which has daily showings of Les Récettes du Bonheur (the French title for The Hundred-Foot Journey.) If only we had known, we might have built it into our itinerary, but instead, we decided to leave town to reach our hotel near Cahors before dark. You might want to check Le Querlys website to see if the film is still showing when you make your own visit. How fun to see it in French in the very town in which it was filmed.





And because readers of this blog know that the book is always better than the movie (amiright or amiright?) I can’t leave without reminding everyone that this movie was based on the book, The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais. Before the movie came out and it was subjected to the movie-cover treatment, the book had this even more beautiful cover.

hundred-foot journey











Interesting to note: author Richard Morais is an American who was raised in Switzerland and who lived most of his life overseas. He currently resides in New York and is also the author of  Buddhaland Brooklyn.

buddhaland brooklyn











Finally, one more fun fact I stumbled upon as I put this post together?  You can follow @the100ftjourney on Twitter for behind-the-scenes photos and recipes.

Seven Letters From Paris

seven letters from paris

Who doesn’t wonder about a long-lost love? Especially when life has got you down, and you’re wondering where and how your life took such a wrong turn. . . .

You pull out some old love letters, and you wonder: will they make me cringe, or was he really the dreamboat I thought he was?

And then. . . because we can, we Google him.

This is how Samantha Vérant‘s incredibly romantic Seven Letters from Paris (Sourcebooks, October 2014) begins.


Five years later, and Samantha is married (after a fairytale wedding in California) and living with her adorable Jean-Luc and his two children in southern France. She’s still stumbling over her French conjugations (who isn’t?) and coming into her own as a writer, wife and stepmom. It’s tailor-made for a romantic comedy starring, oh, who knows, Reese Witherspoon? Julia Roberts? Just saying.

Samantha and I had big plans to meet up in southern France in September. I was eager to meet somebody who felt like my younger, crazier little sister. After all, I felt like I knew her after I just finished her memoir. I even stole some slippers from my hotel to give her and Jean-Luc as a belated wedding gift!

But toward the end of an entire month in France, you can lose track of what day it is (hmmm, too many wine tastings?). Samantha and I missed our planned connection in Montauban, but that didn’t stop us from sharing a happy hour together on Google Hang-Out after I trained back to Paris. I had a good bottle of Bordeaux to finish before I had to return to Chicago, but thanks to Samantha, I didn’t have to drink alone!

I’m here to tell you that Samantha is the real deal. She’s funny and honest and brave, just like in the book. She’d be a great author for your book club to Skype with, if you can figure out the time difference!

So for all those book clubs out there looking for a really fun conversation starter: pick Seven Letters From Paris for your next book club, and trust me, you’ll have late-into-the-night chats about your own long-lost loves. (Hmmm, whatever happened to that French-Canadian firefighter you met on a ski trip in college?)

I’m happily married, but what the heck. Maybe even I’ll start Googling. . . .


Seven Letters From Paris: Highly recommended



Madame Picasso in Paris

madame picasso

I heard about Anne Girard’s new novel Madame Picasso (Mira Books, August 2014) and made sure it was packed in my carry-on bag when I boarded my recent plane to Paris. The cover is gorgeous and the book is that luxurious kind of trade paperback that feels soft and good in your hands.

Madame Picasso is the story of Pablo Picasso’s love affair with Eva Gouel from 1911 until her tragic death in 1915. Picasso had many other lovers, muses and wives over the course of his long life (1881-1973), but Eva Gouel can show us a side of the young Picasso we might never have known.



I began marking up the pages and taking notes of all the scenes from the book, eager to walk in Pablo and Eva’s footsteps through Paris. It’s a walk that will take you from one end of Paris to the other, from the top of Montmartre all the way across the Seine to the center of Montparnasse. I walked it all on a beautiful fall day in September. When I was done, I was exhausted, inspired and very thirsty.

Madame Picasso begins at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Eva Gouel arrives from her family’s home in the outskirts of Paris and is lucky and talented enough to get a job as a seamstress. Eva is well on her way to becoming a costume designer, but fate interrupts. Pablo Picasso comes to the Moulin Rouge one night and notices the pretty girl working behind the scenes.

The Moulin Rouge in Paris where Eva first meets Picasso

When Picasso and Eva first meet, he is already involved with his long-term mistress Fernande Olivier. He has a studio in the run-down Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartrre. The studios got their famous nickname from the artist Max Jacob, who thought they were so rickety that they rocked like a houseboat on the Seine. Once Picasso had some success, he moved out, but still kept a studio there to keep up with his artist friends and have a little privacy with his models.

There is a little piece left of Bateau-Lavoir that you can still see today. It’s located near the top of Montmartre in place Goudreau.

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located at  No. 13 rue Ravignan at Place Emile Goudeau. A fire destroyed most of the building in the 1970s, leaving only the façade.


Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre

Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre. Eva and Pablo spend their first night together here after meeting at the Moulin Rouge. Here’s a passage from the book: “Picasso squeezed Eva’s hand when they finally arrived at the ramshackle building in the center of a sloping square, lush with rustling chestnut trees. She knew this shabby old place, with its sagging roof of filthy glass skylights, was a haven to impoverished painters, models and thieves.”


The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir

The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir tells the story of the old piano factory that was turned into art studios in 1889. This was where Picasso spent the end of his blue period, as well as his rose period with his lover Fernande.


rue Ravignan is a lovely spot near the top of the hill of Montmartre.

rue Ravignan is now a lovely little street near the top of the hill of Montmartre.



Place Emile Goudeau from below the steps, in front of La Relais de la Butte, a great place to catch a café or a beer in the sun.

Picasso had been living in Paris since 1901, and by 1911, he was sufficiently on the rise that he and his lover Fernande Olivier could afford a nice apartment on avenue Clichy. To get there from the Bateau-Lavoir, all you have to do is keep walking down the butte of Montmartre, across the bridge that spans over the Montmartre Cemetery, down to place de Clichy and past the Blanche Métro stop. It’s now a bustling, somewhat seedy area, but back in their day, it was considered very nice.

11 boulevard de Clichy, the upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier when he met Eva.

11 boulevard de Clichy, which was then an upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier. In the novel, Fernande says to Eva: “It’s such a grand place we’ve got now. . . . Did you know Pablo rented me an apartment on the boulevard de Clichy? Everyone who is anyone lives there.”


Picasso lives near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge and the

In 1911, Picasso lived near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge where he met Eva.

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment/studio,

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment he shared with Fernande Olivier.

In the novel, a mutual friend introduces Eva Gouel to Fernande Olivier at the Dome in Montparnasse. To Eva’s surprise, Fernande calls herself “Madame Picasso” although Picasso and Fernande are not married. Eva is drawn into Fernande’s social circle and tries to avoid a love triangle with Picasso. But of course she can’t.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier. “The Dome was the best of the four cafés on the corner of the bustling boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. It was shaded by an elegant bower of horse chestnut trees and had a butter-yellow awning, Le Dome was a lively spot, harboring a tangle of closely packed tables with chairs spilling out onto the sidewalk. All of it was full of such life, young Parisians chattering endlessly about politics, art and literature.”

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verde du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verre du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

Eva, Picasso and Fernande meet again at Gertrude Stein’s Saturday night salon at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank. Eva and Picasso find that their initial attraction is undeniable, despite his relationship with Fernande. They make plans to meet again.

Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse. There is a plaque that says, “Gertrude Stein lived here with her brother Leo Stein, then with Alice B. Toklas, she received there a number of artists and writers from 1903 to 1938.”


Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It's just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It’s just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.


The attraction between Eva and Picasso deepens, but Eva is shocked when Picasso is arrested in connection with the theft of the Mona Lisa. This set of events presents a nice little historical touchpoint for the story. Most people have heard about the shocking theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, but to see unfold from Eva’s point of view is really interesting. Picasso is eventually cleared of the charges and Eva surrenders to his persistent charms.

Le Petit Parisen - La Jaconde

What follows are beautiful scenes in which Picasso paints Eva in his Bateau-Lavoir studio. Anne Girard imagines the chemistry and energy that buzzed through Picasso’s studio, and bring this famous cubist painting of Eva (“Ma Jolie”) to life.

Pablo Picasso, "Ma Jolie" (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso, “Ma Jolie” (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Eva and Pablo spend a golden summer together in the south of France. They stop in Cérete where Pablo meets up with Geroges Braque, and paints side-by-side with him in a large borrowed villa. Then Eva and Pablo move on to Avignon, where they run into Henri Matisse and his wife Amélie. They finally find a quiet villa in Sourges, where they spend the rest of their summer in inspired seclusion.

Eva and Pablo return to Paris as a committed couple and live at 242 boulevard Raspail. Eventually Eva finds them a beautiful well-lighted studio apartment at 5 rue Schoelcher, directly across from the Montparnasse Cemetery, where they lived from 1913 to 1915.



The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva's apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.

The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva’s apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.


Picasso and Eva's home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris

Picasso and Eva’s home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris. The most beautiful building on the block, still.


A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16. I can almost see what Eva saw in him. . . .

A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16.

Of course, everyone knows that Eva only survived until 1915. Picasso could barely step foot in the rue Schoelcher studio again.

It was hard to leave Eva behind, but I couldn’t finish my Madame Picasso Walk through Paris unless I stopped at what might be Picasso’s most famous studio on rue Des Grand Augustins in the 6th arrondissement. It was where Picasso lived from 1936 to 1955, and where painted he Guernica in 1937.

IMG_9207 IMG_9208



After a long day walking the streets of Paris in Eva and Pablo’s shoes, you are no doubt in need of liquid reinforcement at a sidewalk café. I recommend you stop in for a glass of wine at Café La Palette on rue de Seine in the 6th, not too far away from Picasso’s studio on rue des Grand Augustins. In fact, the café boasts that Picasso used to frequent there back in the day.

And while you’re there, you can think of Picasso and Cézanne and Braque and all the other artists who drank there, but also? Make a toast to Eva, and to Anne Girard, for bringing Eva out of the shadows of history.


La Palette, rue de Seine, Paris

Café La Palette, at the corner of rue de Seine and rue Jacques-Callot, Paris


Madame Picasso by Anne Girard: Highly recommended

For Further Reading: Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

vanished smile by RA SCOTTI












The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Autobiography of Alice B. toklas