Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

You really shouldn’t miss this multiple biography of six flappers from the 1920s (Josephine Baker, Talulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka).

flappers

Each woman’s story is equally fascinating. Author Judith Mackrell gives us all the scoop, including tales of booze, drugs, adultery, abortions, bisexuality and more. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to pour a martini and put on some jazz. I’m already picturing a Flapper theme party for my book club.

But this book is more than a dishy exposé. Mackrell understands that the flappers represented much more than a new sense of 1920s style and glamour. The flappers were at the vanguard of an attempt to redefine 20th century womanhood. Their personal failures and challenges, viewed together and in full historical context, teach us that the history of the woman’s movement is truly a story of fits-and-starts, a seesaw of hard-fought change and regression. No generation of women illustrate this better than the flappers.

And of course, like most interesting stories about women in the late 19th and early 20th century, the story of the flappers takes you to Paris, where they became dancers, actresses, writers or painters. They frequented the nightclubs and cafés of Paris, including Bricktops, the Dome and the Rotunde, as well as the salons of famous women, such as Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney.

Most interesting to me was the story of Tamara de Lempicka, the iconic art deco painter whose self-portrait appears on the cover of the book. (Have you read The Last Nude by Ellis Avery? It’s a terrific novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models.) You can enjoy my two-part Last Nude Literary Tour here and here.

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka arrived in Paris in 1918 as a Russian refugee. She came to Paris after losing everything in the Russian revolution and reinvented herself as a professional painter.

Lempicka took only a year of formal instruction from Maurice Denis at the Académie Ransom at 7 rue Joseph Bara in the 6th arrondissement, just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs. Like most art students, she took her sketchbook to the Louvre in the afternoons. At first she rejected the modernist style of Cézanne, Picasso and the Dadaists, preferring the Renaissance masters. But soon she was drawn into the style of cubist André L’hote, an instructor at the Académie Notre Dame des Champs and later at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière. Lempicka studied with L’hote privately for a few months, long enough to absorb his powerful and charismatic portrait style. By 1922, after less than two years of study, Lempicka had three works accepted in the Salon d’Automne in Paris. By 1925, Lempicka had a solo show in Milan organized by Count Emanuele di Castelbarco.

Interestingly, from 1922-1924, Lempicka presented herself as a man in the catalogs for  the Paris exhibitions. She was listed as “LEMPITZKY (Tamara de) Born in Warsaw, Polish (French masculine form)” [delempicka.org].

Lempicka promoted herself with a ferocious sense of ambition, understanding that commercially lucrative portrait commissions would come as much from her talent as her own personal style and connections. She lived a chic and erotic bisexual life, which is exactly what she conveyed in her portraits.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of  La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

 

Judith Mackrell follows Lempicka’s rise through the 1920s and and her subsequent fall in the 1930s. As Mackrell explains:

[T]he forces of fashion and history that had swept her to eminence were changing course in the early 1930s, and while she was still much talked about in public, in private she felt that she had failed to catch the pulse of the new decade.

 

The rising political tensions in Europe, a new wave of modern art, Lempicka’s dated sense of glamour and lack of youth all combined to Lempicka’s decline after 1935. She remarried and moved to America, where she had a difficult time marketing herself as well as she had in the Paris of the 1920s. She tried living in Beverly Hills, then the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and finally Houston, where her daughter Kizette had settled with her husband and two daughters. Lempicka found Houston “uncivilized” and mundane.

After Lempicka’s bold life in Paris in the 1920s, can you blame her?

 

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell: Highly recommended

 

For Further Reading:

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (A novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models)

Covers-The-Last-Nude-US-334x491

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camille Claudel: Rodin’s Lover

rodins loverI’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Heather Webb’s new book  Rodin’s Lover, the story of Camille Claudel, one of Auguste Rodin’s most promising students.

I first learned about her art and her tumultuous love affair with Auguste Rodin when a friend recommended that I read Naked Came I by David Weiss (1970).

But then, during my year in Paris, I got to frequent the Musée Rodin, where I could see her work with my own eyes. Haven’t been? You gotta go, although I’m not sure which, if any, of Claudel’s works are on display since the extensive museum renovations. Check the website before you go.

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Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

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The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There's even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There’s even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when in 1908, Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms to be used as studios. He shared the space with other artists, including Matisse, Isadora Duncan and By 1911, Rodin had taken over the entire building. (Source: Musée Rodin exhibit)

At the time of my visit, Camille Claudel’s work was on display in one of the upstairs rooms of the museum. I would hope and fully expect that her work will return as soon as renovations are complete. The fact that her work is displayed alongside his is itself remarkable. After her love affair with Rodin came to an end (it ended badly – just read Webb’s book) Camille Claudel suffered from financial, professional and mental health issues. Her father supported her, but after his death in 1913, her mother and her brother Paul had her institutionalized, first in Ville-Évrard in Neuilly-sur-Marne, and then, from 1914 until her death in 1943, in the Montdevergues Asylum, at Montfavet near Avignon. Her family rarely visited and refused to bring her home despite the recommendations of the treating physicians.

Before his death in 1917, Rodin continued to provide some financial and artistic support to Claudel, agreeing to reserve exhibition space for Claudel’s works when Hotel Biron was being turned into the Musée Rodin. In 1952, Claudel’s brother Paul finally donated four major works by his sister to the museum. The museum continues to acquire her available works, recently acquiring Young Girl with a Sheaf. Its website features an educational background file on the relationship between Rodin and Claudel, with photos of her best-known sculptures.

Camille Claudel’s sculpture reveals astonishing talent and emotion. Rodin’s influence is unmistakeable in her early work, less so in her later, smaller work.

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin (Bronze, 1892), Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. This is a partial view of the sculpture, featuring a pleading woman, often said to be Camille begging for Rodin, who is being torn away by his long-time companion Rose. Claudel herself would reject such an autobiographical interpretation, and instead claim that it is intended to symbolize the grass of youth versus age.

Camille Claudel, The Wave

Camille Claudel, The Wave (1897), Onyx and bronze. Musée Rodin, purchased in 1995.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), plaster. Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916. Note Claude’s signature in the lower left corner.

And if this small sampling of Claudel’s work isn’t enough for you, there’s more on the way.  In March, 2017, a new Musée Camille Claudel will be opening in Nogent-Sur-Seine, the a small town southeast of Paris where the Claudel family lived when Camille was young.  Over 77 pieces of Claudel’s art will be on display, thanks to a large 2008 acquisition by Reine-Marie Paris, the granddaughter of Paul Claudel. Here is a link to a video from French television about the plans for the museum. Finally, here is a link to the website of Reine-Marie Paris which includes photographs of even more of Camille Claudel’s sculptures.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

I can’t wait to hear more about the completion of the new museum. It will definitely be worth a drive out to the countryside southeast of Paris.

In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with Heather Webb’s new book, which breathes life into the passionate, turbulent life of Camille Claudel. Book clubs will find much to discuss, above and beyond the historical interest in a female artist of the late 19th century.

For instance, what do you think drove Camille Claudel to mental illness, if that’s what it was? Was she paranoid about Rodin, or did he really manipulate and compete with her? Which injured her more, the lack of support from her mother and her brother Paul, or a sexist society that made success in the arts so extraordinarily difficult for women? Would Camille Claudel have been better off if she’d never entangled herself with Rodin? Finally, do you see any parallels between Camille Claudel’s struggles and those of 20th and 21st century women?

I’m definitely recommending it to my own book club. Bring some wine!

Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb: Highly Recommended.  

For further enjoyment: Don’t miss the 1988 Oscar-nominated film, Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

camille claudel 1988 movie

Vanessa and Her Sister

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

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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

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

hareambereyes1

 

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.

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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

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

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.

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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.

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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

Lee Miller: The Beautiful American

The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin 

Beautiful American Jeanne MAckin

Jeanne Mackin‘s new historical novel (NAL 2014) offers us a captivating story of love, friendship and betrayal during the heady days of 1920s Paris, based in part on the true story of the famous American model and photographer Lee Miller and her lover, the celebrated French photographer Man Ray.

The story is told by a fictional character, Nora Tours, who grew up with Lee Miller in Poughkeepsie, New York. They meet again in Paris, and Nora tells us the whole madly tragic story. And much of it is true.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Lee Miller, but chances are you don’t know her whole story. All I really knew about her before I read the book was that somehow, she was  not only the iconic 1920s face on the cover of Vogue Magazine, but also, the famous female combat photographer who was photographed in Hitler’s bathtub.

Who wouldn’t want to read more about a woman like that?

Her story begins, of all places, in the town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Lee and Nora are acquaintances but only because Nora’s father is the Miller family gardener. Lee endures a devastating childhood event and Nora knows her secret.

Lee moves to New York where she is discovered by Condé Nast (he actually saved her from stepping into the path of a truck on a busy city street). Miller becomes a famous model and her face becomes the iconic image of 1920s beauty.

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In fact, this image is so iconic, I spotted it just yesterday at a Brocantes Fair on rue Cler just the other day:

An image of Lee Miller at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

A copy of  Lee Miller’s famous Vogue cover at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

Lee Miller flees to Paris, as so many Americans did in the 20s, and brazenly introduces herself to the famous photographer Man Ray. The embark on an intense love affair and creative partnership. In the meantime, Nora and her boyfriend, an amateur photographer, are also lured to Paris, which by that time had become “the center of gravity” in the art world.

The two couples – Lee and Man, Nora and Jamie – meet at the Jockey Club on rue Rabelais, and Mackin captures the moment nicely:

A moment, frozen in my memory like a photograph: a winter night on rue Rabelais outside the Jockey Club, where two girls from Poughkeepsie bumped into each other, each clinging to her beau’s arm; the four of us in the falling snow, music from the club wafting out with the smell of tobacco, perfume, whiskey; each of us looking in a different direction . . . .

 

From there, the story goes on, advancing through the magical years of Lee Miller’s partnership with Man Ray, their glamorous life in Paris alongside such legends as Pablo and Olga Picasso, to Lee and Man’s tortured break-up, and finally, into Lee Miller’s own career as a professional photographer.

Nora suffers a devastating betrayal and escapes on her own, without Jamie, to southern France. Nora comes into her own as she pursues an interesting career in the perfume industry and she waits out World War II . Lee Miller becomes famous as a female World War II photographer.

The Beautiful American is a well-crafted novel, a pleasure to read and hard to put down. Nora Tours might be make-believe, but she feels just as real and interesting as the real-life characters, in fact, maybe even more so. Lee Miller is a difficult subject. She was brave and daring but also heartless and damaged. But good Nora? She suffers and she endures an unbearable loss. In the end – with the surprising help from her old friend Lee Miller, whose horrible secret Nora never reveals, Nora prevails.

And who wouldn’t want to read about a woman like that?

 

The Beautiful American Literary Tour of Montparnasse:

rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.

Rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.

 

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A look down Rue Boissonade and possibly, the convent that Nora and Jamie live near in The Beautiful American.

 

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Hotel Istria, 29 rue Campagne Premiere, a famous haunt of the Surrealists. Man Ray’s studio was next door, but he was known to rent a room in the hotel so he could have more privacy with his mistress Kiki of Montparnasse. Kiki would leave Man Ray and Lee Miller took up with him a year later.

 

The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as DuChamp, Man Ray and Kiki of Montparnasse.

The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as Marcel DuChamp, Man Ray,  Kiki of Montparnasse and Rainer Maria Rilke.

 

30 rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray's home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of the building is still beautiful after all these years.

31 bis rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray’s home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of this distinctive looking building is still beautiful after all these years. It was designed by André Arfvidson in 1911 and featured ceramic tiles by Alexandre Bigot.

 

The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.

The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.

 

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The Passage d'Enfer (Hell's Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. Here you can see the back side of Man Ray's home and studio.

The Passage d’Enfer (Hell’s Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. From here you can see the back side of Man Ray’s home and studio.

 

Man Ray's gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn't seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It's right in the middle of Section 7.

Man Ray’s gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn’t seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It’s right in the middle of Section 7.

"Unconcerned but not indifferent."

“Unconcerned but not indifferent.”

 

The Beautiful American by Jeane Mackin: Highly recommended

 

For Further Reading:

You should really go to the Lee Miller Archives, a site maintained by her son Antony Penrose. That’s where you can see many of Lee Miller’s original photographs, which are all subject to strict copyright. That’s where you can find the photo of Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, photos of Pablo Picasso, as well as her wartime photographs.

Also recommended: The Golden Moments of Paris by John Baxter, which contains an excellent Montparnasse Walk and Map at the end of the book.

9780984633470

 

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

A Wartime Art Story in Paris and Roussillion 

Susan Vreeland‘s historical fiction will always appeal to me, ever since an artist friend first handed me a dog-eared copy of Girl In Hyacinth Blue way back in 1999. Since then Vreeland has written quite a few art history novels, including Luncheon of the Boating Party (read about my literary day trip here), Clara and Mr. Tiffany, The Forest Lover, Life Studies and The Passion of Artemesia. I’m such a Vreeland fan, the only one I haven’t read is Life Studies. Better get on that. . . .

lisett'es listAnyway, Vreeland’s latest is called Lisette’s List (available August 26, 2014 in the US) and is everything what we have come to expect from her. It is yet another lovely art history novel, this time set in Paris and Roussillion, a quaint hilltop village in the Luberon area of France.

Much of the book takes place during and after World War II, when Lisette’s husband decides to hide his family’s valuable paintings rather than let them fall into the hands of the occupying Germans forces. The catch is, Lisette’s husband doesn’t tell her where he hid them, worried that she would be coerced into giving them up while he is off at war.

Lisette Roux’s story begins at a Catholic convent in Paris, La Maison des Filles de la Charité de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul on rue de Bac, where Sister Marie Pierre teaches Lisette enough to instill a lifetime passion for art. Lisette dreams of the day when she could work in an art gallery in Paris, the center of the art world. In the meantime, Lisette works in Maison Gérard Mulot, a rue de Seine patisserie near the convent (it’s still there – you should go there if you can!)

Lisette meets her future husband André, a talented young frame maker, on the corner of rue de Seine and boulevard Saint-Germain. They enjoy a sophisticated 1930s Montparnasse lifestyle in all of the famous cafés, including The Rotunde, La Couple, the Dingo and Closerie des Lilas.

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In 1937, Lisette and André must give up their Paris dreams to go help with Andre’s elderly grandfather who lives in a small village in southern France. Lisette misses Paris, but learns to appreciate the small quiet pleasures of provincial life. She bonds with her grandfather-in-law Pascal as he shares the story of his life, from his work in the ochre mines near Roussillon to his job as a pigment salesman and frame maker for such artists as Pissaro and Cézanne.

The not-yet-famous painters sometimes paid Pascal with a painting in lieu of money. As a result, Pascal happens to own a few incredible paintings. In some of the best passages of the book, Pascal explains how he came to own each painting and what they meant to him. Vreeland explains in her author’s note that she invented two of the paintings in the book, but the rest are real, including one of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire:

Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valey (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York. In the book, Lisette said this was her husband’s favorite painting because it captured the region of Provence so well: “cultivated fields dotted with ochre farmhouses, a string of distant buff-colored arches of a Roman bridge, a narrow country road, tall pine trees on the left, their trunks bare, with foliage only at their tops, and the grand Montagne Saint-Victoire in the distance, a pale lavender moonlit, triangular and imposing.”

Pissaro’s Red Roofs of Pontoise:

Pissaro, Red Roofs,Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Cotes St-Denis a Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musé d'Orsay, Paris

Camille Pissaro, Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Côtes St-Denis à Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  In the book, the elderly character Pascal uses this painting to teach Lisette the history and significance of the ochre mines near Roussillon. He says: “And the history of Roussillon is in . . .  the tile roofs of l’Hermitage in Pontoise. Those roofs are stained red-orange from Roussillon pigments. And the red ground and the row of bushes aflame–that’s Roussillon red-ochre. That may not mean anything to you now, but if you had lived here all your life and had seen those miners come home filthy and exhausted, it would.”

As well as Pissaro’s Factory Near Pontoise:

Camille Pissaro, Pissarro, Facotry near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA

Camille Pissaro, Factory near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA.  In the book, Pascal tells the story about how Pissaro give him this painting. Pascal visited Pissaro at his home in Pointoise, just north of Paris, delivering a frame Pascal had just carved. Pissaro said, “I haven’t a sou, but you can choose a painting from this row for yourself.” Pascal pulled a canvas from the back of the stack and saw a small painting of a factory. Pascal recognized it as the same Arneuil paint factory in Pointoise where he had sold ochre pigments from Roussillon. As Pascal told Lisette, “Inside that building, at long lines of tables, dozens of workers turned raw pigments into paint and filled the tubes Tanguy sold to Pissaro, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, and others – the hues we made in the furnaces of the Usine Mathieu, our factory right here in Roussillon, . . . ” Lisette then realized why Pascal had chosen that painting: “Despite its ordinariness, it spoke to him of his purpose, his participation in the world of art, the link in the chain from mine to majesty, . . .” (I love that phrase, don’t you? — “From mine to majesty?)

Pascal delights in telling Lisette the story of his visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence,  another lovely town about 25 miles from Roussillon. As Pascal describes Cézanne’s home: “It was a grim, cluttered old house. The studio had high ceilings and tall windows. I seem to remember a potbellied stove. Along a shelf there were white compotiers like my mother’s, straw-wrapped wine bottles, a candlestick, gray jugs, pitchers, and the green glazed toupin [olive jar] that’s in my painting.”

You can still visit Cézanne’s house and studio today. It is known as Atelier Cézanne and is located on a hill at 9 rue de Cézanne. There is also a Paul Cézanne Tour sponsored by the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office, where you get to see the Bibémus quarries that are an important part of the story in Lisette’s List. You can even download this “Cézanne’s Footsteps Map” for your own self-guided tour through Aix.

The doorway to Cézanne's studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.

The doorway to Cézanne’s studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.

 

The foyer at Atelier Cézanne

The foyer at Atelier Cézanne

 

The interior of Cézanne's studio

The interior of Cézanne’s studio

 

A nice touch - Cézanne's coats and art smock hang in the corner of his studio.

A nice touch – Cézanne’s coats, hats and smudge-up art smock still hang in the corner of his studio.

 

The courtyard garden outside Cézanne's studio

The courtyard garden outside Cézanne’s studio

 

Lisette has her own brush with a famous artist as well, based on the true story of Marc Chagall’s escape to the French countryside and finally to New York during the early years of the German occupation. Chagall was Jewish, and was saved by a secret American rescue operation that smuggled artists and intellectuals out of Marseille with forged visas.

Vreeland imagines that the Chagalls might have hidden out in the hills of Provence. Lisette’s bus driver friend (who happens to work for the French Resistance) introduces her to the Chagalls, who are hiding out in an abandoned school for girls on the outskirts of Gordes, another hilltop village in the Luberon region. Vreeland imagined that Lisette would have had friendly chats with Bella and Marc about Chagall’s new style of painting. When Lisette returns for another neighborly visit, she learns that the Chagals had escaped to America but had left a painting behind for Lisette as a gift for her friendship.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette imagines that the woman in the window might be her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette wonders whether the woman in the window is her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve. Lisette ponders: “Was the woman Bella or me? Was the man Marc or André? A crescent moon, or maybe it was a slim fish, hung in the rosy sky. I was tantalized by the ambiguity. The image blurred as I recognized Marc and Bella’s love for me.”

In Lisette’s List, Vreeland delivers a fascinating dose of art history and art appreciation, just like we have come to expect from her. I loved the way she traced the pigments all the way from the Roussillon ochre mines to the paintbrushes of Pissaro and Cézanne. I also enjoyed watching Lisette’s character transition from a Parisienne to a Provençale, adapting beautifully to the southern, rural way of life without losing her love for Paris. As Lisette herself said, “J’ai deux amours.”

If I have any reservations about the novel, it is probably that Lisette’s search for the hidden paintings seemed unduly prolonged and the plot device of “Lisette’s List” seemed a bit underwhelming. I would have enjoyed more heightened danger in the plot, and wished that the German threat had been put to use in a more sinister way. But in the end, Lisette’s story wrapped up well in post-war Paris and I was left satisfied overall.

The real treat of the novel is to read about the setting of Roussillon. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon there, walking down its narrow red streets and shopping in its art galleries. I even had the time to take a hike down a dusty red path to see its beautiful red ochre cliffs up close. It is now a spectacular little artsy town, just as the villagers had hoped in the novel. By all means, if you’re heading to Provence, add this town to your itinerary and leave a little time to hike on the paths out to the red ochre cliffs. It’s sublime.

You might want to poke your head into Francoise Valenti’s art gallery and say hello for me. You can assure her that her round painting of the view of Paris from the breakfast table  is now quite happy at my home in Chicago.

The town of Roussillon

The town of Roussillon

 

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon

 

The view of the Luberon from Roussillon

The view of the Luberon from Roussillon

 

An artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon: Francoise Valenti.

A lovely oil painting of Rousillon by Francoise Valenti, an artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon.

 

 

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland: Highly Recommended

Be sure to visit Susan Vreeland’s website where you can find more photos and information about the inspiration for the book.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black

life drawingI just can’t pass up a novel about art and artists.

Especially if the cover art features a broken paintbrush which has left a streak red paint (cadmium red medium?) across the cover, hinting at some kind of danger or menace. How intriguing.

Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random House US, July 15, 2014) is an astutely psychological novel about a troubled marriage between an artist and a writer. Seeking to escape the city, Gus and Owen buy a country home where she can turn the back porch into an art studio and he can use the stone barn for a writer’s retreat. Sounds idyllic, romantic even? Hardly.

From the very first line you know the husband will be dead by January: “In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.” Gus is narrating, and what a multi-layered voice she has: remorseful, restless, thoughtful, haunted and sad. She quickly lures you into the mystery of her misery.

It is not a question of what happened to her husband, but how and why. The mystery is even more beguiling because Gus is just barely coming to understand it herself. Gus tries to explain: “as one of my teachers used to say, you cannot see a landscape you are in.”

And what a complicated landscape she’s in. Even before the new neighbor Alison moves in, Gus and Owen are having a rough go. Gus had an affair a couple of years ago, and they’re still sorting things out. As Gus says, the betrayal was “a lingering presence in our lives, a taunting little goblin in the shadows, daring us to call him out.” Her husband suffers from writer’s block, and Gus believes that she is to blame for killing his creativity. In contrast, Gus’s imagination is sparked by old newspapers she finds in the farmhouse and she is both enthralled and challenged by her work on a new series of paintings. Owen is irritated and Gus feels guilty. But still she escapes to her studio and paints.

Chances are that you will soon be convinced, like I am, that Gus is utterly real. Even the paintings on her walls come alive, complete with their own backstory. One in particular captivated me. There is a painting above the fireplace, Owen’s favorite, a painting Gus made in an old millinery shop in Philadelphia. I’d love to know where Robin Black got the inspiration for that fictional painting, maybe . . . here?

tissot milliner's shop

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, from the series Women of Paris, 1883-85, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Or here perhaps?

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Just knowing that Gus had spent weeks sketching and painting in a millinery shop, looking past the vivid hats out to the dingy gray of a February streetscape, and somehow doing a pretty good job of it – good enough to hang the completed painting above the fireplace anyway – made me admire her as an artist. Was it the subconscious pull of art history that was drew her to the same kind of place as Tissot and Degas? Or did Gus just need a warm sheltering place to change hats after her affair was finally over?

I found myself wishing that Gus could stop by my own  studio some time, have coffee, and talk about art. Maybe we could take a life drawing class together at our local art league. Gus struggles with the human form; she’s not a natural portraitist. She’s just not that good with people.

Poor Gus.

Such is the talent of Robin Black. She makes her characters live and breathe and entangle  you in their world. I care deeply about Gus. It’s been about a month since I finished an advanced copy of the book and I’m still wondering how she’s doing.

Trust me, you won’t be able to put this book down until you learn how and why Gus’s husband died. Life Drawing is a beautiful literary book with deep personal insight and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Without a doubt, one of my favorite reads this year.

 

–Margie White is a former bookseller, an avid reader and a painter of limited talent but unlimited enthusiasm.

 

A gathering at Printers Row Litfest (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black

A gathering of fans and authors following a panel discussion at Printers Row Lit Fest, June 2014 (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black