Visit Saint-Malo with Anthony Doerr

I just finished Anthony Doerr’s most recent book, All The Light We Cannot See (Scribner 2014). I’ve loved Doerr ever since The Shell Collector, About Grace and Four Seasons in Romebut this latest novel is nothing short of breathtaking. And best of all, at least for me, the novel is set in Saint-Malo, a small fortified town on the coast of Brittany which I’ve had the pleasure to visit. Doerr captures its briny smells and moody seas just perfectly.

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Doerr has a rare gift. He understands what makes science and nature tick, but he also has the words to elevate them them into art. He can make seashells, snails, rare diamonds and radio waves all seem miraculous.

This time Doerr sets his sights on France during World War II, blending history, technology and legend to tell the story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier whose destinies are entwined through the miracle of sound. All the light we cannot see.

The story is artfully woven. It moves back in forth in time and place, spiraling faster and faster toward its incredibly suspenseful center. It begins in Paris where a young blind girl named Marie-Laure lives with her devoted father, who is the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. She grows up in a magical world of science and cherishes her braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In the meantime, Werner Pfenning begins his own story in a German orphanage where he lives with his sister Jutta. They come upon an abandoned radio out in the trash and Werner plays with it until they hear music — and as Doerr himself would say, “the magic of a stranger’s voice.” Werner dabbles with radios until his aptitude for math and technology (not to mention his snow-white hair and Aryan eyes) earns him a spot in an elite Hitler Youth Academy. Werner becomes an expert at radio transmissions and is drafted into the German army.

When the Germans occupy Paris in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father escape to the west and are welcomed in by a reclusive great-uncle who lives in an old house on the sea in Saint-Malo, Brittany.

The Germans quickly take over Saint-Malo as well, and it becomes a natural German stronghold with all of its medieval ramparts and old stone fortifications. The Germans rule the little town with an iron fist. Little do they know that Marie-Laure’s great-uncle has a secret radio transmitter in his attic.

In this video, Doerr tells us about the inspiration for his novel and his decision to choose Saint-Malo for the setting. Apparently he was traveling through France on a book tour and found himself in the lovely town of Saint-Malo. Like me, he had no idea that the town had nearly been destroyed by American bombs during the liberation of France in 1944.

If you get the chance to take a 2-3 day side trip from Paris, you should go to Saint-Malo. It is easily reachable by train from Gare Monparnasse. Or perhaps take the train to Rennes, rent a car, drive to Mont Saint-Michel, and then drive 25 or so miles to Saint-Malo. I enjoyed my stay at Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes, which is right on the beach and a short walk from the old town walls. You can take a tour of Fort National, the place where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle is imprisoned at the end of the German Occupation, or Memorial 39/45 Blockhaus, which is what remains of a German anti-aircraft defense blockhouse. A guided tour of the blockhouse is followed by a film “The Battle of Saint-Malo.”

But most of all, take an afternoon to stroll through the same Saint-Malo streets as the brave young Marie-Laure. Walk along the windswept ramparts, enjoy the fabulous seafood, and then maybe stop in a boulangerie and order a baguette. And just in case, check inside the baguette in case there’s a secret slip of paper from the French resistance. . . .

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Porte Saint-Thomas, Saint Malo, France.

 

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Saint-Malo sea ramparts with Fort National in the background. Marie-Laure’s uncle Etienne is arrested and imprisoned in Fort National at the end of the German occupation. A stray American shell hit the Fort on August 9th, killing 18. Etienne is there.

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The houses of Saint-Malo reflect their golden light onto the wet beaches as the tide recedes. I didn’t know at the time that much of Saint-Malo had to be rebuilt after the war.

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Saint-Malo sunset in more peaceful times.

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A view of Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes from the beach

 

The view from Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes

The view from Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes

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A view of the Saint-Malo harbor from Dinard

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If you have time, the drive west from Saint-Malo to Cap Fréhel is magnificent.

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Cap Fréhel, France, which was also occupied by the Germans in World War II.

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Cap Fréhel, France in more peaceful times

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Most highly recommended. I’m serious, it’s knock-your-socks-off good.

 

 

Book Review and Related Paris Sites: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

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I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. I mean, just look at that cover. So hard to resist for a lover of all things Paris.

But I have to admit, the charms of the story resisted me for nearly 200 pages. While the structure of the book makes it feel as if it was enormously fun to write, it makes it quite a challenge for a reader to slip into. It is the story of a band of friends, acquaintances, enemies and lovers in Paris in the 30s and 40s. Their story doesn’t unfold, it demands that you piece it together for yourself, like a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a Picasso painting.

You hear the discordant voices of a number of strange and lively characters, from a Hungarian photographer named Gabor (modeled after the true-life Brassai ), an American expat writer (à la Henry Miller), a French baroness married into the Rossignol car dynasty, a French language teacher named Suzanne who works for the Resistance, and then most bizarrely of all, the alleged great-niece of a character named Lou Villars, a lesbian race-car driver, German spy and agent of the French Gestapo (a stand-in for the real-life Violet Morris). Yes, there’s a lot on the plate.

Violet Morris, French race car driver and Nazi spy. Source: http://www.influx.co.uk/wordpress/blog/fast-ladies-women-in-motor-sport/#sthash.nxVIbUzb.dpbs

Violet Morris, the French race car driver and Nazi spy who inspired the character Lou Villars. Source: http://www.influx.co.uk/wordpress/blog/fast-ladies-women-in-motor-sport/#sthash.nxVIbUzb.dpbs

The characters are all drawn to a fictional Chameleon Club in Paris, a free-wheeling 1920s-40s era nightclub with singing acts by cross-dressing sailors and mermaids, men in drag, women in tuxedos, and an owner named Yvonne who parades around with a pet chameleon on her shoulder. When Gabor takes a photo of Lou Villars and her lover Arlette at the club, it is a clear shout-out to Brassai’s Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932 (Cleveland Museum of Art Collection).

"Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932" by Brassai, Cleveland Museum of Art

“Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932” by Brassai, Cleveland Museum of Art

A photo from Le Monocle, a lesbian bar in Montmartre in the 1920s-40s, via http://civillyunioned.tumblr.com/post/11186839284/le-monocle-was-a-well-know-lesbian-bar-located-in

A photo from Le Monocle, a lesbian bar in Montmartre in the 1920s-40s, via http://civillyunioned.tumblr.com

The fictional Chameleon Club is the perfect setting and a revealing title for a book about people who cross all sorts of lines in all sorts of ways. Especially when war comes.

That’s when the narrative shifts into a faster, more sinister gear. Lou Villars takes up professional race car driving on behalf of the Rossignols and becomes a public relations sensation. She dresses like a man and gets a double mastectomy to fit behind the wheel. But soon, enemies in France take away her license on the grounds that she is a threat to morality. Smelling opportunity, the Germans invite her to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and to dinner with Hitler. Lou is easily seduced into becoming a German spy, and agrees to travel through France seeking out intelligence such as the weakness in the Maginot Line. (Believe it or not, nearly all of this is a true story about the real Violet Morris.)

The stories about Lou Villars continue, and by now, you don’t care who’s narrating or why. You’re hooked into hearing about how the good people of the Chameleon Club endured and resisted the horrors of the Occupation, and how people like Villars could possibly rationalize the evils they perpetrated. We learn that Lou Villars (and in turn, the real Violet Morris) may have been involved in the Vel d’Hiv’ Round-up of 1942, and then became an agent of the French Gestapo, known for her violent interrogations of French resistance workers. Which would all be terrific fiction, but is actually based on the true story of Violet Morris.

Lou Villars becomes a notorious interrogator with the 93 rue Lauriston Gang, a group of French Gestapo gangsters who have been the subject of many books and films, including Louis Malle’s 1974 film, Lacombe Lucien and the 2004 television movie 93, rue Lauriston. The gang’s headquarters were located on a quiet little street in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Lou Villars conducted her interrogations in the cellar of their building.

I first spotted the plaques for 93 rue Lauriston on my frequent walks through my old neighborhood in the 16th. In fact, the address was just across the street from one of my favorite boulangeries. I took photos of the plaques and went back to learn more about the horrible history of this neighborhood.

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The plaque outside the former 93 rue Lauriston in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. "In homage to the resistants tortured in this house during the occupation 1940-1944 by the French agents, auxiliaries of the Gestapo, the group "Bonny-LaFont"

The plaque outside the former 93 rue Lauriston in the 16th arrondissement of Paris: In homage to the resistants tortured in this house during the occupation 1940-1944 by French agents, auxiliaries of the Gestapo, the group called “Bonny-LaFont”

 

93, rue Lauriston

93, rue Lauriston

97, rue Lauriston, just a few doors down from the old Gestapo interrogation house, where a lovely boutique hotel now stands is a plaque commemorating one of the heroes who died trying to liberate the Quatier Lauriston.

At 97, rue Lauriston,  where a lovely boutique hotel now stands, there is a plaque commemorating one of the heroes who died trying to liberate the Quatier Lauriston. The hotel is just a few doors down from the French Gestapo house.

 

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The plaque at 97 rue Lauriston: Here Died For France, August 25, 1944, Louis Moreau, FFI, Married, Father of his Family, Came from Bourg-la-Reine for the Liberation of the Quartier Lauriston. In His Memory: Those He Delivered.

Here's my favorite little rue Lauriston boulangerie, which just goes to show how history and present day life go hand-in-hand in Paris.

Here’s my favorite little rue Lauriston boulangerie, which is just across the street from 93 rue Lauriston. It just goes to show how history and present day life go hand-in-hand in Paris. Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

 

The book ends without clear resolution, offering different versions about what might have happened to all of the friends and enemies from the Chameleon Club. To me, that was the most satisfying ending of all. Because if there is one thing that historians have learned about the aftermath of the Paris Occupation, is that truth and virtue are very slippery things. Kind of like a chameleon.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose: Highly recommended.

 

 

Related posts on this blog about World War II Reads:

Sarah’s Key Paris Sites: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/pictures-at-an-exhibition-art-war-and-memory-in-paris/

In this blog post I share my own photographs of the plaques and memorials near the site of the old Paris Velodrome (Vel’ d’Hiv’), along with directions on where to find them.

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Some V-E Day Reading – Paris During the Occupation: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/some-v-e-day-reading-recommendations/

suitefrancaise journalofheleneberr2 andtheshowentnon americansinparis

 

Coco Chanel: Sleeping with the Enemy: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/coco-chanel-sleeping-with-the-enemy/

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Wine & War in France: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/wine-and-war-in-france/

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Crossing the Borders of Time: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/crossing-the-borders-of-time/

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Art, Books, Paris – The Hare with Amber Eyes: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/art-books-paris-the-hare-with-amber-eyes/

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Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War and Memory in Paris: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/pictures-at-an-exhibition-art-war-and-memory-in-paris/

 

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Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

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I don’t know how I do it, but it seems that every book I pick up these days has at least a touch of Paris in it. The latest is Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf 2014), which I highly recommend.

You might have heard of this book by now. Even Oprah’s touting it. It’s a steamy story of love and ambition in the competitive world of professional ballet. It is the story of Joan, an American ballet dancer who is starstruck (why not just say “astonished?”) by a famous star of the Russian Kirov Ballet. Picture Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1975.

While Joan is spending a year as a quadrille, a junior member of the Paris Opéra Ballet, she watches Arslan Rusakov rehearse from one of the dark crimson red loge boxes at the Palais Garnier. Joan manages to evade the Kirov Ballet security men and enters the star’s dressing room, where she makes an unforgettable impression on him. Their encounter kicks off a clandestine Cold War love affair, fueled by secret love letters delivered through helpful intermediaries. Joan agrees to help Rusakov defect to the United States during one of his ballet tours to Toronto. Together, they are front-page news. But only for a time. The love affair dies and Joan moves forward with a life as a wife, mother and owner of her own ballet school in Southern California.

The whole book is good, from New York to Paris to California, but I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the passages set in Paris. No wonder, then, when I read the Acknowledgments at the back of the book (yes, I always read those, don’t you?) where Maggie Shipstead says: “Much of this book was written while I was in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.” You can tell.

Here is a passage from the book, which honest to God is one of the best paragraphs about visiting Paris I’ve ever read (and readers of this blog know I’ve read a lot):

For Joan, Paris has the feeling of waiting. All the elegance, the light and water and stone and refined bits of greenery, must be for something, something more than simple habitation and aggressive driving of Renaults and exuberant besmearing with dog shit. The city seems like an offering that has not been claimed. Its beauty is suspenseful. Joan has walked the boulevards and bridges and embankments, sat in the uncomfortable green metal chairs in the Tuileries, puttered down the Seine on a tourist barge, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stared politely at countless paintings, been leered at and kissed at by so many men, stood in patches of harlequin light in a dozen chilly naves, bought a scarf she couldn’t afford, surreptitiously stroked the neatly stacked skulls in the catacombs, listened to jazz, gotten drunk on wine, ridden on the back of scooters, done everything she thinks she should in Paris, and still there has always been the feeling of something still to come, a purpose as yet unmet, an expectation.

 

In particular, I loved Shipstead’s scene in the Opéra Garnier, which captures the beautiful excess better than a camera ever could:

The houselights are down, but the glow from the stage picks out a profusion of gilded plasterwork: serene deities, trumpeting angels, lyres, garlands, flowers, oak leaves, masks, Corinthian columns, all deeply shadowed, piling up around the proscenium and among the boxes like the walls of a craggy old cave, climbing to Chagall’s painted round ceiling of naked angels and volumptuous ballerinas and goats and chickens and lovers and blue Eiffel Tower and red-splotched rendering of the Palais itself. From the center of thing hangs the great sleeping chandelier: an enormous gold and glass thistle hung upside down to dry, darkly gleaming.

 

Speaking of cameras, here are some of my own photographs of the Opéra Garnier, which aren’t the best quality, but you get the idea:

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So whether you read Astonish Me for the ballet, the love story or the lovely Paris passages, I think you’ll be delighted.

If you’re in Paris or plan to visit, don’t miss a visit to Palais Garnier, whether it’s for a ballet performance or a public tour. Click here to go to their website, which has more beautiful photographs, a lot of history and information about your visit.

Suggested reading:  Check out my previous post The Painted Girls: Degas and the Dancers featuring Cathy Marie Buchanan’s book The Painted Girls, historical fiction about young French ballet dancers set in Belle Epoque Paris.

 

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead: Highly Recommended.

 

 

Fanny and Louis in Grez

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Nancy Horan, the bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes now with her long-awaited second novel, based on the nineteenth century love story between Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, a not-exactly-divorced American mother of three and the much younger writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The pair met in the summer of 1875 in Grez, an art colony in France in the Fountainebleu Forest. Fanny had arrived in France the year before to escape her unhappy marriage and to study art alongside her 17 year-old daughter Belle.

Fanny and Belle were enjoying their studies in the women’s drawing classes at the Académie Julian alongside other international students, including May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister. (You can read more about May Alcott’s art studies and travels through France at my previous post, Little Women in Dinan.)

After enduring an unspeakable tragedy in Paris, Fanny decides to bring her children to Grez for some quiet recovery time in the country. A fellow art student at the Académie Julian suggested a quiet place, “an inn at Grez, on the Loing River. It’s close to Barbizon but away from all the bustle, and cheap. It’s near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Fanny talks her estranged husband from California into supporting them for one more year in Europe.

Nancy Horan describes Grez-sur-Loing well:

[N]estled in the midst of vast farm fields, the village was a smattering of stone houses, a picturesque bridge, and a ruined twelfth-century tower with ferns growing in its cracked walls.

During my year in France I loved to plan field trips to art history sites, and I just happened to spend a gray day in Grez myself. You can read another post (Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing) about my trip to Grez, which includes directions and more information about the different artists who lived and painted there.

Here are some photos of Grez that readers of Under the Wide and Starry Sky and fans of Robert Louis Stevenson might especially enjoy:

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. The picturesque  12th century Tour de Ganne is in the background.

The 17th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The 12th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The Tour de Ganne in Grez from the grassy walk down toward the river

The Tour de Ganne in Grez as seen from the grassy walk down toward the river

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

In the book, Nancy Horan has Fanny’s friend Margaret Wright tell her about the Hotel Chevillon in Grez, “one of the most bohemian of the bohemian gathering places near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Says Margaret:

Barbizon has become too fashionable. It’s overrun by poseurs more interested in the mis-en-scene than in producing any actual art. The real painters go to Grez. . . . And you needn’t worry. They will leave you alone, I think.

Little did Fanny know that the bohemians who enjoyed the summer season at Hotel Chevillon were dismayed to hear that an American woman and her children had arrived at the inn. Bob Stevenson (Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, and an artist in his own right) arrived ahead of the group of “Glasgow Boys” from Scotland with the intention of chasing Fanny away. In the book, Bob Stevenson hints Fanny might want to find other more suitable accommodations:

There’s an onslaught about to begin. . . . Once the others start to arrive you’ll discover this isn’t the place to be if you are hoping for a little peace. Madame Chevillon said you had come for the quiet. . . . There are places not far from here that would serve you much better if you are here to rest. . . .

But things would turn out much differently than the Stevensons had planned. Within a few short weeks, both of the Stevenson cousins would have a crush on Fanny. Although Fanny was 10 years older than Louis, they found comfort in each others hearts and minds. In the meantime, Fanny’s 17 year-old daughter Belle fell in love with the Irish artist Frank O’Meara.

The Hotel Chevillon still stands today, although it is not open to the public. It is a private art residency center operated by The Grez-sur-Loing Foundation in Sweden, which manages a stipend program for visiting artists, authors and photographers. There is even a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship available for interested writers (the application deadline for 2014 is February 28th, but it looks like it is limited to residents of Scotland.)

Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter.

Hotel Chevillon, the place where Fanny and Louis met,  is still standing! It is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter. It was restored in 1994 and serves as an art center and residency program.

Hotel Chevillon: the place where Fanny Van de Grif Osbourne met Robert Louis Stevenson.

Hotel Chevillon from the street.

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relx by the river

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon from the nearby bridge. Just on the other side of this wall is where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relax.

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there? Source: Carol Ferrelly, http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/writing/2013/11/five-things-robert-louis-stevenson-fellowship

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there back in the day? Source: Carol Ferrelly, http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/writing/2013/11/five-things-robert-louis-stevenson-fellowship

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez and painted this captivating picture of the garden at Hotel Chevillon.

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez. This painting captures the feel of the garden at Hotel Chevillon back in the time of Fanny and Louis. Source: http://www.paintingmainia.com

After their summer meeting in Grez, Fanny and her children returned to Paris, where they settled into an apartment in Montmartre. Louis would continue his pursuit of Fanny from Paris to California and beyond. They would finally marry in 1880 and spend their years traveling the world.

John Singer Sargent would paint a strange but perceptive portrait of RLS and Fanny when they were all living in Bournemouth, England in 1885. Apparently, Fanny was not too happy about the way she is marginalized and made to look so Moorish in this painting. As for me, I find it fascinating. What an odd pair.

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Under The Wide and Starry Sky is an interesting portrait of an unorthodox and artistic couple from history, not unlike the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. However, this love story didn’t seem nearly as compelling as Loving Frank, and I’m not sure why. Neither RLS nor Fanny are particularly admirable people, but then, neither were Frank and Mamah. For some reason, it bothered me that Fanny lacked any substantial talent or drive as an artist, that she acted so passively in the face of her son’s serious illness, and that she waffled over her commitment to a horrible marriage. Maybe it’s my mistake, expecting a 19th century woman to act with as much agency as a 21st century woman, but still, it interfered with my ability to identify and sympathize with Fanny. I have to admit, I take strange delight in the take-down Fanny suffers under the paintbrush of John Singer Sargent.

Even if Under the Wide and Starry Sky doesn’t measure up to Loving Frank, I would still recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially if you are interested in learning more about the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson or the 19th century art scene in Paris. And if you happen to be visiting Paris anytime soon, I highly recommend a day trip out to Grez.  

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris

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Where The Light Falls by Katherine Keenum is a lovely painterly novel set in late 19th century Paris. What a perfect book for a review and literary tour by The American Girls Art Club in Paris.

You can find various sites in the book on Where the Light Falls Literary Tour in Google Maps.

The story begins when a young artist named Jeannette Palmer gets expelled from Vassar College for helping her roommate elope.  Despite her public shaming, Jeannette talks her prominent Ohio family into supporting further art studies in Paris.

Jeannette and her chaperone, a “spinster” cousin, find lodging in a pension on rue Jacob on the Left Bank, while Jeannette enrolls in the women’s drawing class at the Académie Julian. Had Jeannette arrived in Paris a decade or so later, she could have easily been one of the lodgers at The American Girls Art Club in Paris, which opened its doors in 1893. Instead, Jeannette would be one of the first-wave  trailblazers of American women artists to journey to France.

Jeannette’s story is loosely based on the life of the author’s own great-grandmother, who was indeed expelled from Vassar College and who traveled to Paris to study art with Carolus-Duran. Because no journals, letters or memoirs survived, Katherine Keenum had to rely on her imagination to tell her great-grandmother’s story.

Keenum’s research is considerable, but it feels like a natural part of the story. When Jeannette is learning from such famous masters as William-Adolphe Bouguereau or Carolus-Duran, you feel like you’re there too. Keenum places Jeannette in Paris at a turning point in the history of art; it is remarkable how much Jeannette and her cousin Effie get to witness in just two years.

One of Keenum’s primary sources for the life and times of an American art student abroad  was Abigail May Alcott Nieriker’s guidebook for women artists called Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply (1879), which describes May’s studies at Académie Julian, her approach to life in Paris, and her travels throughout France. (In a previous blog post here called Little Women in Dinan, France, I wrote about May and her famous sister’s travels abroad.) 

Jeannette begins her studies at the Académie Julian, a private art school which welcomed women into segregated studios, unlike L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. The first women’s atelier at Académie Julian was located in the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris. This Paris Passage still stands today – it it a lovely historic covered mall at 11 Boulevard Montmartre.

In Chapter 8, Jeannette has a hard time finding the stairs that led to the second floor studio of the Académie Julian. Keenum describes a set of service stairs along one of the transverse passages, but on my various visits to the Passage des Panoramas during my year in Paris, I was never able to find them. I could see a second floor under the peaked glass ceiling, I just couldn’t get there. I’d love to hear from any of my followers to see if they’ve ever managed to gain access to the second floor of the Passage des Panormas, or if it’s a place that belongs only to the past.

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

An old sign inside the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of Académie Julian’s first atelier for women in the 1870s. You can still walk through the Passage today for a sense of the 19th century.

An interior view of the Passage des Panoramas in which a second floor is visible. I just couldn't figure out how to get up there.

An interior view of the Passage des Panoramas. In Chapter 8, Keenum describes it like this: “Inside, restaurants and small specialty shops crowded both sides of an arcade. Painted signs hung out at right angles overhead like banners; a tiled mosaic floor ran for two blocks. Above a second story of shops, the whole length was roofed with a peaked ceiling of glass.”

Passage des Panoramas

Passage des Panoramas entrance at 11 Boulevard Montmartre

Marie Baskirtsheff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian.

Marie Baskirtsheff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian by one of its most famous students. Although the women were allowed to paint from live nude models, this painting avoids controversy and shows a draped figure of a young boy. Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Ukraine. In Chapter 8, one of Jeanette’s classmates points out their fellow student “The Countess,” [Countess Marie Bashkirtseff] “a star student in the class for the full nude.” The Countess is supposedly picture in the center of this painting with the palette in her lap.

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

A photo of one of the women’s classes a Académie Julian. It is undated, so it is possible it is from the other women’s atelier which opened in the 1880s on rue de Berri near the Champs Elysée. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

A photography of some of the female messiers (studio assistants) of the Académie Julian. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

A photograph of some of the female messiers (studio assistants) of the Académie Julian. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

William-Adolphe Bougeureau, Self-Portrait (1879)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Self-Portrait (1879). Bouguereau was a famous 19th century Salon artist who provided private instruction for both men and women at the Académie Julian. He would be engaged to one of his American students, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, for 17 years. They would finally marry in 1896 after the death of his mother, who strongly disapproved of the match.

The Académie Julian still stands today on the rue du Dragon.

The Académie Julian still stands today on the rue du Dragon in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. This was originally one of the men’s ateliers, but has long accepted both men and women.

Jeannette enjoys her studies at the Académie Julian under William-Adolphe Bouguereau, but really, Bouguereau only passes through the class a couple of times a week with a few comments like pas mal, pas mal. Although she’s making friends with her fellow art students from around the world and learning all about the Paris art world, Jeannette couldn’t help but aspire for better art instruction.

Jeannette gets her big break when she makes the acquaintance of Carolus-Duran through   a wealthy friend of the family who is having her portrait done. Duran invites Jeannette for a studio visit at 58 rue Notre Dame des Champs. When Jeannette and Effie arrive at his address, they quickly realize what a celebrity painter he is. There are three carriages at the curb and a servant to greet the guests. Effie gushes: “Why, it’s as elegant as a hotel lobby or a fashion house!”

A photo of Carolu-Duran playing the organ in his art studio (1885). From the image gallery at the American Archives of Art. Keenum gets it right when she describes the studio as being "strewn with thick Persian rugs and hung with tapestries and pictures."

A photo of Carolus-Duran playing the organ in his art studio (1885). From the digital image gallery at the American Archives of Art called “Photographs of Artists in their Paris Studios (1880-1890).” Keenum gets it right when she describes the studio as being “strewn with thick Persian rugs and hung with tapestries and pictures.”

rue Notre Dame des Champs, a narrow winding road through Montparnasse which earned its title as "the royal road of painting" because of all the famous French artists who lived there, including Bouguereau,  Courbet and Carolus-Duran.

Rue Notre Dame des Champs, a narrow winding road through Montparnasse which earned the title “the royal road of painting” because of all the famous French artists who lived there, including Bouguereau, Courbet and Carolus-Duran.

Carolus-Duran invites Jeannette to join his women’s painting classes at 11 Passage Stanislaus in Montparnasse. Passage Stanislaus is now known as rue Jules Chaplain, a small street just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs.

Rue Jules Chaplain, once Passage Stanislaus and the home of Carolus-Duran's atelier for women.

Rue Jules Chaplain, once Passage Stanislaus and the home of Carolus-Duran’s atelier for women.

Jeannete struggles to find the extra money to enroll in Carolus-Duran’s classes, but once she does, she gets to observe one of the true masters of the art. One of my favorite scenes in the book is in Chapter 30, when Carolus-Duran pulls Jeannette right up next to him to demonstrate the essence of portrait painting:

Study where the light falls and where the shadows lie. We commence by indicating the darkest masses. . . .

Either way, what is most important now is to find the demi-teinte generale. Half close your eyes, mademoiselle; regard the model.

It’s enough to make you want to find a model and set up and easel right nowisn’t it?

Jeannette is in the perfect place and time to witness art history. She meets a young John Singer Sargent, a fellow student in Carolus-Duran’s men’s atelier who would have been only 23 years old at the time. Jeannette and her classmates celebrate when Sargent’s portrait of Carolus-Duran wins an Honorable Mention at the Paris Salon of 1879.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of Carolus- Duran (1879), Clark Art Institute, Williamston, Massachusetts. When Jeanette meets JOhn Singer Sargent at a garden party, she says: "I hear your portrait of Carolus is wonderful."

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Carolus- Duran (1879), Clark Art Institute, Williamston, Massachusetts. When Jeanette meets John Singer Sargent at a garden party, she says: “I hear your portrait of Carolus is wonderful.”

There are plenty of other moments in art history that Jeannette gets to be a part of, including the Fourth Impressionist Exhibit of 1879, where she sees and critiques Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Arm Chair (1878):

That grumpy little girl sprawled on the aqua-blue chair – well, she’s vivid, but all that other aqua furniture climbing to the ceiling, . . . it’s hideous!

Don’t blame Jeannette. Most of the world wasn’t yet ready for the Impressionists either.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Museum of Art.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Museum of Art.

It is an incredible time in the history of art, and Jeannette is it the middle of it all. What a wonderful way for Katherine Keenum to honor the memory of her great-grandmother, who really did have a chance to be a part of history. In ways we can only imagine.

Where the Light Falls by Katherine Keenum: Highly recommended.

Where the Light Falls Literary Tour: As created by The American Girls Art Club in Paris.

Paris Was the Place

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You probably think I will buy any book with a picture of Paris on the cover. No, really. I won’t. I’m not that easy.

But when your cover is this pretty, the font this inviting, and you have blurbs on the back from the likes of Lily King, Richard Russo, Ayelet Waldman, Margot Livesy, Maryann O’Hare and Sarah Blake, you’ve got me.

Paris Was The Place by Susan Conley is the story of a young woman’s experience while working at an immigration detention center for girls in Paris. You could say it’s Little Bee in Paris, but that would be missing half of the book’s appeal.

In some ways, Willow (“Willie”) Pears is a refugee too. Broken and lost after her mother’s recent death, Willie leaves California and comes to Paris in search of connections. Willie is estranged from her father, but wants to be closer to her brother Luke who lives in Paris with his boyfriend. Willie is a poetry professor at the Academy of France, and begins volunteering at an immigration center for girls. As Willie draws out the refugees’ heartbreaking stories, which they need to prepare for their asylum hearings, she becomes deeply involved in their desperate hope for a better life in France. In the meantime, Willie makes her own “French Connection” with an immigration lawyer who works at the center.

Part of the appeal of Willie’s story is the way she makes Paris her place. When Willie first arrives in Paris she is mystified by the geography of the city:

The sequencing of the neighborhoods here baffles me – arranged like the curvature of some terrestrial snail. I’m in the tenth arrondissement, anchored by two of Paris’s great train stations, where the alleyways weave into mapless places. I’m not embarrassed to carry my Michelin.

With her Michelin in hand, Willie maps her way through Paris, narrating her trips and transfers on the Métro, guiding us through each arrondissement. From her brother’s nice apartment on Victor Hugo in the 16th, her own apartment on Rue de la Clef in the Latin Quarter, the detention center on Rue de Metz in the 10th, and the Academy of France in the 6th, Willie stakes her claim on her new city.

Just for fun, I plotted out Willie’s Paris on this Google Map. Now you can walk in the footsteps of the characters of Paris Was the Place too.

Willie’s Michelin guide helps her unlock the baffling secrets of Paris. And isn’t that exactly the way it is when you’re a tourist or an expat in France? You might not understand half of what is said around you every day, but at least you can read your Métro map. Like color-coded bread crumbs that will always lead you home.

But there’s rarely a direct route. You need to study the map and plot your connections. What’s the best way to get from the 16th to the 10th? Can I get there without having to crowd in with all the tourists on Line 1? Can I do it with only one transfer? I used to start every day with my home-brewed espresso, plotting out my day on my own dog-eared Paris L’Indispensable.

And then, one day, just like Willie, you’ve mastered the Métro and you’ve developed an instinct for the spiraling arrondissements. You learned to cope with a life that isn’t always linear. You’ve made your connection and you feel like you belong. Paris is your place.

What makes Paris Was The Place so wonderful is the way Willie’s search for geographical connections runs parallel with her efforts to navigate through her personal connections: with her brother, her French lover, the girls at the detention center, her complicated family history, her widowed father. Some connections are made, while others are tragically lost. The fact that Willie’s estranged father is a mapmaker adds even more depth and grace to her story. Because belonging isn’t always just a matter of maps and Métros. It’s about making connections in the baffling, mapless places of the human heart.

My dog-eared L'Indispensable Paris Arrodissement Map. My own personal Rosetta Stone.

My dog-eared L’Indispensable Paris Arrondissement Map. My own personal Rosetta Stone.

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My home stop on Line 6 in the 16th, which Willie calls “the grown-up part of Paris” with “older women in pencil skirts walking their miniature poodles.” Ouch. That hurts. I swear I don’t own a pencil skirt or a miniature poodle.

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Willie, a fellow word nerd, would have loved this Métro stop too. The words from the Declaration of the Rights of Man form a word search at this Concorde Métro stop.

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I love this Art Nouveau Métro stop at Réaumur Sébastopol on Line 4. Only one more stop until Willie’s stop for the Rue de Metz detention center.

One of my favorite Métro stops. The Port Dauphine Métro stop on Line 2, just one stop past Luke's apartment on Victor Hugo.

One of my favorite Métro stops. The Port Dauphine Métro stop on Line 2, just one stop past Luke’s apartment on Victor Hugo. Just a short walk from the lovely Bois de Boulogne.

Who doesn't love the whimsical Louvre-Rivoli Métro stop?

Who doesn’t love the whimsical glass beads in the design of the Palais-Royal-Musée de Louvre Métro stop at Place Colette?

The gardens of Musée Rodin, the site of Willie and Gita's field trip

The gardens of Musée Rodin, the site of Willie and Gita’s field trip

Luxembourg Gardens - where Willie and Gita enjoyed their brown-bag lunches together

Luxembourg Gardens – where Willie and Gita enjoyed their brown-bag lunches together

I have a feeling that it’s not just Willie and I who share this need to map out our place in Paris. Check out this quote from Susan Conley’s website, where she talks about her own Paris map OCD:

My craziest Francophile moment came when I found myself making these gigantic maps of the Paris neighborhoods covered in my novel. I used indelible markers on poster board in my little rabbit warren of an office on the third floor of our old house, and I tried to recreate the streets that Willie and Macon walked on in Paris. These hand-scrawled maps were my blue print of the city. They’re almost illegible but they gave me access to the parts of the city I really had to make sure the novel rendered fully. I needed to make the maps to feel like I was there in Paris. Then I knew that the reader would (hopefully!) feel like they were there too.

Yes, Susan, when I read your book I felt like I was in Paris too. Thanks for that, because now I miss it just a little less.

Paris Was The Place by Susan Conley:  Highly recommended.

Paris L’Insdispensable: Indispensable.

Little Women in Dinan, France

little women abroadLittle Women Abroad, edited by Daniel Shealy (University of Georgia Press, 2008), is a wonderful account of the Alcott sisters’ trip to Europe together in 1870. Most readers will be interested in the travels and insights of the most famous sister, Louisa May Alcott, but for an artist, the real thrill is to see France through her little sister Abigail May’s eyes.

Most of us know Amy, the precocious little sister in Little Women who dreamed of becoming an artist. Few of us know much about Louisa’s real little sister Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (“May”), who did indeed grow up to be an accomplished artist. Unfortunately, May’s story ends tragically. She married at the age of 38, only to die one year later after giving birth to her first child.

May Alcott began to study art in 1856 when she was just sixteen years old. She studied with Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman, William Rimmer and finally William Morris Hunt, all of whom offered single-sex studio classes for Boston women. Hunt had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and no doubt extolled the virtues of study abroad. May’s fellow students such as Elizabeth Boott, Sarah Wyman Whitman and Elizabeth Bartol were all making plans to study in France by the late 1860s and early 1870s.

After Louisa May Alcott achieved financial success with Little Women in 1868, the two sisters planned a trip to Europe with their friend Alice Bartlett. The women traveled by the French steamship Lafayette and arrived at the western port of Brest in Brittany in April, 1870.

It was May’s first trip to Europe and she was completely enchanted with France. Their first extended stay was in Dinan, a lovely medieval town in the middle of Brittany. May sent home sketches of a variety of scenes throughout Dinan, many of which are nicely reproduced in Little Women Abroad. It appears that all of May’s sketches were in pencil or pen and ink. In one of her letters, she said she wished she had been trained how to paint en plein air so she could capture the beautiful colors. Nevertheless, her sketches are sufficient to be able to identify the buildings and ruins which still stand today.

Here is a Google Map of the Alcott Sisters Sites in Dinan, in case you’re lucky enough to venture there yourself someday. Dinan is a beautiful little city which makes for a lovely day trip from a larger home base in Brittany such as St. Malo. Dinan has 13th century castles, gothic churches, bell towers, narrow winding streets and beautiful timbered architecture.

Until you can get there yourself, here is a photo tour of the Dinan sites in Little Women Abroad, starting with the building that once housed the pension in which the Alcotts stayed. It was just outside the fortified walls of the town, next to the Porte Saint Louis and just down the street from the Dinan Castle.

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

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The plaque in the wall at Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France

The Porte Saint-Louis, located next to the Pension de Madame Costes

The Porte Saint-Louis, located next to the Pension de Madame Costes

The Dinan Castle, just down the street from Place Saint Louis, which May Alcott called Anne of Brittany's Round Tower. Built in the 1300s.

The Dinan Castle (which Louisa May called Anne of Brittany’s Round Tower), located just down the road from Place Saint Louis. Built in the 1300s.

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The view of Dinan from atop the Dinan Castle. As May said in an April, 1870 letter to her mother: “From the top of her [Queen Anne’s] tower is the most superb view all over the country, and I am expecting great things in going to see it.”

May Alcott spent her time sketching throughout the medieval village, so full of “enchanting old ruins, picturesque towers and churches, and crumbling fortifications, that it almost seems like a dream.” There were so many good scenes for sketching that she didn’t think she could do them justice. As May said in a letter home:

I long to make pictures on every hand, but get extremely discouraged when I try, as it needs all the surroundings to make the scene complete.

May recommended Dinan to her fellow artists in a guidebook she would later write:

Here an artist can rest with delight for many months, as everything from the adjacent country, which is thought to be the most beautiful in Brittany, to the ancient gateways and clocktower in a street so narrow that the gabled roofs meet overhead, is sufficiently attractive to keep the brush constantly busy.

May visited or sketched nearly everything in town, from the Basilica of St. Saveur:

The gardens behind Basillica St-Saveur in Dinan, France

“Yesterday we went to some lovely gardens surrounding the most beautiful gothic church.” – May Alcott,  letter dated April 20, 1870 . This is a photograph of the small park and gardens that stand behind the Basilica St-Saveur today. Originally built in the 11th and 12th centuries, a Gothic chapel was added in the 15th century.

to the Viaduct of Dinan over the River Rance:

"The grand viaduct which, according to Murray [the Alcott's 1870 guidebook to France] is about the finest in the world, fairly took away my breath." -- May Alcott in a letter to Anna Alcott dated May 30, 1870

In a letter to Anna Alcott dated May 30, 1870, May Alcott said: “The grand viaduct which, according to Murray [an 1870 guidebook] is about the finest in the world, fairly took away my breath.”

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The grand viaduct across the River Rance in Dinan is still breathtaking. The day I was there the local rowing club was preparing for practice on the other side of the river.

May sketched the Porte of Jerzual and the steep little rue de Jerzual, which winds down from the upper village to the river, and is lined with timbered old shops that lean in over the cobblestoned street:

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Porte du Jerzual, Dinan, France

Porte du Jerzual, Dinan, France

A scene from rue de Jerzual in Dinan. As May said in a letter home dated April 29, 1870: "Yesterday we down the oldest street in town, (where, in spite of the steepness, Queen Ann's carriage is said to have trundled over it), to the river which runs at the foot. The houses overhang the street in funny little gabled stories almost shutting out all light from above, and it being very narrow & extremely steep, you can see it was a sensation to have explored it."

A scene from rue de Jerzual in Dinan. As May said in a letter home dated April 29, 1870: “Yesterday we went down the oldest street in town, (where, in spite of the steepness, Queen Ann’s carriage is said to have trundled over it), to the river which runs at the foot. The houses overhang the street in funny little gabled stories almost shutting out all light from above, and it being very narrow & extremely steep, you can see it was a sensation to have explored it.”

In their letters home, the Alcott sisters both mention their visit to the neighboring village of Léhon, which is just a mile or so down in the valley from Dinan along Route D12. Louisa May wrote home after going to a fair in the village and said (in a letter dated April 20, 1870):

May is going to sketch the castle so I won’t waste paper describing the pretty place with the ruined church full of rooks, the old mill with the water wheel housed in vines, or the winding river, and meadows full of blue hyacinths and rosy daisies.

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The remains of the Léhon castle in the background.

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The Abbey and Chapel in Lehon, France, once sketched by May Alcott

The Abbey Church in Lehon, France, once sketched by May Alcott

The River Rance through Léhon, France.

The River Rance through Léhon, France.

The Alcotts also visited the Chateau de la Garaye, a lovely site located just a couple of miles from the village of Dinan. May wrote home to tell her mother about the beautiful ruins there:

I have tried to sketch from memory a lovely old ruin, where we spent the day yesterday, but can give you a very indefinite notion of the gray old tower with ivy clinging to it in all directions, the rear walls having all crumbled away. The blue sky shone through the little ornamental windows in a way that was quite enchanting. It is only about two miles from Dinan and a pretty walk though the wood to the moat and great embattled walls, which surround the chateau.

Alice and I walked, while Lu went down in a donkey carriage. . . . We found a large party of English people already at the castle sketching it with pencil in colors. . . .

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The  ruins of the Chateau de la Garaye still stand today. “The blue sky shone though the little ornamental windows in a way that was quite enchanting.” — May Alcott, April 1870. It makes me so glad to know some things just don’t change in over 140 years.

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My own colored pencil sketch of the ruins of Chateau de la Garaye

May Alcott’s Life Beyond Dinan:

After the Alcott sisters left Dinan in the summer of 1870, they continued their European travels and proceeded to the Loire Valley, Switzerland and Italy. They found themselves the middle of the Franco-Prussian war which broke out that July but managed to find safety in Switzerland, along with many other refugees from Paris and Strasbourg. Louisa May returned to Boston the next summer, but May went on to study art in London on her own and didn’t return until November, 1871, when she was called home to help the rest of the family.

May Alcott returned to London and Paris in 1873 and then again in 1876. She would study at the Academie Julian in the Passage des Panoramas in 1876-77, and would attend the Paris Salon of 1877 where her own still life painting would be exhibited. She would be invited to Mary Cassatt’s home for tea, and would travel to the rather bohemian art colony in Grez in the summer of 1877. She was living a ground-breaking life as an American expatriate female artist.

In late 1877, while May was living on her own in London, she would learn that her mother had died. In her grief she developed a quick romance with Ernest Nieriker, a young Swiss businessman fifteen years her junior, to whom she would become engaged in March of 1878. The newlyweds would move to a lovely little home in the suburbs of Paris, where she dreamed of combining a career in art with marriage and a possible family. She would have yet another painting accepted in the Paris Salon, and would publish a guidebook for women artists called Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply. At the end of 1878, May’s personal life and her art career were making gratifying moves forward.

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But then, in December of 1879, May Alcott Nieriker died six weeks after giving birth to her daughter Lulu. She was only 39 years old. Baby Lulu was first sent to live with her aunt Louisa May in the United States, but when Louisa May died just nine years later, young Lulu was returned to her father in Switzerland.

We are lucky to have been left with such a prolific record of May Alcott’s remarkable travels and experiences, even if they were short-lived. Thanks to the details and sketches provided in Little Women Abroad, we can follow along. It’s worth the trip.