Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton, 1905

August 1-2, 1914: World War I Breaks Out and Wharton Visits her Dressmaker 

One hundred years ago today, American novelist Edith Wharton was living in Paris, and like all Parisians, was waiting for news of war. Germany and Russia had declared war on each other only the day before. Everyone in Paris held their breath.

Edith Wharton visited her dressmaker.

I’m not making light of the tragedy of war, and neither was Wharton. I remember studying history in college and thinking to myself, there has to be more to history than the story of men marching into battle. What did the women do? How were the families affected? What did the women whisper among themselves?

Imagine yourself a woman in Paris on the eve of war. It’s the beginning of August. Everyone knows that Paris empties out for an entire month at the end of summer. Who knows what businesses would stay open if war came. If Edith Wharton needed to get fitted for new dresses, time was of the essence.

Wharton couldn’t just run into Galleries Lafayette, recently opened in 1912, because that kind of place provided fast fashion for the masses. Wharton was a high-society woman, and had been a long-time client of the fashionable couture dress designers of rue de la Paix in Paris, such as the House of Worth and Droucet.

In Fighting France (Scribner’s 1915), Wharton reports that she visited her dressmaker’s, but is discreet enough not to drop a name. We don’t know if she went to Worth, Droucet, or someone else’s shop, but it was likely on the rue de la Paix, just a short walk from the Hôtel de Crillon where she was staying. She later stated in an article for Scribner’s Magazine that she interacted with the seamstresses who were anxious about the prospect of war.

At the dressmaker’s, the next morning, the tired fitters were preparing to leave for their usual holiday. They looked pale and anxious – decidedly, there was a new air of apprehension in the air.


Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907

Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/


House of Worth Salon, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

House of Worth Draping blouses, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/



After visiting the dressmaker, Edith Wharton returned to La Place de la Concorde, where she observed people standing on the street corner, reading a newly posted notice on the French Naval Headquarters. It was the French mobilization notice.

And in the rue Royale, at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, a few people had stopped to look at a little white piece of paper against the wall of the Ministère de Marine. “General mobilization” they read – and an armed nation knows what that means. But the group about the paper was small and quiet. Passers by read the notice and went on. There were no cheers, no gesticulations: the dramatic sense of the race had told them that the event was too great to be dramatized. Like a monstrous landslide it had fallen across the path of an orderly laborious nation, disrupting its routine, annihilating its industries, rending families apart, and burying under a heap of senseless ruin the patiently and painfully wrought machinery of civilization. . . .



Later that night, Wharton dined at a restaurant on rue Royale, not far at all from the Crillon. It could have been Maxim’s, which was certainly a popular dining destination at the time. Wharton could see that the mobilization order was already being obeyed.

That evening, in a restaurant of the rule Royale, we sat at a table in one of the open windows, abreast with the street, and saw the strange new crowds stream by. In an instant we were being shown what mobilization was – a huge break in the normal flow of traffic, like the sudden rupture of a dike. The street was flooded by the torrent of people flowing past us to the various railway stations. All were on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn, every cab and taxi and motor-omnibus has disappeared. The War Office had thrown out its drag-net and caught them all in. The crowd that passed out window was chiefly composed of conscripts, the mobilisables of the first day, who were on their way to the station accompanied by their families and friends; but among them were little clusters of bewildered tourists, laboring along with bags and bundles, and watching their luggage pushed before them with hand-carts – puzzled inarticulate waifs caught in the cross-tides racing to a maelstrom (Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).



Inside the rue Royal restaurant a loud patriotic mood prevailed.

In the restaurant, the befrogged and red-coated band poured out patriotic music, and the intervals between the courses that so few waiters were left to serve were broken by the ever-recurring obligation to stand up for the Marseillaise, and to stand up for God Save the King, to stand up for the Russian National Anthem, to stand up again for the Marseillaise. “Et dire que ce sont des Hongrois qui jouent tout cela!” a humorist remarked from the pavement. [And to say that they are all Hungarians who play here!]

As the evening wore on and the crowd about our window thickened, the loiterers outside began to join in the war-songs. “Allons, debout!” and the loyal round begins again. “La chanson du départ” is a frequent demand; and the chorus of spectators chimes in roundly. A sort of quiet humor was the note of the street. Down the rue Royale, toward the Madeleine, the bands of other restaurants were attracting other throngs, and martial refrains were stru ng along the Boulevard like its garland of arc-lights. It was a night of singing and acclamations, not boistrous, but gallant and determined. It was Paris badauderie at its best

(Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).


Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914

Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914


Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6931124r

Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914.


Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm

Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm









*A note about dates: Edith Wharton’s exact dates get confusing in Fighting France, The Look of Paris. She often repeats herself by saying, “the next day.” The reader is left to wonder, the next day, or the same day as the last time you said the next day? For example, it appears the French mobilization order was issued at 4pm on August 1st, but it was dated August 2nd. So did Edith Wharton see the posted notice late in the day on the first or mid-day on the 2nd? Sorry to confuse you even further. My point is, I’m trying to get the dates right but I could be off a day or two. Let’s just all stipulate that it’s definitely early August? Good. Then I’m done worrying about it.

Recommended Reading:

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.




Paris, August 1,1914: Edith Wharton Waits for War

August 1, 1914: Edith Wharton Wakes Up at the Hôtel de Crillon; Russia and Germany Declare War

Edith Wharton had been living in Paris for over seven years by the time World War I started. She first arrived in 1907 at the age of 45, along with her then-husband Teddy Wharton. She settled in along the rue de Varenne in the fashionable 7th arrondissement.

age of desire 1


For an enjoyable read about Edith Wharton’s early years in Paris, her surprising mid-life affair with Morton Fullerton, and her divorce from her American husband, you should definitely check out Jennie Fields’ 2012 novel, Age of Desire. (And follow along on my Edith Wharton Paris Literary Tour here.)

By the time war came in 1914, Wharton was a seasoned American in Paris. She knew Paris and Parisians well, and had claimed the city as her own.



On July 30, 1914, Wharton had just returned to Paris from a “motorflight” to Spain with her friend Walter Berry. She checked into her favorite suite at Hôtel de Crillon, her favorite Paris hotel on the Place de la Concorde. It was her habit to check into the Crillon to get settled back into town, even if she had owned her own home at 53 rue de Varenne since 1910.

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

Wharton woke up at the Crillon on August 1st, observing and listening as she moved through the hotel and the streets of Paris. As Wharton later reported:

The next day, the air was thundery with rumors. Nobody believed them, everyone repeated them. War? Of course there couldn’t be war! The Cabinets, like naughty children, were dangling their feet over the edge; but the whole incalculable weight of things-as-they-were, the daily necessity of living, continued calmly and convincingly to assert itself against the bandying of diplomatic words. Paris went on steadily with its mid-summer business of feeding, dressing and amusing the great army of tourists who were the only invaders she had seen in nearly half a century.


All the while, everyone knew that other work was going on also. The whole fabric of the country’s seemingly undisturbed routine was threaded with noiseless invisible currents of preparation, the sense of them was in the calm air as the sense of changing weather is in the balminess of a perfect afternoon. Paris counted the minutes until the evening papers came.


They said little or nothing except what everyone was already declaring all over the country. “We don’t want war – maid il faut que cell finesse!” “This thing has got to stop”: that was the only phrase one heard. If diplomacy could still arrest the war, so much the better – no one in France wanted it. All who spent the first days of August in Paris will testify to the agreement of feeling on that point. But if war had to come, the country, and every heart in it, was ready (Fighting France, 1915).


What Wharton does not say is exactly what the papers had reported. In fact, on August 1, 1914, Russia and Germany declared war on each other, just four days after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. France was not yet at war, but all of Paris waited the news that was likely to come.

Coming Next: August 2, 1914 – Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker; France Issues a Mobilization Order


Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.



Back to Sarah’s Key

The original US cover of Sarah's Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace?)

The original US cover of Sarah’s Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace. Anyone else notice that or is it just me?)

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay was one of the first books I wanted to map out during my year in Paris. I read this book with my Chicago-based book club and never forgot it. I was determined to find the sites from the book and take some photos for my blog. My original post, with photos of the commemorative plaques and statues near the Eiffel Tower can be found right here.

I’ve been meaning to update that post for awhile now. Back in 2012, I made some new discoveries and went back to take some more photographs. How it happened is kind of cool.

I noticed that one of my favorite Paris bloggers (Richard Nahem of Eye Prefer Paris) had posted photos of the courtyard of the fictional apartment from Sarah’s Key. But wait! His photos were of 26, rue Saintonge in the Marais, and mine were from 32, rue Saintonge. Whoops!

I tweeted out to Richard (I’m @parisartclub, he’s @eyepreferparis) wondering about the mix-up, when who should tweet us back? Tatiana de Rosnay herself (what a treat!), explaining the reason for our confusion. Apparently, in the book Sarah’s address is 26, rue de Saintonge and in the movie it’s 32.

So then of course I had to go see the address from the book for myself. I good friend and fellow reader from Chicago was visiting and was game for a literary trek. We headed into the Marais (she had a recent travel article in hand about the hopping Haut-Marais) and we found ourselves near rue de Saintonge. “This way to Sarah’s house!” I pointed. Obviously, book lovers like me have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction.

I found the bright blue doors at #26, just like Eye Prefer Paris had earlier. My friend and I also got the chance to peek in the courtyard, and we had a little “book club moment.” We looked up at the open windows, picturing Sarah’s old neighbor the music teacher, playing the violin as he sat in his window. Seriously, I think I wiped away a tear or two.

Here is the passage from Sarah’s Key that we recalled:

     Outside, the girl saw a neighbor wearing pajamas leaning out his window. He was a nice man, a music teacher. He liked playing the violin, and she liked listening to him. He often played for her and her brother from across the courtyard. Old French songs like “Sur le pont d’Avignon” and `A la claire fontaine,” and also songs from her parents’ country, songs that always got her mother and father dancing gaily, her mother’s slippers sliding across the floorboards, her father twirling her round and round, round and round until they all felt dizzy.

“What are you doing? Where are you taking them?” he called out.

His voice ran across the courtyard, covering the baby’s yells. The man in the raincoat did not answer him.

“But you can’t do this,” said the neighbor. “They’re honest good people! You can’t do this!”

At the sound of his voice, shutters began to open, faces peered out from behind curtains.

But the girl noticed that nobody moved, nobody said anything. They simply watched.



The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge

The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge


The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah's Key at 36 rue de Saintonge, Paris

The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah’s Key at 26 rue de Saintonge, Paris. Can’t you just picture the nice man and his violin leaning out the window?


photo 3



photo 2-3


The plaque on a nearby school. It says: "From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were Jews. MOre than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the elementary schools in this quarter. Let's Never Forget Them.

The plaque on a nearby school on rue des Quatre-Fils in the 3rd.  It says: “From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were born Jewish. More than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the Ecoles Elementaires Filles et Garcons des Quatre-Fils.  Never Forget Them.














This is all probably a good reminder as we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris on August 25, 2014. Ne les oublions jamais.


A Paris Apartment: Boldini’s Madame de Florian



I’ve got a new Paris art novel for you: A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable (St. Martin’s Press 2014).

It all began with an amazing but true story of a long-lost Boldini portrait of a woman named Marthe de Florian, pictured below.

Madame de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888), private collection. Sold for 2.1 million euros at a Drouot house auction in September, 2010.

In 2010, the London Telegraph reported the fascinating true story about an abandoned Paris apartment. When estate representatives entered the dusty apartment, it had been untouched for 70 years. They discovered roomfuls of antiques and what appeared to be a previously unknown portrait by the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini. It turns out the woman in the portrait was Marthe de Florian, who had lived in the abandoned apartment back in the 1890s. A love letter from Boldini to de Florian confirmed the painting’s provenance and a record-setting auction followed.

Marthe de Florian's apartment in Paris, abandoned by her descendants in 1940, reopened in 2010.

Marthe de Florian’s apartment in Paris, abandoned by her descendants in 1940, reopened in 2010. (Source: michellegable.com/2014/04/finding-inspiration-moving-forward )

This book brings to mind one of my favorite art history novels, Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X, which told the story of the woman behind John Singer Sargent’s infamous painting. I’ve blogged about that book, that painting, and John Singer Sargent’s years in Paris here.

It turns out that Giovanni Boldini was a friend of John Singer Sargent’s and they traveled in the same Paris art circles. As Gable reveals in the book, Boldini took over Sargent’s art studio on rue Notre Dame des Champs after Sargent abandoned Paris in favor of London. Boldini’s style is similar to Sargent’s, but perhaps even bolder and more stylized. He was, as Michelle Gable says in the book, known as “The Master of Swish.”

Giovani Boldini, Self-Portrait (1892)

Giovani Boldini, Self-Portrait (1892)

73 rue des Notre-Dame-Des-Champs, once Boldini's studio in Paris

73 rue des Notre-Dame-Des-Champs, once Boldini’s studio in Paris

But who was this Madame de Florian? We know that she was an actress and demimondaine who modeled for Boldini in a scandalously seductive pose. She lived in a lovely Paris apartment in the 9th arrondissement. She had at least one descendant who lived in the south of France and who cared little for the remnants of her grandmother’s life. But the limited information available about her just makes you want to know more. Wouldn’t it be great if she had left behind a diary, telling us the secrets behind this mysterious life?

Thanks to Michelle Gable, that’s exactly what we get in A Paris Apartment. Marthe de Florian’s fictional diaries are rich, engaging and completely alive. Gable conjures up a woman who started as a bartender at Les Folies Bergères (I couldn’t help but picture her just like the bartender in Manet’s famous painting, including the dress and the jewelry). It was well known at the time that many of these bartenders were semi-prostitutes who supplemented their earnings at the bar with gifts and income from their customers. Michelle Gable’s Marthe de Florian knows just how to target the wealthiest customers, and soon she is living in a grand Paris apartment and wearing the most fashionable clothes.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at The Folies-Bergère (1881-1882)

Edouard Manet, A Bar at The Folies-Bergère (1881-1882)

Michelle Gable’s Marthe fully enjoys the demimonde lifestyle, sipping beer or absinthe with bohemian artists, writers and dandies, including Boldini, Singer Sargent, Proust, Zola, Dumas and the Count de Montesquiou. We even have an appearance by Victor Hugo’s granddaughter Jeanne. Like Marthe de Florian, many of these real-life characters posed for Boldini portraits, including de Montisquiou, Jeanne Hugo and Singer Sargent. A quick look at each of these portraits can really add to your enjoyment of these historical passages of the book.

Robert de Montisquiou as painted by Giovanni Boldini (1897), Musée d'Orsay

Giovanni Boldini,  Count Robert de Montesquiou (1897), Musée d’Orsay.  As Madame de Florian says in her fictional diary in the book: “According to Montesquiou, Boldini positively insisted on the inclusion of Le Compte’s beloved turquoise-handled cane in the portrait. He ordered Robert to hold it up near his mouth and gaze at it fondly, as one might an old lover one was glad to see again.”


Giovanni Boldini, Madame Georges Hugo (Jeanne Hugo) and Her Son, Charles Daudet (1897), private collection

Giovanni Boldini, Madame Georges Hugo (Jeanne Hugo) and Her Son, Charles Daudet (1898), private collection

Giovanni Boldini, JOhn Singer Sargent (1890), private collection

Giovanni Boldini, John Singer Sargent (1890), private collection

In addition to the story of Marthe de Florian, there is a parallel modern-day story of April Vogt, an American furniture expert from Sotheby’s who is called to Paris to help prepare the contents of the apartment for auction. Although these chapters might feel a little  “rom-com” predictable to some, they offer fascinating insights into the world of art world auction houses and estate sales, and add another layer of interest, romance and fun Paris scenery to the novel. One of the highlights is when April attends a traditional bal des pompiers (Fireman’s Ball) with an attractive French lawyer on the night before Bastille Day. I’m picturing the movie trailer already!

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable:  Highly Recommended

Related Reading: I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto

Related Post: John Singer Sargent and Madame X 




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

lovers chameleon club

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.


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.



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.


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/


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


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


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


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/




Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

astonish me


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:

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

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.



Cassat and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you

I Always Loved You is Robin Oliveira’s wonderfully atmospheric story about Mary Cassatt’s early years in Paris, beginning in 1877 when Edgar Degas invited her to exhibit with the revolutionary group of French artists known as the Impressionists. Oliveira has done a fabulous job of capturing the place and times of these 19th century artists, including Degas, Morisot, Manet, Renoir Caillebotte and Pissaro.

Oliveira offers us lively and colorful scenes in Paris, from the studios of Montmartre to the salon scene along the Champs d’Elysée. I have photos of some of these scenes in an earlier post called Mary Cassatt’s Greater Journey, including her homes on avenues Trudaine and Marignan.

As the title suggests, this book imagines that there was more to the story of the friendship  between Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas and Cassatt were known to be very close friends and colleagues. It is absolutely true that Degas had an enormous influence on Cassatt’s art and life. But was there ever more? Oliveira imagines their story as a love story.

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886)

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886), pastel on paper

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878),  gouche on paper 23x17in Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878), gouche on paper 23×17″ 
Metropolitan Museum of Art,

But wait. Wasn’t Degas the disagreeable painter of nude prostitutes, working class absinthe drinkers and the petit rats from the demi-monde of the Opéra? He had a bad reputation, if rumors are to be believed. Some have made him out to be celibate, impotent, a misogynist, or even a sex offender.

And wasn’t Cassatt a cloistered woman of high social standing, best known for her tender portraits of mothers and children?

What could these two possibly have in common? Despite their differences, there was something that bound the two together, and I believe it was their fanatic devotion to their art. They both worked brutally hard at their technique and admired that in each other. They loved capturing the color of flesh and preferred to paint indoors, unlike many of the other Impressionists. They were the most experimental of the Impressionists, spending a great deal of time working and re-working their prints.

Was there ever more than this professional bond? We will never know. Cassatt destroyed all of her letters with Degas before she died. Oliveira draws her own inferences from that big mysterious gap, but I’m not so sure. Can’t Cassatt’s extraordinary work speak for itself? Isn’t her true story – as far as we know it – enough? Isn’t it enough that Cassatt and Degas had an intense, complicated, or even tortured friendship? Why do we have to impose on her our desire for romance?

This story is different than the one about the love affair between Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton that Jennie Fields wrote about in Age of Desire (2012). That imagined story was based on Edith Wharton own letters. Her late-in-life extramarital affair might have been a surprise to Wharton’s many fans and admirers, but it was undeniably true. And with it came the revelation that Edith Wharton had written her own erotica. Quelle surprise! 

The Cassatt-Degas question is similar to the one between Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, whose story is also told in Oliveira’s book. There were rumors of a romance there too, and inferences to be drawn. Both Morisot and Manet left behind some remarkable paintings that give us a potential peek at their inner secrets. I’ve written about this in the past – you might want to check out this previous post, Berthe Morisot’s Interior.

So are there any clues in Degas and Cassatt’s work?

Degas made numerous drawings, prints, pastels and etchings of Cassatt in the years between 1879 and 1885. But there is not one nude, no sweet smiles or sultry stares. Mary Cassatt would never have subjected herself to that kind of exposure. All we have are inscrutable poses like this:

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt (1880-1884).  Mary Stevenson Cassatt / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas, c. 1880-1884 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents' Major Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt  by Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, (1880-1884), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Degas made a series of studies, drawings and prints of Mary and her sister Lydia at the Louvre, including this study of Mary’s silhouette:

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study (1880)

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study in pastel (1880), Philadephia Museum of Art

The second pose is flattering, and has an unmistakeable sense of Degas’ interested gaze, but it is a long way from suggesting that they were lovers.

And yet it nags us, if there was nothing improper, why would Cassatt destroy their letters? It is entirely within this mysterious gap that Oliveria’s book takes place.

The letter burning story does make for lovely opening and closing scenes in I Always Loved You. Cassatt is elderly and living with no one but her long-term housekeeper at her country home, the Chateau de Beaufresne, and she is reading the letters she and Degas wrote to each other.

But she had kept these letters, as he had kept hers, though what they had been thinking, she couldn’t imagine. Such recklessness. Private conversations should always remain private. Why should anyone know what they themselves had barely known?

At the very end of the book, Oliveria returns to this same scene and shows Cassatt sitting in the dim light next to the fire, nearly blind from cataracts, as she decides to destroy the letters.

Was it a crime to burn memory? She didn’t know. Memory is all we have, Degas had once said. Memory is what life is, in the end.

She would be ash herself, soon, like all the others. She thrust the letters one by one into the fire. . . .

The pages burned on and on. And in those flames the years evaporated, the things unsaid and foregone, the misunderstandings and misconceptions and subverted hopes, the things that would now never be said.

Did they or didn’t they? We’ll never know for sure. Oliveira’s book offers one possible interpretation. What’s yours?

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source: http://www.mary-cassatt.net

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source: http://www.mary-cassatt.net

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Château_de_Beaufresne.JPG

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Château_de_Beaufresne.JPG

If you’re a fan of Mary Cassatt and would like to see more photos of Chateau de Beaufresne and the family gravesite nearby in Mesnil-Théribus, go to http://www.mary-cassatt.net. I hope to get there myself on my next trip to Paris.

Demeter’s Choice: A Portrait of Artist Mary Lawrence Tonetti


Demeter's Choice

Demeter’s Choice: A Portrait of My Grandmother as a Young Artist is the story of a young American sculptor named Mary Lawrence Tonetti who began studying under Augustus Saint-Gaudens at a very young age. She came of age in the art studios of New York and Paris in the late 19th century, and is most famous for her sculpture of Christopher Columbus for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

The author is the sculptor’s own granddaughter, Mary Tonetti Dorra, who had access to wonderful personal information to make the story rich with detail and insight. There are even copies of some of Mary Lawrence’s original pen and ink sketches and travel notes.

Demeter’s Choice tells the story of one woman’s choice between art and love. Mary Lawrence led a remarkable, artistic life both before and after her big choice. It’s a life worth knowing more about. And for the followers of this blog who like to hear about art history in Paris, I’ll point out all of the Paris sites and scenes of interest.

Mary Lawrence Tonetti (1868-1945). Source: sgnhs.org.

Mary Lawrence Tonetti (1868-1945). Source: sgnhs.org.

Mary Lawrence was a privileged young woman (her ancestors included a mayor of New York and Captain James Lawrence, a famous patriot famous for his wartime utterance: “Don’t give up the ship!”) who began a pampered life in Cliffside, her family’s large estate overlooking the Hudson River in Sneden’s Landing, New York. Mary was known to have grown up with a “robust temperament” and a taste for the outdoors. (Which to me is the Gilded Age way of saying she was a handful, a tomboy, a bit of a rebel. Funny how many of those kinds of Gilded Age girls turned out to be artists, especially sculptors….)

Mary enjoyed art from a very young age. When she was only seven years old, her family arranged for the up-and-coming Augustus Saint-Gaudens to come up to Sneden’s Landing to teach drawing and sculpture to Mary a group of other children. (Not a bad start for a kid!) When she was older, Mary continued art lessons at Saint-Gauden’s Fourteenth Street Studio in the German Savings Bank in New York City. Saint-Gaudens would have a huge influence on Mary’s life and career in art.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, mentor and friend of Mary Lawrence

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, mentor and friend of Mary Lawrence

German Savings Bank around 1872, site of Augustus St. Gaudens studio. Source: Office for Metropolitan HIstory NYC

The German Savings Bank around 1872, the site of Augustus Saint-Gaudens 14th Street studio. Source: Office for Metropolitan History NYC.

By the time Mary was twenty years old, she was personal friends with Saint-Gaudens’ whole crowd, including the architects Charles McKim and Stanford White. Demeter’s Choice has a lovely scene where Saint-Gaudens, McKim and White joined Mary for a picnic at Sneden’s Landing before she set sail on her first Grand Tour of Europe in 1886. There were hints that Charles McKim, a married man of nearly forty, was already falling in love with her despite their vast difference in age.

Accompanied by a supportive aunt and her more conventional sister Edith, Mary Lawrence made the Grand Tour of Europe, including a summer of sightseeing through Belguim and Germany before she would settle in Paris and begin her art studies it the women’s atelier of the Académie Julian.

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

Passage des Panoramas, just off of boulevard Montmartre in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julian’s atelier for women. The studio is no longer there, but a stroll through the arcade will still give you a sense of the time and place.

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

Marie Bashkirtseff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian by a Russian student famous for her memoir, The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff.

Being a friend and an assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens opened many doors upon Mary’s arrival in Paris. He introduced her to many of the American artists who worked or studied there, including Mary Louise Fairchild from St. Louis, who was studying with Carolus-Duran and the Académie Julian on a prestigious fellowship. In Demeter’s Choice, the two Marys meet at the opening night of the Paris Salon of 1886, where Mary Fairchild’s portrait of Sara Hallowell was on display. Sara Hallowell was an American art agent for wealthy American art collectors such as Bertha Palmer of Chicago. Sara lived part of the year in Paris developing close relationships with Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin. Mary Lawrence was making all the right connections too, a rare opportunity for such a young artist.

Mlle S. H. (Sara Tyson Hollowell) by Mary Fairchild (1886). Source: www.pubhist.com)

Mlle S. H. (Sara Tyson Hollowell) oil on canvas by Mary Fairchild (1886). Property of The Warden and Fellows of Robinson College, University of Cambridge. This is the portrait that was exhibited in the 1886 Paris Salon where Mary Lawrence met Mary Fairchild and Sara Hallowell. Source: http://www.pubhist.com

Within a week of her arrival in Paris, Mary Lawrence was invited to Auguste Rodin’s art studio which he shared with his student and young mistress Camille Claudel. Together they strolled through the studio where Mary got to see the models for The Burghers of Calais and some of the figures from The Gates of Hell. Today you can see these works for yourself at the Musée Rodin, one of my favorite museums in Paris. Inside you can even see some of Camille Claudel’s sculptures as well.

Mary and her sister settled into their apartment at 56 rue Notre Dame des Champs in the heart of the Left Bank of Paris, within a few blocks of some of the biggest names in the art world, such as John Singer Sargent, Carolus-Duran, James Whistler and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Saint-Gaudens and his wife lived nearby, at 3 rue Herschel just on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens. Like many Americans ever since then, Mary came to adore Paris, from the macaroons at LaDurée, to the baguettes from her local boulangerie to a lovely stroll through the Palais Royal.



Being a young woman of privilege in the Gilded Age meant you had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe instead of having to freeze or starve your way through a miserable winter in Paris. Mary Lawrence left Paris for a few winter months in Italy with her family entourage before she returned to New York in the summer of 1887. By the spring of 1888, she had returned to Paris for another season of classes at the Académie Julian.

Once her second session of Paris art studies were over, Mary returned to New York, where she taught at the Art Students League, served as Saint-Gaudens’ assistant and worked on her own sculpting projects.

In the fall of 1891, Mary learned that she would be awarded a contract to create a statue of Christopher Columbus for the Chicago World’s Fair under the supervision of Saint-Gaudens. It was a huge honor. Most women who received commissions for the fair (such as Mary Cassatt, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies and Sophia Hayden) were contracted through a separate Board of Lady Managers led by the Chicago society queen Bertha Palmer. Mary Lawrence received her commission directly from the Fair Commissioners, who were all male. You can read a fun 1893 New York Times article about Mary’s commission here.

Demeter’s Choice tells the wonderful story of a fight between Mary Lawrence and her supporters versus Frank Millet, a particularly odious fair organizer, who objected to the prominent placement of her Columbus statue because it was made by a “female novice.” Millet actually arranged to have it moved to a spot near the train station. You’ll have to read for yourself to learn what happened next. If you look at the image below, it is amazing what a good job young Mary Lawrence did – she was young, but certainly no novice.

"Columbus Taking Possession." The Administration Building From Columbian Gallery: A Portfolio of Photographs of the World's Fair, The Werner Company. The prominent and handsome figure of Columbus, which stood in the portal, was the work of Miss Mary T. Lawrence, and represented the landing of Columbus, and the planting of the Spanish flag in the colonies of the New World. 1893. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/field_museum_library/3409425513/in/photostream/

“Columbus Taking Possession.”  Mary Lawrence’s statue of Columbus, which stood in the portal of the Administration Building at the Chicago Worlds Fair. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/field_museum_library/3409425513/in/photostream/

After the excitement of the Chicago World’s Fair was over, Mary went back to Paris. She continued her studies at the Académie Julian and renewed her many friendships with the artists of the Left Bank and beyond. Mary was on everyone’s guest list, attending soirées hosted by the likes of Charles Dana Gibson and James Whistler. It was at Gibson’s glamorous ball and then again at Whistler’s home at 110 rue de Bac that Mary Lawrence met François Tonetti, a sculpting assistant to Frederick MacMonnies. The rest, as they say, was history.

The plaque at James Whistler's home in rue de Bac where Mary Lawrence first met François Tonetti in 1893. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/monceau/7759948652/

The plaque at James Whistler’s home on rue de Bac, where Mary Lawrence and François Tonetti met for the second time in 1893. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/monceau/7759948652/

A close-up image of a portrait of François Tonetti by François Flameng. Source: http://palisadesny.com/nature/take-hike/

A close-up image of a portrait of François Tonetti by François Flameng. Source: http://palisadesny.com/nature/take-hike/

Even after she met the charming and passionate François, Mary Lawrence continued to work as a sculptor in her own Twenty-Third Street studio in New York and to teach Saint-Gaudens’ classes at the Art Students League through most of the1890s. Charles McKim continued to pursue her, as did François, her favorite Frenchman.

Saint-Gaudens didn’t want his protégée to marry, worried that she would give up her art for a house full of “festive children.” He asked: “wIll she just die and fade into the wife of François Tonetti…?” Others objected because François wasn’t from the “same stock” as the Lawrences. Mary’s own sister pressed her to choose Charles McKim, who offered a more proper and promising future than a bohemian artist could.

No matter what choice Mary Lawrence would make, it was clear that she wouldn’t die and fade away. She would always live in a world of art. Mary Lawrence lived the rest of her life surrounded by artists, founding and developing an artist’s colony in Sneden’s Landing. Generations of artists and actors have enjoyed living there, including Gerald and Sara Murphy, Orson Wells, Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie, Bill Murray and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Just for fun, you can check out this recent gossip article about Tom Cruise checking out the real estate in Sneden’s Landing.

Quite a story and quite a legacy. We are so lucky that Mary Lawrence’s granddaughter wrote it all down. 

Mary Tonetti Dorra. Source: www.marytonettidora.com.

Mary Tonetti Dorra. Source: http://www.marytonettidorra.com.

Author Mary Tonetti Dorra has a list of appearances scheduled in early 2014. You can check them out for yourself on her website.

Review and Recommendation by Margie White of the American Girls Art Club in Paris

Fanny and Louis in Grez

wide starry sky

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.  

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: A Novel

fountain st. james court

Sena Jeter Naslund (the author of nine other novels, including my own personal favorites Ahab’s Wife and Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette) has written a marvelous new novel focusing on the life of Louise-Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, a highly successful female portrait artist in 18th century France.

Vigée LeBrun’s own self-portrait (Self Portrait in a Straw Hat) gazes out at us from the book cover with an expression of confidence and contentment. Here is a woman who knew who she was and how to paint it.

Check out the full portrait below. Look how confidently Vigée Le Brun paints the light falling across her face, the glisten of her own lips, the cool shadows of her neck. And her hands, one firmly holding the tools of her profession, and the other, open, extended, and more feminine, welcoming the viewer’s closer scrutiny. The earrings, the flowers, the bows and the beauty: here I am, it says, I am a woman painter.

Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1782). Original in a private collection, copy at the National Gallery of London.

Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1782). Original in a private collection, copy at the National Gallery of London. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Fountain of St. James Court is much more than a biography of Vigée LeBrun’s life; its subtitle also makes clear that the book is an exploration of the lives of mature women artists, with a nod to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To me, the subtitle is a challenge: yes, Joyce’s portrait of a young man is masterful, but an equal if not superior wonder, is how female artists sustain joyful work over the course of a long and challenging life.

To answer this question, the novel follows a day in the life of Kathryn (“Ryn”) Callahan, a 69 year-old author who lives by herself in an older neighborhood known as St. James Court in Louisville, Kentucky. She has just finished the manuscript for her ninth novel, the story of Vigée Le Brun. Ryn spends much of the day contemplating her long artistic life that has included three unsuccessful marriages but many well-cultivated friendships, a satisfying career, and a devoted relationship with one adult son.

The two threads of this novel work together to explore the lives of women artists, who have so very much in common even though they are separated by over 200 years.

It’s probably no surprise that my favorite story line was that of Vigée LeBrun, who was born in Paris in 1755. Her father was an artist who gave Elisabeth her first set of pastels and allowed her to sit in on the evenings he hosted with the (male) artistic circles of Paris. By the time Elisabeth was 13 years old it was clear she was a gifted artist: she began taking art classes at the Louvre and painting stunning pictures of friends and family.

Portrait of The Artist's Mother, Madame Le Sevre (painted around 1768, when Elisabeth would have been only 13 years old.)  This painting was sold for $122,500 at a Christie's auction in 2012.

Portrait of The Artist’s Mother, Madame Le Sevre (painted around 1768-70, when Elisabeth would have been only 13-15 years old.) This painting was sold for $122,500 at a Christie’s auction in 2012. (Source: Christies.com)

After the death of Elisabeth’s father, her mother insisted on moving to a more fashionable neighborhood on rue St. Honoré overlooking the terrace of the Palais-Royale, where they could meet more of the aristocracy who would support Elisabeth’s  painting career. Soon Elisabeth is painting the portraits of Dukes and Duchesses, including the Duchesse de Chartres and the Comtess de Brionne.

The gardens of the Palais-Royal, where Vigée Le Brun strolled alongside the French aristocracy who would commission her to paint their portraits.

The gardens of the Palais-Royal, where Vigée Le Brun once strolled alongside the French aristocracy. Today it’s still a lovely place for a walk or a picnic, with or without the aristocracy.

The carefully manicured trees cast dapples of shade in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, just as they would have 250 years ago in the days of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

At the age of 20, Elisabeth married M. Le Brun, Parisian art dealer with whom she shared a love of art. Like her stepfather, her husband claimed all of her commissions, which was his legal right, and spent much of it on gambling and extravagant women. Elisabeth painted on, learning that “[a]s long as I can paint, I will always be happy.”

By the time she was 23, Elisabeth had been invited to Versailles to meet Marie Antoinette. Elisabeth was known for her flattering pictures of society women, so it was hoped that her paintings would present a more positive image of the increasingly unpopular queen. Elisabeth became a part of the royal inner circle and the royal family’s portraitist, making over 30 paintings of the queen and her family between 1778 and 1789.

Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778). Supposedly, Le Brun made 6 copies of this painting. Two are in the French state collection, one was lost or stolen when the US congress  was burned by the British in 1812, one was given to Catherine the Great (location now unknown) and two others are missing.

Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778). Supposedly, Le Brun made 6 copies of this painting. Two are in the French state collection, one was lost or stolen when the US congress was burned by the British in 1812, one was given to Catherine the Great (location now unknown) and two others are missing.

Marie Antoinette with a Rose by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1783)

Marie Antoinette with a Rose by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1783), in the Palace of Versailles.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1787).  One of the last paintings Elisabeth would ever make of the royal family before the revolution tore them away from Versailles. The painting can still be seen in the Palace of Versailles.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1787). One of the last paintings Elisabeth would ever make of the royal family before the revolution tore them away from Versailles. The painting can still be seen in the Palace of Versailles.

Vigée Le Brun’s career was not without controversy or criticism. She had to withstand the usual rumors about women artists: that she did not do her own work, that a man had to do it. Sena Jeter Nasland serves up a great line for Elisabeth’s response to this criticism in the book:

When I first hear the exclamation “Why, she paints like a man!” I am pleased; I take it only to mean that my work is truly excellent. But insult is also intended, and the innuendo, indeed the idea is expressed overtly, that my brush is my manly part!

Naslund’s story, then, serves as an obvious reminder that artistic gifts are not delivered on the basis of sex. But it is also so much more. It reveals the inner lives of gifted women who are learning not to discount themselves because of their sex or their age.

No matter how they compare to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Naslund’s portraits of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Kathryn Callahan will likely stay with you for a long time. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself dog-earring your book so you’ll be able to share all of your favorite passages with your book club.

The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman by Sena Jeter Naslund (Harper Collins 2013): Highly recommended.

Also recommended for further reading:

The Project Gutenberg ebook of Vigée Le Brun by Haldane MacFall: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30314/30314-h/30314-h.htm

The Project Gutenberg ebook of The Memoirs of Madame Le Brun by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31934/31934-h/31934-h.htm