The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

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

light of paris

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

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

I was like, “Go Margie Go!”

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

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

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

 

 Courtyard Image 2011

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

 

Reid Center 1

 

Reid Center 3

 

 

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

 

 

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

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

 

The Rivals of Versailles: Sally Christie Interview

The Rivals of Versailles

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————————————————————————

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

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

Sisters of Versailles - Sally Christie

Sally Christie, author of Sisters of Versailles

 

 

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. . . .

 

01-mobilisation

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).

 

maxims_night

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

IMG_0512

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.

 

IMG_0510

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.

sarahs-key-high-res1

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/

sleeping-with-the-enemy-uk

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

wine-war

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

crossing-the-borders-2

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

hareambereyes1

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/

 

pictures-at-an-exhibition

 

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.

IMG_2263

.

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

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