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

In the Conservatory with Madame Bartholomé

Albert Bartholomé, Dans la serre (1881), a portrait of his first wife Prospérie

Albert Bartholomé, Dans la serre (1881), a portrait of his first wife Prospérie. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, on loan to the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago.

This painting, called Dans la Serre (In the Conservatory) is getting a lot of well-deserved attention in the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity Exhibit currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago (June-September 22, 2013).

In spite of the snippy things the New York Times had to say about it (“wide miss” and “cloying”), in my experience, this painting draws some of the biggest crowds at the exhibit, from Paris to Chicago. Behind it lies a tragic but fascinating story.

Albert Bartholomé (1848-1928) painted this portrait of his first wife Prospérie de Fleury (the daughter of the Marquis de Fleury) in 1881. She posed in a fashionable  dress in the conservatory of their home, which was located at 8 rue Bayard in Paris.

 

The dress of Prospérie Bartholomé, Musée d'Orsay

The dress of Prospérie Bartholomé, Musée d’Orsay.

 

 

 

The painting is large and captivating, but when exhibited right next to the very dress that Propérie (“Périe”) wore while she posed, it’s a show stopper. The detailing of the dress is as remarkable as its petite size. Seriously, I think I could have worn that dress in sixth grade.

 

 

 

The setting of Dans Le Serre reflects the couple’s wealth and standing. The garden in the background reminds me of the beautiful gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo near Parc Monceau in Paris, another home of great wealth and history (a home I like to call the “Downton Abbey of Paris.”)

Backyard gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris.

Backyard gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris.

The Bartholomé home wasn’t in the fashionable Parc Monceau neighborhood, but it was located on an equally beautiful block in the “Golden Triangle” of the 8th arrondissement between the Seine and the Place de François 1er. This is what their block looked like back then:

Place François 1er before 1909, source: wikipedia.

Place François 1er before 1909, source: wikipedia.

Fontaine de la Place François 1er, Paris. Source: wikipedia

Fontaine de la Place François 1er, Paris. Source: wikipedia

 

 

 

And here is the Place de François de 1er now, including the beautiful fountain you might recognize from the opening montage in Midnight in ParisThe Google Map Street View will give you a good glimpse of the structure that stands at 8 rue Bayard today.

 

 

 

 

 

According to the Musée d’Orsay, the Bartholomés enjoyed hosting salons for their artistic circle of friends (including Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and Jacques-Emile Blanche) with free-ranging intellectual discussions about music, painting and books.

Two years after he painted Périe’s portrait in Dans le Serre, Bartholomé drew a pastel portrait showing her reading on the couch in front of a bookshelf. Clearly, their home was full of books. Périe is dressed in another fashionable dress, this one with black ruffles and resembling some of the other fashions in the Impressionism and Fashion exhibit, particularly Manet’s Parisienne. She seems to be wearing the same gold bracelet that she did in Dans le Serre.

Albert Bartholomé, The Artist’s Wife, Reading, pastel and charcoal (1883), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection.

Two years later, Albert and Périe became the subject of a joint portrait by Edgar Degas, a painting started in 1885 called The Conversation. Once again, Périe’s outfit (in which her bustle resembles the tail plume of a turkey) seems to be the focus of the composition.

Edgar Degas, The Conversation (1885-1895), Yale University Art Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Edgar Degas, The Conversation (1885-1895), Yale University Art Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Image: Yale Art Gallery e-catalogue.

Unfortunately, Prospérie was in poor health and would die in 1887, just two years after they posed for the Degas painting. Bartholomé was so overwhelmed with grief that he preserved the dress that Périe wore in the Dans le Serre. I’m not sure how it became the property of the Charles and André Bailly Gallery in Paris, but it was subsequently gifted to the Musée d’Orsay in 1991.

As if the Bartholomé story wasn’t sad enough, Périe’s death caused Albert to give up painting altogether. On the advice of his friend Edgar Degas, he took up sculpting instead. Maybe the highly physical act of molding large-scale plaster and bronze was more cathartic than painting with a brush.

His first sculpture was for his wife’s tomb in front of a church in Bouillant, France, near Crépy en Valois. Not only did Bartholomé express his own raw grief, he also captured his young wife’s likeness. She has the same delicately pointed nose that she does in the painting Dans la Serre.

Bartholomé sculpure on his first wife's tomb in Bouillant, France.

Bartholomé’s sculpture for his first wife’s tomb in Bouillant, France. Image: Parismyope.blogspot.com.

From that point on, Bartholomé’s entire oeuvre consisted of grief sculptures. He is probably best known for his Monument aux Morts at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (1888-1889), which is heart wrenchingly sad.

Albert Bartholomé, Monuement aux Mortsu cimetière du Père Lachaise (1889-1899). Image: parismyope.blogspot. com.

Albert Bartholomé, Monuement aux Morts du cimetière du Père Lachaise (1889-1899). Image: parismyope.blogspot. com.

Despite Bartholomé’s deep and long-lasting grief, he did manage to remarry in 1901. I wish I knew the whole story, but all I can find is that his second wife Florence Letessier (18xx-1959) had been a model before their marriage, so presumably that’s how they met. Bartholomé would have been in his 50s at the time of his second marriage but Florence was much younger.

Bartholomé sculpted Florence in 1909, but it doesn’t look as though her youth and serenity captured his imagination as much as the memory of his first wife. Florence’s face looks full and healthy but her expression and posture are utterly bland.

Albert Bartholomé, Bust, Madame de Bartholomé, Née Florence Letessier, Second Spouse of the Artist (1909). Image:http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde

Albert Bartholomé, Bust, Madame de Bartholomé, Née Florence Letessier, Second Spouse of the Artist (1909), Musée d’Orsay. Image: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde

Sometime after their marriage, Bartholomé and Florence moved to 1 rue Raffet in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, where he would have a sculpting studio right next door to their home. The home and studio are still standing, as you can see from Google Maps Street View. Today, the studio at 1 bis rue Raffet rents out separately from the apartment building next door.

On a side note, Bartholomé’s art studio on rue Raffet became part of a huge art controversy in the 1950s. Apparently, Degas allowed his good friend Bartholomé to make plaster casts of some of his sculptures for Bartholomé’s private collection, including a plaster cast of Little Dancer, Age 14. Florence inherited the plaster casts in upon Albert’s death in 1928, but they didn’t go on the art market until she was placed in an asylum in the 1950’s, creating a big controversy.

In any event, you shouldn’t miss the chance to go see Bartholomé’s portrait of his wife Périe in Dans le Serre at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity Exhibit. Just look into Périe’s eyes, and you can almost imagine their sad story. It’s anything but a wide miss.

 

 

 

 

 

Musée Bourdelle and its American Connection

Musée Bourdelle Courtyard

Musée Bourdelle Courtyard

The Musée Bourdelle in Montparnasse is one of Paris’ secret little jewels. Set on a short street a few blocks behind the Montparnasse train station, this museum is a quiet place far away from the long lines at the Musée D’Orsay, the Louvre, or even the Musée Rodin.

Antoine Bourdelle was a prominent French sculptor (1860-1929) who studied with Rodin and Falguiere. He donated his studio and extensive sculpture collection when he died.

I stumbled in by accident one day when I was wandering through Montparnasse. I was searching out some of the homes and studios of the artists associated with the American Girl’s Art Club in Paris. I was on the heels of the American painter Mary Fairchild MacMonnies (Low) (1858-1946), a St. Louis native who had gone to Paris in the late 1880s and who later (along with Mary Cassatt) painted one of the murals for the Woman’s building at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Fairchild studied at the Academie Julian for women, and later in the women’s portrait class of Carolus-Duran. She was living in a small apartment on rue Bonaparte when she met fellow American art student Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937) at a dinner party. The pair quickly fell in love but the terms of Fairchild’s scholarship prevented her from marrying. Fairchild and MacMonnies decided to share an apartment and art studio, and moved in together at 16 Impasse du Maine (paid for by the money from Mary’s scholarship). Their friend Augustus St. Gaudens referred to it as “l’atelier common Fairchild-MacMonnies.” While they lived there, the MacMonnies shared a ground floor workroom, and a across the cobblestone courtyard, a two-room apartment with a kitchen. (Flight With Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies by Mary Smart (Sound View Press, 1996).

When I went in search of the address for MacMonnies’ atelier, I found myself standing right in front of the Musée Bourdelle. It turns out that MacMonnies had met and befriended Bourdelle while they were both students in the atelier of the famous French sculptor Falguiere. They had found art studios in the same courtyard building on Impasse du Maine. After Bourdelle’s death, The Impasse du Maine had been renamed rue Antoine Bourdelle.

So as I walked though the museum and the Bourdelle’s well-preserved studio, I knew that somewhere nearby, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies had worked on the mural Primitive Woman. Somewhere across the courtyard, she had met with Bertha Palmer and Sarah Hallowell, who had come from Chicago in 1892 to meet her, look at her work, and award her the commission for the mural for the Chicago World’s Fair.

You know that feeling you get when you connect the dots? I felt a connection that ran all the way from my home in Chicago to this lesser known museum in Paris; all the way from the White City to the City of Lights.

That connection might not mean the same to you, but I hope you can still enjoy some of these photographs of the Musée Bourdelle. It’s an incredible place with or without its Chicago connection.

Inside the atelier of Antoine Bourdelle

Inside the atelier of Antoine Bourdelle

The inner courtyard at the Musée Bourdelle

The inner courtyard at the Musée Bourdelle

IMG_2990

Bourdelle's atelier

Bourdelle’s atelier

Bourdelle's atelier

Bourdelle’s atelier

MacMonnies apartment could have been this building across the courtyard from the studios.

MacMonnies apartment could have been this building across the courtyard from the studios.

Another view of the possible MacMonnies apartment.

Another view of the possible MacMonnies apartment.

Zelda and Scott in Paris

z

Therese Fowler’s new novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (St. Martin’s Press 2013) is a welcome reboot in the field of Lost Generation literature. This is the turbulent story of Zelda Sayre, a young handful of a southern girl, the daughter of a prominent Montgomery, Alabama judge, who married the not-yet-successful F. Scott Fitzgerald after meeting him at a country club dance in 1918.

Z presents a refreshing and much needed counterpoint to Hemingway’s Moveable Feast and Scott’s Fitgerald’s Tender is the Night. It might cause you to reconsider nearly everything you thought was true about Scott and Zelda’s marriage, about their relationship with Ernest Hemingway, and about the cause of Zelda’s mental illness. It’s finally Zelda’s turn, and she doesn’t hold back.

Have you noticed that I’ve completely fallen for the illusion that Zelda is the one who is talking in Z, and not Fowler? That’s how well this book seems to capture Zelda’s voice.

Z brought me back to my own year in Paris, when I walked the same streets as Zelda and Scott, hung out at the same cafés and brasseries, enjoyed the exhilerating (but thankfully much tamer) life of an American expat. I took every literary tour I could, so of course I have some photos of the places and scenes mentioned in the book Z.

Just a caveat: all of the stories I tell in the captions below about what happened at the sites are a mixture of the truth and myth that circulates through literary circles in Paris. I can’t vouch for the stories, except to say this is what somebody told me and I believed them.

14 rue de Tilsitt, Zelda and Scott's first apartment in Paris in about 1925. It's located on the right bank in the 8th arrondissement, which is still home to some of the most expensive real estate in Paris. Hemingway used to claim that he felt uncomfortable going to the Fitzgerald's apartment, that he much preferred his slummier surroundings on the Left Bank.

14 rue de Tilsitt, Zelda and Scott’s first apartment in Paris in about 1925. It’s located on the right bank in the 8th arrondissement, just a block away from the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a lovely area within a block or two of Champs Elysées. Hemingway used to claim that he felt uncomfortable going to the Fitzgerald’s apartment, that he much preferred his slummier surroundings on the Left Bank.

Another view of 14 rue de Tilsitt, which currently houses a street level café. Rue de Tilsitt is a small little street which forms the first circle around L'Etoile.

Another view of 14 rue de Tilsitt, which currently houses a street level café. Rue de Tilsitt is a small little street which forms the first circle around L’Etoile.

Zelda and Scott's view of the Arc de Triomphe from the corner of L'Etoile closest to their apartment. Not bad.

Zelda and Scott’s view of the Arc de Triomphe from the corner of L’Etoile closest to their apartment. Not bad. Supposedly, Scott once rode a tricycle down the Champs Elysées after he’d had too much to drink, hitting passerby with a baguette.

L'Auberge de Venise at 10 rue Delambre in Monparnasse. Formerly The Dingo, where Scott Fitzgerald met Ernest Hemingway in 1925.

L’Auberge de Venise at 10 rue Delambre in Monparnasse. Formerly The Dingo, where Scott Fitzgerald met Ernest Hemingway in 1925.

In the window of L'Auberge de Venise is an article from La Monde titled "Remembering the Epoque of the Dingo Bar."  It's hard for me to translate, but it says something like: this is where two of my favorite authors used to get blasted ("drunk mouth"), blurry and reconciled. A place to make you thirsty, for sure.

In the window of L’Auberge de Venise is an article from La Monde titled “Remembering the Epoque of the Dingo Bar.” It’s hard for me to translate, but it says something like: this is where two of my favorite authors used to get blasted (“drunk mouth”), blurry and reconciled. A place to make you thirsty, for sure.

The view inside the former Dingo Bar. I've heard two different versions of how Fitzgerald and Ernest met, but in both versions, serious drinking was involved.

The view inside the former Dingo Bar. I’ve heard two different versions of how Fitzgerald and Ernest met, but in both versions, serious drinking was indeed involved.

The doorway to Zelda and Scott's other Paris apartment (1928-ish?) on the corner of Luxembourg Gardens. The Fitzgeralds knew how to spend money - this is some of the best and most expensive real estate in Paris.

The doorway to Zelda and Scott’s other Paris apartment where they lived in 1928 at 58 rue Vaugirard on the corner of Luxembourg Gardens. The Fitzgeralds knew how to spend money – this is some of the most expensive real estate in Paris.

Another view of the Fitzgerald's apartment at 58 rue de Vaugirard. They lived here on their third trip to Paris in 1928. Their daughter Scottie enjoyed playing in the nearby gardens.

Another view of the Fitzgerald’s apartment at 58 rue de Vaugirard. They lived here on their third trip to Paris in 1928. Their daughter Scottie enjoyed playing in the nearby gardens. This building would be subsequently damaged by gunfire during the liberation of Paris in 1944.

Picture little Scottie playing with the sailboats in Luxembourg Gardens. Then picture Zelda nursing a horrible hangover in one of the low-slung  "Luxembourg chairs." For my fellow Francophilles: did you know you can order these chairs and have them shipped to the United States? Check out the website of Deyrolle, at 46 rue de Bac in Paris. This happens to be the same taxidermy shop used as a film location in Midnight in Paris. If you can't find the Luxembourg chairs on their website, you can always try to email them. I came **this close** to ordering one for my husband for Christmas last year. We loved them THAT much.

Picture little Scottie playing with the sailboats in Luxembourg Gardens. Then picture Zelda nursing a horrible hangover in one of the low-slung “Luxembourg chairs.”

My friends and I enjoying a fall day in my favorite Luxembourg chairs. For my fellow Francophiles: did you know you can order these chairs and have them shipped to the United States? Check out the website of Deyrolle at 46 rue de Bac in Paris. (Which just happens to be the same taxidermy shop filmed in Midnight in Paris.) If you can't find the chairs on their website, you can always try to email them. I came **this close** to ordering one for my husband last Christmas. We loved them that much.

My friends and I enjoying a fall day in my favorite Luxembourg chairs. For my fellow Francophiles: did you know you can order these chairs and have them shipped to the United States? Check out the website of Deyrolle at 46 rue de Bac in Paris. (Which just happens to be the same taxidermy shop filmed in Midnight in Paris.) If you can’t find the chairs on their website, you can always try to email them. I came **this close** to ordering one for my husband last Christmas. We loved them that much.

La Closerie des Lilas, the restaurant where Scott and Ernest met to plan their drive to Lyons together - a trip that would cement their friendship.

La Closerie des Lilas, the restaurant where Scott and Ernest met to plan their drive to Lyons together – a trip that would cement their friendship.

Café de Flore, another St.Germain café where the Fitzgeralds hung out with the rest of the Lost Generation.

Café de Flore, another St. Germain café where the Fitzgeralds hung out with the rest of the Lost Generation.

This is the site of Michaud’s, a fashionable restaurant in St. Germain where the Fitzgeralds often dined. It is now Le Comptoir des Saints Pere, located on the corner of rue Jacob and rue des Saints Pere. It is the place where Hemingway’s infamous “show me your penis” story takes place. In Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald supposedly confessed to Hemingway his insecurities about the size of his penis, thanks to a nasty comment fron Zelda. Hemingway is supposed to have invited Scott downstairs to the bathroom, where Hemingway took a look for himself and told Scott that he was perfectly normal, and that Scott shouldn’t listen to Zelda. “Zelda’s crazy,” Hemingway said. In Z, Zelda gets her long-awaited revenge against her “frenemy” Hem. Zelda has a deliciously alternative story comparing Scott and Hem’s measurements. I’m not sure which version I believe, but I am definitely leaning toward Team Zelda. (If your book club is anything like mine, this is going to be a hot discussion topic after a few bottles of vin rouge!)

Z by Therese Fowler: Highly, highly, highly recommended.

I hope you pick up your own copy of Z very soon. And by “pick up” I mean “buy.” And by “buy” I really mean that you should rush down to your local independent bookstore to grab a copy as soon as you can. If you don’t have a local indie of your own, feel free to buy it in ebook form from the bookstore I work for in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. All you have to do is create a Kobo account on the website. We’d appreciate your support. Then come back here to the comments and tell me what you think!

The folks at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn, Illinois love Z so much we've decorated our front window in honor of Zelda.

The folks at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn, Illinois love Z so much we’ve decorated our front window in honor of Zelda.

The Painted Girls: Degas and the Dancers

painted girls

If you like historical art fiction, it doesn’t get much better than The Painted Girls, Cathy Buchanan’s new novel about the young ballerinas Degas used to paint and sculpt. Set in the seedy side streets of Belle Epoque Paris, this book tells the desperate story of three sisters who must find their way to survive in the dark world of the Paris demimonde.

The Painted Girls is based on the true story of the van Goethem sisters who danced at the Paris Opéra in the late 1870s and early 1880s. They lived on the slopes of Montmartre on rue de Douai, and after their father died, they had to scrounge for a living as best they could.

Although they were not classic beauties, the van Goethem sisters were talented enough to earn a place among the other novices, the “Petit-Rats” of the Paris ballet. But they still had to supplement their meager earnings with grueling jobs as laundry women or early morning bread makers. Soon, the younger sister Marie had a better opportunity.

The Paris Opéra

The Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

A regular at the opéra, Edgar Degas noticed skinny young Marie, the middle van Goethem sister, and asked her to model for him. She was honored to accept and relieved to earn extra money for the family. She was thrilled at the prospect of seeing her likeness at the Fifth and Sixth Impressionist Exhibits in 1880 and 1881.

Little Dancer Age 14, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C., COLLECTION OF MR. AND MRS. PAUL MELLON

Little Dancer Age 14, Wax sculpture by Edgar Degas.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C., COLLECTION OF MR. AND MRS. PAUL MELLON. Bronze copies were made after Degas’ death, including the one at the Musé d’Orsay in Paris.

The modeling scenes are some of my favorites in the book. Degas’ studio on rue Fontaine was just around the corner from Marie’s home in the 9th arrondissement. It is in that studio, overflowing with canvases, paints and pastels, that Degas began the sketches for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, as well as numerous charcoal and pastel sketches of young Marie.

Cathy Buchanan’s website contains images of all of the artwork mentioned in the book. You can click on an image and read a related quote from the book. It’s just wonderful.

But there’s so much more to The Painted Girls than pleasant little scenes in Degas’ art studio. In fact, there is very a dark side to the van Goethem sisters’ lives. The oldest sister Antoinette gets involved with a violent young man of the streets, and Marie is singled out by one of the wealthy older patrons of the Opéra known as abonnées. The reader knows exactly where Marie’s relationship with Monsiuer Lefebvre is heading, that such gifts and favors are never bestowed without a price.

The sisters’ fall from innocence is tragic but not utterly without hope. In one particularly moving scene, young Marie is in despair, and raises a timeless question:

I want to put my face in my hands, to howl, for me, for Antoinette, for all the women of Paris, for the burden of having what men desire, for the heaviness of knowing it is ours to give, that with our flesh we make our way in the world. For there is a cost. . . . Would they say there is no cost, not so long as a girl takes no more than what a man decides her flesh is worth?

Both sisters make troubling choices, and find themselves even more deeply involved in the demimonde of Paris. When Antoinette’s love interest is arrested and accused of murder, the sisters’ conflicting loyalties nearly tear them apart. Can their family repair the damage and find a way to survive the poor, dangerous streets of Paris, without having to trade what men desire?

It’s an excellent read, although some might find the story drags a little during the criminal trials of Antoinette’s love interest, which could have been condensed down to one trial instead of two. However, that minor flaw still shouldn’t discourage you from seeking out and thoroughly enjoying this otherwise riveting book.

And when you’re done with the book, go back and enjoy more Cathy Buchanan’s website where she has also posted photos from her Paris research trip. I couldn’t create a better literary tour myself!

The Read: The Painted Girls, Highly recommended.

The Paris Tour: Take the Palais Garnier tour, a must-see in Paris. You can make an  Unaccompanied Visit nearly every day, or an English Guided Tour available three days per week. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to catch a ballet performance. Check out their 2012-13 schedule here. Then follow up with a visit to the Musée d’Orsay, where you can see one of the copies of Young Dancer, Age Fourteen, as well as one of my favorites, The Ballet Class. If you have the time to stroll through lower Montmartre, catch the Métro line 2 to the Blanche stop or line 12 to the Pigalle stop and browse through the van Goetham sisters’ old neighborhood.

van Goetham Home: 35 rue de Douai

Degas studio: rue Pierre Fontaine

Degas home: 6 boulevard Clichy

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris

IMG_2799

The last home of Edgard Degas from 1912-1917.

Napoleon and his Women

I am always thrilled to hear when Michelle Moran has another new book out. After enjoying Madame Tussaud so much just a year or so ago, I was excited to see that Moran has already written another book set in France.

The Second Empress (Crown, U.S. August 2012) is about Napoleon’s short second marriage to 18 year-old Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, after his first marriage to Joséphine Beauharnais ended in divorce. Although Napoleon and Josephine were still in love, Josephine was unable to have any more children. She had married Napoleon at the age of 32, and was already the mother of two teenagers from her first marriage. By the time of Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce in 1810, Josephine was 46 and her daughter Hortense was 27. Napoleon had to have an heir, and within a year of his second marriage, the young Marie-Louise had given birth to their son Napoleon II. Okay, enough history – just wanted to give some background.

The Second Empress is not only about Napoleon and Marie-Louise, but it is also about Napoleon’s strange power-hungry sister Pauline. The chapters told from Pauline’s point of view are ridiculously good. The story alludes to the innuendo of incest between Pauline and Napoleon, which adds an extra creepy layer of intrigue. I also enjoyed the way Moran developed a relationship between Josephine’s daughter Hortense and Marie-Louise. The two women, who were close to the same age, actually learned to like and respect each other. It’s clear that Marie-Louise can’t stand Napoleon, and that all she really wants is to have his heir and get the hell out of France. In the meantime, Napoleon keeps writing love letter to Josephine, who was awarded her beloved Chateau de Malmaison in the divorce.

Last spring I visited Chateau de Fontainebleu and Chateau de Malmaison, two of the homes in which Napoleon and Josephine had lived in the outskirts of Paris. Here are some photos and comments to help you enjoy The Second Empress even more.

The Cour d’Honneur at Fontainebleau, also known as the Cour des Adieux in memory of Napoleon’s farewell speech before his departure to Elba in April 1814.

The Diana Gallery at Fontainebleau, the large ballroom decorated with works depicting the myths of Diana, as mentioned in Chapter 13 of the book. Hortense takes Marie-Louise on a tour of Fontainebleau, and they stop here. Marie-Louise looks out the windows and reflects: “Only twenty years ago Marie-Antoinette walked these paths. I imagine my great-aunt in her flowing chemise, and I wonder if she can see me now . . . . An entire revolution left half a million people dead, and for what? This ballroom is just as lavish, this court just as full of greed and excess. Nothing has changed except the name of France’s ruler, and now, instead of an L on the throne, there is a golden N.”

In the meantime, Josephine is living on the other side of Paris at Malmaison, the home she had found and decorated in 1799, while Napoleon was in Egypt. Napoleon gave Malmaison and all of its contents to Josephine in the divorce. Josephine died there in 1814.

Salon at Malmaison

Napoleon’s billiard room at Malmaison

Josephine’s bedroom at Malmaison.

The cedar tree that Napoleon and Josephine planted in 1800 to celebrate his Italian victory at Marengo. It’s called the Marengo Cedar, and it still stands on the grounds today.

What I believe are Josephine’s shoes. Dainty!

The library at Malmaison. Awesome.

I absolutely loved my trip out to Malmaison and took about a million more photos. I feel like I need to spare you from a vacation slide nightmare, otherwise I’d just post them all here. I enjoyed Fontainebleau as well, but there is something much more intimate about Malmaison. If you’re interested in more, you can take your own virtual tour on the Chateau Malmaison website. If you are planning a trip to Paris, I recommend the minivan tour with the folks at Paris Vision, who will take you to Malmaison, Petit Malmaison and the church where Josephine is buried all in one afternoon. Paris Vision also offers a minivan tour to Fontainebleau.

Before you go, whether online or for real, you really should read The Second Empress by Michelle Moran. Definitely a recommended read for French history fans.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of the book and paid for my own tours. I received no consideration for my recommendations. If I like a book I tell you, and the same goes for the tours.

A Day in Paris With Edith Wharton

I just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Paris to play “Edith For A Day.”

The Age of Desire is the fictionalized story of Edith Wharton’s steamy mid-life extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton between the years of 1907-1910. It’s not just another imagined love story, this novel is based on Edith Wharton’s own letters, which Morton Fullerton saved and which are now housed in a collection at the University of Texas.

Edith Wharton’s life in Paris was one of upper-crust privilege, governed by strict rules of propriety. But these private letters show that she still found a way to carve out space for another secret life, one that was free, defiant and passionate. It’s a great story – who doesn’t wonder how Edith, such a grand dame of New York high society, could become so unhinged by an unreliable, bisexual American boulevardier?

Let’s walk in her footsteps and see where she pursued this double life. Follow along on my Edith Wharton Tour on this Google Map.

Edith Wharton arrived in Paris in the winter of 1907 along with her wet-blanket husband Teddy and her long-time secretary Anna. Edith was 45 years old and had recently published The House of Mirth. As Edith herself later said in A Backward Glance, she was looking for a flat in Paris so she could “see people who shared my tastes.”

And Edith had good taste. The Whartons rented a Left Bank apartment owned by George Vanderbilt.  As Fields said in Age of Desire:

Edith was enamored the moment she stepped in to visit George a few seasons ago. It boasts all the Faubourg’s most ravishing touches: high ceilings, exquisite boiseries and elegant moldings. George’s oriental vases and lush Aubusson carpets only make it more elegant.

The Vanderbilts obviously had a good sense for real estate. The townhouse came with its own staff, although the Whartons also hired their own local bonne. The top floor featured a common room where the servants gathered in the evening.

You can visit 58 rue de Varenne, but you can’t get inside. It is now a carefully guarded annex to the Prime MInister’s office, which is across the street in the Hotel Matignon.

58 rue de Varenne, Edith Wharton’s first apartment in Paris (1907-1909). Rented from George Vanderbilt. Currently an annex of the Prime Minister’s office across the street in Hotel Matignon. The day I went to visit, the doorway to the courtyard was open but I was quickly chased away. The guard thought I was crazy when I told him L’Americaine Edith Wharton used to lived there. “Non, le PM!”

After the guard escorted me out of the courtyard and back onto the sidewalk, he did allow me to take this photo looking back into the courtyard. Can you picture Edith back there, greeting Henry James or Morton Fullerton at the door?

Edith enjoyed her social life in the Left Bank world of teas and salons. She was good  friends with the French author Paul Bourget, who lived around the corner with his wife Minnie on rue Barbet de Jouy.

Edith loved attending the Tuesday night salons of the widowed Comtesse Rosa de FitzJames at 142 rue de Grenelle, which is now the Swiss Embassy. In fact, it was at Rosa’s salon that Edith first met the roguish Morton Fullerton.

Morton Fullerton

You can tell that Jenny Fields had fun playing with the attraction between Edith and Morton in Age of Desire. At their first meeting, Morton told Edith that he’d read and enjoyed The House of Mirth, and impressed Edith by asking about Lily Bart. Nice ice breaker for a writer, right? When they discovered they were mutual friends of Henry James, Edith was definitely intrigued. She couldn’t wait to see Morton again.

But Edith would have to wait. Discretion prevailed. When Henry James came for an extended visit at Edith’s, Morton dropped by as often as he could. Edith and Morton finally had a private get-to-know-you walk through Edith’s posh Left Bank neighborhood, “the sun . . . splash[ing] itself all along the high-walled hotel particuliers of the rue de Varenne.” 

In the pages of Age of Desire, Edith and Morton strolled down to the nearby lawns of Les Invalides. When they sat down in a nearby garden, things really started to buzz:

In the garden, they locate a bench and sit side by side. She can sense his body heat, and takes in his odor of driftwood and lavender. Edith feels something she hasn’t felt in a long time and cannot name. . . .

[Morton says,] “See that honeybee?”  On the hedge behind them, a honeybee as far as a blackberry is trying to wedge himself greedily into the narrow trumpet of a pink flower. Fullerton turns his gaze to her and says, “That’s how drawn  I am to you.”

Really, Morton, you little devil. No more Age of Innocence for Edith.

Square d’Ajaccio near Les Invalides in Paris. I could easily picture Edith and Morton on one of those benches. It was a pretty romantic park in real life.  One amorous couple kissed shamelessly on a bench while another were entangled in the grass. Ah, Paris!

Unfortunately, Edith’s newfound passion would have to wait some more. The Whartons returned each spring to their palatial home (The Mount) in Lenox, Massachusetts, and would not return to Paris until December, 1907.

Edith and Morton’s relationship finally escalated the next season in Paris. They snuck off on long walks through Montmartre, the Tuileries, and Luxembourg Gardens. They met at the Louvre, took daring trips in her car. Their love become ostentatious; people took notice. But Edith didn’t care. How can a woman say no to those little green boxes of macarons framboise from La Durée?

“Instead of flowers, [Morton] proffers a pale green box of gleaming pastel macaroons from Laduré, the pastry shop on Rue Royale.”

After a long, romantic winter, the Vanderbilt lease was up and it was time for Edith to return to the United States. Before her ship set sail, Edith spent a few weeks at her brother’s townhouse at Place des ´Etas-Unis on the Right Bank. When Morton came to visit her there, Edith felt the need to apologize for her brother’s trés American taste:

“It’s just like my brother to choose to live in Paris but reside on a street called American Place,” she says.

“Ah yes [says Morton]. Sophisticated Mrs. Wharton wouldn’t be caught dead here . . . and yet here you are!”

A lovely old residence on Place Etat-Unis, a beautiful square in the 16th arrondissement where Edith’s brother Harry Jones lived.  Yes, it’s true, a lot of Americans lived there and still do. In this scene in the novel, Fields does a great job of capturing Edith’s Left Bank snobbery.

Hotel Crillon, Edith Wharton’s home base in Paris.

The folks at the Crillon’s boutique were good sports and let me take this photo of a Hotel Crillon bathrobe. I was trying to picture Edith in a robe and slippers, scribbling away about Undine Spragg’s time in Paris, but that got a little weird.

Even if you can’t swing a month at the Crillon like Edith, you can still enjoy a nice Sancerre on the terrace.

 

Edith lands on the perfect apartment at last. And to think it’s just across the street from the Vanderbilts’ on the Rue de Varenne. But bigger, and newer, with its own guest suite and servants’ quarters and steam heat! Unheard of in Paris. And what makes it so extraordinary is that the rooms are luxuriously spacious and overlook a small but elegant garden. A garden! It’s all she could want in space and light. Precisely in the part of the Faubourg she loves.

53 rue de Varenne, Edith Wharton’s home in Paris.

The plaque at 53 rue de Varenne commemorating Edith Wharton’s years here (1910-1920),  her love for France and her friendship with Henry James.

The carriage door was open, so I was able to walk inside toward the courtyard and glimpse a peek of the lovely tiled lobby of Edith Wharton’s former townhouse at 53 rue de Varenne.

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens. Look again at the cover of Age of Desire. Looks like Edith could be standing right there, doesn’t it?

Fouquet’s on Champs  Elysée. You can have a perfectly pleasant (although pretty expensive) dinner there, unlike the miserable dinner Edith and Morton had toward the end of the book!

If you find yourself in Paris and would like to have your own Edith Wharton Day, just follow along on my Google Map. I would recommend starting at the Rue de Bac Métro stop, walking down the rue de Varenne, and then heading over to Les Invalides. From that point you can walk across the Seine or hop back on the Métro to get to the Crillon, La Durée and Fouquet’s. After some macaroons from La Durée, a glass of wine at the Crillon and dinner at Fouquet’s, you’ll definitely feel spoiled, and perhaps, a little like Edith.

Age of Desire is an entertaining treat for Edith Wharton fans, but is also a good read for those who haven’t yet read her work. Be prepared, though, because after you read Age of Desire, you could end up spending the next month holed up in a chair, getting nothing else done, reading or re-reading all of Edith Wharton’s marvelous novels and stories. To those  purists who object when their favorite literary icons are injected with thoughts and actions from another author’s imagination, I say just give it a try. Play along.

Jennie Fields does a fabulous job following Edith and Morton through Paris and beyond. In the course of her research, Jennie visited Herblay, Senslis and Montmorency, some of the towns outside Paris to which Edith and Morton snuck off to for their trysts. Field’s research pays off. I thought it was beautifully imagined and very well researched. It’s definitely a recommended read.