Seven Novels Featuring Women Artists

It’s been a wonderful year for historical fiction about female artists! Check out this post by Jeaninne Atkins, the author of Little Woman in Blue.

Views from a Window Seat

Many of us enjoyed crayons or paint as children, but artistic confidence often falls away as we grow. Women who continue to pursue art through high school, college, and grad school find themselves ever-increasingly among male colleagues and instructors. According to the fabulous researchers who go by the name Guerrilla Girls, art made by women makes up less than five percent of the holdings of most major museums and most galleries aren’t much better.

If it’s tough for women artists to find respect now, how did they deal with obstacles decades ago? Using fictional devices to develop scenes rich with dialogue and detail, each of the following novels published in 2015 features a real woman who was well known at the time, then mostly forgotten.

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In The House of Hawthorne, we meet Sophia Peabody as a young woman with artistic talent that her mother considered a holy gift she…

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Mary Cassatt’s Chateau de Beaufresne

Mary Cassatt was an American painter who lived in  most of her life in France. If you’re curious about Mary Cassatt’s years in Paris during the 1870s and 80s, and would like to see photos of the different Paris apartments in which she and her family lived, click here for a prior post.

Mary Cassatt in 1907

Mary Cassatt in 1907

But it turns out there is much more to Cassatt’s story than Paris. Cassatt led a long productive life, and spent much of her time in summer homes in the country. In fact, from 1894 until her death in 1926 Cassatt lived in a summer home in Le Mesnil-Theribus, France, a country village north of Paris. Her home was called Chateau de Beaufresne (“Beautiful Ash”) named for the large ash trees that grow in the area. I was lucky enough to visit this beautiful old chateau, which is currently owned by Le Moulin Vert, a group that provides horticultural education for troubled teens.

 

 

At the time of my visit, efforts were underway by a group called Les Amis de Mary Cassatt to purchase the chateau and turn it into a museum. I think it’s a spectacular idea. The home and grounds could be as popular as Monet’s in Giverny and the Van Gogh sites in Auvers-sur-Oise. Le Mesnil-Theribus is located about an hour north of Paris on the way to Beauvais, several miles west of A16.

I made arrangements to meet with Marianne Caron, a member of Les Amis de Mary Cassatt, who shared with me many local legends and stories of fellow villagers whose ancestors had known Cassatt. She was a wealth of information.

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Chateau de Beaufresne, Le Mesnil-Theribus, France. Currently home to Le Moulin Vert, a horticultural program for troubled teens.

In 1893, Mary Cassatt learned that Chateau Beaufresne was for sale. She had been renting another beautiful country home in nearby Bachivillers during the summers of 1891 and 1892, when the owner told her he wouldn’t be renting it out anymore. Cassatt was determined to stay in the area, and made the impulsive decision to buy the Chateau Beaufresne, despite the fact that it needed many repairs.

Chateau Beaufresne (source: http://cassatt.eu)

Chateau Beaufresne (source: http://cassatt.eu)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The back of Chateau Beaufresne, then.

The back of Chateau Beaufresne, then.

Cassatt spent most of the summer of 1894 renovating the old chateau. In a letter to  Paul Durand-Ruel, she expressed her frustration and told him she intended to sell the house, that it was just too much trouble:

We are finally settled here and, even before we came, I had had enough of my role as landlord; I have given nearly three months of my time and I know that I still have a part of the summer to devote to giving orders, and I ask myself when will I find the time to do a bit of painting! Madame Aude [Durand-Ruel’s daughter and Cassatt’s neighbor in the Chaumont-en-Vexin area] knows the landowners of Trie, would she be so kind as to tell them I am putting Mesnil-Beaufresne up for sale?

The house is very good, very sound. I had water &c put in, Indeed I cannot say that everything is not well, but I do not want to give any more orders to workmen, who don’t follow them anyway.

. . .

What I want is the freedom to work. My mother is no longer of the age or the strength to concern herself with the outdoors, and I don’t have the interest.

My brothers will surely laugh at me, but I won’t say anything until I have sold it and won back my freedom. Certainly it is the best thing in the world.

I am completely fed up with the trouble I had to get a bit of work done (Mary Cassatt to Paul Durand-Ruel, Summer 1894).

 

What emerges so strongly from that letter is Cassatt’s burning desire to get back to work on her painting. Doesn’t she sound like a 21st century woman, frustrated with all of the distractions and obstacles that stand in the way of our freedom? In any event, Cassatt changed her mind about selling the house. Soon she is working away at her painting and pastels. In another letter to Durand-Ruel, Cassatt says:

I am now settled here for the summer and working hard. I hope to submit to you some pastels before long; if I were a landscape painter, I would [have] no trouble in seeking beautiful subjects – The country looks lovely not withstanding the drought – . . . (Mary Cassatt to Paul Durand-Ruel, May 19, 1896).

 

Indeed, the property is very lovely, and would be the ideal setting for a landscape painter.

The back of Chateau Beaufresne,  (2014)

The back of Chateau Beaufresne (2014)

The view of Chateau Beaufresne from the back of the property, across a lovely little lilly pond.

The view of Chateau Beaufresne from the back of the property, across a lovely little pond full of cat tails and lily pads.

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The grounds of the chateau including a brook and acres of weeping willow and pond vegetation.

The grounds of the chateau include a brook and acres of weeping willows and pond vegetation. It was hard to get the lighting right for a photograph, but it would have been a picturesque place to set up an easel for some plein air painting.

 

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At the back of the property there still stands the small building that Cassatt used as her printing studio. She used the mill to provide electricity, and strung electrical lines to the very back of the property. She would spend as much as 8 hours a day in her little printing shed.

At the back of the property there still stands the small mill that Cassatt used as her printing studio. She would spend as much as 8 hours a day working here.

 

The back entrance to the chateau

The back entrance to the chateau

 

The sunny room at the back of the chateau that was known as the gallery. It is supposedly where Cassatt used to paint. Imagine that.

The sunny room at the back of the chateau that was known as the gallery. It is supposedly where Cassatt used to paint. Imagine that.

 

A framed photo on display in the chateau shows a car parked outside the back door in front of the gallery.

A framed photo on display in the chateau shows a car and a donkey cart parked outside the back door in front of the gallery. Note the window treatments that Cassatt used to control the amount of light entering her gallery.

 

A view of an interior room of the chateau with curved walls and a fireplace.

A view of an interior room of the chateau with curved walls and a fireplace. Various old photographs of Mary Cassatt are displayed on the walls. The room is currently used for meetings and conferences.

 

The main stairwell of the chateau

The main stairwell of the chateau

 

An exterior spiral stairway around the back of one of the chateau's two turrets.

An exterior spiral stairway around the back of one of the chateau’s two turrets.

 

A commemorative plaque that has been placed along a walk leading from the parking lot up to the front entrance of the chateau.

A commemorative plaque that has been placed along a walk leading from the parking lot up to the front entrance of the chateau.

 

This sign appears at the entrance of the chateau, placed there by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt.

This sign appears at the entrance of the chateau, placed there by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt.

 

Chateau de Beaufresne is now located on rue Mary Cassatt.

Chateau de Beaufresne is now located on rue Mary Cassatt.

After Cassatt’s death in 1926, Cassatt’s niece Ellen Mary Cassatt Hare (daughter of Cassatt’s brother Joseph) and her family continued to use the home for summer visits from Pennsylvania, and they continued to employ a small staff to tend to the home in their absence. At sometime toward the end of World War II, General DeGaulle spent one night at the chateau on his way from London to Paris (Encyclopedia Picardie). The chateau fell into disrepair and in 1961 was donated to Le Moulin Vert, a social service agency of L’Oise region.

Ever since my visit to the chateau, I have enjoyed checking out Cassatt’s paintings to detect a hint of the chateau or its grounds in her work. Check out the beautiful window scene in the background of this one, Children Playing with a Dog (1907). Perhaps?

Cassatt, Children Playing with a Dog (1907)

Cassatt, Children Playing with a Dog (1907)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For further reading: Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, ed. Nancy Mowll Mathews

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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. . . .

 

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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).

 

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Inside the rue Royal restaurant a loud patriotic mood prevailed.

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

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

(Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).

 

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

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

 

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

Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914.

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Recommended Reading:

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Back to Sarah’s Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge

The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge

 

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

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

 

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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.