Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris

wherethelightfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Passage des Panoramas entrance at 11 Boulevard Montmartre

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

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

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

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

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

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

William-Adolphe Bougeureau, Self-Portrait (1879)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the Light Falls by Katherine Keenum: Highly recommended.

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

Little Women in Dinan, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gardens behind Basillica St-Saveur in Dinan, France

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

to the Viaduct of Dinan over the River Rance:

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

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

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

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

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Porte du Jerzual, Dinan, France

Porte du Jerzual, Dinan, France

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

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

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

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

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The remains of the Léhon castle in the background.

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

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

The River Rance through Léhon, France.

The River Rance through Léhon, France.

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

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

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

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

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

May Alcott’s Life Beyond Dinan:

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

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

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

studying art abroad

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

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