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:

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:

Albert Bartholomé, Bust, Madame de Bartholomé, Née Florence Letessier, Second Spouse of the Artist (1909), Musée d’Orsay. Image:

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.






Say Yes To The Dress: Claude and Camille and Fashion

So, I have to admit I’m a little nuts about the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. In my last months in Paris, I went four times. I had a lot of American visitors who wanted to go, but I truly did want to keep going back. Each time I found something new.

One of my favorite rooms of the exhibit was the last room, decorated to look like a park. That’s where you could find Monet’s oversized plein air paintings with Camille in her huge, fabulous dresses. I grabbed my visitors, and said, that’s Camille! Like I knew her.

But I kind of do. A couple of years ago, I read Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell, and I even hosted Stephanie at a literary luncheon at the Downtown Glen Ellyn BookFest, an annual event sponsored by my local library and bookstore. The book is all about Claude Monet and his first wife Camille. How they met, how she posed, where he painted.

So when I saw this painting (below) at the exhibit, a study of Bazille and Camille (1865), on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., I stopped and gaped. It was Camille and Bazille, shortly after she’d met Claude. I’d read about their summer trip to Fountainbleu in Claude and Camille. How the 18 year-old Camille had snuck out of the house without her parents’ permission, bringing along her older sister as a chaperone.

Claude Monet, Camille and Bazille (Study for Luncheon on the Grass) 1865. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This painting was just a study, painted quickly en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest, but I think it’s almost better than the final painting, Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), shown below. It feels fresh and immediate, as if you’re standing right there spying on this couple from the dappled shade behind the bushes. According to the article Fashion En Plein Air by Birgit Haase in the Exhibit Catalog, the dress that Camille is wearing would have been a highly fashionable outfit for women on trips to the countryside that year. Camille, who left her corset at home, is the perfect model for modern leisure wear in 1865. Monet obviously said yes to this dress – the embroidery, the cut and draping of the back of the dress and jacket seems to be the focus of the whole painting.

After the summer in Fountainbleu, Monet went back to Paris with the plan of turning his small plein air studies into a bold large canvas suitable for the Paris Salon. He made all kinds of changes to the dresses and the poses, but was so dissatisfied that he abandoned the project. What is left of the final painting appears in two giant panels at the Musée d’Orsay.










The story of how this celebrated painting got divided into separate panels is a good one. In Stephanie Cowell’s novel, Monet struggled all winter trying to paint Luncheon on the Grass, but he was so disappointed with the result that he decides not to enter it in the next Salon:

What he had seen so clearly on a summer’s day in the forest was not on the canvas before him. People were clumsily placed; the brushstrokes were all wrong. It had been repainted many times and he had never found the balance of human form and light, It was not a masterpiece at all. How could he not have seen it before? How could he have made such a mess of it?

In the novel Claude and Camille, Monet rips the canvas off the frame, rolls it up and moves on to the next painting. Thanks to the Musée d’Orsay, we have Monet’s own explanation for what happened next:

I had to pay my rent, I gave [Luncheon on the Grass] to the landlord as security and he rolled it up and put in the cellar. When I finally had enough money to get it back, as you can see, it had gone mouldy.

Monet retrieved the painting in 1884 and cut it into separate panels. Two of the three panels have survived and are included in the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit.

After abandoning Luncheon of the Grass, Monet decided to ask Camille into pose again, this time in a green and black striped taffeta silk dress with an enormous train. Art historians don’t know exactly where this dress came from. They speculate that because of its sumptuous fabric and fur, it would have been beyond the financial means of either Monet or Camille. Stephanie Cowell imagines that Monet’s friend Bazille rented it for a painting of his own, and was willing to loan it to Monet. In fact, there is evidence to support Stephanie’s theory. In an 1866 letter to his mother, Bazille mentions a green satin dress that he had rented.

Wherever it came from, it was a dress that inspired a painting. In the novel, Claude whispers to Camille: “I could make an unforgettable picture of you in that dress.”

Claude Monet. Camille (1866). Kunsthalle Bremen, on loan to the Impressionism and Fashion  Exhibit in New York and Chicago.

Camille said yes to the dress. She added with a fur-trimmed jacket and empire hat, and posed as if she was heading out the door. Once again, she appeared to lack a corset, a sign of independence and modernity.

Stephanie Cowell’s book goes on to describe the days that Monet spent in his studio, painting Camille in the green dress, the attraction between them building each day. Claude and Camille would later marry over the strong objections of her parents. Camille died in 1879 at the age of 32.

The painting would become known as Camille, The Green Dress (1866). It was accepted at the 1866 Salon.

This painting did not appear in Paris, but it will travel to New York and Chicago as part of the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit, along with a real green tafetta dress from 1865, thanks to the costume collection of the Manchester Gallery of Art in England.

I can’t imagine a better book club pick than Claude and Camille, paired with a field trip to see the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay (September 25, 2012 – January 20, 2013), the Metropolitan Museum of New York (February 26- May 27, 2013) or the Art Institute of Chicago (June 26- September 22, 2013).

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity: Highly recommended

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell: Highly recommended

Leaving Van Gogh in Auvers

When Vincent Van Gogh died in Auvers-sur-Oise, France in July 1890, he left behind so many burning questions.

How did he die? Was it a self-inflicted gunshot wound or homocide? And why was the gun never found? How did Van Gogh ever manage to complete over 70 dazzling paintings in just 70 days in Auvers? It’s all such a mystery.

In the novel Leaving Van Gogh, Carol Wallace takes on the legend of Van Gogh’s last 70 days through the eyes of Dr. Paul Gachet, a widowed doctor, painter and art collector who owned a country house in Auvers. Wallace’s theory – buy it or not – is that the smoking gun belonged to Dr. Gachet.

Dr. Gachet specialized in treating mental disorders and was a friend and collector of many of the Impressionists, including Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. Vincent’s brother, the art dealer Theo Van Gogh, asked Dr. Gachet to  take Vincent under his care. Dr. Gachet found Vincent inexpensive lodging in what is now the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers, and prescribed painting as the best treatment for his mental illness: “If I understand you at all, Monsieur Van Gogh, your painting is the reason you continue to live, is it not? . . . Then paint, . . . Paint and live. And come to me if you feel disturbed.”

Van Gogh followed his doctor’s orders, pouring out such wonders as The Church in Auvers, Dr. Paul Gachet, Wheatfield with Crows from May through July, 1890.

Wallace’s book is nicely researched, from Dr. Gachet’s 19th century medical training at a women’s psychiatric hospital in Paris to the details of Van Gogh’s brief painting history in Auvers. But more than that, Wallace captures the intensity of Van Gogh’s genius and madness, the creative spark behind his strong, bold colors and swirling brushstrokes. She appraises Van Gogh’s art through Dr. Gachet’s eyes, who trained and exhibited as an artist. No doubt it helps that Wallace is herself an art historian and knows her way around paints and palettes.

Here is Dr. Gachet when he sees Van Gogh’s painting of the Church in Auvers for the first time:

I had not seen the painting of the church that he had mentioned and was curious to know how he had portrayed it. . . . The sky he painted in several shades of blue, the darkest of which almost matched the color of the stained glass. The result was that the building seemed to be a mere façade, as if we were looking through the apse to empty blue air beyond. And this was not all: the stonework of the church, so rigid in life, became flexible under Vincent’s brush. The rooflines wavered. The tower tilted. The space of the apse seemed swollen. Gray stone was touched with dashes of blue and green, as if the surrounding grass were beginning to swallow the dissolving structure.

Leaving Van Gogh has it all: wonderfully artsy writing, accurate art history and a compelling human story. It’s also a moving contemplation on how to care for those who suffer from mental illness. The circumstances of Van Gogh’s death would make for great book club debates, especially if you ambitious enough to compare Wallace’s theory to that propounded in the recently released, 900-plus page biography called Van Gogh, The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith.

It’s a compelling mystery.

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With Wallace’s book and my sketchpad in my tote bag, I ventured off to Auvers-sur-Oise myself. I hoped to see some sights that Van Gogh had painted, and thought I’d find some of the scenes from the book, but I never expected to have the book and Van Gogh’s story came alive right in front of my eyes. Check out these photos and these images of Van Gogh’s paintings and you’ll see what I mean.

Auberge Ravoux today, the inn where Van Gogh spent his last 70 days

Church in Auvers (1890), Musée D'Orsay

Church in Auvers (2012) - I got inspired to use bolder colors in my own pastel sketch

Wheat Field with Crows (1890), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Too early for wheat, but yes, there were crows

Town Hall at Auvers (1890), private collection

Town Hall at Auvers (2012)

Village Street and Steps In Auvers With Figures (1890), private collection

Village street in Auvers with car and figures (2012)

Dr. Gachet's house, now a museum in Auvers. Note the palm tree in the garden. Van Gogh painted the garden facing the other direction.

Dr. Gachet's Garden in Auvers (1890), Musée D'Orsay

Dr. Gachet's garden today, with see-through screen of the painting to enhance the view.

Dr. Gachet (1890), Musée D'Orsay

The table Dr. Gachet was leaning on in his portrait, in the garden of Maison Gachet

Vincent and Theo Van Gogh's tombstones in the cemetery in Auvers

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A few travel tips before you go. There are trains from Gare St. Lazare And Gare Nord to Auvers, but during the week there is a connection through Pontoise. On Saturday there is a direct train. Check the SNCF website for ticket and schedule information at  I chose to rent a car and drive out to Auvers.

Once I got to Auvers, I was glad I had driven, because even though the train station is close to Auberge Ravoux and Maison Van Gogh, it would have been about a mile each way to walk out to Maison Gachet. I’m a good walker, but I’d gotten a late start, and I had already had a nice walk up the hill from the Auberge to the church and the cemetery. The Maison Van Gogh website has a map, so you can decide for yourself. Maison Gachet has just been repoened after a five year renovation, and it’s a beautiful museum – a site you really don’t want to miss.  From March 1st through October 28th, they are open Wednesdays through Sundays, but check the websites for holidays and hours.

By car, take the A15 motorway, direction Cergy-Pontoise, exit number 7 (Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône) then the RT184 direction Amiens-Beauvais. Exit Méry-sur-Oise/Auvers-sur-Oise.  Once in the village, follow directions for Auvers-sur-Oise.

I highly recommend you pair your trip with Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace.

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Sacré Bleu: A Comedy D’Art

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore (Harper Collins, April 2012) reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Midnight in Paris, when Adrien Brody nails it as Salvador Dali  (“Rhinocéros!”). Like Midnight in Paris, Sacré Bleu is a smart artsy romp through the bohemian past of Paris.

In Sacré Bleu, Moore turns the clock back even further to the age of the Impressionists, he adds a little black magic, a lot of bawdy humor and a bit of bizarre mystery — and serves up an outrageously playful historical comedy (truly, “A Comedy D’Art”).

There are no fussy painters in long white beards and frock coats here. This is an irreverent mystery with a sexy muse named Bleu and her partner-in-crime, “The Colorman,” whose magical blue paint works a devilish spell on the young French Impressionists, including Manet, Renoir, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Monet, Morrisot, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Set in Paris from 1863, the year of the Salon des Refusées, to 1891, a year after Van Gogh’s death, this book stirs up big trouble for each of the Impressionists. Bleu arrives and inhabits the bodies of the artists’ favorite muses, from Manet’s Victorine in Dejeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia to Monet’s first wife Camille, to Renoir’s Margot in Bal du moulin de la Galette. Each painter is seduced to use more magical blue paint, which just happens to be Bleu’s and The Colorman’s lifeblood.

Ever wonder why so many of the Impressionists and their muses died so young? Did you ever question the story about Van Gogh’s supposed suicide, in which he shot himself with his own gun at an impossible angle and then hiked a mile up a country road to get help? And why did Monet paint a blue-tinged portrait his wife on her deathbed? Let’s just say that Bleu and The Colorman know the truth.

A fictional young painter named Lucien Lessard carries the story. Working in the family’s boulangerie on the butte de Montmarte, he becomes the story’s Forrest Gump: he’s a young rat catcher during the Siege of Paris in 1870, he helps Renoir carry his large canvas of Bal du moulin de la Galette to his studio in 1876 (“Oh la la, the wind. We had to pick leaves and pine needles out of the paint every week.”), he was Monet’s assistant at the Gare Saint Lazare in 1877, he runs around the bars and brothels of Pigale with Toulouse-Lautrec. He sees it all.

Lucien comes of age, becomes a painter, and falls under the spell of his own little muse. Although Juliette is hard to resist, Lucien pieces together the various blue clues. He and his studio-mate Toulouse-Lautrec chase Bleu and the Colorman through the cobblestone streets and rat-filled catacombs of Paris. They discover a cache of mysterious blue canvases in the limestone caves and encounter even more death-defying magic.

It’s a good story, but trying to make sense of each twist and turn of the time-jumping plot can be a little confusing. Just go with it – don’t sweat the details or the timeline and just enjoy the ride. After all, you’re on the Christopher Moore L’Express.

Highly recommended.

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If you live in Paris or if you’re planning a visit soon, I recommend that you pair than this book with a trip up to Montmartre. You might want to pick up Paris by the Plaque, an excellent guidebook to the history and sights of Montmartre. Paris Walks offers an English-speaking group walking tour every week, but if you’d like an in-depth personal guide I also recommend Pamela Grant at Paris Perspectives. If you’re just an armchair traveler, Christopher Moore has already created a Paris photo guide to some of the scenes from the book, which you can enjoy here (Chapter One – Auvers sur Oise) and here (Chapter Two – Montmartre, Pigale).

Before you start thinking about following in Christopher Moore’s footsteps, you should really pick up an early copy of the book. The first edition of the book will images of the paintings and prints in full color. Subsequent editions will just be in black and white. I’m just saying, you might want to click here to order yours now.

A Day with Renoir

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Renoir (1876), Musee D'Orsay

No matter how many times I go to the D’Orsay, this painting makes me stop and gawk. I just saw it again recently with my husband in tow. He encourages my painting and puts up with my “I-wish-I-could-do-that” kind of commentary. Standing in front of Dance at le Moulin de la Galette, I was awash in admiration: “look at the pink dapples of light on her dress!”

I forget, until I see the real thing and get to admire the brush strokes up close, how many colors Renoir uses for sunlight, and how effortless he makes it look. Was the light really reflecting pink that day, or was he just playing with his palette? My own art teachers are always urging me to see the light as it truly is, and not what my brain thinks it is. There is color all around us and we don’t even know it. There is purple in a tree trunk, pink in a skirt, blue under a chin. And Renoir seems to know this best of all.

So I’ve been thinking of Renoir lately, with spring in all of its soft pastel colors breaking out in Paris. I decided to go visit the very place where Renoir painted this scene back in 1876, at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre. The windmill was relocated from the original site further up the hill where the real dance hall was located. The Moulin de la Galette is now a restaurant at 83 rue Lepic, with a lovely quiet outdoor terrace and an English menu board.

Renoir painted en plein air at the Moulin de la Galette on Sundays, when he had a little help from his his friends. Because it would be impossible to capture real people who were so busy moving and dancing, he asked his friends pose for him in small groups. Renoir had to drag the extra large canvas back and forth to his studio, which was located up the hill and a couple of blocks away from Moulin de la Galette. He had to grapple with the wet canvas – a future masterpiece – in the heavy winds on the butte.

Renoir’s former studio is now Musee de Montmartre, 12-14 rue Cortot in Montmartre. The museum has a beautiful outdoor garden and courtyard, which happened to be in the earliest spring bloom when I was there. From the gardens, you can look up the hill toward Sacre Coeur, or downhill toward the Montmartre cemetery, the vineyards and Au Lapin Agile. The perfect place for an artist to live and create.

The view of the vineyards of Montmartre and Au Lapin Agile out the back window of Renoir's home

Pardon the bird poop, but this sign explains that The Swing was painted in this garden, where a replica of the swing still hangs from a tree.

I don't care if it's not the same swing from 135 years ago. I sat on it and still got goose bumps.

For more about Renoir, I recommend the book Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, which tells the story behind another one of my favorite Renoir paintings. Maybe later this spring I will plan a day trip out to La Maison Fournaise in Chatou on the Seine, where Luncheon of the Boating Party was painted. Care to join me?