Cassat and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you

I Always Loved You is Robin Oliveira’s wonderfully atmospheric story about Mary Cassatt’s early years in Paris, beginning in 1877 when Edgar Degas invited her to exhibit with the revolutionary group of French artists known as the Impressionists. Oliveira has done a fabulous job of capturing the place and times of these 19th century artists, including Degas, Morisot, Manet, Renoir Caillebotte and Pissaro.

Oliveira offers us lively and colorful scenes in Paris, from the studios of Montmartre to the salon scene along the Champs d’Elysée. I have photos of some of these scenes in an earlier post called Mary Cassatt’s Greater Journey, including her homes on avenues Trudaine and Marignan.

As the title suggests, this book imagines that there was more to the story of the friendship  between Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas and Cassatt were known to be very close friends and colleagues. It is absolutely true that Degas had an enormous influence on Cassatt’s art and life. But was there ever more? Oliveira imagines their story as a love story.

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886)

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886), pastel on paper

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878),  gouche on paper 23x17in Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878), gouche on paper 23×17″ 
Metropolitan Museum of Art,

But wait. Wasn’t Degas the disagreeable painter of nude prostitutes, working class absinthe drinkers and the petit rats from the demi-monde of the Opéra? He had a bad reputation, if rumors are to be believed. Some have made him out to be celibate, impotent, a misogynist, or even a sex offender.

And wasn’t Cassatt a cloistered woman of high social standing, best known for her tender portraits of mothers and children?

What could these two possibly have in common? Despite their differences, there was something that bound the two together, and I believe it was their fanatic devotion to their art. They both worked brutally hard at their technique and admired that in each other. They loved capturing the color of flesh and preferred to paint indoors, unlike many of the other Impressionists. They were the most experimental of the Impressionists, spending a great deal of time working and re-working their prints.

Was there ever more than this professional bond? We will never know. Cassatt destroyed all of her letters with Degas before she died. Oliveira draws her own inferences from that big mysterious gap, but I’m not so sure. Can’t Cassatt’s extraordinary work speak for itself? Isn’t her true story – as far as we know it – enough? Isn’t it enough that Cassatt and Degas had an intense, complicated, or even tortured friendship? Why do we have to impose on her our desire for romance?

This story is different than the one about the love affair between Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton that Jennie Fields wrote about in Age of Desire (2012). That imagined story was based on Edith Wharton own letters. Her late-in-life extramarital affair might have been a surprise to Wharton’s many fans and admirers, but it was undeniably true. And with it came the revelation that Edith Wharton had written her own erotica. Quelle surprise! 

The Cassatt-Degas question is similar to the one between Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, whose story is also told in Oliveira’s book. There were rumors of a romance there too, and inferences to be drawn. Both Morisot and Manet left behind some remarkable paintings that give us a potential peek at their inner secrets. I’ve written about this in the past – you might want to check out this previous post, Berthe Morisot’s Interior.

So are there any clues in Degas and Cassatt’s work?

Degas made numerous drawings, prints, pastels and etchings of Cassatt in the years between 1879 and 1885. But there is not one nude, no sweet smiles or sultry stares. Mary Cassatt would never have subjected herself to that kind of exposure. All we have are inscrutable poses like this:

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt (1880-1884).  Mary Stevenson Cassatt / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas, c. 1880-1884 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents' Major Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt  by Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, (1880-1884), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Degas made a series of studies, drawings and prints of Mary and her sister Lydia at the Louvre, including this study of Mary’s silhouette:

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study (1880)

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study in pastel (1880), Philadephia Museum of Art

The second pose is flattering, and has an unmistakeable sense of Degas’ interested gaze, but it is a long way from suggesting that they were lovers.

And yet it nags us, if there was nothing improper, why would Cassatt destroy their letters? It is entirely within this mysterious gap that Oliveria’s book takes place.

The letter burning story does make for lovely opening and closing scenes in I Always Loved You. Cassatt is elderly and living with no one but her long-term housekeeper at her country home, the Chateau de Beaufresne, and she is reading the letters she and Degas wrote to each other.

But she had kept these letters, as he had kept hers, though what they had been thinking, she couldn’t imagine. Such recklessness. Private conversations should always remain private. Why should anyone know what they themselves had barely known?

At the very end of the book, Oliveria returns to this same scene and shows Cassatt sitting in the dim light next to the fire, nearly blind from cataracts, as she decides to destroy the letters.

Was it a crime to burn memory? She didn’t know. Memory is all we have, Degas had once said. Memory is what life is, in the end.

She would be ash herself, soon, like all the others. She thrust the letters one by one into the fire. . . .

The pages burned on and on. And in those flames the years evaporated, the things unsaid and foregone, the misunderstandings and misconceptions and subverted hopes, the things that would now never be said.

Did they or didn’t they? We’ll never know for sure. Oliveira’s book offers one possible interpretation. What’s yours?

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source: http://www.mary-cassatt.net

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source: http://www.mary-cassatt.net

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Château_de_Beaufresne.JPG

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Château_de_Beaufresne.JPG

If you’re a fan of Mary Cassatt and would like to see more photos of Chateau de Beaufresne and the family gravesite nearby in Mesnil-Théribus, go to http://www.mary-cassatt.net. I hope to get there myself on my next trip to Paris.

Demeter’s Choice: A Portrait of Artist Mary Lawrence Tonetti

 

Demeter's Choice

Demeter’s Choice: A Portrait of My Grandmother as a Young Artist is the story of a young American sculptor named Mary Lawrence Tonetti who began studying under Augustus Saint-Gaudens at a very young age. She came of age in the art studios of New York and Paris in the late 19th century, and is most famous for her sculpture of Christopher Columbus for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

The author is the sculptor’s own granddaughter, Mary Tonetti Dorra, who had access to wonderful personal information to make the story rich with detail and insight. There are even copies of some of Mary Lawrence’s original pen and ink sketches and travel notes.

Demeter’s Choice tells the story of one woman’s choice between art and love. Mary Lawrence led a remarkable, artistic life both before and after her big choice. It’s a life worth knowing more about. And for the followers of this blog who like to hear about art history in Paris, I’ll point out all of the Paris sites and scenes of interest.

Mary Lawrence Tonetti (1868-1945). Source: sgnhs.org.

Mary Lawrence Tonetti (1868-1945). Source: sgnhs.org.

Mary Lawrence was a privileged young woman (her ancestors included a mayor of New York and Captain James Lawrence, a famous patriot famous for his wartime utterance: “Don’t give up the ship!”) who began a pampered life in Cliffside, her family’s large estate overlooking the Hudson River in Sneden’s Landing, New York. Mary was known to have grown up with a “robust temperament” and a taste for the outdoors. (Which to me is the Gilded Age way of saying she was a handful, a tomboy, a bit of a rebel. Funny how many of those kinds of Gilded Age girls turned out to be artists, especially sculptors….)

Mary enjoyed art from a very young age. When she was only seven years old, her family arranged for the up-and-coming Augustus Saint-Gaudens to come up to Sneden’s Landing to teach drawing and sculpture to Mary a group of other children. (Not a bad start for a kid!) When she was older, Mary continued art lessons at Saint-Gauden’s Fourteenth Street Studio in the German Savings Bank in New York City. Saint-Gaudens would have a huge influence on Mary’s life and career in art.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, mentor and friend of Mary Lawrence

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, mentor and friend of Mary Lawrence

German Savings Bank around 1872, site of Augustus St. Gaudens studio. Source: Office for Metropolitan HIstory NYC

The German Savings Bank around 1872, the site of Augustus Saint-Gaudens 14th Street studio. Source: Office for Metropolitan History NYC.

By the time Mary was twenty years old, she was personal friends with Saint-Gaudens’ whole crowd, including the architects Charles McKim and Stanford White. Demeter’s Choice has a lovely scene where Saint-Gaudens, McKim and White joined Mary for a picnic at Sneden’s Landing before she set sail on her first Grand Tour of Europe in 1886. There were hints that Charles McKim, a married man of nearly forty, was already falling in love with her despite their vast difference in age.

Accompanied by a supportive aunt and her more conventional sister Edith, Mary Lawrence made the Grand Tour of Europe, including a summer of sightseeing through Belguim and Germany before she would settle in Paris and begin her art studies it the women’s atelier of the Académie Julian.

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

Passage des Panoramas, just off of boulevard Montmartre in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julian’s atelier for women. The studio is no longer there, but a stroll through the arcade will still give you a sense of the time and place.

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

Marie Bashkirtseff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian by a Russian student famous for her memoir, The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff.

Being a friend and an assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens opened many doors upon Mary’s arrival in Paris. He introduced her to many of the American artists who worked or studied there, including Mary Louise Fairchild from St. Louis, who was studying with Carolus-Duran and the Académie Julian on a prestigious fellowship. In Demeter’s Choice, the two Marys meet at the opening night of the Paris Salon of 1886, where Mary Fairchild’s portrait of Sara Hallowell was on display. Sara Hallowell was an American art agent for wealthy American art collectors such as Bertha Palmer of Chicago. Sara lived part of the year in Paris developing close relationships with Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin. Mary Lawrence was making all the right connections too, a rare opportunity for such a young artist.

Mlle S. H. (Sara Tyson Hollowell) by Mary Fairchild (1886). Source: www.pubhist.com)

Mlle S. H. (Sara Tyson Hollowell) oil on canvas by Mary Fairchild (1886). Property of The Warden and Fellows of Robinson College, University of Cambridge. This is the portrait that was exhibited in the 1886 Paris Salon where Mary Lawrence met Mary Fairchild and Sara Hallowell. Source: http://www.pubhist.com

Within a week of her arrival in Paris, Mary Lawrence was invited to Auguste Rodin’s art studio which he shared with his student and young mistress Camille Claudel. Together they strolled through the studio where Mary got to see the models for The Burghers of Calais and some of the figures from The Gates of Hell. Today you can see these works for yourself at the Musée Rodin, one of my favorite museums in Paris. Inside you can even see some of Camille Claudel’s sculptures as well.

Mary and her sister settled into their apartment at 56 rue Notre Dame des Champs in the heart of the Left Bank of Paris, within a few blocks of some of the biggest names in the art world, such as John Singer Sargent, Carolus-Duran, James Whistler and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Saint-Gaudens and his wife lived nearby, at 3 rue Herschel just on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens. Like many Americans ever since then, Mary came to adore Paris, from the macaroons at LaDurée, to the baguettes from her local boulangerie to a lovely stroll through the Palais Royal.

IMG_2263

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Being a young woman of privilege in the Gilded Age meant you had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe instead of having to freeze or starve your way through a miserable winter in Paris. Mary Lawrence left Paris for a few winter months in Italy with her family entourage before she returned to New York in the summer of 1887. By the spring of 1888, she had returned to Paris for another season of classes at the Académie Julian.

Once her second session of Paris art studies were over, Mary returned to New York, where she taught at the Art Students League, served as Saint-Gaudens’ assistant and worked on her own sculpting projects.

In the fall of 1891, Mary learned that she would be awarded a contract to create a statue of Christopher Columbus for the Chicago World’s Fair under the supervision of Saint-Gaudens. It was a huge honor. Most women who received commissions for the fair (such as Mary Cassatt, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies and Sophia Hayden) were contracted through a separate Board of Lady Managers led by the Chicago society queen Bertha Palmer. Mary Lawrence received her commission directly from the Fair Commissioners, who were all male. You can read a fun 1893 New York Times article about Mary’s commission here.

Demeter’s Choice tells the wonderful story of a fight between Mary Lawrence and her supporters versus Frank Millet, a particularly odious fair organizer, who objected to the prominent placement of her Columbus statue because it was made by a “female novice.” Millet actually arranged to have it moved to a spot near the train station. You’ll have to read for yourself to learn what happened next. If you look at the image below, it is amazing what a good job young Mary Lawrence did – she was young, but certainly no novice.

"Columbus Taking Possession." The Administration Building From Columbian Gallery: A Portfolio of Photographs of the World's Fair, The Werner Company. The prominent and handsome figure of Columbus, which stood in the portal, was the work of Miss Mary T. Lawrence, and represented the landing of Columbus, and the planting of the Spanish flag in the colonies of the New World. 1893. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/field_museum_library/3409425513/in/photostream/

“Columbus Taking Possession.”  Mary Lawrence’s statue of Columbus, which stood in the portal of the Administration Building at the Chicago Worlds Fair. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/field_museum_library/3409425513/in/photostream/

After the excitement of the Chicago World’s Fair was over, Mary went back to Paris. She continued her studies at the Académie Julian and renewed her many friendships with the artists of the Left Bank and beyond. Mary was on everyone’s guest list, attending soirées hosted by the likes of Charles Dana Gibson and James Whistler. It was at Gibson’s glamorous ball and then again at Whistler’s home at 110 rue de Bac that Mary Lawrence met François Tonetti, a sculpting assistant to Frederick MacMonnies. The rest, as they say, was history.

The plaque at James Whistler's home in rue de Bac where Mary Lawrence first met François Tonetti in 1893. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/monceau/7759948652/

The plaque at James Whistler’s home on rue de Bac, where Mary Lawrence and François Tonetti met for the second time in 1893. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/monceau/7759948652/

A close-up image of a portrait of François Tonetti by François Flameng. Source: http://palisadesny.com/nature/take-hike/

A close-up image of a portrait of François Tonetti by François Flameng. Source: http://palisadesny.com/nature/take-hike/

Even after she met the charming and passionate François, Mary Lawrence continued to work as a sculptor in her own Twenty-Third Street studio in New York and to teach Saint-Gaudens’ classes at the Art Students League through most of the1890s. Charles McKim continued to pursue her, as did François, her favorite Frenchman.

Saint-Gaudens didn’t want his protégée to marry, worried that she would give up her art for a house full of “festive children.” He asked: “wIll she just die and fade into the wife of François Tonetti…?” Others objected because François wasn’t from the “same stock” as the Lawrences. Mary’s own sister pressed her to choose Charles McKim, who offered a more proper and promising future than a bohemian artist could.

No matter what choice Mary Lawrence would make, it was clear that she wouldn’t die and fade away. She would always live in a world of art. Mary Lawrence lived the rest of her life surrounded by artists, founding and developing an artist’s colony in Sneden’s Landing. Generations of artists and actors have enjoyed living there, including Gerald and Sara Murphy, Orson Wells, Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie, Bill Murray and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Just for fun, you can check out this recent gossip article about Tom Cruise checking out the real estate in Sneden’s Landing.

Quite a story and quite a legacy. We are so lucky that Mary Lawrence’s granddaughter wrote it all down. 

Mary Tonetti Dorra. Source: www.marytonettidora.com.

Mary Tonetti Dorra. Source: http://www.marytonettidorra.com.

Author Mary Tonetti Dorra has a list of appearances scheduled in early 2014. You can check them out for yourself on her website.

Review and Recommendation by Margie White of the American Girls Art Club in Paris

Fanny and Louis in Grez

wide starry sky

Nancy Horan, the bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes now with her long-awaited second novel, based on the nineteenth century love story between Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, a not-exactly-divorced American mother of three and the much younger writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The pair met in the summer of 1875 in Grez, an art colony in France in the Fountainebleu Forest. Fanny had arrived in France the year before to escape her unhappy marriage and to study art alongside her 17 year-old daughter Belle.

Fanny and Belle were enjoying their studies in the women’s drawing classes at the Académie Julian alongside other international students, including May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister. (You can read more about May Alcott’s art studies and travels through France at my previous post, Little Women in Dinan.)

After enduring an unspeakable tragedy in Paris, Fanny decides to bring her children to Grez for some quiet recovery time in the country. A fellow art student at the Académie Julian suggested a quiet place, “an inn at Grez, on the Loing River. It’s close to Barbizon but away from all the bustle, and cheap. It’s near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Fanny talks her estranged husband from California into supporting them for one more year in Europe.

Nancy Horan describes Grez-sur-Loing well:

[N]estled in the midst of vast farm fields, the village was a smattering of stone houses, a picturesque bridge, and a ruined twelfth-century tower with ferns growing in its cracked walls.

During my year in France I loved to plan field trips to art history sites, and I just happened to spend a gray day in Grez myself. You can read another post (Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing) about my trip to Grez, which includes directions and more information about the different artists who lived and painted there.

Here are some photos of Grez that readers of Under the Wide and Starry Sky and fans of Robert Louis Stevenson might especially enjoy:

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. The picturesque  12th century Tour de Ganne is in the background.

The 17th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The 12th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The Tour de Ganne in Grez from the grassy walk down toward the river

The Tour de Ganne in Grez as seen from the grassy walk down toward the river

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

In the book, Nancy Horan has Fanny’s friend Margaret Wright tell her about the Hotel Chevillon in Grez, “one of the most bohemian of the bohemian gathering places near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Says Margaret:

Barbizon has become too fashionable. It’s overrun by poseurs more interested in the mis-en-scene than in producing any actual art. The real painters go to Grez. . . . And you needn’t worry. They will leave you alone, I think.

Little did Fanny know that the bohemians who enjoyed the summer season at Hotel Chevillon were dismayed to hear that an American woman and her children had arrived at the inn. Bob Stevenson (Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, and an artist in his own right) arrived ahead of the group of “Glasgow Boys” from Scotland with the intention of chasing Fanny away. In the book, Bob Stevenson hints Fanny might want to find other more suitable accommodations:

There’s an onslaught about to begin. . . . Once the others start to arrive you’ll discover this isn’t the place to be if you are hoping for a little peace. Madame Chevillon said you had come for the quiet. . . . There are places not far from here that would serve you much better if you are here to rest. . . .

But things would turn out much differently than the Stevensons had planned. Within a few short weeks, both of the Stevenson cousins would have a crush on Fanny. Although Fanny was 10 years older than Louis, they found comfort in each others hearts and minds. In the meantime, Fanny’s 17 year-old daughter Belle fell in love with the Irish artist Frank O’Meara.

The Hotel Chevillon still stands today, although it is not open to the public. It is a private art residency center operated by The Grez-sur-Loing Foundation in Sweden, which manages a stipend program for visiting artists, authors and photographers. There is even a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship available for interested writers (the application deadline for 2014 is February 28th, but it looks like it is limited to residents of Scotland.)

Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter.

Hotel Chevillon, the place where Fanny and Louis met,  is still standing! It is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter. It was restored in 1994 and serves as an art center and residency program.

Hotel Chevillon: the place where Fanny Van de Grif Osbourne met Robert Louis Stevenson.

Hotel Chevillon from the street.

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relx by the river

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon from the nearby bridge. Just on the other side of this wall is where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relax.

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there? Source: Carol Ferrelly, http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/writing/2013/11/five-things-robert-louis-stevenson-fellowship

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there back in the day? Source: Carol Ferrelly, http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/writing/2013/11/five-things-robert-louis-stevenson-fellowship

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez and painted this captivating picture of the garden at Hotel Chevillon.

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez. This painting captures the feel of the garden at Hotel Chevillon back in the time of Fanny and Louis. Source: http://www.paintingmainia.com

After their summer meeting in Grez, Fanny and her children returned to Paris, where they settled into an apartment in Montmartre. Louis would continue his pursuit of Fanny from Paris to California and beyond. They would finally marry in 1880 and spend their years traveling the world.

John Singer Sargent would paint a strange but perceptive portrait of RLS and Fanny when they were all living in Bournemouth, England in 1885. Apparently, Fanny was not too happy about the way she is marginalized and made to look so Moorish in this painting. As for me, I find it fascinating. What an odd pair.

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Under The Wide and Starry Sky is an interesting portrait of an unorthodox and artistic couple from history, not unlike the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. However, this love story didn’t seem nearly as compelling as Loving Frank, and I’m not sure why. Neither RLS nor Fanny are particularly admirable people, but then, neither were Frank and Mamah. For some reason, it bothered me that Fanny lacked any substantial talent or drive as an artist, that she acted so passively in the face of her son’s serious illness, and that she waffled over her commitment to a horrible marriage. Maybe it’s my mistake, expecting a 19th century woman to act with as much agency as a 21st century woman, but still, it interfered with my ability to identify and sympathize with Fanny. I have to admit, I take strange delight in the take-down Fanny suffers under the paintbrush of John Singer Sargent.

Even if Under the Wide and Starry Sky doesn’t measure up to Loving Frank, I would still recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially if you are interested in learning more about the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson or the 19th century art scene in Paris. And if you happen to be visiting Paris anytime soon, I highly recommend a day trip out to Grez.  

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

The Swing: Renoir, Jeanne and Me

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Swing, 1876. Musée d’Orsay, bequest of Gustave Caillebotte, 1894. On loan to the Art Institute of Chicago for the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity Exhibit, June-September, 2013

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Swing, 1876. Musée d’Orsay, bequest of Gustave Caillebotte, 1894. On loan to the Art Institute of Chicago for the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity Exhibit, June-September, 2013

The Swing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir is on its last “swing” through the United States in connection with the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago (through September 29, 2013). It’s a beautiful painting to see up close, whether you catch in in Chicago or back in its home at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

But it’s even more fun to climb onto the matching swing at the Musée Montmartre in Paris and indulge in a little reenactment of your own. If only I had found some blue bows and a couple of dapper admirers in a boater’s hats, I would have been all set.

That's me on the swing at the Musée Montmartre.

That’s me on the swing at the Musée Montmartre. Not the most flattering pose, and not the most fashionable ensemble, but a black turtleneck, jeans and black boots made up my daily Paris uniform in the cooler months. No bows, no corsets and no princess-cut muslim gown for me.

Museé Montmartre, 12-14 rue Cortot, Paris (18th)

Museé Montmartre, 12-14 rue Cortot, Paris (18th). You should go!

Recommended Reading: Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir (2001)

renoir my father

Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir (2001)

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris

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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.”

Passage des Panoramas

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.

Paris Was the Place

pariswastheplace

You probably think I will buy any book with a picture of Paris on the cover. No, really. I won’t. I’m not that easy.

But when your cover is this pretty, the font this inviting, and you have blurbs on the back from the likes of Lily King, Richard Russo, Ayelet Waldman, Margot Livesy, Maryann O’Hare and Sarah Blake, you’ve got me.

Paris Was The Place by Susan Conley is the story of a young woman’s experience while working at an immigration detention center for girls in Paris. You could say it’s Little Bee in Paris, but that would be missing half of the book’s appeal.

In some ways, Willow (“Willie”) Pears is a refugee too. Broken and lost after her mother’s recent death, Willie leaves California and comes to Paris in search of connections. Willie is estranged from her father, but wants to be closer to her brother Luke who lives in Paris with his boyfriend. Willie is a poetry professor at the Academy of France, and begins volunteering at an immigration center for girls. As Willie draws out the refugees’ heartbreaking stories, which they need to prepare for their asylum hearings, she becomes deeply involved in their desperate hope for a better life in France. In the meantime, Willie makes her own “French Connection” with an immigration lawyer who works at the center.

Part of the appeal of Willie’s story is the way she makes Paris her place. When Willie first arrives in Paris she is mystified by the geography of the city:

The sequencing of the neighborhoods here baffles me – arranged like the curvature of some terrestrial snail. I’m in the tenth arrondissement, anchored by two of Paris’s great train stations, where the alleyways weave into mapless places. I’m not embarrassed to carry my Michelin.

With her Michelin in hand, Willie maps her way through Paris, narrating her trips and transfers on the Métro, guiding us through each arrondissement. From her brother’s nice apartment on Victor Hugo in the 16th, her own apartment on Rue de la Clef in the Latin Quarter, the detention center on Rue de Metz in the 10th, and the Academy of France in the 6th, Willie stakes her claim on her new city.

Just for fun, I plotted out Willie’s Paris on this Google Map. Now you can walk in the footsteps of the characters of Paris Was the Place too.

Willie’s Michelin guide helps her unlock the baffling secrets of Paris. And isn’t that exactly the way it is when you’re a tourist or an expat in France? You might not understand half of what is said around you every day, but at least you can read your Métro map. Like color-coded bread crumbs that will always lead you home.

But there’s rarely a direct route. You need to study the map and plot your connections. What’s the best way to get from the 16th to the 10th? Can I get there without having to crowd in with all the tourists on Line 1? Can I do it with only one transfer? I used to start every day with my home-brewed espresso, plotting out my day on my own dog-eared Paris L’Indispensable.

And then, one day, just like Willie, you’ve mastered the Métro and you’ve developed an instinct for the spiraling arrondissements. You learned to cope with a life that isn’t always linear. You’ve made your connection and you feel like you belong. Paris is your place.

What makes Paris Was The Place so wonderful is the way Willie’s search for geographical connections runs parallel with her efforts to navigate through her personal connections: with her brother, her French lover, the girls at the detention center, her complicated family history, her widowed father. Some connections are made, while others are tragically lost. The fact that Willie’s estranged father is a mapmaker adds even more depth and grace to her story. Because belonging isn’t always just a matter of maps and Métros. It’s about making connections in the baffling, mapless places of the human heart.

My dog-eared L'Indispensable Paris Arrodissement Map. My own personal Rosetta Stone.

My dog-eared L’Indispensable Paris Arrondissement Map. My own personal Rosetta Stone.

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My home stop on Line 6 in the 16th, which Willie calls “the grown-up part of Paris” with “older women in pencil skirts walking their miniature poodles.” Ouch. That hurts. I swear I don’t own a pencil skirt or a miniature poodle.

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Willie, a fellow word nerd, would have loved this Métro stop too. The words from the Declaration of the Rights of Man form a word search at this Concorde Métro stop.

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I love this Art Nouveau Métro stop at Réaumur Sébastopol on Line 4. Only one more stop until Willie’s stop for the Rue de Metz detention center.

One of my favorite Métro stops. The Port Dauphine Métro stop on Line 2, just one stop past Luke's apartment on Victor Hugo.

One of my favorite Métro stops. The Port Dauphine Métro stop on Line 2, just one stop past Luke’s apartment on Victor Hugo. Just a short walk from the lovely Bois de Boulogne.

Who doesn't love the whimsical Louvre-Rivoli Métro stop?

Who doesn’t love the whimsical glass beads in the design of the Palais-Royal-Musée de Louvre Métro stop at Place Colette?

The gardens of Musée Rodin, the site of Willie and Gita's field trip

The gardens of Musée Rodin, the site of Willie and Gita’s field trip

Luxembourg Gardens - where Willie and Gita enjoyed their brown-bag lunches together

Luxembourg Gardens – where Willie and Gita enjoyed their brown-bag lunches together

I have a feeling that it’s not just Willie and I who share this need to map out our place in Paris. Check out this quote from Susan Conley’s website, where she talks about her own Paris map OCD:

My craziest Francophile moment came when I found myself making these gigantic maps of the Paris neighborhoods covered in my novel. I used indelible markers on poster board in my little rabbit warren of an office on the third floor of our old house, and I tried to recreate the streets that Willie and Macon walked on in Paris. These hand-scrawled maps were my blue print of the city. They’re almost illegible but they gave me access to the parts of the city I really had to make sure the novel rendered fully. I needed to make the maps to feel like I was there in Paris. Then I knew that the reader would (hopefully!) feel like they were there too.

Yes, Susan, when I read your book I felt like I was in Paris too. Thanks for that, because now I miss it just a little less.

Paris Was The Place by Susan Conley:  Highly recommended.

Paris L’Insdispensable: Indispensable.