The Invention of Wings: The Grimké Sisters in Charleston

invention of wings

Last summer my book club thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 historical novel Invention of Wings. Ever since then, a trip to Charleston was high on my travel wish list. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, as well as their house slaves Hettie and Charlotte.

I’ve recently returned from a long weekend in Charleston and that’s exactly what I did, thanks to Carol Ezell Gilson and Le Ann Bain’s “The Original Grimké Sisters Tour,” which I highly recommend.

Follow along on my photo tour until you can get the chance to go to Charleston yourself.

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The Grimké Family Home at 321 East Bay Street in Charleston (1803-1819). The Grimkés moved here when Sarah was 11 years old. Angelina was born here in 1805. Most of the events from the Invention of Wings takes place here.

 

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The front door of the Grimké family home at 321 East Bay St. The Grimkés had 9 children, including 3 teenagers, at the time they moved to this house on East Bay. They’d run out of room at their prior house on Church Street.

 

The back of the Grimké house at 321 East Bay St. This is now a parking lot for the law firm that owns the building, but it was once the site of the out buildings, including the outside kitchen and slave quarters.

The back of the Grimké house at 321 East Bay St. This is now a parking lot for the law firm that owns the building, but it was once the site of the out buildings, including the outside kitchen and slave quarters.

As of April, 2015, this is the only historical marker on the former Grimké home. However, there are plans to place a commemorative marker at the site on May 5, 2015 to recognize the home of the Grimké Sisters.

As of April, 2015, this is the only historical marker on the former Grimké home on East Bay. However, there are plans to place a commemorative marker at the site on May 5, 2015 to recognize the home of the Grimké Sisters. I understand that Sue Monk Kidd will be there as a part of her book tour for the paperback launch of  Invention of Wings.

 

The view from the front door of the Grimké home on East Bay. Charleston Harbor was very close by.  Sarah would have been able to watch slave ships arriving in the harbor between 1803 and 1808, the year that  foreign slave trade was abolished in the United States.

The view from the front door of the Grimké home on East Bay. Charleston Harbor can be seen behind the buildings toward the back. Sarah Grimké would have been old enough to notice the  slave ships arriving in the harbor before 1808, the year that foreign slave trade was abolished in the United States.

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The Grimké family home from 1794-1803 was located at 87 Church Street in Charleston. It is now known as the Heyward-Washington House and is part of The Charleston Museum. The home has been restored and preserved circa 1772, back when the Heyward family lived there. It is also named after George Washington, who visited Charleston and rented this home in 1791.

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The Grimké family home on Church Street from 1794-1803 (the Hayward-Washington House).  I highly recommend that fans of Invention of Wings take a tour of this house in order to get a real feel for the manner in which the Grimkés and their slaves lived at the time. Tickets and other details are available here.

In a hutch on the first floor, there are photos of the Grimké Sisters on display. However, most of the tour is about the Hayward family who lived there during the revolution.

In a hutch on the first floor of the Heyward-Washington House, there are photos of the Grimké Sisters on display. However, most of the tour is about the Heyward family who lived there during the revolution. (And the Heywards are interesting in their own right.)

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The lovely drawing room of the Heyward-Washington House overlooking Church Street. The furniture pieces are 18th century handmade antiques, many of which are original to the house.

 

The fireplace in the drawing room of the Hayward-Washington House, next to which is a bell-pull for the attending house slaves.

The fireplace in the drawing room of the Heyward-Washington House, next to which is a bell-pull for the attending house slaves.

 

The view from the drawing room of the Hayward-Washington House onto Church Street.

The view from the drawing room of the Heyward-Washington House onto Church Street.

 

The stairs from the second floor landing. Sarah Grimké would have lived in a room on the third floor along with her other siblings.

The stairs from the second floor landing. Sarah Grimké would have lived in a room on the third floor along with her other siblings. So, both Sarah Grimké and George Washington have touched this banister. Pretty cool.

 

One of the out buildings at the Hayward-Washington House. The downstairs included the kitchen and laundry room and the upstairs was slave quarters. This helped me picture what the backyard was like for Hettie and her mother.

One of the out buildings at the Heyward-Washington House. The downstairs included the kitchen and laundry room and the upstairs was slave quarters. This helped me picture what the backyard of the Grimké home was like for Hettie and her mother.

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The kitchen of the Heyward-Washington house. This is where Hettie’s Aunt-Sister spent most of her time as the head cook.

 

The view of the back of the Hayward-Washington House from the back gardens. These would have been kitchen gardens tended to by slaves. The building to the right was the carriage house, the stables and additional slave quarters.

The view of the back of the Heyward-Washington House from the back gardens. These gardens would have been used as kitchen gardens at the time, and were tended by slaves. The building to the right was the carriage house, the stables, the cow house, with additional slave quarters above. According to the timeline in Invention of Wings, this is where the slave Hettie  and her mother would have lived together before they all moved to the East Bay house. As Hettie says in Invention of Wings, their room “sat over the carriage house and didn’t have a window. The smell of manure from the stable and the cow house rose up there so ripe it seemed like our bed was stuffed with it instead of straw.”

 

The back gardens of the Hayward-Washington House. This Is where Sarah, at age 5, would have first observed a slave being beaten. It disturbed her so much that she ran out of the house and down to the wharf, where she reportedly asked ship captains to take her to a place that didn't have slavery.

The back gardens of the Heyward-Washington House. This is where Sarah Grimké, at age 5, would have first observed a slave being beaten. It disturbed her so much that she ran out of the house and down to the wharf, where she reportedly asked ship captains to take her to a place that didn’t have slavery.

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St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Church Street in Charleston. As Sarah says in Invention of Wings: “On Easter, we Grimkés rode to St. Philip’s First Episcopal Church beneath the Pride of India trees that lined both sides of Meeting Street.”  This is where Sarah taught the “Colored Sunday School.” The most elite members of Charleston society belonged here and paid for the privilege of renting pews closest to the altar.

 

A view up Church Street at St. Philip's.

A view up Church Street at St. Philip’s. The Grimkés would have walked right down this street when they lived in the Heyward-Washington House.

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The Old Jail on the corner of Franklin and Magazine Streets in Charleston. You have to appreciate the foreboding architecture. Right next door the the Old Jail, to the left of this photo, is where the old Work House once stood. Runaway slaves who were captured were brought to The Workhouse, along with disobedient slaves. The slave owners paid the city for their stay and their punishment.

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An empty parking lot and a corner building now stand at the site of the infamous Work House on Magazine Street. In the book, little Angelina visits a friend whose family lived a block or so from the Work House: “During Nina’s last visit there, she’d heard screams floating on the breezes and had leapt up in alarm, scattering Jackstones across the piazza.”

There is a sidewalk marker at the corner where the Work House once stood on Magazine Street. In Invention of Wings, Hettie the Grimkés send Hettie to the Work House for punishment after attending at church service with the slave rebellion leader Denmark Vessey.

There is a sidewalk marker at the corner where the Work House once stood on Magazine Street. In Invention of Wings, Mrs. Grimké sends Hettie to the Work House for punishment after Hettie is caught attending a meeting with slave rebellion leader Denmark Vessey. Hettie’s foot was injured on the Work House treadmill,  which Hettie says is like “a spinning drum, twice as tall as a man, with steps on it. Twelve scrambling people were claiming it fast as they could go, making the wheel turn.”

 

No visit to Charleston's historic sites would be complete without a tour of the Old Slave Market Museum on Chalmers Street. Although this slave market did not start up until the 1850s, well after the events in the book, the museum there contains a great deal of the slave history of Charleston.

No visit to Charleston’s historic sites would be complete without a solemn tour of the Old Slave Mart Museum at 6 Chalmers Street. Although this slave market did not start up until the 1850s, well after most of the events in the book, the museum there contains a great deal of the slave history of Charleston. Of particular interest to readers of Inventions of Wings is a display which shows an invoice from the Charleston Work House to a slaveowner for services rendered. The invoice shows the dates and the punishments rendered to a slave, including the treadmill and what appears to be “salt” in the wounds.

 

In 1856, Charleston  prohibited the sale of slaves in public. The spectacle of public sales inflamed the passions of abolitionists and antislavery forces, so indoor slave markets were created.

In 1856, Charleston prohibited the sale of slaves in public. The spectacle of public sales inflamed passions and invited criticism, so it was decided to bring slave markets indoors. At the same time, Thomas Ryan, one of the Charleston aldermen who introduced the ordinance, bought this property and opened the Ryan Slave Mart, from which he would personally profit. The main room was a showroom in which available slaves were on display. In the back, in buildings which have since been torn down, there was a jail and a morgue.

 

Prior to 1856, slaves were sold on the streets in Charleston in open view. Many were sold on the north side of the Old Exchange Building, which was located right on the wharf.

Prior to 1856, slaves were sold on the streets in Charleston in open view. Many were sold on the north side of the Old Exchange Building, which was located right on the wharf. This is also the site where Hettie saw the Charleston postmaster publicly burning Angelina Grimké’s antislavery pamphlet. As Hettie says in the book: “A black billow was rising over the Old Exchange. . . . At the corner of Broad Street, I stopped in my tracks. What I thought was the city burning was a bonfire in front of the Exchange. A mob circled round it and the man from the post office was up on the steps throwing bundles of paper on the flames. Every time a packet landed, the cinders flew and the crowd roared. . . . I was weaving my way, keeping my head down, when I saw one of the papers they were trying to burn laying on the street trampled underfoot, and I went over and picked it up. It was singed along the bottom. An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States by Sarah M. Grimké.”

 

 

 

 

For too long, the Grimké sisters have been lost in the complicated sweep and prejudice of Charleston history, but thanks to Sue Monk Kidd and the efforts of many well informed and inspired local historians, they will soon receive the attention they deserve. I can’t wait to see what their historical marker will look like.

For further reading:

grimke sisters

Caillebotte’s Footsteps in the 8th

Gustave Caillebotte, Anonymous Photo c1878

Gustave Caillebotte (1878)

 

Gustave Caillebotte 

 

I feel like I’ve known Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) ever since I was a young art student on a bus trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. That is where I first saw his very lovely Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877).

 

 

Paris Street: Rainy Day, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street: Rainy Day, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago

So when I first arrived in Paris, I couldn’t help going to the site of Paris Street; Rainy Day in the Place de Dublin behind Gare Saint Lazare. What I didn’t know at the time of my first visit to the Place de Dublin was that I could trace Caillebotte’s footsteps from that scene to the scenes of many of his other paintings, all around his old neighborhood in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

Geeking out at Place de Dubin, site of Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877)

Geeking out at Place de Dublin, at the corner of rue de Moscou, rue de Tourin and rue de Saint Pétersbourg, the site of Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877)

From the Place de Dublin, it is a short walk down rue de Saint-Pétersbourg to the Place de L’Europe which overlooks Gare Saint Lazare, the train station that was the site of many Impressionists paintings. Caillebotte painted an interesting urban scene on the bridge (below) and exhibited the painting in the Second Impressionist Exhibit of 1876.

Gustave Caillebotte, Pont de L'Europe (1876), Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva, Switzerland

Gustave Caillebotte, Pont de L’Europe (1876), Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva, Switzerland

 

From the Place de L’Europe, it is just another short walk down rue de Madrid to the lovely neighborhood where the Caillebotte family lived.

In 1866, Gustave Caillebotte’s father bought a plot of land in the nouveau riche neighborhood near Parc Monceau and built a lovely three story townhouse (two more stories would be added after the Caillebottes no longer lived there). It was located on the corner of rue de Miromesnil and rue de Lisbonne. It actually shares two addresses: 77 rue de Miromesnil and 13 rue de Lisbonne. This is where Gustave Caillebotte lived with his parents, his brothers and their servants.

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The corner of rue de Lisbonne and rue de Miromesnil in Paris, once the home and studio of the painter Gustave Caillebotte.

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Before his death in 1874, Caillebotte’s father Martial built an atelier within the family compound for his artistic son. (Which must have been a true sign of paternal support. Gustave had studied law but preferred the study of art to the practice of law.) It was built on top of a two-story loge used by their concierge, located to the right of the carriage entrance on rue de Lisbonne. Although nothing is left of this structure today, the atelier once consisted of two floors. The top floor had a high-vaulted ceiling, a north-facing skylight, a balcony facing the rue de Lisbonne and French windows to the south.

It is believed that this is exactly where Cailbotte painted the famous The Floor Scrapers (1875), Musée d’Orsay. In fact, art historians believe that the wood scrapers were installing  the new wood floor in Caillebotte’s studio at the time. As Michael Marrinan stated in Caillebotte as a Professional Painter, From The Studio to the Public Eye:

The complex lighting of  The Floor Scrapers – soft backlighting from the visible window amid a cool, even, interior light – accords perfectly with the studio’s configuration and suggests that Caillebotte was keen to record the good light of his new work space.

 

The Floor Scrapers, 1875, Musée d'Orsay

The Floor Scrapers, 1875, Musée d’Orsay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caillebotte was pleased with his work and submitted it to the 1875 Paris Salon. The conservative jury was quick to reject it, finding the subject matter vulgar. Caillebotte had the audacity to paint urban workers with their shirts off with a vaguely erotic mood. (As for me, I love the play of the light from the window, the men’s strong arms, and of course, the bottle of red wine to the side.)

Caillebotte gave up trying to please the Salon jurors and showed this painting in the Second Impressionist Exhibit of 1876, which was held in three rooms in the Durand-Ruel Gallery at 11 rue le Peletier, just off Boulevard Haussman. Although Emile Zola was a friend of the Impressionists, he criticized Caillebotte for being too realistic and too bourgeois. (Critics. You just can’t please them.)

At about the same time, Caillebotte painted his younger brother René standing at one of the windows of the family townhouse. Young Man at the Window was also shown at the Second Impressionist Exhibit. Unfortunately, René would die later that same year. When their mother died just two years later, in 1878, Gustave and his remaining brother Martial moved to a new apartment on Boulevard Haussman.

If you look closely at Young Man at the Window and compare it to the photograph of this building today (above), you can tell that René is standing in one of the corner windows facing rue de Lisbonne, with the intersection of rue de Miromesnil and Boulevard Malesherbes in the background. There was once a stone balustrade in front of this window instead of the iron railing that exists today. In any event, we can be pretty certain that this was not painted in Caillebotte’s new studio, which was located not on the corner, but a little further down rue de Lisbonne.

Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at the Window (1876), Private Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at the Window (1876), Private Collection

These days, there is another prominent Frenchman who can be found at this address. I stumbled upon this fun fact quite by accident on a random stroll through the neighborhood. He was having a press conference on the sidewalk outside Caillebotte’s former townhouse, so I stopped to watch the frenzy of the French paparazzi. Yes, that would be Nicolas Sarkozy. In Caillebotte’s footsteps. Quelle surprise! (Do you doubt me? Check out the Paris Match, c’est vrai!)

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Caillebotte’s former townhouse, 77 rue de Miromesnil, is now occupied by France’s ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy. His office is located on the first floor (second floor to Americans). So I have to wonder, does Sarkozy ever stand at the window with his hands in his pockets like René Caillebotte?

If your own walk through Caillebotte’s neighborhood leads you into a crazed flock of paparazzi like mine did, you could calm your nerves in the nearby Parc Monceau, a favorite of the Impressionists. Caillebotte painted there himself in the 1870s:

Caillebotte, Le Parc Monceau

Gustave Caillebotte, Le Parc Monceau (1878)

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Gustave Caillebotte, Le Parc Monceau (1877) – sold in a 2013 Sotheby’s auction for 2.6 million pounds.

 

One of Parc Monceau's "follies" - architectural features of interest from different continents and cultures, as designed by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle in 1778.

One of Parc Monceau’s “follies” – architectural features of interest from different continents and cultures, as designed by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle in 1778.

 

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The Corinthian Columns, Parc Monceau in September.

 

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Parc Monceau: a bridge designed by Haussman era architect Gabriel Davioud, modeled after the Rialto bridge in Venice.

 

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Parc Monceau: A classic scene featuring the gravel paths painted by the Impressionists

 

To finish off what could be a perfect day of all things Caillebotte, I would head over the the Musée D’Orsay to enjoy all of the Impressionist paintings that were part of the Caillebotte Bequest of 1894. By the time of Caillebotte’s death (he was only 45 years old) he had become a leading collector of Impressionist art and one of their most helpful patrons. His bequest to the French government included 67 paintings from artists such as Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Sisley and Pissaro. Although the French government refused to accept part of the bequest, those that were accepted now form the heart of the Impressionist Collection of the Musée D’Orsay.

While you’re there, be sure to take an extra moment in front of The Floor Scrapers, and take pleasure in knowing that you’ve walked down the very street where it was painted back in 1875.

 

My sources, and for your further reading:

Caillebotte book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gustave Caillebotte, Urban Impressionist, edited by Anne Distel, Art Institute of Chicago (1995).

caillebotte book 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gustave Caillebotte and the Fashioning of Identity in Impressionist Paris, ed. Norman Broude, Rutgers University Press (2002)

 

Also recommended:  Paris Walks Impressionist Walking Tour, April 2015 schedule here —   ParisWalks.com holds a “Paris of the Impressionists” Tour almost every month.

“Paris of the Impressionists: This walk includes the lovely Parc Monceau, fine town houses and grand 19thC boulevards. See where the painters lived, worked and set many of their Parisian views: Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Caillebotte’s iconic painting ‘The Rainy Day’. We also hear of their contemporaries: writers, art collectors, benefactors. Meet at metro Monceau.”

 

Path of the Impressionists: Louveciennes

Many prominent Impressionist painters lived or kept summer homes in the western suburbs of Paris in the late 1800’s. Berthe Morrisot, Mary Cassatt, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet lived or painted in the area.

It is easy to reach this area by train or rental car. I prefer renting a car (with GPS, bien sûr) so I can hit several different cities in the same day. You can easily drive from Chatou to Bougival, Marly-le-Roi, Rueil-Malmaison and Louveciennes in one day. Click here for another post I wrote about a day trip to Chatou, the site where Renoir painted Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Alfred Sisley lived in Marly-le-Roi, a close-in suburb just west of Paris in the 1870s. Marly-le-Roi was once the home of Louis XIV’s summer palace, but it was destroyed during the French Revolution. Louis XIV built a huge aqueduct called the Machine de Marly, which brought water up from the Seine to the chateaux of Versailles and Marly. The machine is no longer standing but the basins remain.

Alfred Sisley painted The Chemin de la Machine, Louveciennes (Musée D’Orsay) in 1873. You can find a sign commemorating the very spot where Sisley’s easel stood. It is part of a tourist initiative called the Pays des Impressionistes. Today, the road is still called Rue de la Machine, easily found on Google Maps.

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The scene of Sisley’s Chemin de la Machine, Louveciennes (1873). We might have electrical street lights and more mature trees, but the slope of the street is still recognizable.

If you’re like me, it’s inspiring to stand in the place of a famous painting. I rarely bring along my own easel because I’m not an en plein aire painter, but I’m still inspired when I get back to my own art studio. I gain a lot from the experience, studying how a good painter selects a scene and creates a good sense of composition out of what would other wise be a random slice of life. It is no accident that these paintings still make an impression on us more than 125 years later.

Making art out of the randomness of life. The challenge and calling of an artist.

 

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

You really shouldn’t miss this multiple biography of six flappers from the 1920s (Josephine Baker, Talulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka).

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Each woman’s story is equally fascinating. Author Judith Mackrell gives us all the scoop, including tales of booze, drugs, adultery, abortions, bisexuality and more. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to pour a martini and put on some jazz. I’m already picturing a Flapper theme party for my book club.

But this book is more than a dishy exposé. Mackrell understands that the flappers represented much more than a new sense of 1920s style and glamour. The flappers were at the vanguard of an attempt to redefine 20th century womanhood. Their personal failures and challenges, viewed together and in full historical context, teach us that the history of the woman’s movement is truly a story of fits-and-starts, a seesaw of hard-fought change and regression. No generation of women illustrate this better than the flappers.

And of course, like most interesting stories about women in the late 19th and early 20th century, the story of the flappers takes you to Paris, where they became dancers, actresses, writers or painters. They frequented the nightclubs and cafés of Paris, including Bricktops, the Dome and the Rotunde, as well as the salons of famous women, such as Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney.

Most interesting to me was the story of Tamara de Lempicka, the iconic art deco painter whose self-portrait appears on the cover of the book. (Have you read The Last Nude by Ellis Avery? It’s a terrific novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models.) You can enjoy my two-part Last Nude Literary Tour here and here.

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka arrived in Paris in 1918 as a Russian refugee. She came to Paris after losing everything in the Russian revolution and reinvented herself as a professional painter.

Lempicka took only a year of formal instruction from Maurice Denis at the Académie Ransom at 7 rue Joseph Bara in the 6th arrondissement, just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs. Like most art students, she took her sketchbook to the Louvre in the afternoons. At first she rejected the modernist style of Cézanne, Picasso and the Dadaists, preferring the Renaissance masters. But soon she was drawn into the style of cubist André L’hote, an instructor at the Académie Notre Dame des Champs and later at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière. Lempicka studied with L’hote privately for a few months, long enough to absorb his powerful and charismatic portrait style. By 1922, after less than two years of study, Lempicka had three works accepted in the Salon d’Automne in Paris. By 1925, Lempicka had a solo show in Milan organized by Count Emanuele di Castelbarco.

Interestingly, from 1922-1924, Lempicka presented herself as a man in the catalogs for  the Paris exhibitions. She was listed as “LEMPITZKY (Tamara de) Born in Warsaw, Polish (French masculine form)” [delempicka.org].

Lempicka promoted herself with a ferocious sense of ambition, understanding that commercially lucrative portrait commissions would come as much from her talent as her own personal style and connections. She lived a chic and erotic bisexual life, which is exactly what she conveyed in her portraits.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of  La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

 

Judith Mackrell follows Lempicka’s rise through the 1920s and and her subsequent fall in the 1930s. As Mackrell explains:

[T]he forces of fashion and history that had swept her to eminence were changing course in the early 1930s, and while she was still much talked about in public, in private she felt that she had failed to catch the pulse of the new decade.

 

The rising political tensions in Europe, a new wave of modern art, Lempicka’s dated sense of glamour and lack of youth all combined to Lempicka’s decline after 1935. She remarried and moved to America, where she had a difficult time marketing herself as well as she had in the Paris of the 1920s. She tried living in Beverly Hills, then the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and finally Houston, where her daughter Kizette had settled with her husband and two daughters. Lempicka found Houston “uncivilized” and mundane.

After Lempicka’s bold life in Paris in the 1920s, can you blame her?

 

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell: Highly recommended

 

For Further Reading:

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (A novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models)

Covers-The-Last-Nude-US-334x491

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camille Claudel: Rodin’s Lover

rodins loverI’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Heather Webb’s new book  Rodin’s Lover, the story of Camille Claudel, one of Auguste Rodin’s most promising students.

I first learned about her art and her tumultuous love affair with Auguste Rodin when a friend recommended that I read Naked Came I by David Weiss (1970).

But then, during my year in Paris, I got to frequent the Musée Rodin, where I could see her work with my own eyes. Haven’t been? You gotta go, although I understand that Claudel’s works might not be back on display until September, 2015 due to museum renovations. Check the website before you go.

 

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Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France

 

 

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

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The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There's even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There’s even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

 

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when in 1908, Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms to be used as studios. He shared the space with other artists, including Matisse, Isadora Duncan and By 1911, Rodin had taken over the entire building. (Source: Musée Rodin exhibit)

 

At the time of my visit, Camille Claudel’s work was on display in one of the upstairs rooms of the museum. I would hope and fully expect that her work will return as soon as renovations are complete. The fact that her work is displayed alongside his is itself remarkable. After her love affair with Rodin came to an end (it ended badly – just read Webb’s book) Camille Claudel suffered from financial, professional and mental health issues. Her father supported her, but after his death in 1913, her mother and her brother Paul had her institutionalized, first in Ville-Évrard in Neuilly-sur-Marne, and then, from 1914 until her death in 1943, in the Montdevergues Asylum, at Montfavet near Avignon. Her family rarely visited and refused to bring her home despite the recommendations of the treating physicians.

Before his death in 1917, Rodin continued to provide some financial and artistic support to Claudel, agreeing to reserve exhibition space for Claudel’s works when Hotel Biron was being turned into the Musée Rodin. In 1952, Claudel’s brother Paul finally donated four major works by his sister to the museum. The museum continues to acquire her available works, recently acquiring Young Girl with a Sheaf. Its website features an educational background file on the relationship between Rodin and Claudel, with photos of her best-known sculptures.

Camille Claudel’s sculpture reveals astonishing talent and emotion. Rodin’s influence is unmistakeable in her early work, less so in her later, smaller work.

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin (Bronze, 1892), Musée Rodin

 

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. Musée Rodin

 

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. This is a partial view of the sculpture, featuring a pleading woman, often said to be Camille begging for Rodin, who is being torn away by his long-time companion Rose. Claudel herself would reject such an autobiographical interpretation, and instead claim that it is intended to symbolize the grass of youth versus age.

 

Camille Claudel, The Wave

Camille Claudel, The Wave (1897), Onyx and bronze. Musée Rodin, purchased in 1995.

 

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), plaster. Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916. Note Claude’s signature in the lower left corner.

And if this small sampling of Claudel’s work isn’t enough for you, there’s more on the way.  In the fall of 2015, a new Musée Camille Claudel will be opening in Nogent-Sur-Seine, the a small town southeast of Paris where the Claudel family lived when Camille was young.  Over 77 pieces of Claudel’s art will be on display, thanks to a large 2008 acquisition by Reine-Marie Paris, the granddaughter of Paul Claudel. Here is a link to a video from French television about the plans for the museum. Finally, here is a link to the website of Reine-Marie Paris which includes photographs of even more of Camille Claudel’s sculptures.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

 

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

I can’t wait to hear more about the completion of the new museum. It will definitely be worth a drive out to the countryside southeast of Paris.

In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with Heather Webb’s new book, which breathes life into the passionate, turbulent life of Camille Claudel. Book clubs will find much to discuss, above and beyond the historical interest in a female artist of the late 19th century.

For instance, what do you think drove Camille Claudel to mental illness, if that’s what it was? Was she paranoid about Rodin, or did he really manipulate and compete with her? Which injured her more, the lack of support from her mother and her brother Paul, or a sexist society that made success in the arts so extraordinarily difficult for women? Would Camille Claudel have been better off if she’d never entangled herself with Rodin? Finally, do you see any parallels between Camille Claudel’s struggles and those of 20th and 21st century women?

I’m definitely recommending it to my own book club. Bring some wine!

 

Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb: Highly Recommended.  

 

 

For further enjoyment: Don’t miss the 1988 Oscar-nominated film, Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

camille claudel 1988 movie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From One Book to Another

This post is about how just one book can lead to many others. I love it when that happens.

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I recently finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (previous post here) and so enjoyed the story of Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf that I was inspired to keep reading. It seems I just can’t get enough of Vanessa, Virginia and the whole Bloomsbury Group. It has become my own little reading rabbit hole. If that isn’t that a sign of an inspiring book, I don’t know what is.

howard's end

The first thing I set out to do was to read Howard’s End by E. M. Forster. There was a scene in Vanessa and Her Sister where Vanessa mentions a beautiful new novel she’d just read (February 1911):

 

 

“And – I finished Morgan’s [E. M. Forster’s] beautiful new novel on the train. It is about sisters: one wild and uncompromising but breathtaking in her courage, And one practical, reasonable, and unhappily bound by her good sense. Elmira Dashwood and Marianne. Margaret and Helen Schlegel. Even the name is haunting: Howards End.”

 

Although I loved Room With A View, I hadn’t read Howard’s End before, so I was excited to discover something old yet new. And of course I loved it. His sentences can leave me breathless, like this one, which describes Margaret’s thoughts upon the death of her friend Mrs. Wilcox:

It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die – neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.

Now I’m searching all over Netflix for the 1992 film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Anyone know where I can find it?

voyage out

My next inspiration that came from Vanessa and Her Sister was some more of Virginia Woolf’s early fiction. I never knew that most of Woolf’s work I was familiar with was written later in her life. For example, To The Lighthouse (one of my absolute top-ten books) was written when Woolf was 45 years old with only 6 years left before she would take her own life. The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel, was written when she was just 25 years old. I was curious to detect the difference in her writing.

The introduction to my edition claims that at this young age, “Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E. M. Forster and the traditional novel. . . . One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, still depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative.” I love the idea that women grow more fearless with age. So true, don’t you think?

I’m still in the middle of The Voyage Out, but already I can tell you that I am enjoying the insight that I have from reading Vanessa and Her Sister. In fact, the novel was written in the middle of all of the events related in Vanessa and Her Sister, including their brother Thoby’s death, Vanessa’s marriage, and the love triangle with Clive Bell. No wonder Virginia was inspired to write about marriage, about love and death, about women’s choices. I feel like I know Woolf and her milieu; I can see the real-life Bloomsbury people reflected in her characters. It’s fun.

Now that I’m on this kick, I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I’ve got Hermione Lee’s biography Virginia Woolf on my TBR pile, but maybe I’d rather read some more Bloomsbury fiction. Any recommendations?

Hermione lee virginia woolf bio

 

 

 

 

Vanessa and Her Sister

I just finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2015). And I loved it.

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It’s the story of the Stephen siblings of London (Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian) who formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group when they moved into a bohemian Gordon Square neighborhood together in 1904.

Vanessa Stephen is 25 years old at the beginning of the novel, and has already studied art at the Royal Academy School of Art, taking painting instruction from John Singer Sargent. Her younger sister Virginia, also single, is recovering from a bad spell of mental illness after the death of their father and has yet to write her first novel.

 

This novel has as its heart the story of two intensely intelligent, unconventional and competitive sisters. Virginia is jealous and toxically dependent on Vanessa, and feels threatened by Vanessa’s first successes in art and romance. The two sisters are happiest when Virginia poses for a portrait by Vanessa, which she does often. As Vanessa says in the novel:

I always paint Virginia. I tell myself that it is the lean planes of her beautiful face that draw me, but really, it is her company I seek. . . .

She posed for an hour this evening, until the June light failed, her eyes closed in comfort, and her face settled into her hand in a way it never does when she is in conversation. Her fine hair, a paler brown than mine, was swept back from her elliptical face into a loose knot and lay in the shallow curve of her long neck. She did not speak nor try to break the moment but kept impossibly still. When Virginia knows I am watching her, she does not try to be anywhere else.

 

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1912) Virginia Woolf (c. 1912), © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf (1912),  Estate of Vanessa Bell

 

Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf once said that this portrait was "more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.")

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, once said that this portrait was “more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa and Her Sister more than a tale of sibling rivalry and codependence: it’s also about the differences between two forms of art: writing and painting. Priya renews our appreciation for the talent of Vanessa Bell, the lesser known sister, and does a fabulous job exploring and expressing the mind of an artist, which is less accessible than that of a writer. Priya understands that Vanessa feels slighted because their highly literate Bloomsbury crowd seems to prefer words to images. Vanessa broods (p. 66):

Painting does not qualify as work in this family of literati. Work is not work where words are not involved. The unfixed mark of paint alters when it alteration finds. The distribution of colors is a curious sort of hobby to them. A lightweight experiment with insubstantial shade instead of the integrity-bound dimensional shape of letters on a page.

I love how Vanessa (p. 33) explains the mind of a painter:

I think in mass, In color and shape and light and volume and texture. Not in words. Words delicately sewn around an abstract idea leave me feeling large and awkward and with nothing to say. What is the meaning of good? My mind asks “What is the color of good? What size? What light? Where to put the bowl of poppies?”

 

In 1905, Vanessa experiences the thrill of her first exhibition. A commissioned portrait of her friend Lady Robert Cecil (“Nelly”) is exhibited at the New Gallery in London.

Photograph of VAnessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.

Photograph of Vanessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the novel, Parmar has Vanessa describe the feeling of seeing her own painting on the walls of a gallery for the first time, knowing it has changed her experience of being an artist (p. 29):

We stood in the gallery. Watching people watch the painting. It was exhilarating but mixed with an elusive bittersweet I could not place. Nelly looked lovelier hanging on that wall than she ever did resting on my easel, but she had grown unfamiliar in the weeks since I handed her over to the gallery. It is true that we do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another. I loved being an artist today.

 

Vanessa expands her circle of artist friends and her view of the art world. Clive Bell, a Cambridge pal of her brother Thoby becomes a frequent visitor to their Gordon Square Thursday Night “At Homes.” Bell is an art critic, and he and Vanessa share their interest in the leading-edge art scene in Paris, including Manet, Cézanne and Picasso. They discuss the recent Durand-Ruel exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, debating whether “it take[s] vision to understand beauty.”

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London (painted at Gordon Square – check out the red slippers!)

Vanessa and Clive will marry in 1907 and head off to Paris, where they spend time with their bohemian British ex-pat friends, including Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. Their artistic newlywed idyll will be interrupted by the birth of their first child Julian within a year of the wedding. Vanessa is blown away by childbirth and her love for the baby. Clive, not so much.

Vanessa Bell, Portrait Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell [Sleeping] (1908)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The year Julian is born Vanessa learns that Clive and Virginia have become involved in what is (at the very least) an emotional affair. Their betrayal shakes her to her core and leaves her marriage forever altered, but Vanessa is able to turn to her painting for relief.

In 1909, Vanessa finishes what is now known as one of her most famous early paintings: Iceland Poppies

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1909-10)

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1908-9), The Vanessa Bell Estate, The Charleston Trust, Sussex, England.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The painting is chilly and deeply psychological. As Vanessa says in the book:

I am painting well, given all that has happened. I am pleased with my quiet still life and have decided to call it Iceland Poppies. Each time I come back to it, I am surprised at how well I like it: the wintry palette, the antique medicine jar and pale matching bowl, the green glass poison bottle, and the contrasting poppy. Yes, they are right together. Of course, I could fall out of love with it in an afternoon. Rightness can be a transitive thing.

Clive wanted to know if the painting is about Virginia’s suicide attempts. How very obvious of him. He did not see the triplicate nature of the canvas. The three stripes on the wall. The three vessels: two white, one tree. The three flowers flying in the foreground: the two white, turned to the wall, and the one short-stemmed, poppy facing outward and painted in a fresh bolt of red. I alternate. Sometimes I am the white flower and sometimes I am the red.

 

Vanessa is thrilled when Iceland Poppies is exhibited at The New English Art Club, right alongside John Singer Sargent, Augustus John and Duncan Grant: “So something good has tumbled out of this appalling year.”

In 1910, Clive and Vanessa renew their acquaintance of Roger Fry, famous art critic and former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fry asks Clive to help plan his exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” The show stuns London with the avant-garde art of France, including works Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Derain, Matisse, Van Gogh, Seurat and Picasso. After this exhibit, Vanessa’s view of art expands, her style matures and she becomes more and more liberated from convention.

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

In 1911, the Bells travel to Constantinople with Roger Fry, and Vanessa and Roger spend much of their time painting side by side. Free from the constraints of a conventional marriage any longer, Vanessa allows a romance to commence with Roger.

Roger invites Vanessa to exhibit in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit at Grafton Galleries in 1912, where Vanessa Bell’s painting Nursery Tea will appear in the same room as works by Matisse, Picasso, Braces and Cézanne. Vanessa Bell has become one of Britain’s most noted Post-Impressionists.

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa Bell, Monte Olivet (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Monte Oliveto (1912), Art Gallery of South Australia

Although Vanessa and Her Sister ends here, in 1912, Vanessa will go on to have a long, satisfying career in art. And as we also know, her sister Virginia will have a brilliant writing career, but a tragic life marred by the ups and downs of mental illness. Virginia Woolf will take her own life in 1941. Vanessa survived until 1961, leaving two surviving children, Quentin and Angelica. Her first child Julian would be killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

 

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya  Parmar: Highly Recommended

For Further Reading:

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone