Les Peintures

6EAD08B4-7179-48B4-BEAF-4413525EA19CI finished another book I’d been slowly working my way through, thanks to the necessity of staying at hime for social distancing. Les Peintures, by Thérèse Burollet, provides a description of every painting, listed by the artists’ last name, in the musée Cognacq-Jay in Paris. I’ve enjoyed going to this small museum in the Marais many times, especially when they have a special exhibit. Given the petit size of the exhibits, I would always look at the permanent collection as well. Now I’ll never look at it with quite the same eyes, but I think the founder’s life would make a great series on Netflix.

D8A43FD8-0462-491B-AF7A-5594C433FBAEThéodore-Ernest Cognacq had to give up his education when his father died. He came to Paris and became a salesperson at the elegant department store “La Belle Héloïse.” When he was summarily fired for having made a simple error, he opened his own shop, which flopped. He set up a stall in one of the half-moons of the Pont-Neuf from which he sold linens and trimmings. He scraped and saved until he could once again open a shop, this time “La Samaritaine” and finally marry his sweetheart, another salesperson at “La Belle Héloïse,” Marie-Louise Jay. She had come to the capital as a teen from a rough life of poverty in the mountains.

The two worked doggedly until “La Samaritaine” was a huge success and they began to climb the social ladder. They built a beautiful home on the elegant avenue Foch and began to fill it with art, furniture, and decorative objects from the 18th century. They exhibited a conflicting amalgam of progressive employments practices and harsh paternalism. On the positive side of the ledger, for instance, they were among the first companies to give shares in the business to their employees and they established a cafeteria to provide decent food to their workers. On the other hand, they were rigid and unpitying with their employees about the hours they worked, their appearance, and promptly dismissed any unmarried female employees who became pregnant. Out in the world, the couple engaged in very public philanthropy, often focused on children; they established foundling homes, maternity hospitals, homes for young girls in difficulty, and a retirement home. They also lent their names to a prize given by the Académie française to large families. As you may have surmised, the couple could not have children of their own.

2C79D9C2-F76B-4C11-AD59-6F7B0A9F0B94In 1905, at the height of the Art Nouveau movement, Cognacq built a new building for “La Samaritaine” that was stunningly beautiful with an elaborate frieze in Egyptian motifs. It was within sight of his old stall on the bridge. (It closed in 2005 for restauration as it was actually becoming dangerous and is set to reopen in a new guise once we can all come out of our homes again.) He then built another store for his more expensive merchandise on the Grands Boulevards near the big competition of Printemps and Les Galeries Lafayette.

0BDE2A91-BA3E-44E6-96E7-56435F5A7EC0Cognacq also began to organize exhibitions of his art collection. He sought advice about what to buy and picked up some big name works, such as Canaletto and Tiepolo. The lovely Greuze, above, is on the jacket of the book and it my personal favorite in the museum. He developed the idea of founding an independent museum to house his collection after his death. Cognacq began to buy a lot from one particular dealer, some of which was quite good but much of which was simply mediocre. Was the dealer taking advantage of his client, now very old and almost blind, or did he simply make a LOT of very bad judgements? Who can say? The dealer even insisted on becoming the first head of Cognacq’s museum.

945DC93C-4938-42E6-A3A0-637DE49A07D4The catalogue described each of the 116 paintings in detail, giving some history and an opinion of the artistic merits of each piece. Quite often, the opinions were pretty harsh. Many paintings were dismissed as mediocre copies, erroneously attributed to  a major artist. Some were by the “school of” or “student of” the artist, and thus not fakes, but certainly not the masterpieces that Cognacq thought he was buying. I guess the lessons that I learned were:

1. Don’t let the person who is selling you something also be the person who evaluates its quality;

2. Cost does not always equal quality;

3. Buy a piece of art if you love it and want to look at it forever, no matter who the artist is supposed to be;

4. Someone can be talented and successful in one area of life and a mess in another.


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C’est fini!

6EAD08B4-7179-48B4-BEAF-4413525EA19CI just finished what may be the longest, and certainly heaviest, tome of my life. Paris, City of Art, by Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, was an anniversary gift from my very nice husband in about 2008. Since the book weighs about twelve pounds (I checked, but it feels more like twenty), reading it was a bit of a workout. It took me the better part of three months to complete its 700 pages of photos and text, but, thanks to the mandate to stay home, I finally finished it!

The book presents a historical chronology of art and art movements as experienced in Paris. And what are my takeaways to (possibly) justify three months and 700:pages?

Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer)1. Artists copy one another – a lot. A case in point is Gustave Courbet’s Les Demoiselles des bords de Seine (above) and Pablo Picasso’s painting of the same name, but nearly 100 years later (below). I preferred Courbet’s version.

2. Paris was really nowhere artistically until the reign of Louis XIV. Before the Sun King, it was Italy who ruled the art world and the French imported their art and artists.

3. Middle Ages statuettes of the Virgin and Child have a curve known as “gothic slouch” because of the shape of the elephant tusks they were carved from.

4. A gisant is a full-body effigy on a tomb. They were carved as though the person was standing, so the folds of their clothing and their hair doesn’t reflect how it would really be on their pillows of eternal rest.

5. How could I not know that there is a gothic château and chapel that are open to visitors in the  bois de Vincennes on Paris’ eastern edge? When Covid-19 lets me travel again, I’m checking them out.

6. I knew that the Louvre had been added onto throughout the centuries, but I’d never seen the over-the-top design proposed by Italian court-favorite Carlo Rainaldi. My oh my!

02649BB9-9E83-4996-8C69-8280E3279B747. I had never seen the painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry Le Canard blanc before, possibly because it’s in a private collection, but I thought it was just wonderful. If said private collector would like to share it with me, I promise to take very good care of it and hang it in a place where I can admire the infinite tonal and textural variations.

8. Le Musée national d’Arts et Métiers has a fascinating interior, including the chapel of the former abbey of Saint-Martin-des-Champs.

So, I’m chock-full of fascinating tidbits about the art of Paris in its myriad forms and across two millennia with which to regale fellow-travellers. I will not, however, be lugging the original book along for reference.


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Le Bazar de la Charité

D678F449-7670-459C-A28D-7339CDEDDC3CNetflix has done it again. Here’s another excellent French series to dive into: Le Bazar de la Charité, which is rather loosely translated as The Bonfire of Destiny. It’s Belle Époque Paris, right at the end of the 19th century, and the wealthy men and ladies flock to a charity bazar. When a devastating fire breaks out, it shows some the truth about who they are and while others discover the truth about their friends and loved ones. The series is based on the real story of an 1897 fire that claimed 126 lives, many of them aristocratic women.

245F5498-343A-48A9-804D-EDE716E0CA83The main story centers on actrice Audrey Fleurot’s character. She’s been excellent in so many of my favorite French shows and movies, like
Engrenages (Spiral) and Un village français. One of the recurrent themes is the stifling constraints that limit the lives of women, so the series is more than just an engaging tale with beautiful settings and costumes. Paris looks lovely, too. There are lots of scenes with Notre Dame in the background looking the way we hope to see it again some day soon. And parc Monceau, one of the loveliest in Paris, is also featured. Subtitles and dubbing are available in several languages. I hope you get as caught up in it as I did. 

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Napoleon visitant les pestiférés à Jaffa

E7CEDD21-4BC7-4773-BE58-80CB86202D47French classical painter Antoine-Jean Gros was born on March 16, 1771 in Paris. The son of a painter of miniatures, he studied under Jacques-Louis David. Following the death of his father in 1791, he went to Italy, and it was there that he met Josephine Beauharnais, who introduced him to Napoleon, whom he accompanied on his Italian campaign.

B9EAA0ED-DEBB-4B1F-80FB-6BBCE1B8EB51He was an eye-witness of the dramatic scene when Bonaparte planted the Tricouleur on the bridge at Arcole in November 1796 and the dramatic painting that recorded this incident gave Gros a sense of purpose. Thereafter, as a war artist, he chronicled on canvas the exploits of the Napoleonic army down to the campaign of 1811, and it is on these heroic paintings that his reputation is largely based, earning him the Napoleonic title of Baron in the process.

35EF38B0-AF30-4307-B20E-6F26D0D9D359His most famous painting is Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés à Jaffa (Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Stricken at Jaffa). The downfall of Napoleon robbed Gros of his true vocation.

20EDD298-AEB5-41E1-A540-C7CFC87C35CDIn the aftermath of Waterloo, he returned to his classicist roots and concentrated on such works as Hercules and Diomedes, but by now he was fighting a losing battle against the rising tide of Romanticism. Gros died on June 25, 1835.

68E5CE87-FF90-42FF-9538-20BAF5926DFBRenaissance Art in France: The Invention of Classicism

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Georges de la Tour

74A19D93-8E9A-4787-8F28-0A4B17840D8DGeorges de la Tour was born in Vic-sur-Seille, France, on March 13, 1593. If you’ve never heard of this town in northeastern France before, I am unsurprised; being de la Tour’s birthplace is its only claim to fame. He moved to Luneville about 1620, where he received many important commissions from the Duc de Lorraine. He also presented one of his paintings to Louis XIII, who was so enchanted by it that he decided to remove paintings by all other artists from his private apartments.

72780234-DF8C-41E5-9659-E7ED41680B80De la Tour concentrated on religious subjects, many of which were rather somber with large areas of dark shadows and muted colors subtly illuminated by a candle to create dark, dramatic and essentially realistic scenes. In this regard, he was heavily influenced by Caravaggio and was, indeed, the leading French exponent of his particular brand of naturalism, although eschewing Caravaggio’s penchant for the macabre. De la Tour’s paintings exude serenity in keeping with their subject matter. Like his paintings, however, he languished in obscurity for many years and was not rediscovered by a German art expert until 1915.

1808F418-EC10-47EA-815F-06596AB1B0C0Georges de la Tour: Paintings


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Zone Blanche

C844FEDE-8FF2-4BC2-AC3D-730B9CEEB2BBI have another French police show on Netflix to recommend to you. Black Spot is the English title of Zone Blanche (zohn blahnsh), or “white zone,” which is the term for a place with unreliable cell service, a dead zone. It reminds me a bit of the feeling of the X-Files because there are brief flashes of comedy among all of the spooky goings-on (but without the hunt for aliens). The principal characters are Major Laurène Weiin the gendarmerie (a branch of the army that also provides rural policing) with a mysterious past, her odd squad, the new procureur (district attorney), and a mayor with his finger in every pie.

DB6F9BED-E9AE-4D08-A59A-6FFA355A437DThe series takes place in Villefranche, a town where everything is a bit off, particularly a murder rate that is six-times the national average. It always seems to be grey or raining. There’s an ominous forest where bodies seem to keep showing up while others mysteriously go missing. Compasses don’t work and, yes, it’s frequently a cell and GPS dead zone. Villefranche is the name of no fewer than thirteen towns in France. Because there are so many, the name is usually coupled with another identifier, such as the name of a nearby river. It’s such a popular name because in ancient France, it was a tax-free zone.

12C8BF7F-C185-4B1F-B76D-4831E78E46ABIf you like your police shows with a healthy dose of the unexplained and unexplainable, this is a good one. There are two seasons (with more to come, I hope) and you can change the language and subtitles to English, if you prefer.

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Honoré Daumier

5E1B0E8F-C1BD-407C-880B-7476592D1915French Realist graphic artist, painter, and sculptor Honoré Daumier was born on February 26, 1808. He was noted above all for his stinging caricatures. Daumier had a deprived childhood, which fueled the campaigning nature of much of his art. His first job, in a bailiff’s office, also left him with a permanent loathing for lawyers and bureaucrats. After learning lithography, however, he was soon in great demand as a political cartoonist, working principally for Le Charivari and La Caricature.

77FC031C-48F3-4471-979A-842526128B04A scurrilous drawing of Louis-Philippe in the guise of Balzac’s Gargantua made Daumier notorious, but also earned him a spell of imprisonment. Undaunted, he branched out into social satire, illustrating the foibles of contemporary society. During his lifetime, Daumier’s paintings were virtually unknown and never provided him with a viable living.

5B6AEC48-E99E-44CB-97DC-1721E5E06299In their general outlook, as objective depictions of modern Parisian life, they can be linked with Courbet’s Realist movement. Stylistically, however, Daumier was an isolated figure. His paintings were shaped by his graphic work, displaying a bold economy of form, subtle characterization and an overall lack of finish. In later years, his eyesight failed and he was only saved from absolute penury by the generosity of fellow painter, Corot.

5CEFCA04-BD98-463E-97C1-C0F7EB869184Daumier, Liberated Women: Bluestockings and Socialists

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