Plus ça change

8390C6D4-0655-4280-8816-1D6E68A24712As I’m writing this, it’s June, the time for graduations and yearbooks. Graduation was held via Zoom at the school where I teach French, and yearbooks were released online and “signed” virtually. In my own high school graduation yearbook, I remember that I rather pretentiously chose as my motto Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (ploo sa shanj ploo seh lah mem shows), or “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” At eighteen, what did I know about either change or remaining the same? I just liked the sound of it. And it was French.

I just finished A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, by David Downie. The theme is the incredibly interconnected lives and loves of the writers, artists, and musicians of the Romantic era, such as Chopin, Baudelaire, and Nadar. At first, I found the book hard to get into. The prose seemed choppy and more about Downie than the purported subjects of the book, but I found myself getting drawn into it.

Maybe it was the passages that talked about the comings and going around the neighborhoods adjacent to the Luxembourg Gardens. In a normal year, this is my summertime neighborhood. Maybe it was the tidbits of bizarre info, like the fact that Victor Hugo was knocked into the open grave by the hearse after giving Balzac eulogy.

E72B3F2F-A538-4A17-9A46-4B8CF74517ECMaybe it was the insights into the lives of women at the time. I had always thought that it was unusual that Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen-name George Sand, preferred men’s clothes. But Downie revealed that this was not unusual for women of her social class as it was so difficult for well-born ladies to move freely about the city by themselves. Dressed as men, they had liberty. Or maybe it was the fact that he kept weaving in my yearbook motto, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? 

In the end, I found it to be an engrossing read. I’m looking forward to visiting some of the places Downie highlighted when I can get back to Paris. What will have changed? Probably not much.

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Ma vie parisienne à mi-temps

0593C66B-EE8C-4046-BEFE-BDD237C99ED8Whether you are post-confinement or mid-confinement you may be needing a new book to read or listen to. And if you’re like me, you’re dreaming of when you can next get to Paris. I recently enjoyed the audio version of My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, read by the author, Lisa Anselmo.

Anselmo, a New Yorker in the magazine business, went from visiting Paris twice a year to using an inheritance and most of her retirement savings to buy an apartment there. At first, she stayed in the apartment every couple of months but some upheavals at work gave her the nudge to move full-time to Paris to write, and this memoir is the result.

D32788EF-A713-4950-9A0B-43AAEAF3CD90As a French teacher, my favorite parts of the book were when she was trying to communicate in fractured French. She would get some words of what the other person was trying to say, but the rest sounded like “Fah-fah fah fah fah-FAH!” She would have to mime and flail her way through transactions but found that people were willing to try to decipher what she was trying to communicate. I tell my students the same thing; sometimes you just have to go for it instead of worrying about perfection.

Anselmo’s perfect apartment turned into a cautionary tale of water leaks, mold, and bureaucracy just when she finally moved full-time to Paris. It reminded me that it really isn’t prudent to own a second home that is so far away, lest I give in to temptation. The book ended without a full resolution to the apartment fiasco but maybe that’s the truer tale. There aren’t always tidy little solutions in life but you can still find happiness along the way.

It looks like Anselmo’s got some YouTube videos, so I’ll have to check them out to see if there is a happy ending to the apartment. I hope so, because that’s how dreams of Paris are supposed to work out.

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Le mystère Henri Pick

8823DD47-9802-484F-970D-90C780A87784My Covid reading program is moving right along. I just finished Le mystère Henri Pick, by David Foenkinos. I picked it up when I was in Paris last summer. It was getting press after a film version – which I have yet to see – was released earlier last year (starring Fabrice  Luchini and Camille Cottin). I really enjoyed it and gobbled it up in just a few evenings.

F5504F25-8F10-4507-BA88-E61B96CE7750The story concerns a library in a small town in Brittany that includes a refuge for book manuscripts that were rejected for publication. A young editor and her boyfriend find a real treasure while rootling through the shelves one afternoon. The brilliant manuscript is attributed to Henri Pick, recently deceased, who had run the local pizzeria for decades. But no one knew he was a writer, not even his wife.

The manuscript is published to great acclaim and the book, the family of Henri Pick, and the whole town are getting lots of attention. But did Henri Pick really write the novel. And if not Henri, then who? A washed-up literary critic decides to investigate to bring a little lustre back to his own career by unmasking the true author. The mystery is only revealed in the final paragraphs and I totally didn’t see it coming. It was the sort of conclusion that made me want to go right back to the beginning to see the clues that I’d missed. Now I’d like to watch the movie. Maybe it’ll be playing on my next flight to Paris – whenever that will be.

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Le roi de la mode française

9A05CE9D-3EA8-45CD-B68A-A87A036C55D5French fashion designer Pierre Balmain was born on May 18, 1914. He was studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1934 when Edward Molyneux offered him a job. He had already undertaken some freelance design drawing work for Robert Piguet in previous years, but his post at Molyneux saw him abandon his studies. After five years, he joined Lucien Lelong and worked throughout the war alongside Christian Dior.

AB56CC84-6858-49C8-B777-484411C593D5Balmain opened his own Maison right after the war ended in 1945, a veritable year of crisis for the haute couture industry. Yet his first collection was one of the few that managed to attract favorable reviews that year – the most famous and arguably most influential one written by his friend American writer Gertrude Stein. He showcased long cloche skirts and small waists, hinting at things to come. His elegant yet wearable clothes gained him immediate success and celebrity customers, including the Duchess of Windsor.

8ED86C79-1AF2-4D0C-A710-A8AFED466C5DThe house became known for its daytime classics, but especially for its opulent and luxurious evening gowns that earned him the press title “the king of French fashion,” or “le roi de la mode français” (luh rwa duh lah mowed frahn-seh). Like those of his contemporaries, his designs had a sculpural quality that presented an uber-feminine essence. His use of luxurious silk brocades gave the dresses a shape of their own. He offset their stiffness through layering with delicate laces and with the resplendent finery and exquisite embroideries for which the Maison was most famous. His sophistication was particularly popular in the United States, where his designs were felt to embody Parisian ladylike chic – the perfect 1950s jolie madame. He capitalized on this reputation by selling prêt-à-porter lines in North America that earned him the Neiman Marcus Fashion award in 1955.

E2EE25F1-9592-4241-A8F2-7DF8421BBED1By the 1960s, Balmain had started presenting more pared-down shapes in line with the current fashion. He continued to make extravagant evening wear for theater and movie productions, for Hollywood actresses, and most famously for Queen Sirikit of Thailand, who all continued to turn to him for gowns befitting award ceremonies or official occasions. While Balmain was no exceptional design innovator, his version of Parisian elegance summed up a decade, furthermore, his international outlook and early ventures in prêt-à-porter marked him out as a truly modern designer.

64EC1270-B69F-447D-A201-B49ED7312280Fit for a Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirkit’s Creations by Balmain (affiliate link)



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En coulisses

5A9EA8BE-A160-4796-9C56-00655AFB01C0Today I got the news that I knew was inevitable, the summer program in Paris where I have worked for a decade will not run this year. As the French economy begins to re-open, there is currently no word on when restaurants, museums, and cultural events may resume. Without those in place, we would be rather hard pressed to provide a full Paris experience to students from around the world.

043CED26-5E28-4159-B955-F3E0D64B44F6Since armchair traveling is still all that we can currently do, I was delighted to go en coulisses, or backstage of the most beautiful fashion exhibit I’ve ever seen, the stunning seventieth anniversary Christian Dior at the Musée des Arts Décoratif from 2017. Available on Youtube, Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams goes in depth with curators, skilled seamstresses, and designers about all that went into creating that magnificent exhibit.

C7706A52-8943-422E-AC84-2860F2548708If you saw it, you’ll remember the ethereal white paper flowers cascading from the ceiling. In this video, you can see people shaping each paper flower by hand. You’ll see how mannequins are padded to perfectly fill out a vintage dress from the archives. You’ll see a curator make sure that the mannequin displaying the iconic Bar suit is perfectly straight, “No, definitely one more centimeter. Now it’s perfect.” With care like this, it’s no wonder that this exhibit was amazing. If you got to see it, this video will give you more insight and if you didn’t, you can still experience much of the beauty. It’s good for armchair traveling until we have more options.

92866A1D-0DA5-4456-B02C-631E189A3582Christian Dior

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Les palais de Saint Petersburg

1581BD8A-E2A4-436E-87A1-ACED70C7B3D2I have a very nice husband. Not long after we moved to the States in the mid-90s, I saw an article about an exhibit dedicated to Russian Imperial treasures. Having been fascinated by the Romanovs for many years – even our bedroom was festooned with fabric adorned with Faberge eggs – I naturally wanted to see this exhibit. The only small catch was that it was in Jackson, Mississippi, and we were in southern New Jersey. We decided to have a road trip, taking in a few other stops along the way.

Off we went: one patient husband, one perplexed six year old, and one enthusiast of all things Romanov. We stopped at the Stephen Foster show in Bardstown, Kentucky in hommage to a trip my husband had taken in his childhood. We drove all 500 miles of the astounding Natchez Trace and gawked at alligators in cypress swamps. We toured historic homes in Natchez, Mississippi and stumbled serendipitously upon a fabulous exhibit dedicated to the Chinese terra-cotta soldiers when driving by Birmingham, Alabama on our way home. But how was the main event?

Portrait Hall in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, RussiaTruth be told, I’ve forgotten a lot of the specifics. I remember that entire rooms from the Imperial palaces of St. Petersburg were re-created by exceptionally skilled Russian craftsmen, from intricate parquet flooring to gilded ceiling medallions and that objects were placed in the rooms as they would have been arranged in the actual palaces. I remember the vast display of china belonging to Catherine the Great on a banquet table, as thought the guests were about to be seated. And of course, I remember the enormous coronation coach. In the gift shop, we bought a few mementoes, including something for that long suffering six year old. One of our purchases was the exhibit catalogue, Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style. As one does, we put the book on a shelf and never looked at it.

4A2BC3C6-2771-4200-847F-86365CFD10F6My biggest takeaway from reading Marie Kondo was that books that weren’t read didn’t “spark joy” and should move on to new homes. I announced a general moratorium on new book buying (for me) and selected twelve books a year from the backlog. This year, the exhibit catalogue was in my stack and one advantage of living in a world that is temporarily on-hold is more time than usual for reading. Memories of the trip came back, to be sure, but I also made connections with exhibits or collections I’ve seen since, such as Marjorie Merriweather Post’s home in Washington, D.C. that I visited a few months ago in a time just before anyone was talking about Covid-19.

18C139D9-2732-494E-8C2D-1185A1304D45The catalogue also highlighted the influence of French art on this northern Russian city. Peterhof, the palace built by Peter the Great, was built to rival Versailles. Catherine the Great imported artisans from all over Europe to train local craftsmen so that Russia could enjoy the same artistic and cultural adornments as other countries. Other pieces of the French decorative arts in the palaces had been diplomatic gifts, such as the tapestry given to Alexander I by Napoleon or the mirror given to an Empress by Louis XV. If you removed all the clocks, candelabras, mirrors, and furniture by French craftsmen, there would be a lot less glitz and glamor in the Palaces of St. Petersburg.

5948D909-C01C-4B63-BC11-1B5A47399E27Another lesson of the book is the terrible toll that political conflicts take on the objects and places that represent our cultural heritage. Although the palaces were officially transformed into museums after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks sold many Imperial treasures in the 1930s, including the heiress Marjorie Post. Then came occupation by the German army in World War II. While many treasures were hidden during the war and then returned to their rightful places afterward, others were destroyed or spirited away. The work of rebuilding and restoring the palaces started right after the war. As of the time of the exhibit, many were only about halfway finished.

Some of the palaces have been enhanced replacing lost treasures with similar pieces that were in other collections throughout Russia. Some pieces have been bought back from collectors; others have been painstakingly restored. The most amazing restoration story was the intricate damask in the Portrait Hall of the Catherine Palace that adorned both walls and furniture. Although hundreds of examples were scrutinized from the best European manufacturers, none could rival the original. Since no modern machines were capable of reproducing the complex weave, the decision was simple, recreate an 18th century loom. Now the Portrait Hall looks the way Catherine the Great would have seen it.

00711606-003F-492B-90FF-F9F8159ABA89I wish I could use a way-back machine to return to that exhibit to see it with fresh eyes. Failing that, a visit to St. Petersburg remains on my list of dream destinations for a time when we can once again enjoy the luxury of traveling freely. Until then, I found this lovely film about the exhibit for us all to enjoy. Stay safe, stay home.

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Art Nouveau

A0ED6086-5631-4651-81D7-EBE2E5EA6C92At the end of my summer job in Paris last hear, my team game me a lovely coffee table book, Art Nouveau: Posters, Illustration & Fine Art from the Glamorous Fin de Siècle, by Rosalind Ormiston & Michael Robinson. I’ve long been a fan of Art Nouveau, as they knew from my purchase of a rather large vase in the curvy style that I found at a Paris flea market and then had to somehow get home to the US in one piece. I must admit that my first thought upon receiving the gift was, “Oh dear, and now I also need to transport a rather large and heavy book!” Most ungracious. Well, my ungracious self just finished the book. Here are my biggest takeaways:

75901946-A020-4804-A7A3-D8DB1FCC00151. Art Nouveau was the name of the movement in France and Belgium, but similar styles appeared at much the same time throughout Europe and the United States under different names, such as Arts and Crafts, Berliner and Wiener Secession, and Jugendstil, In Spain, you can see the style in the fantastical architecture of Antoni Gaudi.

648F4117-A821-4D46-90F6-FF68BB7CA81F2. All of these styles shared certain hallmarks that can be traced back to Japanese prints: curving lines, forms inspired by plants, flattened perspective, sharply defined outlines, and fairly large swaths of colors. (Monet was a major collector of these. I remember seeing them displayed at his home, Giverny.) The curving lines are often described as “whiplash” and women’s hair is frequently shown in “macaroni” tendrils. Peacocks are a recurring theme.

EBF52C14-BFF2-4BB0-83A4-B791608C6C953. Art Nouveau was perfect for the new medium of posters printed with a system of color separations. Many artists, like Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and Steinlen, were kept busy creating art for advertising posters.

32465BD3-B17F-4564-BEB2-668BB671D2AD4. Although Art Nouveau was really only popular from about 1885 to 1905 and totally gone by the end of the Great War, it’s influence permeated the art world at the end of the 19th century. You can see elements of Art Nouveau in works by Gauguin, the Nabis, Edvard Munch, and Gustave Klimt, among many others. I’ve always loved Pointillism, and this style, too, was influenced by Art Nouveau. The book introduced me to a new (to me) pointillist, Theo van Rysselberghe of Ghent, whose work (above) is just so beautiful.


I’m more appreciative than ever of my thoughtful team for giving me this beautiful book. It was well worth bringing both it and my Art Nouveau vase back from France. When we’re all able to travel again, who knows what other Art Nouveau treasures I might find on my next trip to the flea markets of Paris.

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Le Chateau du Grand-Lucé

570EA0BC-6FDC-4698-8632-2BFE4809EE25Have you ever been bitten by the jealousy bug? I must say that the first time I came across Los Angeles interior decorator Timothy Corrigan showing the wonders of his very own, authentic French château, I was a little jealous. Corrigan, however, is so clearly a generous enthusiast who is equally stunned at the wonders of this showpiece that it’s impossible to stay envious.

12B98D4D-55C7-4EE2-957B-9DE95121DCDAI think I first came across the restored château and its genial caretaker in a spread in Architectural Digest and I know that I I saw it on the YouTube channel Quintessence, so when I saw Corrigan’s gorgeous coffee-table book, An Invitation to Château Grand-Lucé: Decorating a Great French Country House, on the markdown table at my favorite bookstore a while ago, I went for it. I decided to read it now as perfect escapism while on Covid confinement.

9BAB9E17-8BBC-44ED-99A7-FB94B42087C2The book is set up as though Corrigan has invited you to a country weekend party at his home. You see the house as his guests would, touring the impressive hall and salon before traipsing out to the gardens, seeing which one of the fourteen guest rooms he has selected for you, having breakfast and so on through a magical country weekend. You can sense Corrigan at your elbow, regaling you with the history of the house and triumphs and travails of its restoration. His mantra is “comfortable elegance” in rooms that are genuinely used, not period showpieces.

The house really does have a remarkable history, starting with the first owner who apparently had a heart attack upon seeing it finished, so overcome by its beauty. His daughter and heir was so beloved by the people of the village that the château was saved from depredation during the Revolution. It served as a hospital for British soldiers during the First World war and was eventually taken over by the French government, parts of it being used as a municipal parking lot, tourism office, and movie theater.

D13D70A6-45C1-41F9-8A67-2A576E545C53Corrigan’s bid to return it to its glory as a private home was successful, but he had to follow strict guidelines in restoring the parts that were deemed historically significant. For example, some replica French doors were unacceptable because the mullions were a 1/4” wider than the originals. When it came to adding a kitchen, Corrigan had to build fake walls from which to hang the cabinetry in order to protect the 18th century boiserie (woodwork) from any damage.

F3C0AA48-C326-4DDD-BFC0-419193585E08My favorite room,  Le Salon chinois, features rare painted panels depicting the artist’s highly exotic vision of China. The panels were hidden behind boards that had protected the room during its years as a hospital. Corrigan surmised that the Germans would have looted this treasure had they known it was there. And speaking of treasure, paintings from the Louvre were hidden beneath the stage of the château’s own theater to keep them safe during the Occupation.

9AFCE042-94E1-4720-8D21-08770E99B44DAs fabulous as this house is, Corrigan sold it for less than he spent acquiring and restoring it. He’s now working on a new “fixer-upper” – Château de la Chevallerie – that you can also visit on Quintessence. I would be most happy to accept an invitation to visit any time that he is ready to have guests and we’re all out of quarantine.

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Rousseau et l’école de Barbizon

1A18C226-B575-4A75-B2B9-2336CEF71655Théodore Rousseau was born in Paris on April 15, 1812. This French landscape painter, hailed as the leader of the Barbizon school, came from a family with no connection to the art world. Rousseau developed a deep love of the countryside at an early age. After working briefly in a sawmill, he decided to take up landscape painting and trained with Joseph Rémond. The latter produced classical landscapes, however, and Rousseau’s naturalistic tendencies were better served by the study of foreign artists, such as Ruisdael and Constable. He adopted the practice of making sketches outdoor — a foretaste of Impressionism — although he still preferred to finish his paintings in the studio.

255747FF-BC1B-48BB-BF43-9CF335176DB6Rousseau’s favorite location was the Barbizon region, at the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. By the late 1840s, this area had become the focus for a group of like-minded artists known as the Barbizon School. Headed by Rousseau, this circle included Corot, Daubigny, Diaz, and Millet. In the 1850s, Rousseau’s work achieved widespread recognition, fetching high prices, but he preferred to remain in Barbizon, campaigning to preserve the character of the forest. He died in his cottage on December 22, 1867, in the arms of fellow landscape artist Jean-François Millet.

C39B315D-0D3A-4EA9-B467-B072BA4B496FThe Barbizon School of Painters: Corot, Rousseau, Diaz, Millet, Daubigny etc.

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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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