Portrait de Madeleine

EF713597-AA43-4017-9E61-82BED33582B2Following up on last week’s post about being able to name five female artists, here’s another one to add to your list. French Romantic-style painter Marie-Guillemine Benoist was born on December 18, 1768 in Paris. She was the daughter of a government official who recognized her talent and enrolled her as a pupil of Vigée-LeBrun in 1791; the latter’s influence is very evident in Benoist’s early works, mainly portraits done in pastels.

2FC3622F-8C17-4306-A93A-72644117E33ELater, she studied under Jacques-Louis David, and as a result she began producing more ambitious works in oils. She made her debut at the Salon with two historical scenes and thereafter painted both portraits and historical subjects. She achieved a high reputation and received a gold medal and an annual government grant. Napoleon commissioned portraits of himself and his family from her.

E607D564-68A1-43EB-B1C2-2F86C5C301A9In the early 1800s, she switched to painting genre subjects and sentimental domestic scenes which were immensely popular. Her best-known painting, a remarkable portrait of a young black woman, painted in 1800, is believed to have been inspired by the decree of 1794 abolishing slavery. The painting, which hangs in the Louvre, was recently renamed from Portrait d’une Négresse to Portrait de Madeleine to honor the identity of the sitter, which had been ignored for over two hundred years.

F81A7A5E-81CF-4597-8FF9-FC0F19814ED0Eighteenth Century Women Artists: Their Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs (affiliate link)

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Cinq femmes artistes?


42CC1ACE-A164-4B69-BE9D-9027392AEE34My dearly beloved daughter has just moved from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Now that she is in the same timezone and around two hours away by air, we decided to see her for a belated birthday weekend. In addition to eating in good restaurants, doing a little Christmas shopping, and talking quite a lot, there was the question of where to go and what to do.


Sheep by the Sea, by Rosa Bonheur

I asked to go to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, since I hadn’t been there in about 25 years. I first learned about it from Victoria magazine when it opened in the late-80s. The question that they posed back then remains pertinent today: “Can you name five women artists?” At the time, I struggled to answer this question. This is still the only museum in the WORLD reserved exclusively for female artists. Women are woefully underrepresented in traditional museums – unless they appear as nude models! According to Guerrilla Girls, The Metropolitan Museum of New York, for example, features female artists in only 3% of the art,  but 86% of the nudes.


Prelude to a Concert, by Marguerite Gérard

The museum is housed in  beautifully restored building, featuring sweeping marble staircases that connect the four floors of the collection. Here are some of the French works that I saw, starting with two by my favorite painter, Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun. And after reviewing them, you’ll be able identify five women artists. (Quiz optional.)


Portrait of a Woman, said to be Anne Catherine (Aimée) Augier Vestris, by Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun


Portrait of Princess Belozersky, by Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun


Madame de Saint-Huberty in the role of Dido, by Anne Vallayer-Coster


Presumed portrait of Madame Geoffrin, by Marianne Loir

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Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix

1B781B1C-5A50-4EBE-818E-463058A5C61EMy lovely daughter turns 30 on December 3. She shares her birthday with an early French couturière whose name has all but been forgotten. Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix was born in 1863, and her Parisian salon operated from approximately 1889 to 1929, so this year marks the centenary of her business. By the first decade of the 20th century, her name could be found in many of the better fashion publications, and she had an extensive and loyal clientele. Her success is affirmed by the fact that her store interior on Boulevard Hausmann was designed by a leading arbiter of taste Louis Süe, of Süe and Mare, whose commissions did not come cheap.

09B8AC89-0689-4243-9748-9CB2C0CC6BD9Her style appears to have been a variation of the latest “line” executed in wearable colors and fabrics. In an article for The New York Times in 1912 entitled “Do Women Like Eccentric Clothing?”, Margaine-Lacroix set out the relationship between haute couture showpieces and what ladies actually purchased and wore, thus demonstrating her sound, realistic understanding of her market. She described how Paris presents extravagant and daring creations, but that these are primarily about ideas and that their role is to invite change; no woman of taste would choose to wear them. Instead, these outlandish garments are stripped of their bewildering embellishments and modified to form the new fashion. These comments may go a long way to explaining why she was forgotten because fashion historians have often preferred to focus on the spectacular exception instead of the more mundane rule.

710CA958-209E-4F88-85F3-184ADCFD102DDespite her realistic design ethos, Margaine-Lacroix’s career was not without innovation – quite the opposite. Her most important contributions to fashion were her sheath dress, the Sylphide corset, and the sinuously curved Sylphide dress. Like their creator’s name, these garments have gone mostly unrecorded in fashion histories. However, while visual and material evidence of her legacy are scarce, descriptions of these garments provide proof that it was Margaine-Lacroix, and not Paul Poiret, as is commonly believed, who gained widespread acceptance for the Empire line at the end of the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, three models wearing her tight Empire-style gowns caused an uproar when they attended the Longchamp racecourse (see photo, below). Their dresses were considered too shocking for the time, not least because they were split at the side as far as the knee. (Horrors!)

53BE7BC8-18F4-4B96-9866-2729CBD6F6E6Margaine-Lacroix’s commercial success and perfect mediation between design innovation and understanding of the commerce of fashion – in addition to her being a female pioneer in the field of haute couture – should have been sufficient to ensure her legacy. Instead, her absence from mainstream histories of fashion speaks volumes about the uneasy relationship between commercial success and credibility. Happy birthday to two originals, my daughter and Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix.



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FD79C7A4-A06D-411F-AC1C-4BA7345635A1I have another creepy French thriller to recommend to you – Glacé, or The Frozen Dead in English. The six-part Netflix series premiered on French TV a couple of years ago. It’s based on a book by best-selling author Bernard Minier. It reminded me a little of Silence of the Lambs because the plot revolves around an inmate in a prison for the criminally insane who is manipulating everyone around him, including his young female psychiatrist. The setting is the French Pyrénées over the Christmas holidays – such an auspicious time for mayhem.

DFC062FB-581C-4429-8819-F4C4D298F654The initial victim, a horse, gets lots of high profile attention due to his influential owner, but the subsequent victims are definitely not equine. Everything turns out to be related to a settling of scores for fifteen-year-old crimes. The investigators are given a terrible choice by the wily ex-cop inmate – break the law themselves or allow someone to die. In typical French fashion, the characters are less perfect and air-brushed than their American counterparts on crime shows. There are subtitles in several languages, including English. Saying “I hope you enjoy it” seems inappropriate, but you know what I mean!


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Criminal: France

43E3BAAB-0260-4265-88C9-E13528714696Sometimes I wonder how closely Big Brother is watching. Is my Netflix queue, so full of crime shows, the true reason why it’s taking so long for my Green Card to be renewed this time? Has my viewing history made me a “person of interest”? (I’ve been blaming the Trump administration, but maybe he is actually innocent of this offense.) But, I really do like mysteries, police procedurals, and a good psychological thriller just can’t be topped. And if the mystery is in French? C’est magnifique.

AC5EEC18-142B-435A-AFC7-2EE74662EBADNetflix came through again with Criminal: France. The French series is very brief, just three episodes of about forty minutes each. Each one happens almost exclusively in a police interrogation room. As skilled as the interrogators are, there has clearly been a lot of water under the bridge that has led to friction and distrust among the police officers, although the details are really just hinted at, with typical Gallic reserve. As the stories unfold, they aren’t usually what the officers were expecting to hear, in the best tradition of a good mystery.

6E7985DE-8914-48CE-B581-B92C541C2992I recognized a few of the actors from other shows or movies, but the only big name among them was Nathalie Baye, accused of causing the death of a labor agitator on a construction site.  I realized afterward that it’s no surprise that I liked the series, as the director, Frédéric Mermoud, is also responsible for some of my other favorite French shows, such as Engrenages (Spiral) and part of Les Revenants (The Returned). I watched it in French with French subtitles, but English and many other languages are available, both for audio and subtitles. The scenarios for each episode are intriguing, well-written, and presented with intelligence. If you like a crime show as much as I do, I highly recommend this one. I hope that there will be a second season. I have seen that there is a version for the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany, but I haven’t checked them out. Do any of you have some insights to share about them?



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Des castors, des hirondelles et des grisettes

E00617E7-0F15-4BB6-A0DE-12858A95B813I have long loved the covered passages of Paris, those boutique-lined, glass-roofed vestiges of another era of shopping. Years ago, I saw a photo exhibit about them at Les Antiquaires du Louvre (now such a sad, abandoned shell) and bought the accompanying book. I slipped it on my bookshelf, and there it sat for a decade. I’ve been reading all that back stock before allowing myself new books and finally turned to this one. I’m kind of sorry that I did.

2AB4B5A1-CDB5-45A8-A8AB-E3C0708599C6I knew that the Palais Royale, opposite the Louvre, had been a precursor to the covered passages, and I also knew that it had been a “pleasure garden” at night, but I hadn’t known much about the women who worked there and in the passages around  it. The book revealed that the “romance” of these shopping arcades often had a lot to do with taking advantage of poor women.

There was a whole hierarchy of prostitutes. Les castors, (beavers) were at the pinnacle of this sorry group. They were further subdivided into demi-castors, castors, and castors-fini. Their relative status decided whether they had to work the garden and alleys, the arched galleries, or the terrace of a café in the Palais Royale. Balzac wrote about the whole sorry business in Illusions perdues, but took the point of view that the prostitutes were the hunters of hapless male prey. Five or six hundred women worked the Palais Royale each night in the mid-1800s.

F65777CA-BA08-4F2D-B7F2-24A07172A1D9Less “fortunate” women worked in the covered passages nearby. They were known as hirondelles (swallowsor rossignols (nightingales). Then there were the grisettes (warblers) and lorettes, shop-girls, who augmented their meager salaries by becoming prostitutes after hours. Often, those who owned the shops made the arrangements with this other sort of client, for a cut of the fee. There was the account of the arrest record of a widow who had met clients in the public toilets of one of the passages for forty years. I felt ill reading that.

E4C44A65-2EE8-4087-8538-1C89BAA4821AAnd if that isn’t sad enough, then there were the wives and daughters of factory workers who, after their own day in the factory, were expected to work “l’heure du travail supplémentaire,” or overtime, as prostitutes in one of the passages. Karl Marx wrote all about this when he lived in France from 1843-45.

7DDDED94-6341-4D15-8F69-508FF68D7ADDI felt so sad for all of those women who had no options, and so grateful to live in a time when I have an education and a very different kind of job. I’ll certainly look at the covered passages through different eyes from now on.



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Le Chalet

C5551665-2525-440D-9BFA-C4B0A4293EEDI love a good mystery and I’m always looking for good resources to keep my French up to snuff, so I happily added Le Chalet , which originally aired on French TV, to my Netflix queue. It did not disappoint.

The gist of this suspenseful six-episode show is that a group of long-separated friends have gathered in a remote Alpine town to celebrate the marriage of one of the old gang. Along for the ride are an assortment of boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, and even a small child. But all is not well. First, a series of “accidents” cut them off from the rest of the world. Then, one by one, friends keep getting killed to settle a twenty year-old grudge.5D34CFAE-ACD0-4591-B1A4-1E67AD223438It’s a classic Agatha Christie-type scenario, but I jumped out of my skin half-a-dozen times, so it certainly kept me guessing. My least favorite episode was the final one, however, as I found the wrap-up to be a bit weak. Still, I’ve recommended it my students, using the child singing the creepy opening song to lure them in, just as each victim was lured to his or her demise.

I watched it with French audio and subtitles, but English subtitles are available, too. I’m certainly not the only fan; viewers are clamoring for a second season. Hope you enjoy it!

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