Category Archives: Art

Leonardo and Francois I at Clos Luce

In 1516, King Francois I imported his very own personal resident genius from Italy to his home in Amboise. He installed Leonardo da Vinci in a fine mansion just down the road, Clos Luce. It was close enough to the royal chateau to be connected by a short tunnel.

Leonardo was nearing the end of his life, but he still had plenty of ideas and plenty of energy. He lived and worked for three years at Clos Luce.

The house has lovingly recreated Leonardo’s workspaces.

It’s easy to think of the equally energetic Francois I escaping his royal duties for nice chats in Leonardo’s man-cave.

Francois’s long-suffering wife, Queen Claude, often visited Clos Luce to pray in the tiny chapel. Francois was reportedly kind to her, but he was away much of the time, building and fighting and spending time with his mistresses. Claude married at age 15 and dutifully went through constant pregnancies until she died at age 24.

Queen Claude of France, Public Domain

I’d like to think that Leonardo was a friend to Claude as well as Francois.

Today, visitors see the rooms where Leonardo lived and died.

The basement and grounds contain models of Leonardo’s inventions. Ball bearings? Check. A bicycle? Check.

He brought a few of his favorite paintings to Amboise, including the Mona Lisa.

The gift shop is well stocked with the famous lady’s visage.

Leonardo da Vinci by Francesco Melzi, Public Domain

Although the house and grounds are usually full of tourists and school groups, it’s not too hard to imagine that Leonardo just popped over to the chateau to see his good buddy Francois. Leonardo and Francois: a fine bromance.

On to lunch, with dessert, of course.

In honor of my visit to Leonardo’s home, here’s a first for me: a video. I can’t resist. My favorite place in Amboise, Patisserie Bigot, has a unique toilet.

The seat is perfectly round. Every time it flushes, the seat does a complete self-cleaning rotation.

If I were traveling with little kids, I would never get them away from this fascinating toilet. Maybe Leonardo invented it!

George Sand and Friends at the Musée de la Vie Romantique

Musee de la Vie Romantique is a charming, peaceful oasis at the foot of Montmartre in Paris.  (Well, that’s what it was on a sunny spring day the other time I visited. On a recent rainy November day, it was dreary outside. People stood around wondering why they were there. The cheery garden cafe is shuttered and the chairs sit in puddles). Still, it’s worth a stop, especially since it’s free, with donations welcome.

On the way, I passed the Moulin Rouge, THE nightlife spot in Romantic times. From what I can see beyond the tour buses, it doesn’t look too appealing today. Plus I read that animals are used in the current show, in ways a lot of people find distressing. I’ll salute, but pass.

Art Scheffer, portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1840

The house, built in 1830, was the rented home of the painter Ary Scheffer, who was well-known at the time and had royal connections. Scheffer hosted weekly salon evenings attended by everybody who was anybody in the Romantic art, literature and music world.

Le Grand Atelier d’Ary Scheffer, Arie Johannes Lamme, 1851

Scheffer’s studio must have been a nice artistic hangout for his friends and students.

George Sand, bust by Auguste Clesinger, 1847

George Sand, one of the most notorious and talented women of her day, attended regularly with the most famous of her many lovers, the composer Frederic Chopin.  Her real name was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. Her friends called her Aurore. Though her family was not aristocratic, there was some money, a good education, and entree into high social circles.

George Sand, portrait by Charles Louis Gratia, 1835, Public Domain

She married a Baron and had two children, but aristocratic life was way too confining for her. She ran off with her two children and famously started dressing in men’s clothing, which she considered more practical than the full skirts and flounces of the day. Dressing as a man also let her enter places where women were not allowed, like raffish cafes in Montmartre (where she scandalously smoked in public).

Here she is, presiding over her salon (furnished by her heirs after the house became a museum, with portraits, possessions and mementoes). This portrait is by August Charpentier, 1838. She was striking and charismatic no matter how she was dressed. The poet Alfred de Musset, one of her lovers, said she was “the most womanly woman.” To support and also to amuse herself, she began writing novels, essays, criticism and memoirs. Her colorful life gave her plenty of material, and she was not particularly shy about sharing all her experiences. Note to self: find a good biography, and also her letters.

Frederic Chopin was a regular at the house during his stormy 8-year liaison with George Sand. A plaster cast of Chopin’s left hand reaches wistfully for a plaster cast of George Sand’s right hand in a glass case, along with a pen and some love letters.

Daguerreotype of Frédéric Chopin, Bisson, c. 1849, Public Domain

Poor Chopin suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 39. I wonder whether his affair with George Sand lengthened or shortened his life. Note to self: find good biography and letters.

Regulars at the house also included Chopin’s friend the composer Franz Liszt, opera composer Gioacchino Rossini, and the painters Eugene Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, among many other artists of the Romantic Period. Later on, Charles Dickens, Ivan Turgenev, and Charles Gounod also stopped by often.

The actress Sarah Bernhardt was a regular, too. Here she is costumed as a character in a play based on one of George Sand’s works.

The house became a museum in 1982.  Heirs of George Sand donated much of the contents.

The audioguide is worthwhile, but not really necessary because there’s a free little guidebook.

In the summer months, there is a pretty tea garden.  The food is nothing special, but it’s a fine place to sit and soak up the atmosphere of La Vie Romantique.

Naturally, George Sand has been the subject of plenty of books and movies.  My favorite is the 1991 movie Impromptu, often streaming on Netflix.  I’ve seen it before, but I’ll be watching it again.  Who can resist Judy Davis as George Sand and Hugh Grant as Frederic Chopin, right at the beginning of their tumultuous affair?

Actually I see that I have it on DVD! Reading the jacket, I remember the rest of the cast: Emma Thompson as a duchess, Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, Julian Sands as Franz Liszt, Bernadette Peters as the long-suffering wife of Liszt, Ralph Brown as Eugène Delacroix, and the list of treats goes on. James Lapine was the director.

I’m off! If anyone needs me, I’ll be in mid-1800s Paris.

Paris Snapshots, November 2018

Paris is always old and always new. The real sight is just the city itself, where there’s stunning architecture and art at every turn. Medieval Notre Dame Cathedral? It never fails to thrill.

In November, it’s not crowded inside the cathedral. The present structure was built between 1163 and 1345. It still feels deeply spiritual.

A Paris Museum Pass is the best bargain. For one thing, there’s no waiting in ticket lines. For about $15-20 per day, depending on number of days chosen, we take our heavy-duty culture in small doses. The Louvre is not intimidating (or exhausting) if we duck in for only an hour or two a day.

“La Nymphe au Scorpion,” Lorenzo Bartolini, 1777

The statue above? That’s me, checking my sore feet while looking out at I. M. Pei’s spectacular pyramid in the courtyard. (But we never stand in the horrendous lines at the pyramid entrance. It’s much better to go in through the underground shopping center, the Carousel du Louvre).

Goddess Nemesis, Egyptian, 2nd Century B. C.

We see way more by making just short forays into the Louvre. I especially liked the statue of a goddess, only about two feet high, in a little hallway alcove. She is Nemesis. The caption explains (I think) that she punished any kind of excess with an implacable reversal of fortune. She’s casually holding a little Wheel of Fortune. I can think of people who could use a reminder not to do anything to excess. Of course after eating excessive French pastries, I could use a reminder myself.

Puzzlement: Nemesis doesn’t look Egyptian. And did the Egyptians even have a concept of a wheel of fortune? I’ll always have things to learn. (Most of the captions in the Louvre are in French only, which means I probably get a lot of things wrong).

In November, even the crowd-stopping biggies have very few people standing around them, especially on the Wednesday and Friday evenings that the museum is open late. Here’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, standing in her very own grand gallery–and without people jostling to take selfies.

I’ve never before seen the Mona Lisa with a crowd only two or three deep in front of her. Usually the entire room is a jostling mass of humanity, and nobody is even looking at all the other fine paintings on its walls.

The Louvre now has nifty and free glass lockers for visitors to stash their stuff. In high season, I imagine these fill up. But we had our pick.

The Orsay also takes the Museum Pass. And special exhibits are always included. This trip, we had a couple of leisurely looks at Picasso’s Blue and Pink periods. I’m not the biggest fan of Picasso, but I liked this exhibit. That’s a detail from the exhibit’s centerpiece, “La Vie,” 1900.

Detail from “La Balancoire,” Pierre-August Renoir, 1876

I do mostly like Renoir, although I think he was terrible at painting hands, and some of his women look like they were painted by someone way more nearsighted even than I am.

There was a nice exhibit about Renoir and Jean Renoir, his film-making son. Jean took inspiration from the joyous life his dad portrayed in his paintings. It was fun to watch old film clips next to the paintings.

The regular galleries of the Orsay were wonderfully uncrowded, even the Impressionist rooms.

Femmes au Jardin, Claude Monet, 1866

After trudging through some of the Louvre’s rooms of correct-but-boring earlier French painting, it’s easy to see why the Impressionists were first ridiculed, then finally embraced for bringing in more light and color and joie de vivre.

La Famille Bellilli, Edgar Degas, between 1858 and 1869

When the Orsay is uncrowded, it’s possible to stand in front of paintings and ponder things like family dysfunction, as well as masterful technique. In the family above, I’d choose the girl on the left as my friend. The other people look too standoffish, even to each other. And the dad looks pretty much absent.

Time to escape museums and wander the streets of the Left Bank. Shop windows are as artful as anything. Yes, I’ll have that bird.

Florist shops are enchanting, and they spill out onto the street even in November. It’s not that cold, with highs of 45-50 in the daytime. Of course it helps to have a sunny day–which I’ll admit might be rare.

Help! My bike broke down. No worries, there’s a mobile bike repair shop to call: L’Atelier Velo Sur Votre Route.

At almost any time of the day or night, I’m up for crepes. I especially like Creperie des Arts in the Latin Quarter. All right, I’ll admit the resident cat is a big part of the attraction. He knows me now.

So this is November 2018 in Paris, sadly marred by violent Saturday protests.

By the time I left, Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe was looted and smeared with rude graffiti.

But Paris has weathered worse. When the dust settles, I’m sure I’ll be back. I still expect to see a little repair scaffolding at Notre Dame. After all, the building has stood through eight centuries of ups and downs in Paris.

Paris in November: I’m Sold!

One of my favorite paintings on this trip is Kees Van Dongen’s dancing girl at the Musee Marmottan. He painted it in 1905 when he was one of the leaders of the Fauves (aka the Wild Beasts). The title should be “Jumping for Joy” or something like that, don’t you think? But noooo…the title is “Le Boniment,” which means something like “a lie to please” or “a sales pitch.” The subject was a circus performer. Oh, well, it still looks like pure joy to me.

Of course the best reason for trekking out to the Marmottan on the edge of the city is Claude Monet. The Marmottan has the biggest collection of his work, including the little painting that started an art movement: “Impression, sol levant.” (Impression, sun rising,) painted in 1872.

Detail from Gustave Caillebotte’s “Rue de Paris, temps de pluie,” 1877

They also have masterpieces by Gustave Caillebotte, the rich boy who chose to hang out with the artists who were having such a good time. He was a wonderful painter, but after some years he gave it up and became a patron of artists he considered his betters. The painting above was on the cover of the phone book in my hometown years before I’d ever heard about Caillebotte. (Anyone remember phone books?) Actually this was a study for the actual painting, which is at the Art Institute in Chicago. But I’m glad enough to see this one. Claude Monet was given this “sketch” painting as a gift and kept it in his bedroom until he died.

As for Paris in winter, it rains. Quite a bit.

And it gets dark early. And there are no live flowers in the Tuileries or anywhere else, except in gorgeous shop windows.

But there are plenty of seasonal compensations. The Musee d’Orsay is blessedly uncrowded.

And there are flowers at Orsay. Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” receives plenty of bouquets but is more interested in challenging the viewer, as shockingly now as in 1865 when she was the talk of all Paris.

In the same room at the Orsay, Manet’s parents studiously look the other way. He painted them in 1861. I wonder what they thought of Ms. Olympia and their son’s raffish friends.

The Orsay features a wonderful Picasso exhibit that I’ve now seen twice, without waiting in line. Above is a detail from his “La Soupe,” 1902-1903.

Outside, I mostly take buses and the Metro, but it’s pretty easy to hail a cab. Wait, that’s not me! That’s a detail from Picasso’s “Lady with a Fan,” 1905.

Free and cheap concerts abound, at places like the American Church along the Seine.

Maybe I could take a painting class at the Louvre?

I won’t be renting one of the perfectly-silent scooters that people run along sidewalks everywhere. I value life and limb too much.

But if I do somehow fall into the Seine, one of these friendly guys in wetsuits will rescue me. They were practicing by somersaulting into the water and then reeling each other in.

Along the Seine, the Conciergerie, Marie Antoinette’s final sad prison, looks as forbidding as ever.

Inside the complex, which still holds the courts, St-Chapelle sits like a crown jewel with its fantastic medieval stained glass.

At every turn, there’s some iconic sight.

Paris in November? No worries. I’m sold!

Vaux-le-Vicomte: Fouquet’s Rise and Fall

Louis XIV traveled to this newly-built chateau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, on August 17, 1661. The owner, Nicolas Fouquet, was throwing a spectacular blowout party for the Sun King.

There was music, dancing, banks of flowers, and the premier performance of the Moliere play “Les Facheux” on the slightly elevated dias of the salon pictured above. (Translation of the title: The Unfortunate, The Regrettable. Yes, the whole evening certainly was all that).

And that’s Moliere, quietly observing the follies of men from his place on the mantle.

Back in 1641, Nicolas Fouquet was a young man on the make in France. At age 26, he was a member of the Parlement of Paris. This was not a debating or advising body; instead it was a sort of appeals court with great powers. It put him in position to get very rich.

Fouquet’s family emblem was the squirrel. His family motto was “Quo Non Ascendet” or “What heights will he not scale.” Heights, indeed. Fouquet climbed relentlessly from his Parlement position until in 1656 he landed the real plum job: Minister of Finance for the Sun King. A squirrel with better judgment than Fouquet might have settled down in a comfy hole and enjoyed the bounty of nuts he had already gathered. But Fouquet was a man of taste and refinement. He liked nice things and he could afford them, so why not have the best?

Fouquet was a patron of the arts and a great friend of artists. Jean de la Fontaine, the brilliant writer of the “Fables,” was a close friend who stayed regularly with Fouquet. He had very nice rooms to live and work in at Vaux-le-Vicomte.

When he landed the ministerial job, Fouquet bought and demolished three villages to make room for his chateau and grounds. Then he relocated the villagers and put them to work hauling, pounding and digging. It was said that he employed a virtual army of 18,000 people in his project.

For his grand chateau, Fouquet hired Louis le Vau as architect, Andre le Notre as landscape designer, and Charles le Brun as painter/decorator. Vaux-le-Vicomte was the first of their many celebrated projects together.

Everybody knew that King Louis XIV was not a man who liked to be upstaged. Fouquet’s chateau looked nicer than anything the king had for himself at the time.

King Louis XIV, painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701, Public Domain

During the fateful party on August 17, 1661, Louis was shown into the obligatory King’s Chambers that Fouquet had carefully prepared for him, but the envious king was fuming.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, painting by Philippe de Champaign, Public Domain

Somebody else saw opportunity in the situation. For some time, Jean-Baptiste Colbert had been insinuating to the king that Fouquet had embezzled funds. The king was only too happy to listen. Some historians suggest that he had already decided to oust Fouquet long before the royal carriage rolled up to the chateau doors on August 17.

Fouquet was arrested three weeks later and put on trial. The painting above, by an unknown artist, shows the grim courtroom scene. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The court sentenced him to exile, but the king overruled the court. Fouquet was sent to prison for the rest of his life. Naturally, everything he owned became the property of the Crown. And Colbert took his place as Minister of Finance, a post he held for many years afterward.

Louis XIV confiscated all the fine furniture and art. He also famously dug up all the plants in the gardens. Most importantly, he took the architect Le Vau, the landscaper Le Notre, and the decorator Le Brun straight to Versailles to work on his own supersized chateau.

Vaux le Vicomte languished for centuries under many owners. It’s now been much restored and refurnished. Three brothers of the de Vogue family are the present owners.

They’ve made the chateau really user-friendly, with very detailed placards in both French and English. The chateau information is my main source for Fouquet’s story. For example, a display shows some of the silver Fouquet would have owned:

A placard explains that Fouquet was never allowed to produce an inventory of his possessions, which would have proven that his expenditures were well within his legitimate income.

It’s easy to imagine Louis XIV entering Vaux-le-Vicomte and pausing under its airy dome.

Louis must have gazed out over Le Notre’s gardens and wondered why he couldn’t have the same thing–or something even better–for himself.

Voltaire later wrote, “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France; at two in the morning he was nobody.”

I wonder why Fouquet’s tragic story has not yet had the full-fledged Hollywood or HBO or BBC treatment. It’s certainly dramatic enough. Maybe there are programs I don’t know about. A visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte tells a remarkable story of hubris, treachery, greed and the absolute power of a king.

Join me next time for more about the famous chateaux of France.

Chateau de Cheverny

Some families are lucky. The Hurault family of financiers and officials serving a succession of French kings has owned Cheverny for six centuries, with only a couple of short breaks.

The entire castle was built in one go, as the Brits would say, from 1604 to 1634. So it has a rare unity of architecture and decoration. Works for me!

The royal mistress Diane de Poitiers bought it as a place to make do while she had her consolation prize of Chaumont renovated. (Most of us would rent an apartment nearby. But after all, Diane was one of the great royal favorites, and only ended up with Chaumont after Catherine de Medici booted her from Chenonceau when the king died. Diane could afford to live in style no matter what happened).

Beautiful Renaissance details abound.

The architect was Jacques Bougier, who also worked on the chateaux of Blois and Chambord. He used a soft stone from Bourre, which is harder than the very soft tufa used elsewhere in the Loire. It has the advantage of actually lightening with age.

The Hurault family lost the chateau again in the 18th century, but then Anne-Victor Hurault, the Marquis de Vibraye, bought it back once and for all in 1825.

Here’s Anne-Victor as a young man in his robes as a Chevalier of France. Among other things, he was aide-de-camp to Charles X. I’m not sure of the artist.

He had a lot of titles and honors. Very impressive!

Upkeep on a place like this is never cheap. The chateau was one of the first to open to the paying public (like me) in 1922. When I visited, the formal dining room was decorated for Easter.

The dining room and hallway are decorated with 34 wooden panels depicting the story of Don Quixote.

The panels were painted by Jean Monier, who was also responsible for the ceilings and other wall decorations.

Every self-respecting chateau was built with a King’s Room, reserved at all times for the monarch. No monarch actually slept in this room as it stands today.

However, King Henri II reportedly slept in this bed, although not in this room. At the time of his visit, there was an older castle on the property.

Of course there’s a chapel, decorated in Louis XIII style (like most of the chateau).

The Grand Salon is grand indeed. The lovely lady above the fireplace is an early Comtesse who married into the family. She was painted by Mignard, whose day job was to be Queen Anne of Austria’s personal artist.

I believe the lady just above is Jeanne of Aragon, painted in the workshops of Raphael.

There are Aubusson tapestries not only on the walls, but also upholstering the furniture. Unlike many chateaux, Cheverny was never emptied of its treasures. The Hurault family is proud that although objects have been added over the years, almost none have been taken away.

Some of the most interesting rooms are in the family’s “private” quarters. (Since the chateau is open every day of the year, I have to assume the family retreats to the really private quarters during the day at least).

How about a nice cup of tea?

When I visited, each room had a Lego display illustrating one of the tables of Jean de la Fontaine, after the illustrations by Gustave Dore. Here’s “The Lion and the Rat.”

And “The Hare and the Tortoise.”

I think Gustave Dore appears in a Legos portrait. I confess I don’t exactly see the point, but I can understand that an old chateau needs to have new tricks up its sleeve. Presumably the Legos keep kids interested.

The nursery is stuffed with antique family toys.

Two Legos hound dogs stand guard. More on the hounds of Cheverny in a minute.

One room holds the wedding gown of the wife of the current Marquis.

And now for the hounds: the present Marquis and his friends hunt several times a week from around October to March, culling about 25 deer from the acres and acres of woodland.

Now, where I come from, hunting involves men in camouflage gear, camping out and most likely drinking a lot of beer.

At Cheverny, it’s a whole different kind of hunting. It’s way more elegant, don’t you think?

The Marquis maintains between 70 and 100 specially bred hounds. At five in the afternoon on most days, they gather for La Soupe des Chiens: a buffet of raw meat served on the spanking-clean kennel floor.

It’s a sight to behold. “Please do not excite the dogs.” Full disclosure: I don’t eat meat, and the thought of hunting wild animals makes me shake in my boots. I’d never have made it as a royal wife or mistress, expected to participate in the Sport of Kings. But I understand that wildlife must be managed and kept in balance.

The writer/artist Herve took Cheverny as the inspiration for his many TinTin books. There’s a separate exhibit about TinTin.

Cheverny is efficiently run, very user-friendly. Admission includes a very detailed little brochure about the chateau’s history and treasures.

I wouldn’t mind being there right now!

Some Danish Moms for Mother’s Day

It’s Mother’s Day in the USA, and I’m thinking of a portrait I admired last winter in Copenhagen’s National Gallery. It’s “At the French Windows, the Artist’s Wife.” Lauritz Anderson Ring painted it in 1897. This portrait must have given some people pause. Even in Denmark, this was the Victorian era.

Here’s the whole painting. Putting the belly of an obviously pregnant woman front and center was a bit daring. But the artist had just married Sigrid Kahler in 1896. He was in love! And he was a freethinker, moving away from sentimental and constraining views of women (paraphrasing the gallery’s caption, which, thankfully, is in English as well as Danish).

Even earlier, in 1884, Michael Ancher painted “Portrait of My Wife.” It’s just across the park in the small but perfect Hirschsprung Gallery.

His wife, Anna Ancher, was a renowned artist herself. She painted ordinary interior scenes with extraordinary subtle colors, like “The Girl in the Kitchen” above, 1881-1884. It’s also in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Anna refused to give up her painting after her marriage, but she clearly loved and valued the small humble tasks raising a family. I’m sure Anna spent plenty of time on housekeeping herself, but I’m glad she didn’t put away her paintbrush just because she had children.

And rounding out my Danish salute to motherhood, here’s “Mother and Child,” 1860, by the Danish painter Constantin Hansen, also in the Hirschsprung.

Here’s to mothers everywhere!