Category Archives: Art

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. 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!

Monet’s Garden in Giverny

Claude Monet was not always the rich and famous inventor of “Impressionism.” In fact, “Impressionism” was not always a revered art movement, or a way to sell countless silk scarves and coffee mugs. In 1872, the 32-year-old artist exhibited a painting titled “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, rising sun”) which was ridiculed for being a mere Impression, not a real painting. But he persevered.

In 1876 Monet’s young wife Camille became ill with tuberculosis, common in those days. She was weakened further after giving birth to two children. She died at age 32 in 1879, apparently from uterine cancer on top of everything else. She never saw the gardens at Giverny; they did not exist in her lifetime.

In 1876, Monet and Camille had been invited to the chateau of businessman/collector Ernest Hoschedé, where they met Edouard Manet and other artists. His wife, Alice, became a good friend to the young couple. Then disaster struck. Hoschedé went bankrupt, abandoned his family, and fled to Belgium in 1877. Alice began caring for Monet’s two children, along with her own six children. She and Claude decided to join forces and bring up their children together. Neither of them had much money, and there were years of hardship.

They were finally able to marry in 1892, once Alice’s estranged husband died.

After all their troubles, it seems they happily raised their large family and grew old together. In their house, I loved this photo of the two of them feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

But during their years of poverty and somewhat scandalous living arrangements, the couple lived in rented houses which Monet hated. In 1883, he caught a glimpse of Giverny from a train window. He rented the existing house and began cultivating a garden.

His painting career was taking off during these years. Soon he was able to buy the house. He and Alice entertained all the important artists and writers of their time. Today, reproductions of the paintings of Monet and his friends are informally displayed on shelves, as the originals were in his lifetime.

Monet added various rooms to the house. His own sunny corner bedroom featured some of his favorite paintings, now replaced by reproductions.

He especially liked Renoir’s serenely sunbathing lady. So do I.

I imagine there must have been a kitchen garden in Monet’s time. The blue-and-white-tiled kitchen was large and equipped to serve a big family and plenty of guests.

If I could choose one time and place to time-travel to dinner, it might be to the cheerful yellow dining room at Giverny.

As in Monet’s time, the house is full of the Japanese prints that he and so many other artists had begun to collect. Japanese art, which had only recently become widely available outside Japan, strongly influenced all the artists of the time.

As his garden grew and thrived, Monet always had something beautiful to paint close at hand.

Above is a detail from “The Garden at Giverny,” 1900, now in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Eventually Monet was able to buy adjoining property with a stream. He created his famous lily pond with its Japanese bridge.

Alice died in 1911. Monet lived and painted his beloved garden right up until his death in 1926, at the age of 86.

Is Monet’s home crowded and touristy? Oh, yes. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and the crowds get worse every year. The gardens are large enough to absorb quite a few people, but the house must get unbearably packed. I think the house should have timed entries.

On a weekday morning in late April, I arrived early and there were plenty of people. By the time I left at noon, the line to get in stretched at least a full city block. If I encountered a line like this, I would leave for awhile and come back in late afternoon. The light would be better anyway, and the tour buses would have left.

Still, there’s magic to be found in Monet’s gardens, in any season. I’d cheerfully go again tomorrow–but I’d arrive even earlier.

Easter in Copenhagen: Church-Lady Angels, A Sunburned Gardener, and Thermal Onesies

Last winter in Copenhagen, I admired a very unusual Easter-themed painting in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Joakim Skovgaard painted it as an altarpiece in 1890. The title is translated as “Christ Welcomes the Penitent Thief into Paradise.”

In the Biblical account, one of the thieves executed with Christ admitted his sins, repented, and begged desperately for help. Christ promised him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” I’ve never seen this event depicted anywhere else, maybe because I’m not Catholic. I understand the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of this man, now called St. Dimas, around Easter time. I think his feast day is March 25.

I admire the gentle realism of the painting, along with the liberal use of gold leaf. Three angels with gold haloes AND rose wreaths stand ready with new clothes and a pitcher of water. They look like very earthly angels, wearing pretty Scandinavian jackets and embroidered dresses. Their wings are barely visible; these angels could easily pass for kindly church ladies. (They’ve probably also made a nice casserole and some lemon bars for their newest guest).

Above are some actual church ladies, for comparison. They were helping people at the Christmas bazaar at the Swedish Church in Copenhagen this past November. I have a high opinion of angels as well as helpful church ladies in pretty Scandinavian outfits.

Paradise has a thick wall with guard towers and a narrow door.

An angel with a flaming sword guards the door. I especially like this angel’s gold armor and comfy gold sandals.

So which side of the wall is Paradise? At first I thought the angel with the flaming sword was “inside.” But that side of the wall drops off sharply into nothingness. The flaming-sword angel perches on some kind of pillar beside the door, looking off into the nothingness in case anyone else approaches. I think Christ has already ushered the thief through the door and on into Paradise, which looks a lot like rural Denmark in springtime. Or maybe it looks like the Garden of Eden. But I don’t want to overthink the theology here, not that I know enough theology to overthink it. I just like the painting.

Religiously themed art is not very common outside of churches in Scandinavia. And the churches tend to be austere. This altarpiece must have been a real center of attention and worship. I’d like to have seen it in the church it was painted for.

For those who celebrate Easter more as the beginning of spring, here’s another Hirschsprung Gallery painting from the same time period. Fritz Syberg painted “Spring” in 1891-93.

A sturdy fellow in wooden clogs cheerfully rakes the bare soil. It looks like he’s been at it long enough to get a bit of sunburn.

Neighbors stroll and gaze off into the distance under flowering fruit trees. They look glad to be outside. Winters are long and hard in Scandinavia. But spring finally comes.

In nearby Tivoli Park last December, thousands of hyacinths were featured in the Christmas flowerbeds–a real novelty in the long winter. (Temperatures were around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, almost the same day and night. I wondered if the plants were dug up and put to bed in a greenhouse while the park was closed at night).

It wasn’t cold enough to snow in early December. The dusting of pretend snow on the hyacinths must have been sprinkled by human hands.

We were lucky enough to also be in Copenhagen last April (we liked it so much we went back in December). Even in spring, we bundled up in layers of sweaters and raincoats.

Actually, I think it was colder in April than in December. I was wishing I had a parka, or better yet, a onesie snowsuit like the ones all the kids wear.

Chilly or not, I’m sure the Tivoli flower beds are overflowing again this spring with tulips and daffodils. I’d like to be there again.

Happy Easter and happy spring!

Kelmscott Manor: William Morris’s Dream House

In honor of the artist/writer/social activist/all-around creative genius William Morris’s birthday on March 24 of 1834, I’m remembering a visit to his home. He had a dream house: a house that actually appeared in his dreams. One day in 1871, he found the actual house, exactly as he had dreamed it, and immediately rented it for himself, his wife and two young children. The house, begun around 1594 and added to over the years, was Kelmscott Manor in farming country in Oxfordshire.

Morris was 37 years old, at the height of his very great powers. Frederick Hollyer photographed him later, in 1899, Public Domain.

He was not making a lot of money, though. So he shared the tenancy of Kelmscott with his close friend, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He’s above, painted by George Frederic Watts, 1871, Public Domain.

In 1861, Rossetti had become a founding partner in Morris’s design firm, along with Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner, Peter Paul Marshall, and Edward Burne-Jones.

The house today is a picture of long-ago domestic bliss. Above is a wall hanging which Jane and William embroidered together, early in their marriage. In reaction to the beginning of the Industrial Age and the rise of capitalism, Morris and his friends looked back at an idealized Medieval Age, when life was simpler and beautiful things were hand-crafted. Morris adapted the design from one he found in a 14th-century French manuscript.

William’s overcoat hangs ready for a ramble on country lanes, soaking up the nature that inspired him.

It hangs next to a handpainted medieval-style settle, with a tall curved hood as a shelter from drafts. The settle was designed by Philip Webb, the architect and designer whose work included the country house Standen.

William Morris had met his future wife, 18-year-old Jane Burden, in Oxford. Her photo is by John Robert Parsons, 1865, Public Domain. Rossetti posed her for this photograph. Morris and his friends were mesmerized by Jane’s ethereal beauty and she immediately became their model and muse. Jane had grown up poor and uneducated. William Morris arranged a whirlwind education for her, which she thrived on. Before long, she could hold her own with the most sophisticated of Morris’s friends, and she was perfectly at home in society. They married in 1859.

Does this story sound familiar? Many people think Jane was the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.”

The playwright was a friend and frequent visitor to the Morris family.

The illustration above shows Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle, 1913, Public Domain. The play became the source for the Broadway musical and movie “My Fair Lady.” Six degrees of Victorian separation!

Later, Jane admitted that she always liked Morris, but never actually loved him. This spelled trouble. No sooner had Morris settled his family in the house than he set off on an extended trip to Iceland to study the hero sagas.

He wrote and illustrated several books about Icelandic folklore over a period of two years, during which Jane was involved with Rossetti in the home they all shared.

According to a Kelmscott guidebook, Morris was being a gentleman by going off to Iceland: making himself scarce so that the relationship between Jane and his friend could run its course (which it did). In “Water Willow,” 1871, Rossetti painted Jane with the nearby Thames tributary, the boathouse, Kelmscott Manor and the village church in the background. The painting still hangs in the house; it was Jane’s favorite.

Rossetti was a bit of a ladies’ man, and Jane was irresistible. He painted her many times, before, during, and even after their liaison. The portrait above is “The Blue Silk Dress,” 1868. It still hangs in the house.

“Proserpine,” 1874, hangs in the Tate Britain gallery in London, Public Domain.

In spite of the turmoil in their love lives, the Morris family had many happy years in the house, and eventually Morris’s daughter May was able to buy it.

The house had cozy rooms for entertaining friends.

Naturally, the house was decorated with the designs of Morris and his friends.

The early designs were actually printed by hand on fabrics. Above are some of the original blocks used for printing. Some designs took a dozen or more different blocks.

The attics of the house, once the sleeping quarters for farm servants, were left plain, whitewashed, the sturdy beams exposed, with minimal furniture.

Morris loved the “medieval” look of the attics. He wrote, “I have spent, I know, a vast amount of time designing furniture and wallpaper, carpets and curtains…but I would prefer, for my part, to live with the plainest whitewashed walls and wooden chairs and tables.” (I’m not so sure I believe that, but it’s a nice thought, in keeping with Morris’s concern for working people and his longing for a simple life).

The garden was as important to Morris as the house.

It was never a manicured garden, but it was beautiful in all seasons. I saw it in spring, with tulips and bluebells.

William Morris lived in other houses during his lifetime, but Kelmscott was always his dream home.

The nearby village church, St. George’s, was begun in Norman times, in the eleventh century, with additions up to around 1430 but very minimal changes after that. When he lived at Kelmscott, William Morris founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to protect just such buildings from over-enthusiastic Victorian “restorations.” After his death in 1896, William Morris was buried in the peaceful churchyard near his beloved Kelmscott.

Happy Birthday, dear William!

Swan Maidens at Oslo City Hall

I was just planning on a quick walk-through of the building, which honestly is not to my taste. But the courtyard has sixteen large wood reliefs, each about eight feet tall, by Dagfinn Werenskiold. They portray Norse myths from the 13th century. He had me at the Swan Maidens. Legend has it that three Valkyries appeared on a beach one day in the form of swans. They turned into beautiful women, married three brothers who happened along and couldn’t believe their good fortune, and stayed fourteen years. Then they flew away. I don’t know the end of the story, but the Valkyries are beings that fly over battlefields, deciding who will live and who will die. Did the brothers later fight in battle and get saved? Or had they maybe left the toilet seat up one time too many? The answers are lost in the mists of time.

The Oslo City Hall replaced a slum in the middle of the city, directly on the Oslo Fjord. The exterior style is listed as “Functionalism,” which sums it up. The architects were Arnstein Arbeberg and Magnus Poulsson. It was partially built by 1939, but then World War II intervened and it was finally completed in 1950. The spectacular interior more than makes up for the so-so exterior.

Inside, the grand rooms were decorated by the finest Norwegian artists, chosen by competition. The details above are from Henrik Sorenson’s huge mural “The Nation at Work and Play.”

It dominates the Main Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year.

The rear wall features a mural by Alf Rolfson.

I like the “smaller” rooms even better. The Festival Gallery has windows looking out over the fjord, and a beamed and painted ceiling. Of course there are Viking motifs, like this creature inset in the marble floor.

Axel Revold covered the end wall with a mural depicting the long, narrow country of Norway from north to south.

Aage Storstein, a young up-and-coming artist, painted the West Gallery with images of freedom and democracy. I don’t really understand the history or the politics, but a captive princess and a bear depict the centuries that Norway was in union with Denmark (not exactly willingly, it seems).

My favorite room is a smallish one, the East Gallery. Per Krogh considered it his masterpiece.

The beehive represents city life and the rosebush country life.

He painted an uprooted tree as a rose window.

So much for a quick walk-by of a boring city building. I wandered in the Oslo City Hall for a long time. Outside, I admired Dagfinn Werenskiold’s wooden carvings again. How about Odin on his eight-legged horse Sleipner?

Or ponder “Embla,” an elm tree turned into the first human woman in a Nordic creation story.

Her partner was Ask, a man created from an ash tree.

I was so inspired by Norse mythology that when I recently had an art-class assignment to do a painting that tells a story, I tried my own Swan Maidens. They’re creepily faceless right now while I work out how to do noses and eyes and chins and mouths. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy my Nordic memories.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!