Category Archives: France

Child Portraits in Paris

Detail from Portrait de Werner Miller, Ferdinand Hodler, 1899, Musee d’Orsay

I love portraits of children. After a recent trip to Paris, I have a new favorite collection of them. The one above is newly-acquired by the Musée d’Orsay. (They had to do extensive restoration–the paint still has obvious cracks). It’s by the influential Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, 1853-1918. He carefully observed reality, but believed that the artist should go beyond appearance to reveal the underlying structure and essence of the subject. Young Werner Miller looks to me like a stern old man in a child’s body. Or maybe he’s a child clenching his fists in an effort to escape from an old man’s stiff pose?

Detail from “L’Enfant a la Poupee,” Henri Rousseau, 1904-5, Musee de l’Orangerie

Henri Rousseau painted this girl with a doll around 1994-5. She’s a beautiful child, but she also looks strangely mature. She looks self-aware, dead serious, possibly thinking intently of her future. Is the doll on her lap her adult self, upright and a little rigid? Could be. Then again, maybe she’s going to grow up to be a heartbreaker. Maybe the doll is a man that her future self will tame. She remains an enigma, in the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

Detail from “La Petite Marcelle,” Berthe Morisot, 1895, Marmottan Museum

Berthe Morisot was one of the very few women Impressionists. She had a special rapport with children. I like that she didn’t seem to require them to play up to the viewer. (Of course, I know that the French tend to think people who smile are stupid. I try to remember that when walking along a Paris street, smiling my wide American-tourist smile at everybody I pass because I’m happy to be there). Berthe Morisot was married to Eugène Manet, brother of Édouard Manet. The Marmottan Museum on the outskirts of Paris has a large collection of her work.

Detail from “Julie Manet,” Pierre August Renoir, 1887, Marmottan Museum

Julie Manet, the daughter of Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet, had her childhood portrait painted by Pierre Auguste Renoir, no less. Renoir had a particularly sunny outlook; he must have encouraged not only the child but also her cat to smile.

Julie Manet, unknown photographer, Public Domain

The Marmottan also displays a photo of Julie as a young woman. Sadly, both her parents died, leaving her an orphan at age 16. But she was cared for within her circle of artistic friends and relatives. Her uncle, Edouard Manet, also painted her, she became an artist herself, and she lived to the ripe old age of 87.

Detail from “Portrait de la fille de Jenny Le Guillou,” Eugène Delacroix, 1840, Louvre

Eugene Delacroix painted the daughter of his loyal servant and dear friend, Jenny Le Guillou, in 1840. Sadly, the child had died young. The portrait was posthumous. Jenny herself became increasingly important to the artist, fetching his paint from the shop and critiquing his work. She was with Delacroix when he died in 1863. It’s a lovely and sensitive portrait, and heartbreaking too.

Detail from “Deux Fillettes,” Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, Musee d’Orsay

Vincent Van Gogh painted these two little girls in 1890. I could look at this deceptively simple painting for hours. The child on the left is a serene beauty; the one on the right is not so pretty. In fact, she looks like an old woman, resigned but already grumpy about her lot in life. But there they are, sisters or maybe friends heading into their lives together.

All the children I know are going back to school in the next week. I wish them all happiness, plenty of new crayons, and childhoods long enough for them to grow into their best selves.

Heartbreak at Notre Dame in Paris

I’m shocked to see the images of Norte Dame burning today. I was just there in December, and I took it for granted that it would always be there whenever I was lucky enough to return to Paris. I would not dream of visiting Paris without going inside to be awed once again by the majesty of Notre Dame.

But it appears that a fire started under the spire and spread rapidly. When I visited, I could see scaffolding around the spire; I understand major repairs were going on. The image above is a picture of a TV picture.

Now the news is that the entire roof has collapsed.

It is just unthinkable that a place of such beauty and spirituality is on fire. After all, the Cathedral of Our Lady was built between 1160 and 1260, and has stood through all the centuries of tumultuous French history since then.

I always think of Gothic churches as sort of fireproof because they seem to be made of stone. But actually much of the structure is wood.

Who knows whether Notre Dame can be rebuilt, or even whether the fire can be put out before it’s reduced to a pile of rubble. We can only hope the cathedral has guardian angels watching over it.

Azay-le-Rideau: Island Dreaminess and Bats in the Belfry

Once upon a time a beautiful chateau rose up on an island in the middle of the River Indre…well, not really.

Actually the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau began as a 12th-century fortress built to protect the road between Chinon and Tours, where it had to cross the River Indre. The site saw a lot of violence over the next few centuries, including an episode in the Hundred Years’ War when 350 soldiers occupying it were executed and the existing building was burned to the ground.

Finally, in 1518, one Gilles Berthelot acquired the property and set about building himself a grand Renaissance chateau. Gilles was the Treasurer of King Francois I, and the King allowed him to cut timber from the nearby Forest of Chinon. A lot of trees were needed to build on the swampy ground. As in the city of Venice, timbers had to be driven vertically into the ground to keep the stone chateau from sinking.

Naturally, Gilles featured his King and Queen prominently in his facade. That’s the fire-breathing salamander of Francois I and the meek ermine of his Queen, Claude.

The central stairway is one of the main architectural features.

I’m a big fan of stone corbels, like this dog guarding his bone from another dog.

Other stone figures are more fantastical.

Sometimes it’s all just a bit much, though. Time for a nap?

The chateau fell into decline in the eighteenth century. All the furniture and art was sold off. Since it became the property of the French government, it’s been refurnished in grand fashion.

I especially liked a bedroom lined with handwoven rushes–very cozy on those chilly evenings.

I have no idea who this lady is, but she’s lovely.

So what’s under that steep oh-so-French roof?

The attic is where the King’s forest timbers really shine.

The roof is a real feat of engineering, sixteenth century style. The original workmen’s marks survive. Everything had to fit together perfectly. It still does.

The colony of about fifty protected bats must enjoy the airy spaces.

Down on the ground, the thing to do is to circle the chateau, admiring the Renaissance grandeur reflected in the water.

And to make plans to come back.

Chateau de Fontainebleau, Favorite Digs of Napoleon Bonaparte

Of the many facades of Fontainebleau, the grand double stairway where the defeated Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte said goodby to his loyal troops is the most famous.

But on my visit a few months ago, a temporary fence stood maddeningly in the exact spot I’d need for a good photo with the French national flag flying above it. Maybe someone was tired of tourists taking selfies there.

Inside and out, renovation at Fontainebleau goes on constantly. It’s impossible to see everything on one visit.

Invariably, parts of the chateau are closed. It’s not particularly visitor-friendly, either. English is used very sparingly inside. There’s an audio guide at the ticket window, but on one visit a request for one was met with a Gallic shrug. All the used audio guides were piled up at the exit and there seemed to be no plan to haul them to the entrance. So I had to wing it with my marginal French to read placards. (I generally figure that I can read about one word out of three. I’m way worse at understanding spoken French). Still, I’d go to Fontainebleau any time.

In early spring, people lounge around Diana’s fountain. (When it’s turned on, her hunting hounds pee big arching streams into the basin).

Napoleon 1er, painting by Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Baptiste Mauzaise, 1812

For me, the most interesting part of the huge chateau is the wing devoted to Napoleon, his family, and his exploits. It’s hard to get good photos of the portraits without glare in the long family gallery, but the effect is very grand.

Napoleon placed his nearest and dearest on thrones all over Europe.

Pauline, duchesse de Guastalla et princesse Borghese, Marie-Guillemine Benoiste, 1808

They all had a fine time while it lasted. I think Napoleon’s sister Pauline had the best time of all.

Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victorious, photo by Architas, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Pauline married a Borghese and as a princess, was sculpted by Antonio Canova between 1805-1808. When asked if she was uncomfortable posing nude, she replied that it was fine: there was a stove in the studio. Also, it was reportedly her idea to pose nude; she liked being talked about. (The exquisite statue is in the Villa Borghese in Rome, where tourists are not allowed to take photos).

Madame Mere de l’Empereur et Roi, Francois Gerard, after 1805

Here’s Napoleon’s mother. What mom could be more proud of her boy?

Napoleon knew how to dress for an occasion. This was one of his many dressing-up outfits.

He liked his help to look sharp, too. This was a coat worn by one of his household staff.

But by all accounts, Napoleon was happiest on military campaign, in his campaign gear.

Of course, the great man was not about to rough it while conquering Europe. He traveled with several wagons full of what he needed for the style to which he was accustomed. His personal tent had a comfy folding canopied bed and a separate work area.

Even on campaign, Napoleon had everything he needed to look good at all times.

Empress Josephine in Coronation Robes, Francois Gerard, 1804

Napoleon attributed a lot of his good fortune to his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais. Sadly, she could not produce the desired heir, so he reluctantly divorced her.

Napoleon himself announced that he was “looking for a belly.” He replaced Josephine with the Habsburg Princess Marie-Louise in 1810. (I think this portrait was painted by Gerard).

King of Rome, painted by Francois Gerard, wearing the ribbon of the Legion of Honor

Cradle of the King of Rome (one of several)

Marie-Louise did produce a male baby, duly named the King of Rome, but his life was short and sad. Things were going downhill for the Emperor.

In his heyday, Napoleon received visitors in his Fontainebleau throne room. His throne featured his emblem, the honeybee. He chose it for its virtues of being constantly at work, constantly producing (honey), diligence, and orderliness.

But military defeats ended it all. On April 13, 1814, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau at this very table. Then he was off to exile on the island of Elba.

The rest of Fontainebleau is a strenuous trek through previous centuries of French history.

Above, that’s Francois I, his fire-breathing salamander, and a nice Diana the hunter that he commissioned.

The grandeur is actually a bit much to take in. And a lot of rooms are either closed or full of scaffolding.

I can see why even the royals of the past needed a little breathing room, as in the spacious balcony where they attended Mass in a chateau chapel. I read somewhere that the congregation of nobles below them were seated facing the royal balcony, their backs to the altar. It seems their job was to watch their betters watch the Mass.

I can see why Napoleon’s Roman-inspired Empire style was a breath of fresh air in his time. Above, that’s a daybed and working desk in Napoleon’s private study.

Fontainebleau is one of the best places to wander through French history, coming face to face with the personalities that shaped it. The town is fun and lively, too. I’d go back anytime!

Chateau Gaillard in Amboise: A Smiling Monk and Oranges from Italy

There’s a new chateau in town, complementing the touristic big guns of Chateau d’Amboise and Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, Clos Luce. (It’s not to be confused with the medieval Chateau Gaillard in Normandy, which was the stronghold of Richard the Lionheart).

It’s a smallish chateau. But it’s an interesting stop because it’s possible to imagine actually living there.

Gaillard is a respite from the main tourist track. The gardens are a work in progress, but they’re peaceful and green. And there are already oranges.

Dom Pacello da Mercogliano was a Benedictine monk with a genius for making things grow. He was also something of a hydraulic engineer; growing things always need water.

King Charles VIII brought Dom Pacello from Italy to Amboise in the late 1400s and installed him in this house a short hike from the king’s grand riverbank chateau. Pacello’s mission was to design beautiful gardens like the ones Charles remembered from Italy. Charles especially wanted oranges, which had never been grown in France.

An important part of Dom Pacello’s work was to figure out how to get water from the Loire all the way up to the chateau gardens high above the river. I gather that was no mean feat, and didn’t work out so well.

After Charles’ untimely death, the monk continued to work for his successor, Louis XII. It appears that Dom Pacello lived in France for the rest of his long life, dying at age 87 in 1534.

Once again after centuries of neglect, the estate has oranges in a lot of varieties. Charles would be pleased.

A family (whose name I don’t know) bought the property a few years ago. They’ve been working hard on restoring it and making it a tourist attraction. Other visitors report they’ve met the family and found them charming. I thought the admission price, comparable to major sights in the Loire Valley, was a little steep. But there are a lot of very positive Tripadvisor reviews. Quite a few visitors felt it was money well spent for the tranquility. People really appreciate a place for kids to run around and adults to relax.

There’s a colorful brochure in English, and apparently one English tour a day. We were in a bit of a rush and probably should have allowed more time to let the place grow on us. I did not see even a French tour going on, but there was a colorful little film (in French) running in a pretty garden shed.

It’s especially interesting to see how the mansion was built directly up against and even had rooms tunneled into the sheer rock wall behind it.

The local stone is tufa, and there are a lot of more humble “cave houses” in town.

About nine rooms of the house are open to visitors. The rooms are pretty and atmospheric. It appears that the family actually lives in the house.

They serve orange juice and orange cake on a pleasant terrace.

The website for the chateau is at

http://www.chateau-gaillard-amboise.fr/pacello-de-mercoliano-eng.html

St. Hubert’s Chapel at Amboise: A Resting Place for Leonardo da Vinci

The Gothic Chapel of Saint-Hubert was built between 1491 and 1496 during the reign of Charles VIII.

It’s perched right at the edge of the wall surrounding Chateau d’Amboise, towering over the town far below.

The chapel is tiny but exquisite. The facade tells the story of St. Hubert. He seems to have been an actual person, born around 656 to 658 in Toulouse. By the time he died on May 30, 727, he had become the first Bishop of Liege.

Hubert was a courtier living the good life of feasting, wearing fine clothes, and hunting in the vast royal forests of various parts of France. But when his wife died in childbirth, it seems he had a sort of midlife crisis. He chucked his royal duties and turned his back on religion. Instead he spent all his time hunting, all by himself.

On Good Friday, while everybody else was in church, he was out hunting alone as usual when he had a miraculous vision. A magnificent stag appeared with a crucifix in its antlers. A voice told him to mend his ways and get back to religious life, which he did. He became known as the “Apostle of the Ardennes,” devoted himself to all manner of good works, and died peacefully in old age.

Hubert became the patron saint of hunters (of course). He was much venerated in the Middle Ages for being able to cure rabies. The cure involved using St. Hubert’s Key, a fearsome metal nail-like brand that was heated red-hot and applied to the spot where an unfortunate person was bitten by a rabid animal. I suppose it worked at times, but I’m betting Leonardo da Vinci could have improved on the method if he’d set his mind to it.

St. Hubert has his very own club today in the UK. It’s dedicated to deer and wild boar management.

https://www.sainthubertclub.co.uk/who-was-st-hubert/

St. Hubert’s story is very similar to that of St. Eustace, but it does seem they were different people who had the same vision. I first encountered the crucifix-in-antlers story on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and wrote about it. Eustace did not fare as well as Hubert, though. Legend has it that Eustace, his wife and children were eventually roasted alive by the Emperor Hadrian.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2016/04/29/st-eustace-in-canterbury-cathedral/

St. Hubert’s chapel is lovely and peaceful inside even when there are a lot of tourists visiting Amboise. People duck in to see Leonardo’s tomb, but they don’t linger.

The chapel is a nice resting place for Leonardo, who died just up the street in his last house, Clos Luce, in 1519. And I’m sure he appreciates the visitors from all over the world.

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!