Category Archives: Paris

Vincent and Theo


In 1990, Robert Altman directed the movie Vincent and Theo, concerning the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother.  The fine actor Tim Roth plays Vincent.  The equally fine Paul Rhys plays his brother Theo. It was originally made as a 4-hour BBC mini-series, which the director Altman compressed into a feature film. Rolling Stone called the Altman movie “a masterpiece.” But then, lots of Altman films are known as masterpieces.

The film brilliantly evokes the times in Paris and in the south of France.  There is nothing very picturesque about poverty in either place.  Vincent’s brave attempts to create a stable life for himself are heartbreaking.

“Memory of the Garden at Etten,” Vincent van Gogh, 1988, Public Domain

In 1888, during his troubled time with his painter friend Paul Gaugin in Arles, van Gogh painted his mother’s garden at Etten from memory.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever see the original; it’s at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.  It’s a stunning painting.  Vincent wrote about it to Theo:  “A reminiscence of our garden at Etten with cabbages, cypresses, dahlias and figures…Gaugin gives me courage to imagine and the things of the imagination do indeed take on a more mysterious character.” Which of the figures is van Gogh’s mother?  One of the sad-looking figures in the foreground?  Or the woman bent over her garden in humble hard work?  Maybe they all represent his mother, or his childhood, in some way.  I think this painting would have had deep meaning for the brothers who shared so much.

Having recently visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I gave the film another look.  I have always thought of Theo as the long-suffering, conventional patron of his tortured genius brother.  In the film, interestingly, Theo comes across as equally troubled.  In fact, he sometimes seems more tortured than VIncent.  At least Vincent always has his single-minded determination to paint.  Theo has self-doubts.  Why is he stuck working in art galleries?  Why can’t he afford to get married?  Finally he does marry, in spite of suffering from syphilis.  Then he has a wife and colicky baby to add to his troubles.


Theo was always in frail health.  In fact, he died just a few months after VIncent’s death.  The brothers are buried side by side in Auvers. When I visited, a few years ago, the cemetery adjoined a cornfield that could have come straight out of a van Gogh painting. The same ivy vine intertwines and covers the graves of the two brothers. It’s a lonely trek to see the graves; this is not a major tourist attraction. The brothers’ relationship, troubled as it was, gave us the gift of Vincent’s paintings, which always attract clumps of viewers in museums lucky enough to own them. Vincent could not have painted his masterpieces without the love and support of his brother Theo.

I wrote about Vincent’s mother and their loving relationship in a previous post at…m-love-vincent/

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

Slummin’ with Marie Antoinette


What’s a Queen to do when the gilded glories of Versailles get to be a bit much? Early in her reign, Marie Antoinette larked around Paris, shopping and taking in theatre and opera performances.  Adoring crowds applauded her beauty and grace.  That was then. Things changed, for the worse.  Retail therapy became a lot less therapeutic.  The Paris crowds began to turn restive, then hostile, and finally lethal.

The Palace of Versailles was the permanent and mandatory home of at least 3,000 people, courtiers and their servants.

The Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon are elegant, smaller, private palaces conveniently close to the ever-crowded main palace.  They’re great for private dinners away from the majority of prying eyes.  But still, a girl sometimes needs to just get away from the whole kit and kaboodle.


Marie Antoinette’s haughty pose was set in stone, as far as the angry intellectuals and hungry mobs plotting revolution.  (After all, she had been raised to carry herself like a queen). But she had fond memories of running wild as a child in the wooded grounds of Schonnbrunn Palace, with her many brothers and sisters. She had an idea:  she ordered up her own personal getaway within the vast grounds of the Palace.


Le Hameau de la Reine, The Hamlet of the Queen, was built for Marie Antoinette in 1783.  It was a large fenced-off area, open only to the Queen, her children, and her dearest friends.  It included private gardens much more informal than the main grounds.  There were pretty, grassy walks and a Temple of Love on an island.


There was a grotto–a sort of custom-made concrete movie set meant to look like a cave.


The grotto was perfect for games of hide-and-seek with the many lovers the queen was rumored to entertain. Were the rumors true? In the end, it didn’t matter one way or the other.


But the most notorious feature of the Hamlet was the Queen’s Farm.  Quaint rustic buildings created a fairy-tale version of a working farm.  The Queen spent carefree days dressed in simple white muslin and a straw hat. She milked carefully groomed cows using specially made Sevres china buckets. There was a special billiards room attached to the main house–naturally, an important room in any farmhouse. There was an actual working farm nearby which provided shampooed and scented cows, sheep, chicken and ducks.  I’m sure her kids loved it.


Today, the Hamlet is a place to ponder the wretched excesses that led to the French Revolution. When angry mobs arrived at the gates of Versailles, they had no sympathy at all for a Queen who played at being a peasant. For Marie Antoinette, there was no escape from her destiny.


Versailles: Crowded Splendor


Galerie des Glaces, Myrabella, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

Galerie des Glaces, Myrabella, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

Why bother to stay overnight in the town of Versailles?   Most people do Versailles as a daytrip from nearby Paris. The picture above shows the best reason to spring for an overnight. It’s the Hall of Mirrors, built by Louis XIV in 1678 and crammed with people ever since. On one memorable day, after an overnight in Versailles, I managed to appear early at the entry with ticket already in hand. Success! I had arrived early enough to be THE VERY FIRST PERSON to walk the length of the glittering room. I was so awed that I didn’t take a picture.  The one above was taken by a person with more presence of mind.


This picture above was taken about 20 minutes later.  On busy summer days–which I would avoid– tourists shuffle along almost shoulder to shoulder. But once in my life, I had the place all to myself. I doubt that even the Sun King himself had that privilege, unless he managed to do it late at night after courtiers had turned in.


The King invented two ceremonies which bookended his day:  the Lever, when invited courtiers watched him get up, and the Coucher, when he was tucked in for the night under his grand canopy festooned with ostrich feathers. Like everything else Louis XIV did, these ceremonies inflated his ego and made people think they were lucky to even be in his presence. Trouble was, he made his bed and then he had to lie in it.  In actual practice, the King sometimes did get up way early to go hunting, but Louis XIV valued ceremony so much that he would return to bed in order to properly get up all over again.


It’s hard to appreciate the overwhelming scale of the Palace of Versailles–and the Sun King wanted everyone to be overwhelmed.


I do better getting off to the side and lingering over some details, like this corner of the Hall of Mirrors.



Images of the Sun King are everywhere.  He could have invented the modern term “self-esteem.”  He famously remarked, “L’Etat, c’est moi,” meaning “The State, it is me.”  That worked out pretty well for him, but not so much for his offspring.

Louis XIV also once remarked, “Apres moi, le Deluge.” That loosely translates as, “After me, all hell breaks loose.”  He had that right.  His descendants managed to hold on to their riches and absolute monarchy for only two generations before the Revolution changed everything.

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

Affordable Europe: La Ferme du Chateau


Over the years I’ve grown more adventurous in places I find to stay.  The internet has made it easier.  When I first started traveling, I used to pore over guidebooks, trying to read between the lines of outdated reviews.  Of course there were rarely pictures.  Now, a huge selection of lodging is easily accessible to anyone with a computer or even a smartphone.  And I haven’t yet even dipped into Airbnb.



A few years ago, I needed a place to stay in Versailles.  You couldn’t drag me back to either of the two places I’d stayed before.  One time, I scored a halfway-decent last-minute rate at the very grand Trianon Palace Hotel.  My room, in a modern annex, was a lot like like an elevator shaft: tall and narrow, cramped, with a sliver of window looking out at the parking lot.  True, there was a luxurious spa with a pool, and the breakfast buffet (included) was spectacular. But I was not sorry to leave. Another time I stayed at one of the better older hotels in town, and found it dated, cramped, noisy, and still pretty expensive.  Plus the employees were surly, even for France.

Third visit was the charm:  I reserved a couple of nights at a 16th-century farmhouse which had been in the same family for several generations. It was only a few minutes’ drive outside Versailles, in the little farming community of Garancieres.
Me, room

I found myself in an enormous room under hand-hewn ancient beams.


There was only one other guest room.  Service was personal and the room had everything I could want.


Breakfast was served in a charming farmhouse parlor. The lovely owners spoke very minimal English, but breakfast was delicious and efficiently served up..  A friendly dog and cat wandered past.  Outside, the air smelled of fresh-mown hay.

I guess I could get used to 5-star hotels, as easily as the next person.  But there are downsides: snooty fellow guests, snooty employees looking for tips, a lot of time spent waiting for waitstaff to get on with the business of feeding impatient tourists like me. When in Versailles, I want to beat the crowds into the palace. I guess folks willing to pay 5-star prices like to linger and enjoy the expensive ambiance.

I just looked up La Ferme du Chateau–it’s still in business, and I’d stay there again in a minute. In fact, maybe I will! Time to start dreaming of France.

A Vegetarian in Paris


In most parts of Europe, it’s a little tricky to be a vegetarian.  This display window in Amsterdam celebrates the joys of pork. My traveling life would be easier if I were a carnivore. I could grab a hot dog anywhere and never slow down.


But in some ways, it’s easier to be a vegetarian in Europe than in the town where I live most of the time. In my Colorado ski-and- ranching town, beef cattle on the hoof turn into beef steaks on the grill when they’re about 18 months old. In these parts, a ranch kid as young as eight commonly chooses and fattens a calf for market for over a year. The child feeds the animal grain and walks it in the fields to develop muscle tissue. In early fall, the child leads the resulting steer, weighing about 1200 pounds, into the show ring at the county fair. The steer wins a ribbon and basks in thunderous applause. Then the child bids a tearful farewell to the animal as it’s sold to the highest bidder.  Local restaurants post photos of the winning animals they’ve purchased. It’s the circle of life here.

I have the greatest respect for ranchers and their traditions. But I just don’t eat meat. When I first moved here, I politely declined a chicken casserole at a community event.  “I’ll just take some rice,” I said. The server gave me a blank look.  “I’m a vegetarian,” I explained.

“But this is chicken!”

“I know,” I said, as people behind me in line fidgeted.  “I don’t eat meat.”

The server was completely mystified.  “But this is chicken!”  She was still shaking her head in disbelief as I walked away with my plate of plain rice.


Obviously I am not much of a foodie, unless being a connoisseur of omelets counts. In Paris, every cafe serves an omelet and no one raises an eyebrow. The humblest establishment can whip up an excellent omelet quickly, and it almost always can be ordered with vegetables.

Ethnic restaurants, Indian or Asian, do have vegetarian items on their menus. But they also tend to have unfamiliar sauces and spices.  I’m reluctant to risk indigestion on a trip. I’m pretty cautious even though the menus are enticing.

So aside from omelets, my fallback, especially in France, is the ever-delicious crepe. In France in particular, entree crepes are made with a substantial buckwheat batter.  They’re called “galettes.” Actually, I’d cheerfully eat galettes or crepes every day if I could.

Crepe with Greens

Crepe with Greens

Crepe with Ratatouille

Crepe with Ratatouille

Of course all these light, healthy meals leave plenty of room for my favorite:

Crepe with Chocolate and Caramel

Crepe with Chocolate and Caramel

In the United States, there was once a chain of restaurants called the Magic Pan which served only crepes.  You could walk in and find all crepes, all the time!  Too bad they’re gone. It’s just one more reason to travel to France every chance I get!


Thoughts of Paris



On this day when enormous crowds are gathering in Paris and other French cities, I’m there in spirit.


I look forward to being in Paris again, as soon as I can get back to one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world.  Paris has seen its share of turmoil over the years.  Cloudy skies will clear.  It seems each generation faces and overcomes new challenges.  I wish Parisians, and citizens of other cities all across France, wisdom and courage in their current crisis.



I am hoping this winter of violence gives way to a springtime of peace, good will and understanding between all people.






A Cradle Fit for a King (or Emperor or Duke)


When Consuelo Vanderbilt did her duty and produced the required “heir and a spare” for the 9th Duke of Marlborough, she rocked her boys in a regal cradle, which is still on view at Blenheim Palace.   Consuelo’s mother, the irrepressible Alva Vanderbilt, wasted no time in ordering this cradle from Italy.  She had moved heaven and earth to marry her very rich daughter to the Duke of Marlborough.  The birth of a male heir insured that the Vanderbilt bloodline would forever have a secure footing in the British aristocracy.

According to a placard about the cradle in Blenheim Palace, it was a near-replica of the one made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s long-awaited heir in 1811. I don’t see much resemblance, though. Consuelo’s cradle is ornate, over-the-top with fanciful figures and gilding. (Actually, a baby being rocked in this cradle would have gone straight over the top and onto the floor–the mattress is even with the sides. If Consuelo actually used it, she must have used it with a lower mattress).



Napoleon II’s cradle is now in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna, because the child’s mother was Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria. It was never actually subjected to a burping, crying child.  It was a ceremonial object–a “throne cradle”– presented to Empress Marie Louise by the City of Paris. This cradle has a distinctly military look. It was fashioned of 280 kg of silver, replete with symbols of power and good government:  horns of plenty, the Roman Capitoline Wolf, a laurel wreath, a crown of stars, and numerous bees. Napoleon the Emperor took the bee as his personal emblem; it was also an old symbol of Paris, indicating diligence. The foot of the cradle has a small eagle; Napoleon II was popularly known as “The Eaglet,” with the hope that he would surpass even the glorious exploits of his father.

Napoleon’s only legitimate son had a short and tragic life.  The Emperor made his son the King of Rome the instant he was born.  Glory did not follow, though. After his father’s abdication in 1814, Napoleon II’s mother was forced to flee home to Austria with her toddler.  She remained married to Napoleon, but never saw him again.  The child died in isolation in Austria, where he had to be kept from the public for fear of his father’s admirers trying to rally around him.  I read somewhere that the unfortunate child’s only companion was a pet bird.  He was a frail, sickly child, kept indoors almost all the time. He died of tuberculosis at age 21.

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Consuelo’s marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough was loveless and unhappy, but her older son, in the fullness of time, became the 10th Duke of Marlborough and her younger son lived out his days as Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Consuelo’s ancestors continue to occupy Blenheim Palace to this day.

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

Happy Birthday, Pablo Picasso!

Today in Paris, the Musee Picasso reopens after five years of turmoil and $60 million in renovation.  It’s the anniversary of the great artist’s birth in 1881. (He would be 133 today!) Francois Hollande, the French President, will attend.  Throngs of art lovers will follow.  I’ll be among them as soon as I can swing a trip to Paris. When I was last in Paris, last spring, I just missed the planned May opening; it was one of many, many dates that came and went with no opening after all.

"Hotel Sale," photo by Beckstet, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

“Hotel Sale,” photo by Beckstet, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

The project was overseen by a distinguished but idiosyncratic Picasso scholar, Anne Baldassari. Five years ago, she was given the responsibility of remodeling the 17th-century mansion in the Marais district of Paris. Her uncompromising vision for the renovation turned a planned two-year project into five long years. The old museum never seemed crowded to me.  Not that many tourists made their way to its imposing gates.  The museum always felt a little damp; after all the “Maris district was once a swamp. It was always a labyrinth of rooms clearly carved out of a very old space never meant for exhibiting art.  But it was always one of my favorite museums. The space seemed appropriate; Picasso spent his entire career working in ancient spaces, both grand and humble.  He spent the years of World War II working tirelessly in studios in Paris, even though he was forbidden to exhibit his work by the occupying Nazis.

Anne Baldassari was dismissed about a year ago, after acrimonious struggles with workers, other administrators, and Picasso heirs.  But her scholarship is still respected; she was invited back to curate part of the hanging of the largest collection of Picasso paintings in the world. The museum houses about 5,000 works. In the old space, only a small fraction could be exhibited at a time. Picasso’s family donated most of these works to the French state after his death, in payment of death taxes.


One of my most unforgettable sights in a museum was not a work of great art; it was a young child crouched on the floor of the Musee Picasso in Paris. As her mother waited nearby, the little girl moved from one Picasso painting to another, intently drawing in a notebook. She was oblivious to anything around her, and people respectfully stood back to let her work.  What she was doing WAS work, not play. Was she a budding genius, or just a kid going through a stage, as kids will? Hard to tell, but I admired her mother for patiently spending the day letting this child pursue her passion.

I think Pablo Picasso would approve.  I hope he enjoys his birthday in his renovated museum!

Beauty and Sadness: the House of Camondo


"Parc Monceau," Gustave Caillebotte, 1877, Public Domain

“Parc Monceau,” Gustave Caillebotte, 1877, Public Domain

The painting above is “Parc Monceau,” by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877. In 1911, Compte (Count) Moise de Camondo built his mansion on the edge of the very elegant Parc Monceau in Paris. The park still looks much the same as it did then, and the house is preserved as though the family had just left. But a visit to the Musee Nissim de Camondo in Paris ends with sobering realities. Newsreels show footage from the First and Second World War, plus some footage of the family members who were swept up in those wars, making this venerable family line extinct.

The Camondo family were prominent in Europe as merchants, bankers and philanthropists beginning in 15th century Spain.  After all Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they settled in Venice, where they prospered. When Austria took over Venice in 1798, they were again forced to relocate.  They went to Istanbul. Eventually, family members made their way to Paris where they already had business interests.  By that time, they had acquired the hereditary title of “Count.”


Moise de Camondo built his dream home. His dream was to live as an aristocrat in the 18th century. His tranquil salons are hushed now; not too many tourists make their way to the Parc Monceau.  In Moise’s day, his rooms were filled with friends, laughter, good conversation and music.


Moise filled his mansion with priceless art and furniture. He also had the very latest in plumbing and fixtures.


Moise’s state-of-the-art kitchen produced fabulous meals served on museum-quality china.

Nissim 4

But this idyllic life did not last long. Moise’s only son, Nissim, volunteered as combat pilot when World War I broke out. He was killed in action. When Moise died in 1935, he named the mansion for his only son and left it to be opened as a museum of 18th century decorative arts.

There was still plenty of money left over after Moise’s death for his daughter, Beatrice de Camondo.  She was a busy socialite. She saw no reason to change her life even as World War II began; like so many others, she apparently believed her family’s wealth and titled status would protect her.  Sadly, Beatrice, her two children and her husband were deported to Auschwitz between 1943 and 1945.  They were never seen again.

The mansion built in 1911 by Moise de Camondo still stands as he left it, a beautiful but melancholy sight in Paris.


My Own Private Odalisque

"La Grande Odalisque," Ingres, 1814, Public Domain

“La Grande Odalisque,” Ingres, 1814, Public Domain

I have a special fondness for a particular painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris: “La Grande Odalisque,” painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1814.  The original painting was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples. (Early Popes invented “nepotism,” installing their nephews as Cardinals.  But Napoleon I took nepotism many steps further, installing family members on thrones all over Europe during the ten-year period when he was Emperor).

There is something a little off-kilter about this image.  Scientific analysis provided the reason, shortly after the painting first appeared in public: too much backbone. The painter Ingres defied all the known laws of anatomy and classical beauty in order to create a romanticized exotic image from an imagined Sultan’s harem. In order to enhance the sensuous curves of the woman’s body, Ingres painted this lady with at least five extra vertebrae. I guess she is alluring, if a little disconcerting. If you ask me, she looks quite a bit like a weasel.

Photo by Keven Law, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike2.0

Photo by Keven Law, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike2.0

I prefer my own Odalisque, a lady I rescued from a garage sale one fall afternoon.


The artist who painted this very good copy was one M. Feste, signed in red in the corner. The copy shows just the Odalisque’s head and shoulder. I found her canvas leaning against a wall, in danger of being stepped on. My private Odalisque doesn’t suffer the indignity of having a ridiculously elongated backside. Now she just gazes calmly back over her shoulder at anyone entering my bathroom, confident in her exotic beauty.

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