Category Archives: Paris Sights

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  When I first started traveling, I used to pore over guidebooks, trying to read between the lines of outdated reviews.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.

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!




Nelie’s Chapel


Self Portrait of Nelie Jacquemart, Public Domain

Self Portrait of Nelie Jacquemart, Public Domain

When Nelie Jacquemart-Andre’s colorful life ended in 1912, she was buried according to her wishes in the exquisite 12th-century Chapelle-Sainte-Marie on the grounds of her historic but somewhat modest chateau, the Abbaye Royale de Chaalis.  The chapel was built during the reign of France’s only sainted King, St. Louis. He used to worship there when he visited the monks in the Abbey. Nelie had donated the chateau, the chapel, the grounds, her Parisian mansion, and her priceless art collection to the Institut de France, and her homes were immediately opened as museums.

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In gratitude, the Institut commissioned a bronze effigy which shows Nelie half-reclining, with her painter’s palette, in the chapel.


She rests beneath a beautiful ceiling painted by the great fresco artist Primaticcio. His most famous works grace the Palace of Fontainebleau, home of French kings through the centuries. What was good enough for several dynasties of French royalty was good enough for Nelie.


I do wish that with all their money and influence, Nelie and her husband Edouard Andre had delved into the exciting art appearing within their own lifetimes.  Their collections would only be enhanced now by including Monet, Manet, Cassat, and others in that innovative group.  But Nelie and Edouard were intent on preserving great art of the past, and their accomplishments were stellar.

Some people dream of founding a dynasty. Nelie had no children.  Her dream was to welcome generations of art lovers to her homes after she was gone.  I think she deserves to rest and dream and welcome visitors underneath a masterpiece. I’m going to leave her there for awhile, after spending quite a lot of time writing about her life and her collections. Rest in peace, Nelie!

Interested in previous posts featuring Nelie Jacquemart-Andre, her life and legacy? They are at:…e-epoque-lives/




Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun: Painter and Survivor


"Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat," Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1782, Public Domain

“Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat,” Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1782, Public Domain

Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun, in the self-portrait above, could be mistaken for a conventional 18th century woman, getting ready to pursue a conventional pastime like painting flowers.  But underneath the modest smile lurked talent, ambition, grit and a fierce determination to survive and thrive. She lived  through turbulent times when many others in her position lost their heads–literally. As a protege and friend of Marie Antoinette, Elisabeth adroitly escaped the horrors of the French Revolution, and even made the political turmoil work in her favor.

As a talented teenager, Elisabeth began painting portraits of society people, helped by her father, a fan painter, and later other teachers who recognized her talent. An important benefactor was Louise de Bourbon, wife of the Duke of Orleans. Early in Elisabeth’s career, everything in her studio was confiscated by the authorities–because she didn’t have a license to paint!  (In modern times, we often think our world is over-regulated. But at least in most places, being a starving artist does not require a government license). She applied for membership in the Academie de Saint Luc, and was somehow admitted.  It sounds to me like they didn’t realize they were dealing with a young girl. Maybe she just used her initials when she submitted paintings for approval.

"Marie Antoinette," Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1783, Public Domain

“Marie Antoinette,” Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1783, Public Domain

Her marriage helped her career.  At age 20, she married Jean-Baptist-Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer.  His grandfather had been the first Director of the French Academy under Louis XIV, the Sun King. Soon Elisabeth was painting Marie Antoinette and her family members–about 30 royal family portraits in all.

When the French Revolution broke out, Elisabeth decamped to safer surroundings. She worked for several years in Russia, Italy, and Austria. Eventually, she was allowed to return to France while Napoleon I was Emperor. She continued to paint well into old age, once causing a minor scandal by painting a self-portrait with her teeth showing.  This was simply not done–probably for good reason, since most people had terrible teeth in those times. She died in 1842, at the ripe old age of 86. She left behind over 600 portraits, plus 200 landscapes and history paintings, which now appear in museums and private collections all over Europe and in the United States.

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

Nelie’s Chateau

Most of us can only dream of owning a chateau. Nelie Jacquemart-Andre was able to hang her hat in a chateau, late in life. When Edouard Andre died in 1894 and left Nelie Jacquemart-Andre a widow, she faithfully continued to fill out his collections. In 1902, Nelie was traveling in the Orient, scouting for antiquities, when she received word that a chateau just outside Paris was for sale. She dropped everything and rushed back to France.


This was not just any chateau. It was the Abbaye Royale de Chaalis, and she had spent a good part of her childhood and young adulthood there. The guidebook above, new since the last time I visited, gave details about Nelie’s life that I had always wondered about. It turns out Nelie was not universally admired. The Comptesse Jean de Pange is quoted in the guidebook as saying that aristocrats used to mock the “plump, impulsive and very idiosyncratic little woman” who swept in and bought herself a fabulously historic chateau.  (I sympathize with Nelie. Rich people always manage to annoy somebody).

Nelie was a talented painter even as a child, and she was taken on as a sort of protege of the chateau owners at the time, particularly Rose Pamela Vatry.  Nelie was given art instruction, a studio was built for her, and she attended soirees packed with the aristocracy, illustrious artists, musicians and writers, and even with royalty.  The young woman had a particular flair for portraits, and she obtained many commissions.  One of these commissions, to paint the rich young banker Edouard Andre, eventually led to her brilliant marriage.

But Nelie was always a bit of a handful.  Her patroness complained that she never even used her painting studio, she only appeared at dinner when the company was glittering enough, and she seemed more interested in social climbing than in painting.

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The Chaalis estate had begun as an abbey in the Middle Ages. It gained great wealth and power due to royal patronage and extensive rich lands. In the years 1255-1260, an exquisite small chapel was built, during the reign of St. Louis, the king who became a full-fledged saint.  He used to retreat to the abbey and live for awhile as a monk when he needed a break from ruling France. That chapel has been restored and is the best part of the chateau estate.



In the 1700s, the medieval buildings occupied by the religious order were rebuilt, and a little later the monks departed.  Their cells in the main building became guest rooms for a succession of owners who set about making the “abbey” into a “chateau.”



By this time, the enormous main church had become a picturesque ruin, and so it remains.

When the entire estate went up for sale in 1902, Nelie snapped it up at a bargain price.  I gather that she felt she had been treated as a sort of poor relation;  this was payback.  She set about installing her own magnificent collections, especially of antiquities.  She also, according to the guidebook, hoped to marry a neighbor at nearby Chantilly, the Prince de Broglie.  That never happened.

On her death, Nelie left both her Parisian mansion and her country chateau to the Institut de France, and both were immediately opened to the public as museums.

The Abbaye Royale de Chaalis is close to CDG Airport, making it an easy stop for drivers.  It’s near the pretty and walkable town of Senlis, with its own historic sights.  Chaalis is covered by the Paris Museum Pass, unlike the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. Indoor photos are restricted.  But the new guidebook is a great read. If anyone other than Nelie Jacquemart-Andre had bought the property, it would probably be a golf club with condos today.  Instead, it’s a permanent treasury of art and history, open to all.

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

An Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun Portrait of A Polish Countess: “Pretty as an Angel, But Most Stupid”


The artist had a low opinion of her subject; hopefully she kept her thoughts to herself and concentrated on her painting. Nelie Jacquemart-Andre must have liked this portrait a lot; she hung it in her boudoir, now a room in the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, close to her luxurious bathtub (Nelie loved soaking in the tub). The subject is the Countess Skavronskaia, wife of the Polish Ambassador to Italy.  The artist is Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun, who gained fame and fortune as the official painter for Marie Antoinette and her gilded circle of friends. The artist fortunately left France just before the French Revolution.  Her reputation and talent led her through the courts of Europe.

During her stay in Naples in 1790, Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun painted this young countess.  The artist remarked in her journal, “The Countess was as mild and pretty as an angel,” but “she had no education, and her conversation was most stupid.”  Still, the artist, like everyone else, fell under the irresistible charm of this sweet young woman.  That charm shines through the portrait. Her lovely face is an island of warmth in the painting, all cool blues and greens. Is that a mirror in her hand? The artist must have allowed herself this small comment on her subject. Today’s equivalent might be a supermodel with no thought other than her own beauty. But sheer niceness always counts for something.

There’s a better image of the Countess on the website of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre at

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

Sarah Bernhardt, Sculptor


At the “Paris 1900” exhibit this past spring, I was not surprised to see theatrical posters featuring the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, “The Divine Sarah.”  She was a celebrated–and often notorious–figure of the Belle Epoque. She was thrown out of the Comedie-Francaise as a very young woman, for slapping another actress.  But she lived to return in triumph, giving spectacular performances to rave reviews. The venerable Comedie-Francaise was not big enough for her talents, though.  She founded her own theaters in several locations and traveled the world performing.

Acting was not big enough for her talents, either. Who knew that  “The Divine Sarah” was an accomplished sculptor, when she wasn’t onstage playing Phaedra–or Hamlet?  She created around 50 sculptures, starting when she was 25. She painted, too.


The Paris 1900 exhibit contained a sculpture that Sarah Bernhardt actually created for the 1900 Exposition held on the banks of the Seine. It’s titled “Une Algue,” which I think means “An Algae.”  It certainly looks like one, lovingly rendered in bronze.  Where did she find the time?

Sarah Bernhardt, Public Domain

Sarah Bernhardt, Public Domain

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


The Golden Age is Now

"Rouen Cathedral," Claude Monet, 1894, Public Domain

“Rouen Cathedral,” Claude Monet, 1894, Public Domain

Nelie and Edouard Jacquemart-Andre only pursued art from the 18th century and earlier. Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, and Morisot were all active in the 1890s and later.  Presumably Nelie and Edouard agreed with the conventional wisdom that the Impressionists were a flash in the pan, destined for the dustbins.

On the other hand, Nelie and Eduoard bought for the future; they always intended their home to end up as an art museum.  And each had a keen eye for a bargain. They could have picked up Impressionist pieces for a song, and at least stored them away in a closet in case they ever amounted to anything.

Today, arcoss the Seine at the Musee d’Orsay, people shuffle through packed galleries and stand shoulder to shoulder to gaze at priceless Impressionist paintings.  The Musee Jacquemart-Andre is never crowded; most tourists never set foot in it. Nelie and Edouard had impeccable taste for the treasures of the past, but they must have closed their minds to the artistic innovations going on right under their noses.


The glorious Tiepolo fresco “Henri III Being Welcomed to the Contarini Villa” was commissioned by Contarinis 200 years after the historical event, to commemorate one of the proudest and happiest events in their family’s history.


When Nelie and Edouard installed the Tiepolo fresco 200 years later in their Winter Garden, they were also gazing backward into a golden time they might have preferred to their own time.


The tourist wandering the Musee Jacquemart-Andre today is gazing backward through the Parisian Belle Epoque of the 1890s, at a fresco painted in 1745 to depict a historical event from 1574. Much as I love history, I do try to live in the moment. What am I overlooking in my own contemporary world?

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