Paris and Those Who Love It
Do you remember that movie “Midnight in Paris,” where the hero found a way to step back in time to Paris in the 1920s? Then he met someone in the 1920s who wanted to go back to the 1870s! I would have a hard time choosing between the two. The 1870s in Paris was a time of unprecedented artistic ferment, as Robin Oliveira amply demonstrates in her book “I Always Loved You,” about the relationship between painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.
Paris has always had a magnetic attraction for Americans, and Mary Cassatt was by far from the only one who made her way there. A book that lovingly documents this phenomenon in the 19th century is David McCullough’s 2011 “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.”
If you’ve read anything by McCullough (I think my favorite book of his is “John Adams”) you know that he can bring history alive like no one else. In this book he writes about the amazing flood of Americans who travelled to France from 1830 to 1870. Artists, writers, painters and doctors braved the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to visit Paris. May I just say that getting to Paris in those days was a far more arduous journey than it is now.
The interesting part of this phenomenon is the sheer range of these American citizens: James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson were just some of the writers who decamped to Paris. ; Samuel F.B. Morse observed the French system of semaphores to communicate, and it helped him conceive the telegraph. Doctors went to Paris to study partially because it was the only place where they could study the female anatomy – it was illegal for male doctors to examine female patients in this country! All these visits played out against a backdrop of political turmoil and even a war (The Franco-Prussian War).
I just realized that “John Adams” also has a story of an American visiting Paris: John Adams himself, who was sent to France to try to get French support for the Revolutionary War. He had a hard time; way too blunt and straightforward for the French. However his son, John Quincy Adams, who accompanied him, got a splendid education in the French schools.
A book that more directly concerns Paris and artists is “Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet” by Otto Friedrich. Several chapters in this book are devoted to women in Eduard Manet’s life – Berthe Morisot, his mistress, as well as the woman who modeled for his painting “Olympia,” which scandalously painted a Paris prostitute in the altogether, wearing nothing but a ribbon and a broach around her neck, lounging on a divan and looking completely ok with it. This book vividly portrays the flowering of talent and the decadence of this period, not to mention the hardships suffered by Parisians after the Franco-Parisian War. One reviewer called this book a “19th century Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Another nonfiction book that chronicles the Impressionists in detail is 2006’s “The Private Lives of the Impressionists” by Sue Roe. “The sunny, beachy, wine-soaked world which Manet, Monet, Renoir and the rest portrayed turns out to be the one in which they largely lived themselves,” wrote one reviewer (The Guardian). One aspect of the ire directed at the Impressionists was that they painted everyday people: house girls, barmaids, and in Degas’ place, the dancing girls who were virtually sold by their parents into the service of the ballet. Others, like Cassatt, took portrait painting out of high-class drawing rooms and into the world of the middle class family. This is a group biography and follows a number of the painters. It’s interesting that this group was comprised of very distinct and often eccentric individuals, but they were able to unite in the service of rebelling against the French art establishment.
Finally, I want to mention Susan Vreeland’s novel “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” which is the story of Renoir’s famous painting of the same name. What Renoir goes through to assemble the models for this painting! Not to mention the expense of paying them and feeding them for eight Sundays, never mind the cost of paint. This novel, based on the real people assembled for his famous painting, is an inside look at the creative process. Vreeland loves Renoir, and it shines through in this book.