Abundance of art in Paris

From markets to museums, Paris overflows with abundance. In the markets, myriad vegetables, fruits, fishes, cheeses, meats, and spices inspire creativity in the kitchen and on the plate.

Marché couvert Batignolles, 17th arr.

Marché couvert Batignolles, 17th arr.


Shops brim with fashion to spark even a slob’s sense of style. Museums present a banquet of history, science, culture, and art to gorge upon.

And so, while exploring la Nouvelle Athènes neighborhood in the 9th arr., I come upon the Musée National Gustave Moreau, the painter’s former house and studio that he left to the state along with some 1,200 paintings and 10,00 drawings, many of which are on display. Truly an abundance. But M. Moreau? I’m not very familiar with his art, though I recall he is not widely and wildly favored by modern critics. Do I have that right? It begins to rain. Suddenly this quiet museum seems the perfect refuge, and I step inside.

The lesson learned from this impromptu visit? Abundance creates interest and respect. The full record of an artist’s life, sincere vision, and works is an inspiration. Exploring the shear volume generates awe. During his lifetime, 1826-1898, Moreau had times of fame and acceptance as well as periods of harsh criticism, termed an eccentric by some and falling out of regard in the first half of the 20th century. Retrospectives in the ’60s brought renewed interest. According to Laura Morowitz writing in The Art Bulletin in 1999: “Exactly where Moreau fits in, and his real place in art history, is as difficult to determine in 1999 as it was in 1899. Perhaps our only safe judgment is to agree with the critic Theophile Gautier, writing a century and a half ago, that ‘…his work stands in singular isolation, and whether it pleases or not, one has to reckon with it.”

So, reckon I did, circulating through his house and studio, examining the paintings and poring through the hundreds of drawings on display. In the days since, I’ve read up on Moreau and his influences (Renaissance art, Persian, Indian, and Japanese prints, mythology and mysticism), his friends (Edgar Degas and Eugene Delacroix among others), and his students (including Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse at the Academie des Beaux-Art).

In the museums of Paris, abundance breeds interest and opens new doors.

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Hesiod and the Muses, 1860

Hesiod and the Muses, 1860


The Unicorns, 1885

The Unicorns, 1885

The Daughters of Thespius, 1853

The Daughters of Thespius, 1853


The Return of the Argonauts, 1890-97

The Return of the Argonauts, 1890-97


The Unicorn, 1885

The Unicorn, 1885


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Next stop: Paris

I reluctantly leave beautiful Villefranche-sur-mer…but it’s time to try out my fledgling French language skills in the big city. My apartment in Paris is on the Right Bank, a few blocks from the Gare Saint-Lazare train station. During past trips to Paris, I have stayed on the Left Bank, so this is new territory to explore.

My apartment windows look out on a courtyard. I hear French voices and smell fish cooking.
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The decor includes pillows with a welcome reminder of my dachshunds back home. What a funny coincidence.
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Two kinds of people

Perhaps it means I’m cautious, or contemplative, or earth-bound. You see, I prefer the beach to the boat and the valley to the mountain top. I like to walk the shoreline, watch the light change the colors of the sea and feel the force of the waves battering the rocks, much more than I enjoy sailing on a boat looking back at the land. Exploring the craggy coastline below or relaxing in the cafe at sunset suits me.

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I also much prefer standing knee-deep in wildflowers in a mountain meadow, gazing up at the clouds drifting across the mountain peaks, rather than perching atop the mountain high above, scanning the patchwork of land and the ant-like cattle grazing. Top of the Eiffel Tower or down below peering up through the iron latticework? You guessed it: below looking up. Beach or boat? What kind of person are you?
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A puzzle of words

This language study is a puzzle of words and structures, strung together like beads on a string. Beautiful, foreign beads. We students sit in silly desks, the same sort I sat in during high school. We grown-ups from all over the world try to please our teachers. Follow the rules. Line up for lunch.

Now back in my studio apartment, it is evening. Just me and my thoughts, gentle and vague: the shape of my wine glass, the color of the wine, the smell from the restaurants just outside, the evening sun on the pale orange walls and green shutters. The warm, dark night is approaching. And soon I will have a new morning with new words.
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Epiphany redux

Just as a place will always be home, no matter how ordinary, even drab, certain places on this earth will be magical. These places, usually from one’s youth, exist in a town or city or country setting that we visited and it was as if the sun cut through on a cloudy day and the world is illuminated in all its splendor. We suddenly know: “So this is beauty! This is why I am alive! It is for this.”

Have you experienced such a time and place? A first glimpse of the seashore? A first stroll down Fifth Avenue? A first visit to the symphony?

My mother-in-law spent her childhood on a small, hard-scrabble farm in the middle of Kansas during the Depression. Winters were cold and the summers, for her, worse: scorching hot and humid. The kind of weather we know so well in the Midwest, a steam bath of heat not relieved by sundown and, of course, back then unmitigated by air-conditioning. The summer she turned 16, she was invited to work on a relatives berry farm near Greeley, Colorado.

Bam.

Warm, dry mountain air and cool nights that required a blanket. The grass stayed green all summer, not scorched brown and desolate. I’m quite sure that the blood of her Swiss immigrant grandparents awakened — these places of epiphany may very well be our DNA stirring to life. Colorado, just a state away, was now her magical place. One-week summer vacations and, finally, the place she retired.

Epiphany can be a sudden, intuitive insight into the reality of life–that it is glorious.

Two places on this earth will always be magical to me: coastal California and France. As a child in the first and a young woman in the second, I intensely experienced the sublime. In California I rode salty waves on a boogie board, ate soft-serve ice cream on the warm sand, and was happier than I had ever been. Ever. In France, well, I’m hardly the first: the food, the architecture, the art, the people. I’ve been to many stunning places since, but those were the first two times that I fell madly in love with life.

You don’t forget. If you are lucky you return again and again.

When I was 44 and took a summer off to write, I went to Central California.

And now I go to France. I will study the language and write.