Everyone loves Paris, right? So we are seldom alone while enjoying the beautiful sights of this city. We drown in other tourists as we swarm to the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Versailles — especially in the summertime and early autumn. That is why my weekday trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte was the happiest of surprises. I took the train from the Gare de Lyon to the town of Melun, about 50 km southeast of Paris, then a taxi to the château. (Either arrange for a return pickup with your driver or later ask someone in the museum shop to call one.) Upon arrival, I stepped out into the mid-17th century and, without being jostled by a herd of tourists, my imagination was free to ramble.
Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finances for Louis XIV, called upon the skills of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape gardener André Le Nôtre, and painter Charles Le Brun to collaborate on this magnificent structure. The story is told that when Fouquet held a party for the king, the opulence of the château outshone the king’s own magnificence, and moved Louis to arrest Fouquet and confiscate his riches. Scholars say, however, that Fouque had already fallen into disfavor, the king’s attitude egged on by the up-and-coming Jean-Baptiste Colbert who had accused Fouquet of embezzling money from the crown. The king seized almost all of the château’s treasures and sent the trio of Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun to oversee the expansion of the gardens and palace of Versailles.
Over the many years, the château changed hands several times, before becoming abandoned for 30 years, falling into disrepair. In 1874, Alfred Sommier bought the estate at public auction and began a labor of love to restore the gardens and buildings — a work carried on by his children.
The original furnishings and tapestries are mostly gone. But what is left is the marvelous architecture and decorative painting, an expansive space without the lines and crowds, I feel as if I’m discovering each corridor and room for myself. The adventure is intimate and personal, as I wander lost in thought.
See for yourself. (And look for Fouquet’s family emblem, the squirrel. Their motto: Quo non ascendet…”What heights will he not sale?”)
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.
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.
I had never been to Le Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides because I’m not particularly interested in military history. However, I’ve now read all of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire cycle and am half-way through Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series, of which Mr. Martin says “This is the original Game of Thrones.” Rather than dry history-book recitations, these books flesh out the warfare and conflict with true-to-life characters and page-turning drama. I have really tried to like the Game of Thrones HBO series, but after the wildly intricate details and plot lines in the novels, the TV depiction is far too abbreviated for me. The casting is fine, and Michele Clapton’s costumes are gorgeous, but I prefer the world of Winterfell, King’s Landing, and the Wall that Martin’s words conjured in my own imagination.
Steeped as I am in medieval warfare and intrigue, fantasy and historical, I am now primed for a visit to the halls of armor and weaponry. Le Musée de l’Armée is a good archive to enhance the already vivid scenes of my imagining. As with any artifacts, the “realness” gets under my skin. Someone wore this suit of armor. This very one! Fought and killed in it. Felt the weight of helm and cuirass, the viselike pinch of metal joints gouging the skin, and heard the crash of war hammer slammed against metal and the screams of battle. The men themselves were weapons, suited for death.
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.
Until a year ago, I owned a large house with seven bedrooms, a living room, two family rooms, a breakfast room, kitchen, four full bathrooms, two half bathrooms, a two-car garage, and an attached shed. Older, rambling houses such as this are common here in the Midwest, dating from the 1910s and 1920s when people had big families and often live-in maids and cooks. When my husband and I bought this old house, in need of repair and TLC, our two children were young — and we were young — and it felt like a fine adventure to lead our lives in this large space. And it was. We had room to spare for treasure hunts, visits from friends and relatives, sleep-overs, birthday parties. We had one family room devoted to messy art projects and rambunctious playtime.
But here’s the thing: I never felt as if I truly owned the place. I felt like a visitor. A piece of dandelion fluff floating from room to room. Only since we sold the big house and moved to a small rental (with three small bedrooms, a living room/dining room, and a kitchen) do I realize that I was born to inhabit small spaces. I don’t know how else to explain it, but that large house was just too much space for me to possess.
The funny thing is that my dachshund felt the same way. At our old house, he was never happy hanging out in the large backyard. But he will stay for hours outside in the tiny yard of our new house. I think he feels that he can “own” this space — patrol it and control it.
Now in my small studio rental apartment in Villefranche with a bed nook, sofa, small dining table and tiny kitchen, I am once again realizing the joys of small spaces.
Giving up the big house that I loved but never truly possessed has given me the money to travel to this new small space where I study, write, drink wine, entertain a few friends, and eat goodies from the market and boulangerie.
“If someone loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened…And you think that is not important!”
From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It’s particularly beautiful, of course, in French.
“–Si quelqu’un aime une fleur qui n’existe qu’à un exemplaire dans les millions et les millions d’étoiles, ça suffit pour qu’il soit heureux quand il les regarde. Il se dit: ‘Ma fleur est là quelque part…’ Mais si le mouton mange la fleur, c’est pour lui comme si, brusquement, toutes les étoiles s’éteignaient! Et ce n’est pas important ça!”
I’ve had this same thought back home, lying outside at night in the hammock, wind in the trees, the leaves a dark blur while above me the countless stars flicker. How different must life be for city-dwellers who are never outside in the true dark of night, alone with the vast dome of sky. After all, for centuries human experience was fashioned beneath this same sky, its constant presence evoking awe, fear, and thoughts of the eternal. Isn’t it important to be regularly stunned by the wonderment of the universe beyond?