Category Archives: Historical People

Historical people relevant to Paris or French history

The Pantheon, Marie Curie, and St. Genevieve

Pantheon exterior, Pantheon, Paris

Pantheon exterior (courtesy: Wikipedia)

THE PANTHEON : In search of notable Parisian women, we visited the Pantheon, the Church-turned-Mausoleum-and-Back-and-Forth. Best to think of it like Westminster Abbey in London: a public space that has religious threads and history. The Pantheon is home of many French luminaries; we were interested in the sarcophagus of Marie Curie and the huge mural paintings about St. Genevieve, the Patron Saint of Paris.

MARIE CURIE: Although she died in 1934, she wasn’t interred in the Pantheon until 1995.  The guard told us the the enormous underground marble crypt where the luminaries of France are interred closed at 6:00 so we hustled. Almost not fast enough.

Marie (Sklodowska) Curie won not one, but two, Nobel Prizes. In 1903 she, her husband Pierre, and the French physicist Henri Bequerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity, during the course of which Marie and Pierre discovered the elements polonium and radium. Husband Pierre, considered one of the major players in founding modern Physics, died in 1905 at the early age of 47 from a horse-carriage accident. Marie lived on another 28 years.

The practical benefit of the Curies’ research was almost immediate:  in the medical field,  x-rays could used to improve surgery.  In World War I, Marie Curie equipped French ambulances with x-ray equipment and drove them herself to the front lines, and trained doctors and nurses in the use of the equipment. In 1911, Marie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for further work in the field of radioactivity . Marie Curie died in 1934, aged 67, from leukemia caused by exposure to radiation. In her day, no one realized the kind of safety precautions necessary to deal with radioactive material.

Marie Curie’s life and family illustrate the often close circles of work and marriage in French science.  Marie’s brother-in-law, Jacques, was a physicist, and her father- in-law, Eugene, a medical physician. Her daughter Irene won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, with her husband Frederick Joliot-Curie, for figuring out how to turn her parents’ discovery of natural radioactive elements into artificial ones. Radioactive materials for medicine and scientific research could thereby be created quickly, cheaply, and plentifully. Tragically, Irene also died from leukemia,  caused by exposure to radioactive polonium when a capsule of it exploded in her laboratory.

Marie Curie’s granddaughter (Irene’s daughter), Helene Joliot, became a noted nuclear physicist. She married a French nuclear physicist Michel Langevin, whose grandfather (Paul Langevin) had had an affair with the widowed Marie. At the time this had caused a scandal in Paris; Paul Langevin had been one of Pierre Curie’s doctoral students and was married at the time. Marie’s grandson, Pierre Joliot-Curie, is a much-awarded biologist.

Marie’s other daughter, Eve Curie Labouisse, trained as a concert pianist and later as a journalist Eve  married an American and lived in New York, dying in 1987 at the age 102. As a journalist, Eve wrote a long-enduring biography of her grandmother Marie Curie; it was turned into a Hollywood film starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, and thus Marie Curie became even more renowned, among Americans at least, than before.


Death of St Genevieve, wall mural, Pantheon, Jean Paul Laurens

“Death of St. Genevieve” wall mural, the Pantheon, by Jean Paul Laurens

St. Genevieve, the Patron Saint of Paris, was older than Marie Curie by about 1500 years. Genevieve was considered the patron saint of Paris. A pious, ascetic 5th-century nun from Nanterre, she convinced the Parisians  to man-up and not desert their city when Attila threatened it with his Huns in 451 AD. Attila was the one who finally gave up. About 15 years later, another tribe from the east, the Franks, did capture Paris. Genevieve once again stepped forward, this time convincing the conquerors not to starve out the Parisian population. So respected was she by the new rulers that Clovis (Louis), who is considered the founder of the French “nation”, built a church for her. Genevieve was buried there. This church was across the street from the present Pantheon, and after a major reconstruction in the 19th century, is one of the national libraries of France, St. Genevieve’s Library (Ste Genevieve Bibliotheque).

Fast forward about 1500 years:  in the 18th c., King Louis XV fell gravely ill, prayed to her for intercession, and miraculously recovered. In time-honored tradition, the King commissioned a new  monument in her honor, and (only) twenty years later, the cornerstone of today’s Pantheon was laid.  But the French Revolution, in its divorce of church from state, took over the building, and re-consecrated it as the crypt for the “Great Men” –i.e. Leaders of the Revolution, plus Napoleon.  St. Genevieve’s shrine and relics were first transferred to the nearby church St-Etienne-du-Mont, but then in 1793 her poor old bones were put on trial and condemned to public burning, for the crime of participating in “the propagation of error”–i.e., the Catholic religion.  Her ashes were cast into the Seine.

(Today portions of St. Genevieve’s remains are in the church of St-Etienne, the church behind the Pantheon; these were transported from other locations in France.)

Eglise St- Etienne-du-Mont, St. Genevieve, Pantheon, Paris

Eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont, home to St. Genevieve’s remaining remains. (Construction cranes are common sights in Paris.)

But she got back in to the Pantheon: In the later 19th c., the French state decided it was time for a national reconciliation and regeneration. St. Genevieve and what she represented was a key theme of a huge project of wall murals. The imagery of the murals was supposed to meld French national and religious history, showing that they overlapped and were codependent. The great religious figures of French history were to be depicted – St Genevieve, Joan of Arc, St Denis – as well as those secular like Charlemagne and St Louis who had been important in the making of French history.

The mural painters, 40 or so, had the unenviable task of making all the warring political sides of 19th c France happy, the ultra-right  who wanted all traces of the French Revolution eradicated and the ultra-left, who were unhappy to have anything related to the Roman Catholic Church exhibited in a public place, at public expense.  The mural in the photo above is by Jean Paul-Laurens, who ironically held strong republican and anti-Church views. The mural is called “The Death of St. Genevieve”. St. Genevieve on her deathbed, surrounded by the various types of Parisians she had helped, either in her lifetime or through the centuries thereafter, was probably as “safe” a mural topic for the Pantheon as you could find.



St. Chapelle and the Cluny Museum

No visit to Paris is complete without medieval churches and stained glass. Although Notre Dame is the most famous cathedral attraction, it was too dark and crowded for a long visit. Instead we went to St. Chapelle, luckily at a deserted moment. Later, to the Cluny Museum.

The Cluny houses some of the stained glass of St. Chapelle. At St. Chapelle, its grandeur and sense of awe are stunning. At the Cluny, you can get much closer to the stained glass to see the details. The photos below are from both St. Chapelle and the Cluny.

St. Chapelle: an outstanding example of French Gothic architecture, St. Chapelle was built by the 13th century Crusader King, Louis IX, often called “Saint Louis” for his dedication to Christianity and his conception of France (and Paris) as the premier Christian power of Europe.

At the age of 34, Louis personally raised and led the 7th Crusade, of mostly French nobles, to Eqypt. Despite his battlefield courage and saintly leadership of fractious nobles,the Crusade ended in disaster, with long-term financial and political consequences for most of the Christian players involved.  Louis’ wife, who went with him and gave birth to a son, saved the day more than once, while back in Paris his mother kept Louis’ political power and throne intact. The 7th Crusade’s disastrous ending haunted Louis, and 20 years later, he undertook another Crusade. This one did him in, and he died in Tunis at aged 56, along with the son born long before during Louis’ previous crusade.

Louis ruled for 44 years (surely a record in the Middle Ages). During his reign, the religious orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, trade, workers’ guilds, and the arts all flourished. All those  religious fervors, taxable activities, and technical skills enabled Louis to build St.Chapelle, located near Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite.

The Cluny: Located in the 5th district, part of the Cluny is built on fragments of an ancient Roman bath, the Thermes. You can visit the Roman ruins, but even more interesting is the modern use of one of the vast Roman rooms: rows and rows of the sculpted heads of the Biblical Kings of Judah. The Heads were carved in stone in the 13th century for the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The Heads, 28 in all, were trashed during the French Revolution in one of its anti-clerical frenzies, and thrown off their pedestals at Notre Dame (note the smashed faces and missing noses, as the statues toppled head first from their perches). The Heads were thought to have been completely destroyed. But in 1977, by serendipity, 21 of the heads were rediscovered buried underground.

The Heads of the Kings of Judah are part of the Cluny’s permanent collection. As part of its temporary exhibition program, the Cluny was displaying the very moving “Mourners of the Duke of Burgundy.”

The forty Mourners, carved in the  15th century from ivory, were sometimes dignified, sometimes sad,  sometimes comical.

The Cluny has an English language audio tour, somewhat puzzling in its arrangement of topics, and an excellent bookstore and gift shop. It’s in the 5th district, close to Blvd St. Germain, between Blvd St. Michel and Rue St. Jacques. In other words on the critical path to our favorite macaron and chocolate shop, Weiss. Onward!



Off to Versailles.

Getting to Versailles requires deciphering the French train system. You don’t take the Paris Metro, you take the RER C suburban train, but only one of the many that run in the direction of Versailles–the one whose “name” is VICK. The others will branch off to parts unknown before reaching Versailles. And the station you want is Versailles Rive-Gauche, not the other one  also labelled “Versailles.”  Got that? If not, just follow the other tourists and French schoolchildren who seem to know the right train to use and where to disembark after about 45 minutes.

Versailles Chateau, Paris

Ann at the gates of Versailles Chateau, ready to tackle the challenge.

As far as I could tell, Versailles was filled mainly with large Asian tour groups, excited American tourists like us, and French schoolchildren. Americans love France, dating back to the time of the American Revolution, when France supported the colonies against Great Britain. In the 1920’s, John Rockefeller Jr. gave about $20 million dollars to save and renovate Versailles. Other European groups are not so much in evidence at Versailles, probably because France was usually their military opponent and usually they lost, especially under Louis XIV.

For over 150 years (1650-1789) Versailles was the seat of the most charismatic monarchy in Europe, the Bourbons.  Conceived by the Bourbon monarchy as a solution to its political problems, unfortunately the chateau at Versailles and what it represented only added to those problems. It all ended with one of the most dramatic events in French history. In 1789 “the people” of Paris forcibly transported the reigning King, (Louis XVI)  and his Queen (Marie Antoinette) from Versailles to Paris, then to jail, and a few years later to the guillotine. All over Europe, monarchs and their aristocracies quaked at the thought of the power of the French Revolutionists.

The name Versailles comes from the Latin word vertere, “to turn the soil.” In 1600 when the Bourbon monarchy first began to buy the land in this area, Versailles was a prosperous hamlet of 200 peasant families, 12 miles west of Paris. A windmill stood where the chateau now sits.

Over the years, the French Kings, especially Louis XIV, the Sun King, added vast formal gardens with lakes and fountains, a smaller chateau–the Grand Trianon–and a less formal residence, the PetiteTrianon

In building this huge Chateau, Louis XIV was trying to solve the problem of rebellions led by the aristocracy, and so “the court” was required to live at Versailles. This term meant the vast royal entourage and the domestic employees needed to provide for them. No one knows how many aristocrats and their retinue were in the entourage at Versailles, but under Louis XIV probably several thousand.  Astonishingly, and another fatal flaw for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the “court” had grown to  15,000 or so by their reign.  Yes, 15,000 people, all to be cared for. Like a large blocky hotel, Versailles contained over 300 lodging units of various sizes.

Versailles was self-sufficient, providing everything from theatrical staff to police to a judiciary for settling in-house disputes to musicians to numerous comfort-servants such as the cesspool-emptier assigned solely to the royal prince who was next in line for the throne, known as “the dauphin.”  Merchants such as lacemakers who catered to the court were allowed to set up shop inside the palace; appropriately the chateau’s gift shop is now located in their former space.

Rooms were not always nice and comfortable at Versailles. Sanitary facilities, water, heat, and especially private kitchens could be hard to come by.  No wonder many notables preferred their own luxurious town-houses back in Paris.

The Chateau of Versailles: it’s truly grand, and grandiose. Not a square inch of the rooms (those open to the public) lacks gilding, marble, a chandelier dripping with crystal pieces, huge portraits monumental history scenes, or the finest in French fabrics.

The gardens: After several hours in the many gilded, dazzling rooms of the Chateau, our eyes needed something more natural. We braved the cold rain clouds coming our way and ventured into the formal gardens. To the old  gardens and their formally groomed trees and landscape, the curators in 2012 added new bronze sculptures of—TREES, the kind you find growing naturally in a real forest.  Only they aren’t real, they’re sculptures. Amazingly, the “trees”  make the formal gardens, made of natural material but clearly artificially groomed and tamed into geometric shapes, even more interesting.  A stroke of French genius.

Next: to the Grand Trianon: We walked through the gardens and arrived at the Grand Trianon moments ahead of the storm.

Versailles, Grand Trianon, Paris

The entrance to the Grand Trianon is from the rear

Some background: as the Versailles Chateau became a place of political/ court business, a stage to see and be seen, it became less of a royal home. Louis XIV found he needed a private place-i.e. a pleasure palace–for himself. So he built two. Of course. Marly, a few miles away, was for the king and a few intimate friends. The other, on the NW grounds of Versailles itself, was the Grand Trianon, for himself and family.

The Grand Trianon is much lighter in tone than the Chateau–less gilding, greater use of whites and blues–but it’s hardly an informal family home.

It was lovely and above all restful, even in the downpour that finally let loose.

The Petite Trianon:  After the rain stopped, we continued on to the Petite Trianon, famous as Marie Antoinette’s even less formal retreat. To us, it appeared only marginally less formal.

But at the time, the Petite Trianon was considered informal because of its lack of rigid court etiquette. Unfortunately for the future of the Bourbon monarchy, Marie-Antoinette  (and her husband Louis XVI) craved privacy, retreating more and more from the great rooms of the Sun King’s Chateau. Unfortunate because the French equated a royal life lived in public with a morally reputable life, despite any evidence  to the contrary. By hiding from the court and polite society, by seeking out a private life, and by embracing an informal style, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI fundamentally severed the public’s illusions about the divine right of monarchy. Marie-Antoinette even had a set of window mirrors installed so that no one could see into her new, very private boudoir, which of course put the gossip mill into overdrive.

Another storm was approaching just as we ended our tour.  We called it a day, headed for the train, remembering our great adventure (and the treat we had earlier from Angelina’s restaurant in the Chateau).

More on Versailles…

Louis XIII, father of the Sun King Louis XIV, acquired the hamlet of Versailles in the early 1600’s. He had been on a  deer hunt in the area,  liked the land, and bought it for a hunting preserve.

Versailles 1668, painter Patel

Versailles prior to Louis XIV’s building projects

He first built a simple country house, then a medium-sized country chateau in the French fashion of red brick with a blue slate roof.

Louis XIV, Sun King, painter Rigaud

Louis XIV, the Sun King, by Rigaud

But it is Louis XIV that  Americans associate with Versailles, along with Marie Antoinette of 100 years later.




Louis XIV was first brought to Versailles at age 3 but took no interest in his father’s country estate until around 1661, when he was age 25 and had been King for some 18 years.  He decided to use it as a retreat from the official royal country residence at nearby St. Germain-en-Laye, probably to enjoy his extra-marital trysts away from his wife and mother-in-law.  Much more politically shrewd than his fellow European monarchs or even his own aristocracy realized, the young Louis  also realized that by pouring lots ( and never-ending) of money into Versailles he could transform it into a  power statement never before seen in Europe.


Le Notre, Versailles Gardens, Louis XIV

Andre Le Notre

The Sun King’s first great passion were the park and gardens, to which he entrusted the landscape designer Andre Le Notre. So ambitious were their plans that entire villages were forcibly relocated, lest they interfere with the view. Nature was regimented, controlled, and improved upon. Lack water for the many many fountains and gardens? Just divert a river (the River Eure, 52 miles away.)  The terrain became grand outdoor rooms, like some modern Southern California villa featured in “Architectural Digest.


Versailles, Gardens

Gardens of Versailles today

Once the grounds were established, Louis XIV’s publicity machine went into high gear, cranking out enormous royal fetes, with theatricals, fireworks, balls, banquets, and nighttime festivities. Versailles became the talk of Europe.

Who was invited? Not merely former ambassadors and  the high aristocracy of France who preferred Paris, but also nobles from the provinces and the rich burghers of Paris.

Louis XIV next turned his attention to his father’s house. The Sun King thought the new grand park and gardens and fetes deserved an equally grand house, including on-site lodging for lots and lots of the high nobility– a way, it turned out, of completely controlling them.The architect Louis Le Vau was chosen, and he delivered, followed on his death by Jules Mansart.

Colbert, Finance Minister, Louis XIV

Colbert, Louis XIV’s Finance Minister

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis’ unofficial director of government arts  and officially the Finance Minister, began to object to the King’s lavish expenditure on Versailles. Louis had  made an expensive mistake in not tearing down the old house first, leaving two distinct architectural styles that were hard to integrate. Colbert thought all this effort was at the expense of improvements to the Louvre (at that time a  palace) in Paris. After all, Frenchmen considered the Louvre to be the seat of the monarchy. But Colbert died, and with him,  any fiscal restraints upon Louis. Versailles became the “architectural monster” Colbert had feared, continually demanding money to harmonize the original house withthe new enormous wings, like “a little man with big arms and a large head,” as Colbert once put it. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

Eventually, in 1682, and twenty years after he started his Versailles project, Louis officially abandoned Paris as the place where the monarch and court could be found and moved the court to Versailles; it became  the one and only seat of power. The deal was sealed.

The Chateau of Versailles was like a small town. Visitors today don’t see this, as much of Versailles has been destroyed, sold off, or vastly altered since the French Revolution of 1789. To accommodate “the court,” Versailles had kitchens, stables, lodgings for courtiers, multiple wings, hidden courts, private rooms and very very private rooms behind the public rooms that hardly anyone knew about. It was bigger than what’s inside the gates today:  In the 18th c Versailles was the focus of a much larger complex scattered around the grounds and the town of Versailles.

Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France

Marie-Antoinette, age 20, by J-B Dagoty (1775)

Marie-Antoinette is the most well-known 18th c. person to dwell at Versailles. Her husband, Louis XVI, was the great-great-great-grandson of the Sun King, and a pretty timid guy, it appears.

Charming and graceful, she partied; he piddled with  small stuff like his lock-making workshop.





Louis XVI

Louis XVI, the last Bourbon monarch of Versailles



Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette held court less and less often; in mid-week, Versailles was deserted. With today’s hordes of visitors, this is hard to imagine.




Petite Trianon

In 1775, seeking more privacy, Marie-Antoinette persuaded her husband to give her the secluded house in the royal gardens known as the Petite Trianon. (“Petite” being  a relative term when it comes to the Bourbon monarchs.) Other members of Louis’ close family built similar rural idylls close to the palace, so in itself her request  was not  unusual. However, as  Queen  she installed unheard-of  mechanical devices to shut out the world–at Trianon, a system of mirrors that rose from the beneath the floor to cover the windows; a grotto with a mysterious lookout point;  in the palace itself a set of complex, unusual inside locks for her two bedroom chambers which she  operate  from her bed.

Marie-Antoinette was also fatally informal. She gave mixed signals about compliance with the ancient “etiquette of decency”, still in place, especially for the royal females. The rules for royals required two ladies-in-waiting  to follow a Queen around at all times to protect her virtue. A Queen was never to eat with men, even the King’s brothers, in the King’s absence. Royal females were segregated from nonroyal men at meals, even when the King was present. A gentleman was never to put his hand on the back of a woman’s armchair. For aristocratic women, adultery was not forbidden but unfaithfulness to one’s husband (in public or in politics) certainly was. For females of royal blood, adultery could be treasonous because future offspring might not be the King’s and overturn the foundation of dynastic succession. Not the kind of rules that Marie-Antoinette’s liked.

The Bourbon monarchy fell during the French Revolution, the people carted Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI and their children off to Paris in 1789, and in January 1793 the King and Queen were beheaded.

What happened to Versailles after the monarchy came tumbling down? The new republican government didn’t quite know what to do with this white elephant.

Versailles, Fountain of Latana

Fountain of Latana

Obviously it did not fit in with the conception of the new French state, now shed of its monarchy. Would  Versailles be demolished for the value of its building materials, as happened to many monuments and buildings of the ancient Roman Empire?

The Republic decided to keep all the old royal residences, but sold off parts of the land. The Grand Canal was drained and turned into pasture. Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon was turned into an inn by a maker of lemonades.Then the Republic truly started to run short of money, as it fought aggressive foreign wars against Austria and England; a massive sell-off of the possessions and furnishings of Versailles began, many of them landing in English and German aristocratic stately homes.

Versailles, Hall of Mirrors

The Hall of Mirrors

Napoleon, taking over the French Revolution for his own ends,  did not move into the Versailles Chateau though he had some rooms at the Grand Trianon,  and so it is not associated with the Bonapartist dynasty.

After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, Versailles drifted in purpose until it was turned into a patriotic and military museum. One of the few rooms  that remained in its original form was the Hall of Mirrors.


Kaiser Wilhelm, Hall of Mirrors, 1871

Proclamation of King of Prussia as the Emperor of the German Empire, in the Hall of Mirrors (1871)

The Hall of Mirrors became a symbol of French nationalism in the later 19th c. In 1871, the Germans defeated the French in the Franco-Prussian War. The Germans made the French sign the preliminary treaty of surrender  at Versailles and in the Hall of Mirrors  proclaimed the Prussian King “Kaiser” ( Kaiser Wilhelm of the newly-formed German Empire).



Treaty of Versailles 1919, Hall of Mirrors, World War I

Treaty of Versailles 1919, signed in the Hall of Mirrors

The French didn’t forget this humiliation, and returned the favor with the defeat of the Germans and their allies in World War I. Thus we Americans remember the Hall of Mirrors as the place where  “the Treaty of Versailles,” was signed.




By the 20th century, French attitudes toward the monarchy had come full-circle, and Versailles as the representation of absolute monarchy was no longer an embarrassment. With massive recent funding from the French state, Versailles  resurrected.The gardens of  Louis XIV, the absolute monarch Sun-King and hated by his fellow Europeans, have been restored. They  are now lucrative photo-shoots for high-fashion folks like Karl Lagerfeld.

Mittal Wedding Feast, Versailles

Private Wedding Feast at Versailles 2004

For the interior, French curators aim to re-create the palace as it looked in 1789, the eve of Louis XVI’s and Marie Antoinette’s departure for Paris and the guillotine. To fund this vast task, the restored interior of Versailles is available for hire as an international luxury brand, shown by the sumptuous wedding feast thrown there by the Indian steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal, in 2004.







Napoleon: Seeing History the Way the French Do ( or Might)

Nancy: despite the rain, off I went to Napoleon’s Tomb and the 5 Army Museums.

Napoleon, David, Crossing the  Alps

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by J-L David

What could be more French than visiting the tomb and other monuments to French war dead? Ann, ever adventuresome, ventured along.


Napoleon’s Tomb and the Army Museums are inside a complex started by Louis XIV, the Sun King, known collectively as “Les Invalides.”






Paris, Dome church, St.Louis des Invalides church, Invalides, Napoleon's Tomb, Army Museum

Model of Dome Church, St.-Louis des Invalides Church, and Army Museums

First built was a long narrow church, St-Louis des Invalides, (in the adjacent model, it’s to the left of the big dome)  This is where the common soldiers sat. It not being proper to have the monarch mingle near the common folk, Louis XIV then commissioned the Dome Church, where the King and his closest aristocracy attended mass. Surrounding both churches were dwellings for wounded or impoverished soldiers, “the Invalides”, somewhat like a vast American V.A. complex. Today a huge section of Les Invalides comprises five high-class Army Museums.

Church of St Louis-des-Invalides, Dome Church, Napoleon's Tomb

Church of St.-Louis des Invalides, for the common soldiery.

Dome Church exterior, Napoleon's tomb

Dome Church, exterior (stock photo)


Napoleon’s tomb is inside the Dome Church. This view is looking at it from the Seine River. The church of  St-Louis des Invalides and the Army museum complex are behind the Dome church from this direction.






Once you’re inside the Dome Church, you immediately notice three things:  the great gilded altar for King Louis XIV on the first floor, the Baroque dome interior by Mansart, and Napoleon’s Tomb one floor down. In addition to the Tomb, this ground floor has  numerous marble panels depicting the Great Man’s  accomplishments in reforming the French state and society and those of the European areas he conquered.

Napoleon's Tomb, Dome Church

“All This For One Man??”



Ann’s reaction: “All this for one man??” That’s likely to be yours, too, unless you are French or know French.

Ann split for the Impressionist art at the Orangerie.

I soldiered on to the main Army Museum, for a special exhibit on “Napoleon versus Europe, 1793-1815.”




This was a splendid  multi-media exploration of Napoleon’s military and non-military efforts in conquering Europe, and the many European coalitions that formed and re-formed over a period of  25 years to finally defeated the French. We Americans usually know this end-point as “The Battle of Waterloo.”

The exhibit contained music, such as Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony,  dramatic paintings, peace treaties, satirical British political cartoons, uniforms, and numerous volumes of the reformed law code known as the Napoleonic Code. The Napoleonic Code, still in effect in parts of the world today, legally dismantled the old feudal order with its many privileges for the tiny few.  One showcase houses replicas of the beautiful jewels Napoleon gave his young Habsburg bride as part of his/their coronation. She rewarded him with a son, adding the possibility of a dynasty.

Napoleon and his troops were often greeted as Liberators by the common people wherever they went. But he took as well as he gave. He wanted to start and populate French museums and promote (natural) science. His troops looted art objects, especially from Italy, and brought exotic animals such as giraffes into France.

In the end, British fortitude, Napoleon’s great military miscalculation with his Russian Invasion, and a rally at the right moment by the Prussians ended Napoleon. He spent the last seven years of his life on a the remote,  barren island controlled by the British, St. Helena. His remains were not placed in the Dome Church until 1840, when the “coast was clear.”

Outside the Army Museum, the coast definitely was not clear, as the rain descended even harder.

French Macarons

Macarons (meringue sandwich cookies with a cream filling).

But greeting me at home was a fine box of yummy macarons.  Michael, who had stayed home to deal with a plumbing leak, had gone out between rainstorms to procure these delectables from G. Mulot. Yum!


Courbet self-portrait

The Musee d’Orsay and Gustave Courbet

The Musee d’Orsay is a 10 minute walk from our apartment. Armed with our Museum Pass, which gets you in through a side door and saves about an hour waiting in the “ticket purchase” line (due to the slow lines at security), we have been not once but twice. In Europe, May 18 was “Free Museum Night” with long hours, free admission, and dance and music in some of the museums. (Note:The d’Orsay does not allow photography of any kind. Thus my photos are exterior shots only. All other are stock photos.)

Musee d'Orsay sign

Ann and Nancy at the d’Orsay, with the Louvre in the background

Musee d'Orsay jazz player

Museum Night, with music and dance inside and out.


















Musee d'Orsay from the Seine

Musee d’Orsay from across the Seine, at sunset.


The Musee d’Orsay Is  a wonderful space  converted in 1986 from a former railway station, the Gare d’Orsay. It  specializes in art from 1848-1942, and holds the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.

Built for the Universal Exhibition (World Fair) of 1900, the railway station showcased the Beaux Art style of architecture. Prior to the construction of the railway station, the site held government offices built in the early 19th c; they were burnt down along with the rest of the neighborhood in the violent civil war called the Paris Commune that broke out in Paris with the fall of Emperor Napoleon III in 1871. The site stood in ruins for the next 30 years, until a private company leased t the land to build a station. The new railway station served the rail needs of southwestern France and lasted until in 1939. When it then became too small to handle the larger trains coming into long-distance service, it was converted into a commuter train station.  After several other uses in the 20th c, the Beaux Art station was slated for destruction in the 1970’s to make way for a large hotel. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing decided to convert it instead to a new museum; the resulting museum d’Orsay opened in 1986.

I (Nancy) wanted to learn more about Gustave Courbet, the 19th c. artist.Though the Gaugin paintings and wood carvings in the d’Orsay were a close second for me.

Courbet self-portrait

Courbet loved to paint the face in his mirror.

We in the U.S. know a lot less about Courbet than about the French Impressionists. After the last 40 years of  advertising, who wouldn’t recognize a Monet Water Lily?

Who was Gustave Courbet?  Courbet was born in 1819, right after the end of the French Revolution-Napoleonic era in  the region of France known as Franche-Comte, about 250 miles SE of Paris. His hometown, Ornans, lies between Dijon and Lausanne, Switzerland, on the banks of a tributary of the Doubs River. His father’s family was from the well-to-do landed gentry in this small town founded in the 6th c., though his mother’s family was publicly opposed to the Catholic Church ( an “anti-clerical”) during the Revolution. Her side “lost” when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, but with no apparent consequences for the family. As a child Courbet grew up believing he was a natural singer, but it’s more likely he was just a noisy wild-child. This would show up later in his love of self-portraiture. At Church, he confessed to sins so preposterous the Catholic priests refused him absolution .Although he loved drawing from an early age, his future, like other young people in the 19th century, was controlled by his father. Papa (sensibly) wanted him to study law–wealth and honor for the family was more likely to be forthcoming. Finally Papa relented and at the age of 21, Courbet got to move to Paris.

Paris in 1840 was heaven for a young man. Papa, immediately alarmed, berated son Gustave as having succumbed to a dissolute life in The Wicked City. But the errant son was also studying the Masters in the Louvre. He became interested in portraits and landscapes. Not surprising to us today, but a bit off the beaten track in his day, where subjects were usually literary ones or romantic, sentimental clap-trap. And wild though he may have been, he saw the necessity of submitting canvases to the government-sanctioned “Salons,” ruled by the Academy of Fine Arts: without the approval of the government-appointed taste-makers, an artist was unlikely to sell his art. He submitted, his canvasses were accepted in 1848, and some sold. Courbet was launched.

the-wrestlers-1853.jpg!BlogFrance continued to have revolutions throughout the 19th c., –in 1830, in 1848, in 1870–and Courbet became known as a “democrat” and a “republican.” In art he was known as a Realist. The Realists though the artist should paint the everyday, the material, the rational, that backed by science and technology. Not for them Classicism, pursuing perfect Truth and Beauty and elegance; Nor Romanticism, fixated on sentimentality and unrestrained imagination beyond the realm of the material. Sometimes Courbet’s Realism produced the Shock of the Unpleasant; his “Bathers” of 1848 brought an outcry that the women were “disgustingly fat;” the Emperor Napoleon III, who preferred chic women, in disgust struck the painting with his riding crop.

But he persisted and by 1861, twenty years after he started, he had achieved considerable prestige, even if the government and the “official” art establishment still considered him a pest.He loved women, many women, usually his models, and never married. He wrote: ” My love will not stretch far enough to include a journey with a woman. Knowing there are women all over the world, I see no reason to carry one with me (on his travels).”  At the age of 42, Courbet opened a school at 83 r. Notre-Dame-des Champs for rebellious students from the official School of Fine Arts, including providing models, including live models, including a live horse and ox in the studio, which he refused to house-break in the interest of Realism. Courbet evidently did not understand that an unhappy landlord would be an intolerant one, and out he went.

In 1870, further political instability rocked France caused by mistakes in foreign policy. Germany defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War, invaded all the way to Paris, and forced France into a humiliating peace treaty signed at Versailles. The  reign of the current French government, that of  Emperor Napoleon III, collapsed. Civil war broke out in the streets of Paris.  Courbet sided with the Republican (left-wing)  faction and in the ensuring Paris Commune was elected to its governing body. He became the  President of the Art Commission of France, and swiftly abolished the official art academies. When the Commune met its end after a very short time, he was arrested by the new French government, and sentenced to nine months in prison.

Courbet was an easy target–a member of the Commune, and rich. A rich Republican? Surprisingly, he had considerable financial success later in his life, largely from his masses of landscapes, fashionable portraits, and still lifes, not from canvases addressing social problems. He came to employ a factory method of painting, allowing others to finish his paintings though they bore his name. In 1873, pursued at the age 54 by the reactionaries who now ran the French government, he slipped over the border into Switzerland. But, like the Energizer Bunny, he kept his art factory going, unfortunately sowing the ground for lots of forgeries. Ever the wild-child, he also drank more and more, consuming about 10 quarters of white wine a day, plus absinthe. Courbet died of cirrhosis of the liver, only 58 years old.