Letter from Paris — Part 2

The Cognacq-Jay is having an exhibition of works by François-André Vincent (1746-1816), not exactly a household name, whose works I had not seen before. The exhibit showed many drawings. It was worthwhile but not exactly exciting, though quite skillful. The Cognacq-Jay is a fine small museum in the Marais, which I visited before for its small but excellent Sèvres collection.

But there’s a real blockbuster of a show at the Jacquemart-André called “Les Fêtes Galantes: De Watteau à Fragonard,” which I had read about in one of my French art magazines and looked forward keenly to viewing. Like all blockbusters, this show has assembled works from all over: for Watteau, works from Frankfurt (a Cythera), Dulwich, Madrid Thyssen (Pierrot), Soane’s London, the Hermitage, and Berlin. Then the obligatory second-rate followers like Lancret, Pater, and Pesne; then quite a few of Boucher; and then the climax –- Fragonard. Of them, the coqueluche is the mighty Fête à St-Cloud. In 1985 Professor Haskell of Oxford lectured in New Orleans on that picture, and his lecture aroused an insatiable desire to see it, and so I did, courtesy of the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris to whom I wrote in early 1986 and obtained permission to visit the private quarters of the Banque de France, being conducted by Monsieur Gombert, Chef du Service Intérieur. The picture was probably painted in 1775 for the Duc de Penthièvre, but Monsieur Gombert said it is not known how it came into the possession of the Banque de France. It’s a rather large item, 11 feet wide and 7 feet high, and shows an entertainer, a puppeteer, various booths and stalls set up at the fair, all in separate complex groupings with many people around each. Professor Haskell devoted more than an hour to discussing and describing this one picture, and at the end of the hour you felt that you could easily hear another hour before he had exhausted the subject matter and the virtues of the picture. If you don’t like Fragonard, you will nevertheless like this picture, and if you admire Fragonard, you will have to agree that it’s about the best one the old boy ever did. It has all of his charm and evocative atmosphere, but more symbolism and mystery than most. What’s the meaning of the fallen tree on the foreground? Who is lurking behind the bushes there? Is the comedy figure an actor, a clown, or a charlatan? Even Professor Haskell didn’t know.

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Fragonard: Fête à St-Cloud

Thanks to my journal index and my efficient secretary back home at the office, the above information comes not from my memory but from my 1986 journal of a trip to Paris. The Fête à St-Cloud is the centerpiece of the exhibit at the Jacquemart-André and as indicated above, it is indeed one great picture. Of course there are Fragonards in America, at the Frick and elsewhere, but none, I daresay, in the same class as the Fête à St-Cloud. So 28 years later I have had the pleasure of seeing it again. I wonder if the Banque de France has ever released it before.

We also went by the great Uccello of St. George and the Dragon (1140), which so took my fancy many years ago on my first visit to the Jacquemart-André. I was then on an Uccello tear and was fascinated by his works at Santa Maria Novella in Florence with the mazzochios, and tried to view all the Uccellos I was able to catch up with.

Twice before we have trekked out to Chantilly in order to see the recently reinstalled Fontaine de Beauvais, and both times it wasn’t running, for one reason or another. This time we took special pains to make sure it would be functioning, by having my consultant at home call and email her friend at Chantilly, who swore on his grandmother’s grave that it was on, and then having the concierge here call again to make sure, and sure enough when I got there, finally there it was, and a wonderful sight it is, see below.

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I don’t really know much about fountains, but I know what I like, and the Fontaine de Beauvais is it. There are five of them in a row, though the picture shows only one, and Chantilly now provides golfcarts you can drive around in, since the Fontaine is very long walk from the entrance to the Château de Chantilly. I’m afraid that very few tourists make it that far –- none was in evidence when we got there, although there were hordes of them all around the château and the parterre. Anyone that comes to Chantilly should indeed visit the interior and see the Huet singeries, which we have toured twice, but should not fail to inquire for, and make the detour to, the Fontaine de Beauvais; there is nothing quite like it anywhere that I have seen.

The Aga Khan has opened a new hotel in Chantilly with 92 rooms, very snazzy, called the Auberge du Jeu de Paume, thus one of the largest in the Relais chain.

An unexpected bonus at Chantilly was an enormous Spectacle at the stables. Here is the poster for it:

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―- meaning a Corsican horseshow and musical with a trio of male singers mostly a cappella. Nobody could understand their language, which was presumably old Corsican, but it was one spectacular Spectacle. The riders, preponderantly female wearing long dresses, so long that they completely concealed the stirrups, rode five-gaited horses, in slow gait and slow canters around a ring, with various balletic and dressage maneuvers, sometimes using both hands holding sticks, with the reins behind their backs. One scene had four goats with a female goatherd. One had a man standing on two white horses with very long manes cantering slowly, and dispersed with dressage maneuvers –- all accompanied by the male trio singing in indecipherable ancient Corsican –- really a tour de force. I certainly never saw a horseshow like that before.

We had lunch at Chantilly and puzzled over an unfamiliar item on the menu: cabillaud. What’s that in English, I asked. Stepdaughter Allison Bell was with us and she reported that the headwaiter said it meant goat; but I know that goat in French is chevre, and made him repeat it, and it was actually cod, a fish we don’t see much at home but is really delicious here; I’ve had it twice since. But in any case I had gravlax and foie gras in strawberry foam -– a new combination for me, and delicious.

By the way, the hotel cars here don’t have WiFi, though the ones at Milan did. Our driver said WiFi in cars is slow to arrive in France but is coming.

We took an excursion to Courances to check out the tapestries of singeries, monkey designs that I had read somewhere were attributed to Huet, the master singerist of the 18th century. But alas, they turned out to be 16th century, long before Huet. Nevertheless it was interesting to see 16th century singerie tapestries. Courances is primarily famous for its gardens, which we have visited several times, and there was a gardener working, whom I asked how often the topiary (yew and box) had to be trimmed: only once a year.

The tapestry guide informed us that moonlight hurts the color of tapestries, so they have to close the shutters at night –- can that be? She also told us that the Ganay family only acquired Courances in 1872 when Samuel de Haber, great-grandfather of the recently deceased Marquis de Ganay, acquired the property and restored it. The Marquis left only four daughters, so the new Marquis is a nephew, but the Marquise and her daughters will not have to pull out because they own the property. You don’t see that in England, of course, where if the owner dies without male heirs both the family and the title move off.

The lagniappe from that excursion was the discovery of a huge sculpture by Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle, way out and isolated in the forest at Milly-la-Forêt. I hadn’t heard of it before, though we’re great fans of Tinguely (especially his fountain at Basel) and St.-Phalle (especially her Tarot Garden in Tuscany). This gigantic sculpture, some 70 feet high, is called Le Cyclop (singular in French) and was constructed with 300 tons of steel and is covered with thousands of mirrors and many wheelworks, all standing quite isolated in the forest. In the picture below you can see the yellow eye of Le Cyclop, plus his tongue, and some of the machinery. He also, from time to time, grunts.

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The Pré Catelan is still number one. See foie gras below, perfectly seared.

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The chef is Frédéric Anton, and he has taking a liking to Thai cooking: the langoustines, six of them, were offered in three different Thai ways (two in each). I asked the headwaiter, a very jovial chap, whether Monsieur Anton was going back to Thailand, and he said no, the chef was going to Allemagne and next year we would have sauerkraut and sausages. All the staff at the Pré are full of bonhomie, and in addition to that, unlike other three-star establishments, they have some cheap wines on their list. And when I asked the headwaiter whether the luncheon would be gratuit since we hadn’t been there in a year, he carefully pulled out his watch and noted that it was ten minutes after two and said I had asked for the bill ten minutes too late to make it free.

By contrast, Michel Rostang was a bust. The langoustines were undercooked, and the foie gras was unevenly cooked, incompetently seared, and full of gristle. Michelin gives him two stars, the same as Lasserre, but he doesn’t deserve any.

By the way, three of the grand hotels are hors de combat undergoing restoration: the Crillon, the Plaza, and the Ritz; leaving only three or four hidalgos still standing.

Thomas B. Lemann


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Letter from Paris — Part 1
Posted 5/28/14 by Thomas B. Lemann

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