Tag Archives: Paris

Back to France and the Impressionists

Book Cover: LIsette's List
Destination: Paris and Provence

Book: Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I never resist the lure of France–particularly when you combine, a book, fine art and some history with the trip.  I’ve read several books and movies about the artists of France here, for example,


So how could I resist a new book by Susan Vreeland, Lisette’s List,  that is set in both Paris and Roussillon in Provence, and introduces  Cézanne, Pissarro,  Picasso, and Chagall?

Lisette, the central character is forced to leave her beloved Paris and live in primitive Provence, but there she learns more about art than she ever imagined, and finds safe haven during World War II.

She suffers the loss of the two people most important to her, but learns how capable she is of survival. She matures and works on her life list, which includes the seemingly impossible “#4: Learn what makes a painting great.”

Roussillon, Provence, France
Le Village de Roussillon, Provence, France. Photo by Vincent Brassinne, used with Creative Commons license. See the ochre cliffs in the foreground.

The town of Roussillon is an important character in the book, since it is the site of ochre mines–a place where artists get many shades of color. As Lisette learns to look with fresh eyes at art, she also learns to see people and life in new ways. Vreeland has created a satisfying conglomeration of small-town people to surround Lisette.

The driver of the action of the book is a collection of seven paintings that her husband’s grandfather acquired when he was an ochre salesman and befriended Pissarro, and Cézanne.  Lisette herself meets Marc Chagall and his wife Bella who hide out in a neighboring village during the war, and adds another painting to the collection.

Pissaro painting
A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, by Camille Pissarro. Metropolitan Museum of NYC. Photo by Thomas Hawk

But for most of the book, Lisette holds the paintings only in memory, because before the war, her husband hid them for safety from the Nazis.  Her search for the paintings drives the plot.  However, I found this part of the book unsatisfactory, as it was entirely too predictable and sometimes even repetitive.

For someone with no familiarity with the artists in the book, the discussion of their techniques and styles is a good preliminary introduction to painting. However, if you have a background in art, it may seem a bit too much like an art appreciation course. The author’s love of the art and the countryside are evident. Without question, she throws a great deal of research into her work.

I was hoping for more depth, and now am tempted to read one of Vreeland’s earlier biographical novels, each focused on one artist’s life, to see if those books would be more to my liking. Lisette’s List has some interesting things going for it, particularly in the development of characters, and portrayal of a lesser-known part of France’s art world, but it tends to lean toward straight romance rather than the art historic novel I was hoping for.

I must praise her for bringing to our attention the fascinating village of Rousillon, that certainly is a temptation for travelers. Vreeland’s descriptive powers fit well with a book centered on seeing and observing. Her portrayal of the town and landscape is enough to recommend the book to travelers who read.

Is that unfair?  After all Vreeland wrote the book that she wrote. What I was looking for is beside the point. Have you read any of Vreeland’s books?  Tell me about your reactions.

Bastille Day Look at Haussmann’s Paris

Destination: Paris

Book: Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirland. (New 2014)

Here is a book that entertains as it educates, and will give you a peek behind the pretty face of Paris.

My headline repeats the commonly held belief that the shape of Paris today owes its classical beauty to the Baron Haussman.  Naturally, in a project so enormous, there were many players. In Paris Reborn, Stephane Kirkland makes a strong case that Napoléon III should have top billing.

If you read I Always Loved You (reviewed here), you got a glimpse of what it was like to live through the rennovation of Paris in the 19th century. Aside from the disruption of muddy streets and buildings torn down, not everyone was delighted to lose the historic Paris-most notably Victor Hugo, who devotes a lengthy preface to the Hunchback of Notre Dame to the Medieval Paris that was passing away.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who was elected in a Republican form of government, but wrested power away from the people to become a dictator as Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire, wanted to bring Paris up to the standards of London, where he had lived in exile for thirty-three years.

As far back as 1749, Kirkland says, Voltaire had written:

We need public markets, fountains that actually give water, regular intersections, performance halls; we need to widen the narrow and filthy streets, uncover monuments that we can not see, and build new ones to be seen.

Kirkland also quotes a British guidebook to Paris, publised in 1839:

Paris is inferior to most of the other capital towns in Europe as for the width, cleanliness, and general appearance of most of its streets are concerned.

Even new world cities in America had better amenities by the middle of the 18th century.  As Kirkland says:

The air was foul, the drinking water was unsafe, and the traffic ws chaotic and dangerous. The city lacked key amenities, such as a proper market, a sufficient number of bridges, strutured embankments, and a reliable supply of drinking water.

 Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was a liberal thinker, intent on changing that, and providing services for the poor and needy as well.

They say that one should never watch two things being made–sausage and laws.  In Paris Reborn, Stephane Kirkland shows us a third–the modernization of a city.  As you are standing on a Paris bridge at twilight, watching the lights twinkle on the Eiffel Tower, or strolling down the Champs Elysées, you don’t want to be thinking about the graft, favoritism, illegal takings by the government, greedy developers, insider dealing, use of brute power by a dictatorship, bribery, and other shifty politics that enabled Paris to become the most romantic city in the world.

Paris at night
Paris at night

On the other hand, I guarantee that you will learn things you did not know about the city, and feel more at home there, after you have read this book.

It was a long, complicated and expensive proposition, but at the end, Kirkland tells us, the Second Empire had

  • built 85 miles of new streets with an average width of eighty feet (three times as wide as the old streets);
  • built 420 miles of sidewalks;
  • increased street gaslights from 15,000 to more than 32,000;
  • increased the number of trees along roads from 50,000 to 96,000;
  • knocked down 27,000 buildings between 1852 and 1870;
  • built a new Opera House;
  • Created the Market of Les Halles;
  • displaced 117,553 families /350,000 people (20% of the population of Paris)
  • constructed and expanded parks
  • planned neighborhoods and streets to complement the new train stations.

Though there were dozens of people involved–architects, artists, developers, financiers, politicians–behind the plans were two main movers.

The Visionary: Napoleon III, who had a wall-sized map hanging behind his desk that showed his vision of a new Paris.

The Enabler: Baron Haussmann, who worked all the angles, from planning traffic patterns to financing with a never-say-die (although frequently compromise) attitude.

Now a book about city planning and politics could be deadly boring, so let me assure you again, emphatically that this Paris Reborn is lively and interesting. It deserves a place in any travelers’ library.

Note: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review.

There are links from book titles and cover to Amazon.com. A Traveler’s Library is an affiliate of Amazon.com, so when you shop through our links, we get a few cents. Thanks for the support.

The photo is my own.

Dysfunctional Romance in Belle Epoque Paris

Destination: Paris (Belle Epoque–1880s-1920s)

Book: I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira (New February 2014)

Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas–(shown here in portrait and self-portrait by Degas) a dysfunctional romance if  there was one.  That is not a typo. (I did not mean to type “if ever there was one”.)

It is clear in reading I Always Loved You: A Novel that Robin Oliveira had very little fact to go on in her novelized version of the rumored love affair between the American and French artists, but the suspicion is enough to go on. Life among the artists of the Belle Epoque in Paris on the other hand swirls and sparkles just as you would expect in the midst of a gang that included a bunch of nobodies (then) who are artistic treasures (now). Continue reading Dysfunctional Romance in Belle Epoque Paris