Monday, June 18, 2012
Don't you just love it when you make a cultural discovery? I mean, I think I now know how Columbus felt when he first sighted land after that endless Atlantic crossing. His joy was so great, he got his geography all screwed up and thought he was in India. I think I can almost forgive him. My joy knew no bounds this afternoon after I'd discovered the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. I had never heard of this place. Never once had I found it mentioned in accounts of Paris. No one had ever dropped its name--not even in passing. So, when I read in the DK Eye Witness Guide that it was full of Tiepolos and Mategnas and contained Paolo Uccelo's masterpiece St. George Slaying the Dragon, well...it was a no-brainer. That was where I would spend my afternoon.
A Slow Start:
Brekkie was a delicious affair with brioche from Eric Kayser---who has soared in my estimation after a poor start. His brioche contained a hidden secret: when I cut into it, I found a crystallized strawberry heart. I bet it is a gooey jammy center when fresh--mine has been in the fridge for the last couple of days. Still, a zap in the microwave and it was as soft as cotton and supremely tastier. With a slick of marmalade and generous dollop of orange flower honey, I had a finger-lickin' feast.
I deliberately took it easy for the rest of the morning, faffing around at home, doing weekly chores (laundry, vacuuming--I actually found a vaccum in the closet and knew I had no excuse to shirk a little basic housekeeping), bringing my blog and my photo library up-to-date. I also did a bit of reading in readiness for tomorrow's NEH session on The Black Book of Communism. It promises to be fascinating and I cannot wait to hear what Nicholas Werth, France's leading historian on Communism, has to say about it.
When I finished, I scanned my guidebook as I wondered where I could spend a pleasurable but not overly strenuous afternoon. That's when I came upon a very incidental mention of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. It wasn't very far from the Grand Palais to which I had intended to return to complete my walking tour of the Champs-Elysses area anyway.
But since it was 1.00pm, it made sense to have lunch; so I made myself a rather eclectic plate: green salad (love the crunch of French lettuce--what we call Cobb or Bibb in the US--dressed just lightly with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar). My apartment has been provided with the most unbelievable whisk: it is a silicone affair. Just three smart whips of my wrist and the dressing emulsifies like magic! I think I will buy myself one before I leave from here. Well, my second course was the sweetest, ripest figs wrapped in smoked ham. My third course was two crepes stuffed with ham and cheese (bought frozen from the supermarket). Verdict? Two words: Never again! Eric Kayser's baguette, lightly toasted with Bordier Butter. No room for dessert--so it was skipped as I skipped out of the house and into the tram to get to Porte d'Orleans. I decided to take the bus because, as often happens by mid-day, the sun was making a shy come-back and it looked like a fine afternoon for a bus ride.
At Porte d'Orleans, I discovered where to catch the 38 bus at its starting point, thanks to a helpful female conductor who pointed the way out to me. The directions were complicated and delivered entirely in French, so I congratulated myself at having got them just right. The bus ride was a joy too--I am beginning to love Parisian buses. For one thing, they are really fast and for another, you almost always get a seat.
At 1.45 pm, almost at the end of the route, I was deposited near the Miromesnil metro station. I walked briskly up Boulevarde Hausmann and within a few minutes, there it was: a giant JA on a waving banner announced the entrance to the musee.
The Musee Jacquemart-Andre:
Because I knew nothing about this treasure trove of fine art, I knew nothing about the space in which it is housed. So imagine my shock and my delight when I discovered that the collection is displayed in a grand mansion that had once been a private residence of Jacquemart and Andre--hotel particulier, of sorts! I realize that I also adore these sneak peeks into the homes and lifestyles of the lavishly endowed--and this was one such opportunity.
It had all begun when a 19th century multi-millionaire named Edouard Andre fell in love and married a female artist named Nelli Jacquemart. She was commissioned to paint his portrait and he met her for the first time when he posed for the initial sketches. Nine years later, they were married--an extraordinarily successful meeting of hearts and minds. Andre's passion for 18th century art (at a time when most collectors thought of it as too cutesy) was matched only by Nellie's. Together they amassed a fabulous collection of French works by Chardin, Boucher and Fragonard, English portraits by Thomas Lawrence, Reynolds and Gainsborough and Flemish work by Ruysdael, Rembrandt and Franz Hals. As time when by, Nellie's appreciation of Italian Renaissance art grew and she persuaded Andre to buy some. Together they made several trips to Italy and began a collection of Florentine and Venetian masters like Andrea Mategna, Giovanni Bellini and my personal favorite, Carlo Crivelli, whose work I find so very rarely. I also adored a pair of laughing angels--a sculptural couple in bronze by Donatello. The highlight of the collection is Paolo Uccelo's St. George Slaying the Dragon but the Tiepolo ceiling paintings and the really grand wall-length one on the upper storey landing is so spectacular that it is worth going to the museum only to see them. In a word, Fantabulous.
The tariff to enter the museum is 10 euros (but I was allowed in free with my Metropolitan Museum ID card). It includes an audioguide with superb commentary that leads you through the rooms in an extremely orderly and systematic fashion. As for the rooms? Well, they are simply astounding. I mean, this mansion is so expertly decorated that there is not a vase out of place. Clearly money was no object and even after Andre's death, Nellie, who inherited his fortune, continued lavishing time and attention on the home and acquired only the finest pieces to fill it. The end result is an absolute treasure chest that can be easily negotiated in one afternoon--even if you linger (as I usually do) over every label to read curatorial notes.
The piece de resistance of the mansion is its "winter garden" (an enclosed space that was filled with huge potted plants), seemingly at the back of the house, that unites the two floors together with a stunning staircase in heavy carved marble and gilded wrought iron. It is on this landing that the Tiepolo is best viewed. Just past the upstairs landing, one is led to the gallery that overlooks the music room below and is in turn overlooked by a marvelous ceiling painting. The layered decoration of the interior recalls the Baroque era but at no point does anything look overdone or stuffy. There is always the lightest of touches and the sure knowledge of when to cease. I left the museum just thrilled at my discovery. I shall tell eveyone to make sure they visit this place when they travel to Paris.
Back on the Bus to the Champs-Elysses:
I got back on a bus only to discover that I was going the wrong way! Since it was almost at the end of its route anyway, I stayed on it and had the most marvelous, breathtaking introduction to two huge Parisian landmarks: the Church known as La Madeleine and the Opera House. I mean these buildings are a study in contrast: the Classical severity of the Church with its repetitive Coronthianlk columns and the Baroque exuberance of the Opera with its gilded sculpture, carved curlicues, massive dome. Needless to say, I made a mental Note to Self: Must discover this area on foot. I also passed by Galeries Lafayette, Paris' legendary department store (must check out the food section--les alimentaires--downstairs in the basement) and Fauchon (another Temple to Gastronomny). I was tempted to get off and nip into both, but I stayed the course and made it to the end of the bus route, after which I simply slipped into the same bus going on its reverse route.
The Side Gardens and Building off the Champs-Elysses:
When I arrived at the Theater du Rond Point, I began my exploration a pied. The sun was out (yesss!)--just as I had expected. It filled Paris with a happy golden light and put a skip in my step. The theater is nothing to shout about, but just next door is the Palais de la Decouverte which simply translates as the Discovery Museum. It is devoted to exhibits about all branches of science. I did not have the intention of going inside (science not being my exact cup of tea), but boy, was the building something to write home about.
The Palais de la Decouverte:
Constructed as part of the ornate Grand Palais, the Palais de la Decouverte is grand--and I don't just mean big as in the French sense--I mean, it possesses grandeur. Again, there is a fine dome, what looks (from the outside) like a glass conservatory (probably a greenhouse of sorts), wonderfully sculpted Greek goddesses gracing the pillars and sides and striking panels of ceramic tiling on both sides of the main entrance at the front facade that seem to portray the history of human discovery. Three-dimensional and executed in soft pastels, it was a simply glorious celebration of human possibility in faience. There is also a lovely stone sculpted figure in a semi-circular arch above the main entrance that portrays a beautiful woman (Venus?) on a half-shell (her birth?) Well, the building was astonishingly beautiful and I took loads of pictures before I could drag myself away to complete my walk.
Spotting the Eiffel Tower on the Banks of the Seine:
Just past the Palais lies the Seine and bathed in sunshine, it loses its normal grey-green hue and looks almost tempting. The Eiffel Tower came into view (I am still new enough in Paris that the sight of it stirs me) and another spire close to it (which I need to identify), More pictures taken from the height of the Pont des Invalides (which area includes a lot of nice occasional commemorative sculpture and a narrow avenue of poplars) and I was striding along the quai and begging someone to take my picture against the glory that is the Pont Alexander III.
On Gorgeous Pont Alexander III:
This bridge, like the Grand and Petit Palais, was built to celebrate the Universal Exhibition of 1900. It links the Champs-Elysses with Les Invalides (the huge complex of official buildings which includes the visually stunning gold-embellished Dome Church--which I intend to examine tomorrow on a long walking tour of the area). Alexander Bridge is named for the then Tsar of Russia, a great friend of France, and his profile and that of his Tsarina grace two pillars crowned by sculptures of gilded horses and Greek maidens to create an impressive panorama. To that, add a series of beautifully designed bronze lanterns that line the bridge on both sides and a central motif featuring a golden laurel-wreathed Greek god and goddess and your camera is simply off and running. I savored every second on this bridge, had passers-by take my picture repeatedly and simply delighted in all the eye-candy so generously gifted me.
This was the official end of the walking tour I had started with Livia, two days ago, so I was very pleased to have completed it. It was time to get on a bus and that was what I did. It took me to Cluny (St. Michel) where the stairs going down to the RER station very handily presented themselves. Naturally I hopped on to the train and was home.Although it was long past tea time, I enjoyed a Laduree cuppa with--another discovery this--Marks and Spencer's Battenburg Cake which Llew would love: two-colored sponge cake sandwiched with jam and covered by a blanket of marzipan. It was simply melt-in-the-mouth delicious!
Mondays are for Grooming:
In keeping with tradition, I applied my face mask, showered and shampooed my hair and attended to the personal grooming chores that Paris insists you stay on top of. Nails and eye-brows were neatened before I skyped with Llew, downloaded the 87 pictures I took today, edited and captioned them and began to write my blog post.
Dinner was another eclectic plate: I whipped up a balsamic vinaigrette, created a salade composee, finished the last of the crepes (did I already say Never Again?), added hunks of a lovely Brie and a sheep's milk cheese with more buttered baguette and for dessert enjoyed Marks and Spencer's Honey and Fig Yogurt (good, but I still prefer Salted Caramel and Hazelnut).
Some reading continued until I switched of the light and called it a night after what had been an amazing and deeply productive day!