MANY PERIODS OF French history interest and fascinate me but perhaps none more so than the period between 1871 and 1914, years characterised by optimism, relative peace, economic prosperity, technological and scientific innovation and a flourishing of the arts – a period that became known as La Belle Époque.
The term La Belle Époque, which means little more than ‘the good old days’, wasn’t coined until much later when the period could be viewed through the prism of history. Although debate surrounds the precise dates used to define the period, 1871 to 1914 seem the most logical since La Belle Époque was sandwiched between two catastrophes, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the subsequent bloody events of the Paris Commune and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Set against these events, it’s easy to see how the intervening years came to be seen as a golden age.
Hanging on the wall of a gallery in the Musée Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris, is a painting that for me at least epitomises La Belle Époque.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan (1909): Henri Gervex (1852 – 1929): Musée Carnavalet
Painted by Henri Gervex using oils on canvas, Une Soirée au Pré Catalan is 217 cm high and 318 cm wide and it depicts an evening scene at the prestigious Pré Catelan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne.
In 1905, the architect Guillaume Tronchet was asked by the City of Paris to build Le Pré Catelan, a luxury casino and restaurant. The casino didn’t materialise but the restaurant did. In 1908, the celebrated Parisian restaurateur, Léopold Mourier, owner of the restaurant Foyot, the Café de Paris, the Pavillon d’Armenonville and later Le Fouquet’s, bought Le Pré Catelan and made it one of the most fashionable places in town.
It was Léopold Mourier who commissioned Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, presumably to advertise just how fashionable a place Le Pré Catelan was.
So let’s take a closer look at the picture:
In the foreground we see a group of three people. The lady on the left in orange is Madame Gervex, wife of the painter.
The lady with her back to us is the celebrated American heiress and socialite, Anna Gould, daughter of the financier, Jay Gould. She was married to Paul Ernest Boniface de Castellane, elder son and heir apparent to the Marquis de Castellane. They divorced in 1906 after he had spent about $10 million of her family’s money. The gentleman in the group is Anna Gould’s second husband, Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Sagan, cousin of her first husband.
Inside the restaurant we see three more celebrated figures.
Seated at a table on the right is a rather portly gentleman looking directly at us. This is the Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne, pioneer of the French automobile industry. The Marquis and the engineers, Georges Bouton and Charles Trépardoux, formed a partnership in 1883, which became the De Dion-Bouton automobile company, once the world’s largest automobile manufacturer.
Seated at a table on the far left is the moustachioed figure of the Brazilian aeronaut, Alberto Santos-Dumont. He designed, built, and flew the first practical airship, demonstrating that routine controlled flight was possible. Following this pioneering work, Santos-Dumont constructed a heavier-than-air aircraft, the 14-bis. On 23 October 1906 he flew this to make the first verified powered heavier-than-air flight, certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
And seated at a table in the centre wearing a black hat and a coquettish countenance is Anne Marie Chassaigne, a former dancer at the Folies Bergère, now known as Liane de Pougy, a noted demimondaine and one of the most famous women in France at the time, constantly sought after by wealthy and titled men. Although we can’t see a companion we can assume that she’s not dining alone.
We can see three people leaving Le Pré Catelan.
One is Arthur Meyer, a French press baron. He was director of Le Gaulois, a notable conservative French daily newspaper eventually taken over by Le Figaro. With him are the Count and Countess Greffulhe who are about to get into their car.
Such was the fashionable clientele in Le Pré Catelan one evening in 1909.
Although now owned by Sodexo, the giant French food services and facilities management corporation (that’s a fancy way of saying they provide food and hire out meeting rooms), Le Pré Catelan under it’s head chef, Frédéric Anton, is still a very fashionable place. With three Michelin stars it’s among the best restaurants in Paris.
Today, from the outside, the restaurant is hidden from view behind a large hedge, presumably to deter the paparazzi but inside it remains pure Belle Époque.
Image: Le Pré Catelan
I’ve spent many hours looking at Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, absorbing the atmosphere of La Belle Époque. I can see the optimism in the faces of the Marquis de Dion and Alberto Santos-Dumont foretelling the day when the motor car and air travel will become common currency.
I can see the pride in the face of the Countess Greffulhe under her feathered hat knowing that she helped the artist James Whistler and actively promoted the artists Auguste Rodin, Gustave Moreau and Gabriel Fauré, who dedicated his Pavane to her. She is no doubt proud too that she was a patron of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and helped Marie Curie to finance the creation of the Institut du Radium and Edouard Branly to pursue his researches into radio transmission.
With my Belle Époque eye I can see that it would be perfectly normal for a rich socialite like Anna Gould, or a high-class courtesan like Liane de Pougy, or a press magnate like Arthur Meyer to be found at Le Pré Catalan. They were after all what we would now call ‘celebrities’ and after the ignominy of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the hiatus of the Paris Commune they were surely entitled to a little joie de vivre.
Maybe so, but La Belle Époque was never the reality of life in Paris or in France. There was a large economic underclass who never experienced much of the Belle Époque’s wonders and entertainments. Poverty remained endemic in Parisian urban slums for decades after the Belle Époque ended and the Dreyfus Affair exposed the dark realities of French anti-Semitism and government corruption. No wonder that some of the artistic elite saw the fin de siècle in a pessimistic light.
Today, a hundred years on from the end of the period we call La Belle Époque, Le Pré Catelan remains a preserve of the rich and famous. If you have to look at the prices on the menu then you shouldn’t be there.
But the gardens of Le Pré Catelan are free to all and it was while walking through the gardens that I had time to think and to contemplate how I could express Une Soirée au Pré Catelan not only in words but also in sound.
A simple water sprinkler gave me the answer … use the natural sounds recorded in the Musée Carnavalet sitting in front of the painting, morph to the natural sounds in and around the Jardin du Pré Catelan and then back again to the painting.
And this is the result.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan:
Even though I bristle at the excesses of the rich and the plight of the economic underclass, both then and now, and although I’m very aware of the danger of slipping into an overly romanticised view of history, I remain fascinated by La Belle Époque. I’m quite sure I shall return to the Musée Carnavalet to contemplate Une Soirée au Pré Catelan and visit the Jardin du Pré Catelan many more times. I shall though leave my rose-tinted spectacles at home!
I WENT TO THE fascinating Musée Curie last week. To coincide with International Women’s Day the Musée Curie opened a temporary exhibition in the garden of the museum made up of photographic portraits celebrating the careers of prominent women, past and present, who worked or are currently working in the fields of science and medicine.
A photographic portrait of Marie Curie in the garden of the Musée Curie
The Musée Curie was founded in 1934 just after the death of Marie Curie. It’s located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillon of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement and it was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a remarkable woman. Born in 1867 in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire, she completed her early education in Warsaw before moving to Paris in 1891 to continue her studies and to begin her scientific career.
Despite the disadvantages and indignities that went with being a woman in what was considered then (and many argue still is) a man’s world, Marie Curie’s achievements were prodigious. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice and she remains the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different sciences. She won the Physics Prize in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity (shared with her husband Pierre Curie and the physicist, Henri Becquerel) and the Chemistry Prize in 1911 for the isolation of pure radium.
Her achievements included not only creating a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined) and isolating radioactive isotopes but also the discovery of two elements, polonium (which she named after her native Poland) and radium. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris and, under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of tumours using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I she established the first military field radiological centres and it was the excessive doses of radiation that she was exposed to while doing this work that contributed to her subsequent death.
Marie Curie was also the first woman to be interred in the Panthéon in Paris in her own right.
Institut du Radium – Pavillon Curie
Marie Curie’s achievements were indeed prodigious but so were those of the rest of her family, between them they were awarded five Nobel Prizes.
As well as the 1903 Prize for physics, which Marie shared with her husband Pierre and the 1911 Prize for Chemistry which was hers alone, her daughter and son-in law, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie each received the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.
From L to R – Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Frédéric Joliot-Curie
Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre Curie, was a physicist working in crystallography, magnetism and piezoelectricity when they first met but he became so interested in the work Marie was doing that he joined her and they began to work together.
Marie and Pierre Curie in the garden of the Musée Curie – Note how Marie is on the left and Pierre is on the right but in the text below their names are reversed.
Sadly their partnership was all to short, Pierre died in a street accident in Paris in 1906. Crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull. They were reunited though in 1995 when both Pierre and Marie were interred in the crypt of the Panthéon.
Housed in Marie Curie’s former laboratory, the Musée Curie contains a permanent historical exhibition about radioactivity and its applications, notably in medicine, focusing primarily on the Curies and it displays some of the most important research apparatus used before 1940. It also contains an historical resource centre, which contains archives, photographs, and documentation on the Curies, Joliot-Curies, the Institut Curie, and the history of radioactivity and oncology.
So here is the record of my visit to the Musée Curie on International Women’s Day:
Inside the Musée Curie:
Marie Curie’s office where she worked for 20 years
Marie Curie’s chemistry laboratory next to her office
An original laboratory report
In 1921, Marie Curie was welcomed triumphantly when she toured the United States to raise funds for research on radium. US President Warren G. Harding received her at the White House to present her with the 1 gram of radium collected in the United States. This is the specially lined box that contained the precious radium handed to Marie by the US President.
Above and below – In their time, cutting-edge research apparatus
The Garden Exhibition:
Institut Curie – Hôpital de Paris – Part of the Institut Curie, one of the leading medical, biological and biophysical research centres in the world.
Marie Curie’s pioneering work affects us all and today we take it for granted – from our simple luminous wristwatch to the most sophisticated cancer treatments. Yet in her lifetime and despite her huge achievements she faced enormous prejudice, not for her work, but for simply being a woman.
Marie Curie succeeded by rising above that prejudice as have all the enormously talented and successful women portrayed in the photographic exhibition in the garden of the Musée Curie.
Musée Curie, 1, rue Pierre et Marie Curie, 75005 Paris
Open Wednesday to Saturday, from 1pm to 5pm. Admission is free.
The exhibition in the museum garden runs from 8th March to 31st October 2014.
THE ALBERT KAHN MUSEUM AND GARDENS are located on the outskirts of Paris in Boulogne-Billancourt conveniently close to the Métro station Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud (Line 10) and the tram stop Parc de Saint-Cloud on tram line T2.
Taking advantage of the sunshine that, for the most part, seems to have eluded us this year, I went to take a look.
The museum and the gardens, now owned by the Conseil Général des Hauts-de-Seine, are the legacy of the French banker and philanthropist, Albert Kahn (1860 – 1940).
Albert Kahn was born in 1860 in Marmoutier, in the Bas-Rhin region of France. At the age of sixteen he went to Paris to work as a junior clerk in the Goudchaux Frères bank where he eventually became a senior partner. In 1898 he set up his own bank.
Kahn believed that knowledge of foreign societies and cultures encouraged respect and peaceful relations between peoples and so, following this theme and using his considerable wealth, he set up the series of bursaries, or travelling scholarships, he called Autour du Monde – “Around the World”. He also founded the Chair of Human Geography at the Collège de France, plus the first centre for preventive medicine, a biology laboratory and two forums for discussion and research, the Société Autour du Monde, and the National Committee for Social and Political Studies.
In 1893 Kahn acquired a large property in Boulogne-Billancourt, where he established a unique garden containing a variety of garden styles including French, English and Japanese.
In 1909, Kahn travelled to Japan on business and returned with a collection of photographs of the journey. This prompted him to begin a project collecting a photographic record of the entire planet. He appointed Jean Brunhes as the project director, and sent photographers to every continent to record images of the planet using the first colour photography, autochrome plates, and early cinematography. Between 1909 and 1931 they collected 72,000 colour photographs and 183,000 metres of film. These form a unique historical record of 50 countries, known as The Archives of the Planet, now housed in the Albert Kahn museum.
The stock market crash of October 1929 dealt a fatal blow to Kahn’s wealth and his plans. His property was confiscated and in 1936, the Prefecture of the Seine acquired the Boulogne estate, although Kahn was allowed the use of it until his death in November 1940. In 1968, the Conseil Général des Hauts-de-Seine was granted ownership of the site and collections.
Eventually the four hectares (eight acres) of gardens were restored and a museum was set up by the Conseil Général des Hauts-de-Seine to exhibit Kahn’s collection of images.
Sounds of the Albert-Kahn Musée et Jardin:
The Albert Kahn garden comprises a collection of gardens of different styles.
There is the Japanese garden complete with an old Japanese village filled with temples, lanterns, stone edged paths, and the contemporary Japanese garden, with azaleas, and streams crossed by stone or timber bridges.
There’s a formal French garden, with a large greenhouse complete with palms and tropical plants, an orchard and a rose garden.
The English garden was a particular delight to me, with its green grass, rocks and a cottage.
Then, a forest of Blue Atlas cedars and Colorado spruces, whose low branches screen a small lily pond surrounded by a wild meadow. After crossing the meadow and passing through a group of slender birches, paths lead to a forest of conifers planted on steep, rocky soil, a reproduction of the Vosges Mountains near Kahn’s birthplace.
Change is afoot for the Albert Kahn museum. The Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, won the competition for a completely new museum building. Work is due to start in 2015 and is expected to be completed in 2017.
Albert Kahn, museum and gardens: 10-14, rue du Port, 92100 Boulogne-Billancourt
THE MUSÉE DES ARTS FORAINS is a fairground museum housed in the former wine warehouses at Cour Saint-Émilion in the 12th arrondissement.
It’s a private museum created by Jean Paul Favand and it contains a fascinating collection of carousels and funfair stalls, all restored and in working order, as well as costumes and historic works from 1850 onwards.
This is a private collection and so it’s usually only possible to visit the museum by appointment only. They cater mainly for group visits and corporate functions but occasionally the museum opens its doors to the general public. One such occasion has been over this Christmas and New Year period so I took advantage of it and paid a visit.
Having paid my €12 entry fee, I was transported into the world of the funfair, a world full of colour, spectacle and entertainment.
I was captivated by this old cycle carousel and even more captivated by the sounds as the ride got underway and the cycles and their riders trundled round and round. It’s fascinating to think that these are the same sounds that anyone visiting this carousel would have heard over a hundred years ago.
Sounds of the cycle carousel:
The museum comprises themed rooms each with its own take of the world of the funfair. “Les Salons Vénitiens” offers an Italian opera show performed by automatons as well as a gondola carousel. “Le Théâtre du merveilleux” offers a glimpse of the turn of the century world fairs including a superb sound and light show. “Le musée des Arts Forains” is a tribute to the 19th century funfair and the Théâtre de Verdure exhibits splendid gardens.
The museum has many historical funfair games that have entertained generations of adults and children alike. My favourite was the Parisian Waiter Race in which each waiter is moved by rolling balls into holes, complete with running commentary.
The Parisian Waiter Race:
There are outside exhibits too and, this being an open-house day, it wouldn’t be complete without food …
… and, of course, street music.
The Street Musicians:
And I couldn’t end without mentioning the fabulous costumes on display, some of which were once to be seen in that other Parisian palace of fun, the Folies-Bergère.
I wish everyone a Happy New Year and, if you’re in Paris, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Musée des Arts Forains which you can find at:
53 Avenue des Terroirs de France, 75012 Paris
Phone for réservations: 01 43 40 16 22
Métro: Cour Saint-Émilion – Line 14
ONE MIGHT BE FORGIVEN for thinking that exploring the sewers of Paris is rather a bizarre way to spend an afternoon. On the contrary, it’s fascinating … if a little malodorous.
Entrance to Le Musée des Égouts de Paris
The Sounds in the Boutique:
Many people have written about the sewers of Paris but few have done it better than Victor Hugo …
“Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.”
(Les Miserables, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.I)
And then further on …
Let the reader imagine Paris lifted off like a cover, the subterranean net-work of sewers, from a bird’s eye view, will outline on the banks a species of large branch grafted on the river. On the right bank, the belt sewer will form the trunk of this branch, the secondary ducts will form the branches, and those without exit the twigs.
This figure is but a summary one and half exact, the right angle, which is the customary angle of this species of subterranean ramifications, being very rare in vegetation.
A more accurate image of this strange geometrical plan can be formed by supposing that one is viewing some eccentric oriental alphabet, as intricate as a thicket, against a background of shadows, and the misshapen letters should be welded one to another in apparent confusion, and as at haphazard, now by their angles, again by their extremities.
(Les Miserables, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.II)
The ‘belt sewer’ to which Hugo refers was built on the Right Bank of la Seine in the time of Louis XIV but the Left Bank was not so lucky, there the river Biévre was used as their sewer.
Pierre Emmanuel Bruneseau was the Inspector of Works for the City of Paris and in 1805 he set about exploring and mapping the ancient and ageing sewer system. Victor Hugo was a friend of Bruneseau and he wrote that, “Nothing could equal the horror of this old, waste crypt, the digestive apparatus of Babylon.” When he finished the work in 1812 Bruneseau he was hailed as “intrepid” and the “Christopher Columbus of the cess-pool”.
The Sounds in the Galerie Bruneseau:
By the middle of the nineteenth-century, Baron Haussmann was not only transforming Second Empire Paris above ground, his reach had also extended below ground. In March 1855 he appointed Eugène Belgrand, a French engineer, as Director of Water and Sewers of Paris.
Belgrand embarked on an ambitious project. The tunnels he designed were intended to be clean, easily accessible, and substantially larger than the previous Parisian underground. Under his guidance, Paris’s sewer system expanded fourfold between 1852 and 1869. He also addressed the city’s fresh water needs, constructing a system of aqueducts that nearly doubled the amount of water available per person per day and quadrupled the number of homes with running water.
In recognition of his work, Belgrand’s name is one of seventy-two names engraved on the Eiffel Tower and the main gallery of le Musée des Égouts is also named after him, as is a street in Paris.
The Sounds in the Galerie Belgrand:
The Parisian sewers mirror the streets above. Each sewer “street” has its own blue and white enamel street sign and the outflow of each building is identified by its real street number.
One of the displays in the museum that attracts a great deal of attention is this giant iron ball. The sewers are regularly cleaned using spheres like this, just smaller than the system’s tunnels. The build up of water pressure behind the ball forces it through the tunnel network until it emerges somewhere downstream pushing a mass of filthy sludge.
The Parisian sewers have always fascinated tourists and they were first opened to the public during the Exposition Universelle of 1867. At that time, they stretched for 600 km underneath the city. Today, that has been extended to 2,100 km. Every day, 1.2 million cubic metres of water pass through the system. The sewer system not only handles drinkable and non-drinkable water but it’s also home to telecommunication cables and traffic-light management cables.
It’s worth remembering that this section of the Paris sewers may be a museum but it’s also a working sewer and the dominant sounds of the museum are the sounds of sewage water passing under one’s feet!
Perhaps Victor Hugo should have the last word …
The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else. In that livid spot there are shades, but there are no longer any secrets. Each thing bears its true form, or at least, its definitive form. The mass of filth has this in its favour, that it is not a liar. Ingenuousness has taken refuge there. The mask of Basil is to be found there, but one beholds its cardboard and its strings and the inside as well as the outside, and it is accentuated by honest mud. Scapin’s false nose is its next-door neighbour. All the uncleannesses of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends. They are there engulfed, but they display themselves there. This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt, absolute denudation puts to the rout all illusions and mirages, there is nothing more except what really exists, presenting the sinister form of that which is coming to an end. There, the bottom of a bottle indicates drunkenness, a basket-handle tells a tale of domesticity; there the core of an apple which has entertained literary opinions becomes an apple-core once more; the effigy on the big sou becomes frankly covered with verdigris, Caiphas’ spittle meets Falstaff’s puking, the louis-d’or which comes from the gaming-house jostles the nail whence hangs the rope’s end of the suicide. A livid foetus rolls along, enveloped in the spangles which danced at the Opera last Shrove-Tuesday, a cap which has pronounced judgment on men wallows beside a mass of rottenness which was formerly Margoton’s petticoat; it is more than fraternization, it is equivalent to addressing each other as thou. All which was formerly rouged is washed free. The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.
TUCKED AWAY IN A little courtyard just off the rue de Furstenberg in the 6th arrondissement is the Musée National Eugène Delacroix or the Musée Delacroix as it’s usually known.
The museum is quite an intimate place housed as it is in what was Delacroix’s apartment where he spent the last six years of his life from December 1857 until his death in August 1863. He moved here because it was conveniently close to the Eglise Saint-Sulpice where, despite his failing health, he was working on his frescos in the Chapelle des Saints-Anges.
After Delacroix’s death, the apartment was let to various tenants until it was suggested that the studio should be demolished to make way for a garage. It was then that the Société des Amis d’Eugène Delacroix was formed to prevent the destruction of the studio and to provide for and maintain the premises and to promote Delacroix’s work. In 1952, the building was put up for sale and the society, unable to acquire the premises, gave its collection to the French State in order to secure it and to create a museum which eventually became the Eugène Delacroix National Museum.
Inside the Apartment:
Today, the Museum comprises part of Delacroix’s original apartment, his studio and a garden. We know from his journal and letters that Delacroix was happy here:
“My lodgings are decidedly charming (…). Woke up the next day to see the most delightful sunshine on the houses opposite my window. The view of my little garden and the cheerful appearance of my studio always fill me with pleasure.”
(Journal, December 28, 1857).
Inside the Studio:
Delacroix’s Studio – Inside
The Museum’s collection is displayed in both Delacroix’s apartment and in his studio and it comprises paintings, drawings, lithographs, autograph works, and some personal objects, including some magnificent souvenirs of his trip to Morocco in 1832. Some works by his friends, Paul Huet, Léon Riesener, and Richard Parkes Bonington, are also featured. The collection is regularly added to with new works acquired through the combined efforts of the Louvre and the Société des Amis du Musée Eugène-Delacroix.
Delacroix’s Studio – Inside
I made this visit to the museum on a beautiful summer’s day. There were some other people there as well but I was lucky enough to have the studio and the garden practically to myself. While sitting in the garden I could quite see why Delacroix found this such a delightful place. I walked from the garden up the wooden steps to the near empty studio and I was fascinated by the sounds and the seemingly extra loud click of my camera as I took the photographs for this blog.
The Musée Delacroix really is a delightful place and it’s well worth a visit.
What you need to know …
Musée National Eugène Delacroix : 6 rue de Furstenberg, 75006 Paris: Tél. : +33 (0)1 44 41 86 50
Getting there :
Métro : Saint-Germain-des-Prés (ligne 4), Mabillon (ligne 10)
Bus : 39, 63, 70, 86, 95, 96
The museum is open daily except Tuesday, 9:30 am to 5 pm.
Full ticket price : €5
Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25.
AS THE VERY SUCCESSFUL Bernice Abbott exhibition comes to a close in the Jeu de Paume, an exhibition of the work of the man who inspired her, Eugène Atget, opens in the Musée Carnavalet. I went along to see it and was enthralled by it.
Listening to the pictures:
Atget is somewhat of an enigma. Today he is the most celebrated of all the photographers of Vieux Paris, Old Paris, but when he died in 1927 scarcely anyone had heard of him.
Eugène Atget photographed by Bernice Abbott in 1927
He was born in 1857 in modest circumstances in Libourne in the Gironde. As a young man he seemed to fail at everything he turned his hand to. He tried acting, soldiering and painting but failed at all three. His only success was to meet and to marry Valentine Delafosse-Compagnon, an actress who was devoted to him.
Atget and Valentine moved to Paris and around 1890, in order to make a living, he took up photography. Initially he produced study material for artists, images of trees, flowers and various objects for artists to incorporate into their compositions. It was towards the end of the 1890’s that he changed direction and set out to make a systematic photographic record of Paris. He photographed everything – the streets, the shops fronts, the tradesmen, the interiors and architectural details – he captured every aspect of Vieux Paris.
Atget worked hard. Every day was spent on the streets of Paris laden with cumbersome equipment, a bellows camera, glass plates in plate holders, a focusing cloth, a lens case and a wooden tripod. He eschewed the new flexible negatives that had become available which made life easier; he preferred to remain faithful to his old equipment and old habits. He travelled everywhere by bus or Metro carrying all his equipment.
In Atget’s world, photography was not only hard work it was really quite technical too. He used an 18 x 24 cm plate camera with a rectilinear lens. This is a lens, still in use today, that ensures that the vertical lines of buildings always remain vertical. He liked to work in the early morning because he preferred the light at that time and this resulted in lots of photographs with quite eerie empty streets and ghostly people.
Virtually all the Atget photographs we see today are albumen prints. The paper was sold impregnated with whipped and salted egg white which the photographer soaked in a bath of silver nitrate. Sensitised and dried, the paper was laid in the printing frame with the glass negative and exposed to sunlight until an image appeared, then fixed and toned with a salt of gold.
But it is not for his technical mastery that Atget will be remembered. It is rather for his day in day out unrelenting work recording the face of Paris that was constantly changing. He was not interested in Haussmann’s Paris – rich, grand, pretentious – but in a picturesque section of a wall that was on the point of collapsing, or in any touching or unexpected detail. Although his technique belongs to the nineteenth-century, his vision belongs firmly with us today.
On show at the exhibition are of some of Atget’s most well know photographs along with some pictures that have never been exhibited before.
I recommend this exhibition as a ‘must see’ for anyone with an interest in this wonderful city.
The exhibition EUGÈNE ATGET, PARIS runs from 25th April to 29th July 2012 at:
23, rue de Sévigné
Tél. : 01 44 59 58 58
Open every day from 10 h to 18 h except Mondays and public holidays.
Tarif: 7 euros
Nearest Metro: Saint-Paul; Line 1
I AM OLD ENOUGH TO remember the ‘Golden Age’ of radio, the days when radio was more popular than television and many years before the internet and social media took control of our lives. I was then, and still am, a huge fan of radio.
In conjunction with Radio France and l’Institut national de l’audiovisuel, the Musée des arts et metiers celebrates the history of radio broadcasting in a new exhibition opening tomorrow.
Radio: Ouvrez Grand Vos Oreilles! or, roughly translated, Radio: Listen Up! is a fascinating exhibition which, as the name suggests, is as much about listening as seeing. As well as the collection of documents, domestic radio receivers and sound recorders, including a wonderful collection of Nagra field recorders, the history of radio is also told with archive sounds.
Some of the archive sounds at the exhibition:
French radio grew from very humble beginnings. At Christmas in 1921, an early radio enthusiast huddled round a homemade crystal set may have been lucky enough to detect a signal transmitted from the Tour Eiffel. In the ninety years since then, radio has evolved to embrace changes in technology, changes in society, political upheavals and even war.
In today’s multimedia world, radio still holds its place in broadcasting information, culture and public debate. Long may it continue!
Radio: Ouvrez Grand Vos Oreilles! runs from 28th February to 2nd September 2012.
Here are some of the exhibits on show:
And here is the collection of Nagras:
A Nagra II (1953)
From L to R: Nagra III (1963) Nagra SN (1970) Nagra E (1985)
Nagra E (1985)
Nagra ARES C
The exhibition is at :
Musée Arts et Métiers, 60, rue Réaumur; 75003 Paris: Tel: 01 53 01 82 00
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday inclusive from 10 h to 18 h. Thursday 10 h to 21 h 30
Closed: Mondays and 1st May.
Tickets: 5,50 euros; Reduced Tarif : 3,50 euros
Nearest Métro: Arts-et-Metiers (Lines 3 & 11) or Réaumur-Sébastopol (Line 4)
I am always experimenting with sound. The sounds that appear on this blog are relatively short and that seems to work … up to a point. Sometimes though, I feel that these “sound bites” don’t do justice to the sounds that I’ve recorded. In a world dominated by the 24 hour news cycle, the 20 second sound bite seems to be all important. And I seem to have fallen into the same trap, crediting my audience with a minimum attention span. For this post, I have decided to take a different tack.
Some time ago, I made a post about the creaking wooden floor in the Musée Carnavalet. After listening to those sounds again today, I realised that all the sounds I recorded in the Musée had much more to say than just the creaking wooden floor. So I have decided to present my ‘soundwalk’ through the Musée Carnavalet as it happened. I have taken the three pieces I recorded in there and added them together. It adds up to a sound piece that is a little over ten minutes long. I think it gives a much better impression of the Musée than just the wooden floor. What do you think?
I have added some pictures to give you a visual feel of the place but it is the sounds that tell the story.
A soundwalk in the Musée Carnavalet:
IN APRIL I MADE a blog piece about the Musée Carnavalet in which I featured the sound of its creaking wooden floor. Echoes of that piece returned recently when I went to the Musée National de Céramique at Sèvres, a suburb of Paris.
The Musée National de Céramique is one of two national treasures on this site. Hidden from view behind the museum is the other, the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres – the still very active Sèvres porcelain factory.
Production of Sèvres porcelain began on this site in 1756 after the original factory, founded in 1738 in the Chateau de Vincennes, ran into financial trouble and had to be bailed out by its biggest customer, Louis XV. Louis stepped in and secured the factory as Royal property and it has remained Royal and, from the time of the Revolution, national property ever since.
Louis XV bestowed the name Manufacture Royale de la Porcelaine de France on the factory and introduced the famous double L monogram as the factory mark. It was with this Royal connection that Sèvres porcelain became the French porcelain of royalty and the royal porcelain of France.
The Sèvres factory’s early work was made from soft paste porcelain, a material notoriously tricky to work with and more expensive than the other competing hard paste porcelains of Germany and England. In 1768, deposits of kaolin, the white clay essential in making hard paste porcelain, were discovered in Limoge. With this vital ingredient the Sèvres factory was able to produce hard paste porcelain as well and compete with factories like Meissen on equal terms.
Sèvres porcelain is renowned for its exceptional glazes and deep background colours – royal blue (bleu de roi), turquoise (bleu celeste), pea green, and pink (rose Pompadour).
The sounds inside the museum:
Alexandre Brongniart was responsible for creating the Musée National de Céramique. He became the director of the Sèvres factory in 1800 and for the next forty-seven years the factory continued to evolve and prosper under his guidance. His idea was to create a museum to collect and study all fine ceramics not just those from the Sèvres factory. Today, the museum has a collection of around 50,000 objects from around the world about 5,000 of which were manufactured at Sèvres.
Walking round this museum is an absolute delight; some of the objects on display are just breathtaking. There is a small charge to get in (it’s closed on Tuesdays), but it’s well worth a visit – you get to see some of the finest ceramics in the world and, as a bonus, you get to hear the wonderful sounds of the creaking wooden floor.
How to get there:
On the Transilien:
The nearest Transilien station is Sèvres – Rive Gauche then it’s a five-minute walk to the museum.
On the Metro:
The nearest Metro station is Pont de Sèvres on Line 9 and then it’s a five-minute walk to the museum.