L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A gray day in the north of France

I haven't blogged in a very long time.  The delay was made even longer as, on the last day of April, I fell while out walking.  The various, though still relatively minor, injuries I sustained made it impossible to do much of anything for the entirety of May; no going to work and no painting, much less writing blog posts.  Only two days ago was I able to sit down and begin to paint again.

This is a post I began more than a year ago.  I don't know why I never finished it.  I really shouldn't be posting it today, on this lovely early summer day; it best belongs to a dark and wet autumn afternoon.  But I wanted to put something out, today, to get started things again.  And here I am.


On a rainy, blustery, dark gray day in November of 1994, I took the train north from Paris to Compiègne. On arrival, and without any further study of my map, I found my way through the wet streets and quite directly to the chateau, the wind knocking me this way and that and blowing out my umbrella.

I had come mainly to see the Musée du Second Empire. The chateau has several different museums allotted to its immense expanse, and is probably best known for a few elegant rooms designed and decorated for Marie Antoinette and for the rich and beautifully preserved décor installed by Napoléon I. But I most wanted to see the large collection of memorabilia from the reign of his nephew, the Emperor Napoléon III. Of particular interest were all things relating to my childhood idol, his wife, the Empress Eugénie. Especially, the famous Winterhalter group portrait of 1855: l'Impératrice Eugénie entourée de ses dames d'honneur.

The small and rather dingy ticket office was dark and almost empty of visitors. Even the few palace employees stood about, looking like they were waiting for something to happen. My French was non-existent at the time and, unexpectedly for such a large, important museum, no one spoke English. Too far from Paris and foreign tourists, I expect. Eventually I was made to understand that the guide would do only one tour, and we - the small group of visitors - had to vote which part of the huge building we would see. The vote went for the Grands Appartements. I was very disappointed, of course, but tagged along with the group, peering at all the vast, beautiful rooms, the gray autumn light dulling more than a little of their glamour. It didn't matter to me that the tour was all narrated in French - I knew most of what I saw, having seen it all in books - but the tour guide kept looking over at me. She seemed to be disconcerted, somehow, that I was there, thinking I didn't know what it was that I was seeing.  Perhaps she felt sorry for me or maybe I just made her nervous.

After we wound our way back to the starting point, the few other visitors quickly dispersed.  Not knowing what to do, stubborn in my desire to see what I'd come all that way to see, I just stood there, waiting.  I can't recall how it came about but, somehow - maybe they thought there was no other way to get rid of me - a good-looking, middle-aged woman appeared and, a little grudgingly, made me to understand that she'd show me what I'd come for.  It appeared she spoke little or no English.

She was the perfect example of the well-off Frenchwoman of a certain age:  trim, perfectly fitting dark shoes and slacks; pastel twin set; a patterned silk scarf artfully arranged about her shoulders and held by a simple gold brooch; discrete pearl earrings.  She had a petite, well-proportioned figure and ash-blond hair, simply but flawlessly arranged.  She was perhaps fifty.

As we made our way to the other side of the chateau, we were at first accompanied by a guard but, soon enough, it was just the two of us walking through a long string of rooms. This part of the palace appears to be much refurbished now, colorful and well-arranged.  But at that time, almost twenty years ago, the aspect of those rooms was that of something carefully preserved but abandoned.  One wondered if, even in the tourist-y summer, these rooms were much visited.  Many if not most of the high, paneled walls were painted the infamous gris Trianon - the misnamed "Trianon gray" that one used to see in so many unrestored palace rooms - and made all the more austere by the cold November light coming in through the tall windows. 

All the doors were locked, and my guide held a large ring heavy with old keys, long and attenuated.  At each set of gray-painted, immensely tall (perhaps fifteen feet?) paired doors, we'd pause while she searched for the right key.  Eventually the correct key would turn narrowly in the old lock and she would let us through into the next room, before leaving which, the doors would be locked behind us.

At each new room, she would begin - in French - to give a vague overview of the objects before us.  And I would smile and continue her descriptions - in English - because I knew exactly what I was seeing.  We continued this fragmentary shared monologue as we passed from room to room, pausing before paintings and display cases, locking and unlocking those great, tall pairs of doors.  And she seemed less and less annoyed to be leading a silly hulk of an American through this still, forgotten pool of French history.  And she really looked at me now, and something warmed and softened in her eyes as she realized how much I knew, and how precious it all was to me.  How I honored it all.

Truthfully, in most of the rooms the displays were not terribly impressive.  The expected rather vulgar Second Empire furniture, dull paintings and drily academic sculpture.  And then, in smaller rooms, large and tall glass cases full of heaped arrangements of books and bits of lace, tinted lithographs and desk ornaments, baby shoes and green silk parasols.  All together, it had about it a feeling very like an old arrangement of dried and faded flowers.

It wasn't until we arrived at the last few rooms that I saw the Winterhalter portraits that had most drawn me to the place.  They have several more in the collection now, but at that time, I believe they only had four, perhaps five.  I recall the wonderfully backlit oval portrait of the comtesse de Morny, née Princess Trubetskaya, wife of the emperor's illegitimate half-brother; the small, rather wooden portrait of the Empress Eugénie that was apparently done for her son, the Prince Imperial; an oval portrait of the ringletted marquise de las Marismas, dame du palais to the empress, that I'd never seen reproduced before; the oval portrait of the emperor that is a pendant to the famous chapeau de paille portrait of his wife (this unsigned painting has been attributed to Winterhalter, but I will never believe it was by his hand); and finally, of course, the vast, leafy painting of the empress with her ladies.  This last work, in its grand frame, took the space of a whole wall to hang, and the paint looked as bright and fresh as if it had just been finished.  I'd dreamed about this painting since my childhood, and it was thrilling to see it.


When we'd finished, she did me the courtesy of walking me outside, and we stood under the colonnade that forms a screen between the two projecting wings at the front of the chateau.  With limited shared language we said our thank yous and goodbyes.  It was all very sweet until I made the extremely gauche gesture of trying to tip her; I really thought I was supposed to.  She looked offended and we ended our meeting on that awkward note.

But in remembering that day, I don't dwell on that embarrassing moment.  And I don't think very much about the poor, mummified remains of the everyday life of an idolized empress.  I honestly don't even linger long over those gorgeous paintings I loved, and still love, so much.  When I think of that cold, rainy day spent in a palace in the north of France, I think about a long, thin key tuning in an old lock, and my eyes scanning up and up to the top edge of a tall gray-painted door as it gently opens from its frame.  And I think about the warming look there in the eyes of a proper Frenchwoman - a total stranger - who, more than anyone in the world, right at that moment, comprehends who I am.


I stumbled across this video recently. It so reminded me of that day at Compiègne. The lighting is much different and the palace has been much refurbished; the rooms we walked through were dark, gray and cluttered. But the brief shot (at approx. two minutes) of the hand clutching a large bunch of old keys, turning one long, slender key in the lock of a gray-painted door, brings it all back to me.


  1. so glad to have you back and that you're recovering from your accident! Loved this story and I think many of us can relate to the frustration of not speaking the language in a place where you so want to be able to communicate!! Thanks for sharing -I must see this chateau - the video you linked to is pretty awesome.

    1. Thank you so much, Stefan! So nice hearing from you; you know how much I enjoy - your - blog. Yes, the language issue. (I do hope I'd do better now, with several years of French behind me.) But it's funny how much a shared love of beauty - beautiful buildings, art, objects - will get you through even if you don't have a shared language. I'm sure you've experienced that, too.

  2. OMG. I wish I had commented more on your glorious and often touching blog.
    I am French but I now live in Austin, after 44 years spent in Paris.
    Like you, Empress Eugénie was my idol as a pre teen, after seeing a reproduction of the famous Winterhalter portrait on the cover of a LP of Strauss waltzes. I was hooked. I have been so many times to Compiègne. I have had rooms opened especially for me.I would call someone at the castle to see both the museum of the Second Empire and the museum of the Empress Eugénie. I wqs very young and I guess they were, just like the lady you described, touched by my devoted interest. I totally know what you felt and experienced, even though I didn't have a problem with the language. I am very excited as there's a gorgeous Winterhalter retrospective coming April 17th in Houston, that will be later shown at Compiègne. I 'll go to both. I wish I could have the pleasure to meet you there. Yours sincerely.
    Rebecca Veuillet

    1. Thank you SO much for this response, Rebecca! Kindred souls. : ) So funny that we both "discovered" the Empress on a record cover; mine was a collection of Chopin polonaises - or were they études...?

      You live in Austin now? I show some of my work at a gallery there. I'm very jealous that you'll get to see the Winterhalter exhibition in Houston; I must admit I hadn't heard about it. I'll have to see what I can find out on line. Have fun there - and all the best to you!

  3. What is the name of the gallery, please ? I moved to Austin to join my brothers who have been living here for decades, after the loss of my husband...
    There's a beautiful catalog of the exhibition, called High Society. I saw it on display at the shop of the Louvre museum about a month ago when I was visited some friends and my family.
    All the best to you as well.

    1. Wally Workman Gallery, 1202 West 6th Street. They're not one of my main galleries, so they only have three (?) of my paintings right now, but they're very nice.

      The catalogue for the Winterhalter show looks very interesting...! : )

  4. Thank you. I will go and check it out.
    The catalogue is a must-have for us.It's very well done and a good addition to the one from the Petit Palais exhibition that I was fortunate enough to see back in 1988. I bought High Society on Amazon, not at the Louvre, as I didn't want to take it with me on the plane.
    Don't hesitate and buy it and enjoy !
    All the best.

    1. I have to admit I just ordered the new catalogue yesterday; I couldn't help myself! I have - two - copies of the Petit Palais book: the French-language version that I bought in Paris in 1994, and the English version that I found after I came home. How I would have loved to have seen the exhibition, itself.... : )