Postcard from Paris—Botticelli at the Louvre

boticelli

Of the more than 9 million visitors to the Louvre in a given year, at least 6 million come to see the Mona Lisa. They take the escalator from beneath the Grande Pyramide to the Denon wing, and follow the small but persistent signs for La Jaconde, stopping in front of the Winged Victory—newly renovated and impressively installed at the top a flight of marble stairs.

Then they turn right toward the Italian paintings, and walk through a narrow hall past 2 amazing Boticelli frescoes.

Most people don’t even notice these delicate works, painted by Sandro Boticelli in the 1480s, for the walls of Villa Lemmi, a country villa belonging to the Medici family.

Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman shows 5 young women in profile. The setting is an imaginary garden. Venus, the goddess of love, offers a bouquet of flowers, possibly a wedding gift, to a bride-to-be. The goddess and subject are flanked by the Three Graces and Cupid.

The fresco was discovered under a coat of whitewash in the Villa Lemmi and rescued. I love it for its delicate beauty — and its symbolism makes it even more endearing. Here is how the Louvre describes the painting.

Line, color, romance, classical beauty, generosity…it is all here, all but unseen on a busy day at the Louvre.

Paris Book Review: Murder on the Quai

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.37.18 AM

From regular contributor Betty Guernsey:

Cara Black’s latest Aimée Leduc adventure takes us back in time, a prequel to her previous fifteen books featuring the plucky, stylish and infinitely resourceful Parisienne sleuth.

Murder on the Quai” – in this case, the quai directly beneath the Pont des Invalides – introduces us to the chic, high-rent 8ème arroundissement – the areas around the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the Place Vendôme, and the Boulevard Haussmann, while continuing to delve into Parisian history (the famous “triangle d’or”, the Old Village of La Roule).

At the same time she reveals fascinating tidbits of Aimée’s personal history: as a premed student at the Sorbonne, moonlighting at her father’s and grandfather’s detective firm; her first meeting with computer sidekick René; and how Miles Davis, her faithful bichon frisé, came into her life.

Mille fois merci, Betty!

Are you a Cara Black fan?

What’s New at the Louvre

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 9.26.07 AM

The Louvre is in the news this week, but it’s more about what’s happening outside the museum than what’s inside.

First, the water. Following weeks of rain, the Seine peaked at 20 feet above normal Saturday morning, the highest level since 1982, and museums took emergency measures to keep their artwork safe. Both the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay closed, and employees moved works from lower to upper floors. No damage was done, the river has since receded, and museums are making arrangements to reopen. Scary, nonetheless. Here’s a good NYT article.

Second, the optical illusion. International street artist JR, who has been covering public walls with photographs for 10 years, and most recently transformed the outside of the Paris Pantheon during its renovation, has changed the appearance of the Louvre Pyramid. Normally, JR uses giant photographs of people, but this time, by plastering the Pyramid with a gigantic B&W photograph of the museum, he has created an optical illusion. Stand at just the right angle, and the controversial glass pyramid seems to disappear. “JR at The Louvre” runs outside Musée du Louvre from May 25 – June 28

Restaurant Les Chouettes in the Marais

At first glance, Les Chouettes is a small café in the Haut Marais, where locals gather at dark round tables and watch the world go by. Perched at the edge of a square, with a white awning and slim terrasse, the place looks casual, even ordinary.

But inside is a chic, luminous space with 3 floors of seating, and a limited menu that deserves a rave.

At lunch on a weekend, I chose the gravlax maison from among 3 starters. The delicate strips of salmon were dusted with morsels of cauliflower and broccoli, and topped with a pale yellow, speckled quenelle, which I expected to be crême fraiche—but it was a savory ice cream made with Charroux mustard.

The cod was a work of art, and another study in taste, color and texture. The combination of bright fresh peas, fava beans, and ginger confit should have dominated or distracted me from the perfectly cooked fish—but only enhanced it.

Portions were generous, and I didn’t need dessert, but couldn’t resist ordering the dessert maison: St Honoré, reinvented. The traditional cake is an elegant round cream puff flavored with vanilla, orange zest, or liqueur. I was curious to see how they had improved on an already divine pastry.

Their version consisted of 4 small rounds, joined to form a voluptuous bar. Inside was piped cream that tasted of chestnut, and a thin, crisp, dark chocolate wafer. I smiled when I saw it, and again after my first bite.

Quality food, gracious service, lovely ambiance, and reasonable prices: I will be back!

Will you be in Paris soon? Les Chouettes will close for summer vacation, reopening Aug 25.

Paris via Williamstown, VanGogh and Nature

Van Gogh and Nature” at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA gave me a new point of reference for the artist’s work. The show—gorgeous, organized chronologically, and full of lesser known works—makes the case that the natural world wasn’t just important in VanGogh’s painting, but central to his life.

VanGogh was a curious nature-lover in his youth, and his early works were somber colored, detailed drawings of rural Holland. As a young adult, he moved to Paris for art training; influenced greatly by Monet, his depictions of the natural world brightened.

Where other artists painted Paris’ technological advances, VanGogh looked closely at its green spaces: sloping hillsides, garden patches, parks, flowers. (He revealed Haussman’s architecture as a few pale, brownish brushstrokes at the edge of the canvas.)

In Provence, VanGogh used brilliant color and abstracted forms to capture olive groves, grain fields, cypress trees. These are the paintings we most associate with the artist, and my viewing was made richer by the works that preceded them: small naturalist studies of moths, birds, and butterflies; still lives; Impressionistic renderings of Paris farmland; works by Monet, Millet, and Japanese print artists who influenced him.

If you have time, take the shuttle bus from the main gallery up the hill to the Lunder Center: Whistler’s Mother, normally at Musée d’Orsay, is there, in a room of its own.

Until Sept 13

Paris via New York, Delice & Sarrasin

image_crepe

Regular contributor Betty Guernsey says these crêpes are the most authentically French she’s come across in Manhattan. Merci, Betty!

A welcome new addition to the Manhattan dining scene is Délice & Sarrasin, a crêperie and patisserie located at 20 Christopher Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues) in the West Village.

Barely larger than a postage stamp, but very French in ambiance, it was opened about six months ago by a family from Toulouse, serving their own original galettes (savory crêpes made with sarrasin, a buckwheat flour), and crêpes (sweet or dessert crêpes, made with pâte au froment or plain wheat flour) — the fillings perhaps more creative than traditional, more in the style of Toulouse than Bretagne.

Very authentic, however, is the slightly alcoholic cider served in cups (and specially imported from France), and their Crêpe Suzette, which is no less than superbe.

Paris Book Review, Diane Johnson Trilogy

image_paris_night

Mille fois merci to regular contributor Betty Guernsey for recommending three great Paris reads!

Always good for a re-read, summer or otherwise, is Diane Johnson’s classic trilogy of Americans in Paris: Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L’Affaire, in that order — each an astute and sophisticated commentary on the fallout that occurs when cultures collide.

Johnson is a witty observer not only of Franco-American relations, but of relations between the sexes – a modern-day Edith Wharton – linking her three transatlantic tales with a subtle overlapping of characters that lends an air of fun and familiarity to it all. (Le Divorce, the first and most famous, was made into a movie by James Ivory, with Kate Hudson in the lead, and some fabulous footage of Paris and La Tour Eiffel.)

Terrasse Colbert at the Louvre

I don’t know how to explain the fact that there were only a dozen other people eating lunch outside at the Louvre’s Terrasse Colbert on a sunny day recently. Maybe it was because the cafeteria is fairly new, and the food limited.

But when even a mediocre baguette sandwich and tartelette citron come with a view of the Louvre Pyramid, and what you need after making your way through the largest museum in the world is a quiet sit-down, this little-known space is worth knowing about.

Unlike the cafés inside the Louvre, Terrasse Colbert, on the roof of the Richelieu wing, feels very much like a part of the museum. Seventeenth century sculptures line the edge of the terrasse. The view of the Pyramid, from one floor above, is fantastic.

Contemporary comforts are minimal: white umbrellas shield diners from the sun, and plastic designer chairs provide respite for tired feet. But the setting is extravagant — and far from the crowds, the quiet feels luxurious.

Hidden, suffused in sunlight, and steeped in history, Terrasse Colbert is a great place to take a break at the Louvre. Access is from the first floor of the Richelieu wing, near the escalator.

Restaurant Semilla in the 6th

image_semilla_paris

I’m smitten by contemporary bistrot Semilla, where 27 year-old chef Matthieu Roche coaxes high quality, inventive cuisine from a team of even younger chefs in an animated, open kitchen.

The generous midday 2 course 24€ formule starts with an appetizer consisting of three dishes. This is often a soup, something crunchy, and a third surprise. My plate, pictured above, was courgette (zucchini) three ways: a soup spiced with mint, a crumble with parmesan, and a salad with chick peas and dill. I have never tasted chick peas so plump, creamy and crisp.

The formule offers a fish, veggie and meat option. I chose the sea bass, crisp and moist, topped with pickled onions, accompanied by chestnut-scented vitelotte (blue) potatoes and brown butter. Roche favors lesser known wines; the house white wine from Domaine de Cressance, near the Pont de Gard, was perfect.

I had planned to stop at two courses, but was so happy that I acquiesced to a hazelnut financier with rhubarb, accompanied by a sorbet rhubarbe poivrée. A shaving of raw rhubarb that garnished the plate took me back to my childhood.

I had come to the restaurant on a friend’s recommendation, and I couldn’t have been happier with the food. Service was well paced and friendly; with its marble topped tables and semi-industrial vibe, ambiance was stellar.  From start to finish, Semilla exceeded my expectations, and proved to be an excellent value.

No website, reservations recommended. 54 Rue de Seine, 6th, 01 43 54 34 50

Modern Art and Design at Fondation Louis Vuitton

I went to the recently-opened Fondation Louis Vuitton, in the Bois de Boulogne, primarily to see the building—a ship of concrete and glass designed by Frank Gehry.

The building is well worth a visit, and engineers will delight in the technologies perfected for its creation. But the highlight was the temporary art show.

“Keys to a Passion” is a stellar collection of modern art, arranged thematically in six intimate spaces.

The first room holds portraits by Giacometti and Francis Bacon, and—new to me—Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck. Her series of realistic self-portraits spanning the years 1915-1944 is remarkable for its continuity and emotional weight.

Schjerfbeck’s work has been compared to that of Edvard Munch, and “The Scream” hangs nearby. The juxtaposition of similar works is a strong point of the show.

A room of waterscapes invites meditation, and included my favorite painting: “Dune Sketch in Bright Stripes,” a soft abstract by Mondrian, very different from his grids.

Matisse cutouts, “La Danse” and “La Tristesse du Roi”, Rothko’s “#46”, and “Endless Column” by Brancusi, plus portraits by Picasso and Bonnard are set apart with plenty of space and seating.

My one quibble with the show is that the titles of works are hung in a corner of each room, where only 2 people can read at a time. But otherwise, it was a perfect afternoon.