Louvre Grand Gallery, a bit of sculpture & Dinner in Saint Germain

There is more Paleolithic art at one site in southern France than in all the rest of the world at 20,000 years ago. The world’s first representational art belongs to France although the area around Kiev is closely tied to the early artists of France. For a long, long time the only pigments people had were in the black-gray-white range or the brown-ochre-gold range, no greens or blues. France is the first place on Earth to begin working with blue and green, but the entire art of making those pigments was lost the rise of the great civilizations of the Near East and, of course, flourished in Greece and Rome.

Medieval times saw a great revival of art in religious contexts (my own love for medieval art is perhaps born of the fact that I recognize all too well the primitive skill sets and difficulties with composition and perspective that characterize medieval painting). Then, by 1300, especially (or only) in Italy, something else happens and somehow, the Louvre (and the Hermitage, France and Russia again) make extraordinary efforts to collect that art. Of course, there’s still plenty of art left in Italy! But the Louvre has the most astonishing and instructive display of Renaissance art, when the joy of bright pigments returned to painters (with the possible exception of Mantegna – if I didn’t know better, I’d think he was poorly paid for his paintings, which are dim and dark, and done at the same time as Ghirlandaio’s amazing paintings which are shown opposite early Mantegna). One can only suppose that Mantegna was, in his way, painting what he saw – an early impressionist. I have to say I prefer the intense, bright colors. Skies really do appear to be that blue in real life, why not show them?

Yes, a lot of the paintings are religious, but what a glorious time for honoring mothers and children. Perhaps it was because so many women – perhaps one in five – died in childbirth before modern medicine that men, as priests or as artists, valued the feminine, especially mothers. Back then, people really believed in their God – and the painters were exceptionally literate in all things Biblical (most of them). But it’s not just the Bible that shows up on the walls, it’s also Greek mythology – the painting of Themis and Peleus is one of my favorites, showing a happy bacchanalia going on below their thrones in the sky – divine Feminine and Masculine looking on approvingly. The satyrs are pretty naughty.

The Madonnas are all different. They are all serene and composed, but some look sad and wistful as they think of their baby’s fate, others seem more focused on treasuring the baby, while the baby looks sad. The baby almost always has an expression of wisdom beyond his years, as he should. Some of my favorite paintings are of the Annunciation, a theme that means more and more to me as years go by. The paintings of the elderly Elizabeth, long past the age of child-bearing and barren, receiving the news that she’s going to give birth to John the Baptist (not John the beloved apostle – the other one, Jesus’s cousin) depict a woman caught between faith and common sense (aren’t we all?)

We didn’t get to the Medieval Collection on this, our13th trip to the Louvre, and we spent 5 hours. There was a time when that would have seemed like way too much time. But this time, it was like seeing old friends, particularly the faces of the two D’Este sisters. Isabella D’Este, the most lettered woman of Renaissance times and Duchess of Mantua would be delighted to see her image in so many paintings (her studiolo paintings are all in a row in the Grand Gallery, and the altarpiece that depicts her husband – by Mantegna – is across from those, although the Louvre has loaned two of her portraits to the new Louvre Lens project). I’m convinced that the handsome Conditierri portrait is that one of the old Severino brothers, staunch supports of the Este’s and of the Sforzas.

Many artists seem to have a hard time transitioning from mythologically/Biblically themed art to portraiture (Boticelli’s portraits are nothing like Leonardo’s) and one can see that specialization in the Renaissance is leading to new art movements. However, it’s hard to understand Impressionism – or Neoclassicism or Modernism – without a good look at the Renaissance. For Leonardo, the only thing I can figure out (for the Madonna of the Rocks) is that he wanted that strong, forceful composition (and in the painting of Mary sitting on the lap of Saint Anne, he wanted something that hadn’t been done before – and he certainly achieved it, again, in terms of composition). Salai’s face keeps turning up in Leonardo’s paintings (Salai is the subject of Saint John the Baptist, whose sly smile is repeated in Leonardo’s famous – but rarely exhibited nude of Salai, done while Salai was posing for John the Baptist – and generously exhibited in Los Angeles at the Italian-American institute a year or two ago). Leonardo writes of the difficulties of painting without the subject right in front of him (and of a series of techniques for doing so), but Salai was always there – almost until the very end of Leonardo’s life and is probably the person who sold the painting now known as Mona Lisa (a misnomer if ever there was one) to François I.

The Louvre now recognizes formally that the Belle Ferrioniere might be Beatrice D’Este (whose childhood statue by Romano is in the Italian sculpture room elsewhere in the Louvre – we did manage to stop by and see her – and I couldn’t believe the number of pieces in that Italian sculpture room that I had neglected to really admire on the many other trips to the Louvre). The portrait of Ludovico Sforza’s mistress (Lucrezia) is also in the Grand Gallery (Beatrice was his wife – something like 25 years his junior), attributed to the “School of Leonardo” but done by Leonardo & Co. during the same period when Beatrice sat in the Salla de Assi for her portrait by Leonardo. Her sister, Isabella D’Este was supremely jealous of the fact that little sister got her portrait done by Leonardo. I believe Leonardo finished the portrait posthumously as Beatrice died in childbirth at about the same time that he was painting her. I also have the fantasy that it was this portrait that Tolstoi saw in the Louvre and incorporated into the famous scene in War and Peace, when a young, unloved wife dies in childbirth and a portrait is painted of her looking reproachfully out at the world ever after.

I don’t try to rank the parts of the Louvre any more, but I do like the big format French paintings better than all those Roman heads they have. Odalisque never fails to make me smile and to remember how good certain shades of blue look next to human skin. David, Íngres, Le Brun (her self-portrait in Neo-Classical style might be easy to miss among all the paintings, especially with Napoleon taking up all that space with his coronation across the room), all the masters who led to Impressionism are there. I’m reading a biography of Picasso, who was delighted to move to Paris (he had exhausted his copying of his favorites in El Prado), and I know that these were paintings that Manet, Monet, Renoir and Matisse (among many others) treasured and copied from as they were learning. There was a little boy about 8 years old with colored pencils and a lot of talent copying one of the Îngres paintings.

We managed to dash over to Marly, Puget and Khoursabad Courts just as the sun was beginning o set and had most of it to ourselves. Louvre was open until 9:45 and after going in circles through cuneiform and getting sidetracked by Ninevah (Sumeria is the world’s first civilization according to V. Gordon Childe, whose definition of the term is the most widely-accepted – and it is a marvel to see pieces that are already so sophisticated and tell so much about a culture and are 4,500 years old). I agree with the Code of Hammurabi – if you are adopted, your *real* parents are the ones who raised you and anyone who returns to the “house of the ones who are the blood relatives” and abandons their real parents is an ungrateful and immoral person. On the other hand, I hope the Code doesn’t prohibit curiosity and love toward all the people who help make us who we are. I don’t think it does – I know exactly what it means and I thought of my amazing real dad, back in Santa Paula, impatient for me to get home – because my well-being and safety is so important to him.

Later on, after sitting in the pink sunset near the Carrousel Arch and then going down into Saint Germain for an absolutely amazing dinner at Au 35 (thanks to Paris forum members for that recommendation), we realized we were more or less on Parisian time. Although we arrived for dinner at just after 10 pm, we weren’t the last people to come in and the place was gently bustling. My husband’s beet and tomato gazpacho (soupe froid) was perhaps the most interesting part of the meal, and if I could figure out the yellow pepper sauce that accompanied my poached egg appetizer (I know, it’s the height of decadence), I’d be very happy. I am not an expert in Bearnaise sauce, I only know what I like and each morsel of my plat was enhanced by it, if I chose to abandon the delicate and perfect flavors of the unsauced potatoes, mushrooms and beef to use it. Now I realize I’ve never actually had good mushrooms before (these tasted in a way like mushrooms back home, but the intense richness of the flavor was something I’ve never tasted). It’s only been a few hours since I ate that meal and I’m already wishing I had more mushrooms. Too full for dessert (we had eaten at the Louvre Carrousel food court because we got up too late to eat any sort of regular lunch or breakfast – we had excellent couscous and garbanzo beans and vegetables – but in portions large enough to feed three people on each of our plates – so if you choose the couscous place at the Louvre – and I would recommend it for a basic, fast food type meal – you might consider ordering just one lunch for two people; let me know if two people can even finish one lunch there).

I knew before going to Au 35 that they made good steaks (and I know another few places to get good steaks in Paris; I find that many places have entrecôte on the menu but really, you’re better off skipping steak unless you can see that others are enjoying it – or you have read a review). With Brouilly as our wine, two entrées and two plats, our bill came to a mere 88€ (and we had three items on our plats). We were the only English speaking people there.

An older and distinguished looking French couple were seated just before us. They had two éntrees and two desserts – no mains at all. He was wearing cream colored pants, fisherman sandals (at 70 years of age or thereabouts, I imagine he is placing comfort before style but his green sweater was beautiful) and she had on cream pants, a cream top I’d described as within the “peasant” genre, but her scarf – which I could never have tied in that manner if my life depended on it, was one of those big square ones but not shiny silk, instead an abstract set of prints in mostly blues, she had on velcro-closed Birksenstock type sandals and a giant red tote (birkin-shaped but definitely not a Birkin) that really set off her outfit.

The waitress at Au 35 spoke English, but humored me by also speaking French and we both resort to using whatever words got the meaning across. Almost everywhere we go, people are interested in California (and the sea, and how lucky we are to live near it) and almost everyone has a cousin or brother or someone who has lived somewhere in SoCal for awhile. Au 35 is near the René Descartes school of medicine and Science-Po, and there were some very lively and interesting art gallery openings going on in the neighborhood. After dinner, strolling down the street, we could enjoy window after window of contemporary art – a good appetizer for today’s event, which is seeing the Angel of the Bizarre at the D’Orsay and seeing the D’Orsay in general.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Wendy Bird
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 15:19:05

    We’re leaving on Tuesday for Paris. Until then, I will be avidly reading your entries, drinking in the atmosphere. The question I am dying to know is how is the weather? Did you take the right shoes? Did you over-pack or find your happy medium?

    Reply

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