Muses of Montparnasse

In time primordial, before there were such things as music, story, or any art,
Earth and Sky were quiet, for no thought could yet be formed.
High atop Mount Helicon a winged horse touched hooves to ground,
Where sprung from Earth a fountain, jet of water unto Sky.
So from Gaia Mother Earth and Uranus Father Sky,
Were begat Melete and Mneme and Aoide, Muses of practice, memory, and song.

The concept of an inspirational muse was born as early as the eighth century BC. In that period, Hesiod dedicates the poetic Theogony as “a rhapsody in honor of the Muses.”

In his Description of Greece, the AD seventh-century Greek tourist Pausanias tells of two generations of Muses. The first consists of three elder Muses, daughters of Gaia and Uranus, born as water nymphs on Mount Helicon.

A second generation, offspring of the god-king Zeus and the memory goddess Mnemosyne, gives us the nine Muses of classical Greek mythology. Pausanias has the sisters comfortably installed in their home at the top of Mount Parnassus, one of Greece’s highest peaks.

Each Muse presides over her own domain:

Calliope — eloquence, epic poetry
Clio — history
Euterpe — music, song, lyric poetry
Erato — love poetry, elegy
Melpomene — tragedy
Polyhymnia — hymns, lyric poetry, pantomime
Terpsichore — dance
Thalia — comedy
Urania — astronomy 

Relief sculpture from a second-century Roman sarcophagusRelief sculpture of the nine Muses
from a second-century Roman sarcophagus, now at the Louvre

Such was the status quo until the seventeenth century, when artists, inspired by the Muses, began to imagine each their own personal muse:

“In the seventeenth century, muse was extended to the inspiration of each poet (1665, Boileau), often evoked in the feminine…”
—Muse entry from a French language historical dictionary, Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Alain Rey (translation mine)

Instead of inspiring the multitude, the third generation muse tends to the creative spark within an individual artist. Furthermore, while in previous generations muses were feminine, in modern times a muse’s gender is open to the artist’s interpretation:

“Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine’s a guy; I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with that.” —Stephen King, On Writing

Meanwhile, still in the seventeenth century, students at the University of Paris, La Sorbonne, held regular poetry recitals to test their wit. They chose for their venue the Pré-aux-Clercs, an abandoned stretch of land along the Seine given to the university by Charlemagne and neighbored by the Church of Saint-Germain des Prés.

In addition to love sonnets and heroic epics, bawdy limericks and derisive satire were among favorite forms. These later, fueled by quantities of alcohol and directed at clergy and church ladies, prompted a veritable war between students and churchmen. At least one death was reported in ensuing riots. Eventually, the university sold the land, and the students were encouraged to take their Dead Poets Society elsewhere.

On the outskirts of the city, a mound of rubble, piled up from a nearby stone quarry, became a convenient dumping ground. Once the city walls were pushed beyond the man-made hill, the dumping ceased, and nature reclaimed its rights.

Over time the mound was packed into a smooth hillock. It was covered with high grass and rampant weeds when the student poets moved in. Having learned well their lessons in Greek mythology, they welcomed inspiration to the recital space by naming the hill after the Greek home of Muses. 

Veuë d'une partie de l'église des carmes“View of part of Carmes Deschaussez Church
and the grand gallery of the Louvre”

In this seventeenth-century drawing by Israel Silvestre, the butte of Montmartre rises in the background, while the artist does his work on Mont de Parnasse (foreground)

The hill itself is long gone now, flattened to make way for Parisian boulevards. However, the name remains. As the city grew, the neighborhood that sprouted up around the old trash heap became known as Montparnasse.

Most recently, in the 1970s, the city’s only sky scraper was pulled up out of the ground: Tour Montparnasse, new home for muses.

Montparnasse Tower over the Jardin de LuxembourgMontparnasse Tower reaches into the sky over the Jardin de Luxembourg

 

 

 

 

 


The first part of this article is myth: “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon” (Merriam-Webster). In this case, the myth explains the source of human inspiration.

The second part is legend: “a story coming down from the past; especially one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable” (Merriam-Webster). Though many guide books and historical street atlases make reference to the hell-raising student poets, I've found no primary source to support the story.


 

Plan de Paris en 1657Map of Paris
Johannes Janssonius, 1657

The map is oriented with north to the lower left corner. “Mont de Parnasse” is found in the upper right. The site today is Place Pablo-Picasso in the 6th arrondissement. It’s completely flat.

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Millet’s Paris

Between the Second French Revolution (1830) and the Third (1848), was the reign of Louis-Philippe. France would later have one more emperor, but Louis-Philippe was its last king.

During the First French Revolution, the ruling National Convention abolished the monarchy. Beginning in 1792, a series of parliamentary regimes called the First Republic followed. It was a period of wars and civil unrest that began with the Terror and gave way to the First Empire in 1804.

After the fall of Napoléon I in 1815, the monarchy was restored. Under Louis XVIII then Charles X, though the King of France was limited by a constitution, he still enjoyed divine right and the nation conceded to the absolute sovereign.

This period, called the Restoration, ended with the Trois Glorieuses, the Second Revolution named after the “Three Glorious” days in July, 1830, in which it took place. The last king was then installed. No divine right, no absolute sovereign, not evenly properly King of France, Louis-Philippe was titled “King of the French.”

Occupied with matters of state and his own head, Louis-Philippe, like the Restoration kings before him, paid little attention to the state of the capital. This was Victor Hugo’s Paris: impoverished, polluted, overpopulated, and disease-ridden. The growing working class, fuel for a nascent industrial economy, crowded the city center. Population density rose to 100,000 per square kilometer (compared to today’s 20,000/km2), a propitious environment for the spread of cholera. Above this cityscape, increased iron and coal production clouded the air with black soot.

In winter 1837, Jean-François Millet left his Normandy homeland. In a letter to Alfred Sensier, the peasant-painter later wrote (translation mine):

“I left with a heavy heart, and everything I saw on the road and in Paris only afflicted me more. Seeing the wide, straight roads, the trees in lines, the flat plains, the pastures so rich in verdure and livestock, that they seemed to me rather theater decor than real nature…! And Paris, black, muddy, smoky, where I arrived one evening, was for me the most painful as well as the most discouraging.”

Les Halles by Léon Augustin Lhermite

Les Halles by Léon Augustin Lhermite (1895)

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Rez de Jardin, Bibliotèque François Mitterrand

Bibliotèque François MitterrandI met Tom at a café I call the field office. Tom teaches history of religion to high school sophomores in Arizona. He comes to Paris every year to do research at the Bibliotèque François Mitterrand.

Tom said, “I work six floors under ground on the garden level.”

I said, “I gotta see that,” and we made plans to meet the next day.

 

Tom wasn't kidding. The Rez de Jardin is the research floor at the BnF. This photo was taken from the entrance level overlooking the garden, which is rather more like a forest.

Rez de JardinJardin at the Bibliotèque François Mitterrand

Below, the garden is surrounded by room after room of books and work spaces. Labeled by letters K through Y, the rooms are classed by subject: philosophy, history, science and technology, economics, politics, art and literature, and the rare book reserve.

Rare booksTom gave me a tour. We got as far as the rare book reserve…

The rare books are kept in room Y. To get to room Y, there’s a door in the back of room T. The door leads to a narrow elevator that goes up two floors into a low-ceiling space, filled with chest-high book cases, quiet, and dimly lit. A friendly, young man took our accreditation cards and let us browse. I was hoping he’d give us white cotton gloves.

Genesis  Gutenberg BibleThese are facsimiles of Caxton’s 1485 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur and a Gutenberg Bible.

Caxton's edition of Malory  1485

 

 No gloves required.

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Hanami, Ancient Japanese Tradition

The way opens between two hedge rows. Birds chitter within. Entering by a narrow lane, the world blooms into rosy hues. A soft breeze through branches carries the delicate scent of cherry blossoms. Cherry tree in bloom  Parc de SceauxCheckered blankets spread beneath them, well dressed men and women clink glasses. Laughing children roll in lush green grass. Tiny birds flit from branch to branch, tree to tree, twittering the news: “Spring, spring! Springtime is here!”

I walked into a cherry orchard at the Parc de Sceaux. All the trees were in full bloom, all the people were there to see them, and everyone brought a picnic.

Cherry blossoms  pink and white  dazzle in sunlightA Japanese guy set up a camera on a tripod. Its lens, as long as my forearm, extended toward pink and white blossoms, dazzling in the sunlight. The hollow pop of a cork leaving a Champagne bottle turned heads and made a girl giggle.

“Is there a party?” I asked the guy, my American accent coming through the French.

“Hanami,” he said with a Japanese accent, “ancient Japanese custom, big spring celebration.”

We chatted for a few minutes while he lined up a shot with the camera. I took a few photos as well and made a note to look up this custom when I got home. This is what I’ve found so far:

In eighth-century Japan, neighboring Chinese culture was considered more sophisticated. Such was its influence that the Japanese capital, Nara, was modeled after its Chinese counterpart, including numerous plum trees imported from China. Plum trees bloom in late February and mark the end of winter.

Tranquility beneath a cherry tree

Emperor Saga in the early ninth century is credited as the first to throw a party in a blooming orchard. Thus Hanami, “flower viewing” in Japanese, began among the elite of the imperial court.

Due to a rebellion in China, that country’s exports to Japan halted. This intercultural rupture is marked by the 894 abolition of Japan’s official delegations to China, which required an arduous crossing of the Sea of Japan. Reduced influence from the mainland allowed an independent Japanese culture to flourish, and the native cherry tree gained in popularity over the old plum tree. Blooming at the end of March, cherry blossoms mark the arrival of spring.

Curious margin note: The popularity of plum and cherry blossoms is measured by the number of mentions each receives throughout history in various writings, such as chronicles, diaries, and poetry, including waka and haiku. So many mentions for plums in this century versus only this many for cherries. The next couple centuries see an increase in cherry mentions and a decrease in plums. Vote for your favorite thing in writing!

Yayoi or Sangatsu  Asukayama Hanami
Yayoi or Sangatsu, Asukayama Hanami (Third Lunar Month, Blossom Viewing at Asuka Hill) by Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820), from the series Jūnikagetsu (Twelve Months), between 1772 and 1776. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Hanami remained a practice of the elite until the eighteenth century. His people suffering from poverty, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune invited local subjects into a private cherry orchard to share in the springtime festival, which included a feast as well as cherry blossoms. The event was well received. The shogun then ordered the planting of cherry trees along rivers and lanes and encouraged the people to participate in the annual event.

Today, Hanami is as popular as ever in Japan, and the custom has spread around the world. In April of each year, some 200 Japanese cherry trees attract members of the local Japanese community and Parisians to two orchards in the Parc de Sceaux, south of Paris.

I’m still hunting down the provenance of these particular trees. I’ll update this article when I find out. Meanwhile, if you want to see the spectacle, it’s happening this week!

 

Stephen Wendell lives near the Parc de Sceaux, where he goes for a daily run. He is the author of the Littlelot series of children’s books and The Way to Vict’ry, a book of three haiku inspired by Sun Tzu, Matthieu Ricard, and a magpie flight instructor.

Northern cherry orchard  west of the Grand Canal

View of the northern (pink) cherry tree orchard, west of the Grand Canal, Parc de Sceaux

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History of the World in Doors

I love doors. Whenever Catherine and I go exploring in a town or village, I always fall behind because I'm looking at them. I have the idea that you could tell the history of civilization talking about doors.

This one, opposite the corner of rue Monsieur Le Prince and rue Dupuytren, integrates the window above. Check out the carved Earth motif. There are other things in there, too, including a book. I'm going to have to find out who made this door and why.

Door Monsieur Le Prince Dupuytren

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The Phaedra Adventure

“Many when they come to die have spent all the truth that was in them, and enter the next world as paupers. I have saved up enough to make an astonishment there.” — Mark Twain

The Phaedra on the canal de BourgogneThe Phaedra moored on stakes along the Burgundy Canal (photo by Cris Hammond)

The Phaedra is a flat-bottom barge, 56 feet long and not twice as wide as my outstretched arms. Originally a commercial craft, she was put to service in 1925, hauling milk and cheese along the waterways between Holland and Belgium. At the time, a barge was pulled by men or horse along canals. For river navigation, she was built with a single mast. Made obsolete by a combustible engine, the mast now lies fixed over the main cabin.

I asked Cris what happened to the Phaedra during the war. He said none of his papers about the boat give any clue and suggested I make something up. So let’s imagine for a moment…

During World War II the Phaedra was requisitioned by the German army to ferry troop supplies from the Netherlands, through Belgium and into occupied France. Unknown to the Germans, the Dutch bargeman, whose name was Raemaekers, also carried coded messages between French resistance fighters and spies in Holland, who transmitted the messages to General de Gaulle in London.

Raemaekers almost got caught in early June, 1944. At Charleville, a port town on the Meuse, northern France, a German officer stumbled onto the scene during the message exchange. The bargeman fled on foot with the resistance operative, a French woman he called Angelica. Taken in by an old spinster and hidden in the cellar, the two spent a torrid night in each other’s arms.

The following day news of the Normandy invasion caused mayhem in the town. That night, Raemaekers slipped aboard the Phaedra and, learning that the Germans had blocked downstream traffic to allow shipments to the front, he made his escape south, up river. Angelica, continuing the mission, took the message north.

For months, Raemaekers navigated rivers and canals through occupied territory. He made it as far as Saint-Jean-de-Losne (pronounced /lohn/), at the end of the Burgundy Canal. As he pulled the Phaedra through the last lock into the Saône River, a series of three explosions cracked the air. The German army had blown up the bridge over the river to cover their retreat ahead of advancing Allied troops from the south.

Though he tried to track her down after the war, Raemaekers never saw Angelica again.

The entire story is documented in a book called The Phaedra Adventure, and none of this is true.

It is true, however, that the Phaedra was converted to a pleasure barge in the late 1940s. The cargo hold became a small apartment, complete with kitchenette, living area, two staterooms, two toilets and a shower. Also installed at this time, a pair of stained glass windows filter outside light from the pilothouse into the living area. 

Stained glass windowAmphitrite (left) and Poseidon in stained glass

The windows depict Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea. In Greek mythology, Phaedra is the daughter of Minos, first king of Crete, and Pasiphaë, who also gave birth to the Minotaur. The father of Minos was Zeus, brother of Poseidon. So the stained glass god and goddess are great uncle and aunt to Phaedra, and her half-brother is the Minotaur.

Before Cris, the Phaedra’s owner was a doctor and master woodcarver, who bought the barge in the 80s. In addition to fitting a new engine, he carved nautical and floral motifs in the wood trim, including the wheel pedestal.

Cris became the proud new owner in 2001 at Saint-Jean-de-Losne. He painted her in greens and blues. It’s a lovely palette for a barge that is today a veritable work of art. I’ve seen tourists strolling along the quay stop to take photographs and selfies with the Phaedra.


Between Poseidon and Amphitrite hangs a brass plaque with an inscription in Dutch: “BY BRAND DEZE PLAAT OMDRAAIEN”
Thinking it must be a motto, I asked Cris what it meant. He said, “Reverse this plaque in case of fire…”

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From Here to Paris

From Here to ParisLaid off from his Silicon Valley job, Cris Hammond bought an old barge in the south of France. He and his wife, Linda, brought it along rivers and canals all the way to Paris. You can read an account of the entire voyage in the book Cris wrote about the experience. You'll also learn about the Phaedra, an adorable 1920's Dutch barge. From Here to Paris is an entertaining ride through the locks and canals of southern France. Bill Bryson might have titled it, Up the River.

For this weekend's adventure, "Here" is the Port of Cergy. End of last spring, I went with Cris and crew to take the Phaedra from Paris to her summer berth 40 nautical miles down the winding course of the Seine. Summer's over and Cris is back in wine and cheese country. So I'm helping him with the return trip.

We have a fueling operation today. If all goes well, I hope we'll have time to visit Auvers-sur-Oise. Back in the 1860's, one of the Barbizon painters, Charles Daubigny, went up there and attracted his own group of landscape artists. Van Gogh was one. Though he lived there for only a few months before his death.

Cris and I will spend the night like sailors in port, then we cast off tomorrow for the voyage to the Port de l'Arsenal at Bastille. Cris will pilot, of course. I'm navigator. Navigator, in this case, is a big word for counting bridges and making sure the river is flowing the right direction. I get to look at the map, though, so I'm okay with that.

The Phaedra, Port de l'Arsenal

Phaedra, Port de l'Arsenal, Bastille, Paris, June 2016

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Cartoon

  Cartoon

“Drawings done with the intention of later expanding them into full-sized frescoes were called cartoons; Artimus believed that the fragile, discolored sheet which he held in his hands was just such a document. More, he believed that the Rousseau and Vincent alluded to in the scribblings on the reverse side of the vellum were in fact the landscape artist Theodore Rousseau, and the mad master Expressionist, Vincent van Gogh. The cartoon itself, he believed, had been drawn by a contemporary of Rousseau’s, Jean-François Millet, and consequently became known, if somewhat inaccurately, as The Millet Fresco.”

    — James A. Owen, The Barbizon Diaries, p. 4

The image above is a scan of my own rendition of the fresco sketch, or cartoon, from the description in the Prologue of The Barbizon Diaries.

The cartoon’s scale shows a fresco 15 feet high by 36 feet wide. I wanted to impress the size and proportion on my mind so, were I to pass by it, I might recognize a surface that could take a painting so large. A quick outline on graph paper was enough. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to recreate an artifact.

I didn’t have any charcoal handy. Instead, I used a blunt 9B graphite pencil with indiscriminate smudges. I imagined only hints of a scene that Millet and company might have come up with. The vellum I aged the old-fashioned way: with coffee. Some campaigners soak their ancient maps and documents in black tea to get the look of antiquity. I prefer the richer tones of arabica.


Owen, James A., The Barbizon Diaries: A Meditation on Will, Purpose, and the Value Of Stories (The Meditations Book 2). Coppervale Press, 2016.

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Itinerary

“[Millet] is a laborer who loves his field — plows, sows, and reaps it. His field is art. His inspiration is life, is nature — which he loved with all his strength.”

    — Alfred Sensier, friend and biographer* of Jean-François Millet


Barbizon is only a half-hour drive south of base camp. However, I’d like to get a better idea about the artist who allegedly made the fresco sketch. Some research reveals the waypoints along the journey to Barbizon. 

Gruchy

La maison au puits a gruchy
La maison au puits à Gruchy, painting by Jean-François Millet

Jean-François Millet was a native of Gruchy, a hamlet of Gréville in Normandy. He lived and worked on the family farm to adulthood. The pastoral scenes of his youth would later serve as inspiration for his most famous paintings.

Cherbourg

Encouraged by his father at age 20, Millet left home to study painting in neighboring Cherbourg. An art museum had just opened in that town. Millet often went there to copy the works of the master painters as part of his studies. Today, the Thomas Henry Museum holds the third largest collection of Millet paintings.

Paris

During three years at Cherbourg, Millet made such an impression on the community that they gave him a stipend to study in Paris. At L’école de Baux Arts (school of fine arts), Millet studied under Paul Delarouche. Later, he also had his own studio in the city. I’ll try to find it.

Barbizon, Le village des peintres

Self-portrait Jean-François Millet
Self-portrait, Jean-François Millet

Whether it was the third French revolution of 1848, an outbreak of cholera in the city, the general urban atmosphere or a combination there of, in 1849 Millet took his family to a village of woodcutters on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. By the end of the century it would be known as “the village of painters.”

At his home studio in Barbizon, he painted The Angelus. A few doors down the main street is the inn where the meeting of would-be frescoists supposedly took place, the Auberge Siron (today called the Hôtel de Bas-Bréau).

Millet lived there for the last 26 years of his life. He is buried in the local cemetery of Chailly-en-Bière.

Itinerary
Itinerary: Gruchy - Cherbourg - Paris - Barbizon

 

*Sensier, Alfred, Jean-François Millet, Peasant and Painter (translated by Helena de Kay). Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1881.

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