Ashley in Paris

Ashley, a member of the University Honors Program and a senior majoring in art history, was awarded a Richter International Fellowship to conduct independent, graduate-level research this summer in Paris, where she plans to examine primary documents and pieces of chinoiserie at the major libraries and museums. Chinoiserie was an 18th-century movement in Europe characterized by the production of goods that portrayed China as an idyllic utopia, with plump pagodes, mystic sages and enlightened philosophers.

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Besancon: Discovering a France Outside of Paris

When I was researching back in the States several months ago, I discovered that eight works from Francois Boucher’s extremely influential La Tenture Chinoise were at a museum in Besancon, France (near the border of Switzerland and France and about a 2.5-hour train ride from Paris). Since these were the works that initiated my interest in chinoiserie, and ultimately shaped my research topic, I knew that I had to travel to see them if possible. Also, what a great excuse to visit other parts of France?! I spent five weeks in Paris last summer, only leaving for a weekend in the Loire Valley. While I love Paris, I was jumping at the chance to experience the countryside. I wasn’t disappointed …

“Ou se trouve la gare”
Like I said above, I knew that I would have to take a train from Paris to Besancon. So, being the planner that I am, I scheduled the trip for a particular weekend during my stay and booked the train tickets and hotel online before leaving the States. Probably a little cautious (although I didn’t think so at the time) and unnecessary because you can buy your tickets at the station up until minutes before the train departs (sometimes this is a good way to get good deals). However, my “worrier side” was pacified.

So, I got up excruciatingly early (5:30am) the morning of my trip. This would allow me to get on the metro by 7am and be at the station an hour early. This accounted for any potential problems that I might run into along the way (i.e. metro running late, metro car breaking down, not being able to find my platform, something wrong with my tickets, etc.). I had thought of almost all possible situations. One thing I had no apprehensions about though – finding the train station (la gare in French). I knew that my train departed out of Gare de Lyon. I had been by it tons of times (it is on the way to the BNF), and in Paris, popular destinations (like museums, libraries, monuments) are always extremely well marked. Even the metro stop to get there was fittingly titled Gare de Lyon. No problem, right? Well, if anyone is going to run into an issue, it would be me. Since I had planned for everything else to go wrong, I was probably asking for it.

So, I arrive at the metro stop Gare de Lyon and get off looking for the exit pointing in the direction of the gare. There isn’t one. I think, “That’s fine, I’ll guess”. Of course I don’t follow the other people with luggage because I am a self-proclaimed pro at finding anything in Paris. Instead, I guess. Guessing allows me to keep my pride. Guessing also wastes 20 minutes of my hour “cushion-time”, which are filled instead with walking up and down a deserted street carrying two extremely heavy bags (around then, I greatly regretted the books, binders and other paperwork I had felt were “necessary” and packed the night before).

Finally, defeated, I decided to pull out the map (something I despise doing in public). There was the gare right next to the metro stop, right where I had just come from. But why couldn’t I see it?! So, I returned to the site of the “invisible” gare, debating all the while if I should ask someone. I had already walked past the same spots several times and was becoming a source of entertainment for some of the local construction workers.

Suddenly, I see a deserted set of stairs. What are the chances? No signs, no nothing. I decide to chance it and pray that I am right so that the workers don’t have to watch me walk up and down this random set of stairs for no apparent reason. Luckily, that doesn’t happen, because upon ascending, I discover that I have indeed found the gare. What’s more, my pride isn’t completely deflated because at least I didn’t have to ask someone “Ou se trouve la gare?” (and they say that men are bad about asking directions).

Two of the Seven Dwarfs
All of the other travel plans go seamlessly from here on out. I have been in Besancon for half an hour and already I am loving it. Two things I have noticed: one, there are many more elderly and children here as opposed to Paris, and two, people greet you with a smile. I think to myself, “What a great and much needed change. These next couple days are going to be great.”

I take a seat in a local Salon du The (tea house) the owner of my hotel had recommended and order the plat du jour (chicken and scalloped potatoes) with a cup of Fleur de Geisha tea. It is Sunday, so most things are closed, and the pace is that only possible – of a lazy Sunday afternoon. The Salon du The doubles as a patisserie, and I am extremely entertained watching all of the locals pop in and out to pick up various baked goodies to take home. This is a popular place.

As I was waiting for my meal, two elderly gentlemen took a table near mine. They were probably in their 70s, and it seemed as if lunching here was part of their weekly ritual. The shopkeepers greeted them with a sense of familiarity and respect reserved for only the most loyal of customers. They were very curious about me – a young woman sitting alone. However, they were either too shy or too prideful to ask any questions. They didn’t feel it was out of the ordinary though to shoot glances in my direction every few minutes. Once they even get up the courage to ask me “Bon appetit?”.

Shortly after our brief exchange, a man behind me, whom I hadn’t noticed before then, asked if I have a cell phone. I cautiously reply that I don’t. Something about his air didn’t seem quite right. Apparently, the two older men agreed because they kept shooting him scathing looks. They were my gallant protectors (oddly, they reminded me of two of the seven dwarfs in their hunched stature and expressive faces). Sure enough, I was right about the strange man. Even the owners seemed ready to be rid of him. He tried to get my attention another time and then settled on muttering to himself. I am sure that the scowls of my new friends helped. I was already feeling like a part of the community in Besancon. This is something that would continue throughout my trip.

Richter1.jpgMusee des Beaux arts de Besancon
After lunch, I headed to the museum to examine Boucher’s works and see the rest of the collections. I found the display of Boucher’s series highly unusal. They are crowded into a room with all other 18th-century pieces. They definitely weren’t being showcased the way I would have liked, but I guess I am a little biased. Also, they were much smaller than I had imagened, and the color saturation was more muted than many of the reproductions I have previously seen. However, it was enlightening to see them in person after reading so much about them. I snapped a few photos and decided to visit the rest of the museum. I could return to them tomorrow when I would meet with one of the museum curators.

Richter2.jpgThe museum houses a diverse collection of works, which are mostly of European origin and dated from the Renaissance onward. My favorite gallery was that which housed the 19th-century impressionist and post-impressionist works. Here I spent some time reading about the pieces and taking photos. I was impressed with the small but exemplary collection from this particular time period (see photo).

Also, the museum had an exhibition going on entitled “La Momie aux Amulettes” (The Mummy and its Amulets). It was interesting to see all of the small treasures that make up the many amulettes, which are placed in the many layers of bindings during the mummification process. I have always been intrigued by Egypt, particularly its funerary art and traditions. It was nice to see this exhibition. It set up my appetite for the King Tut exhibition which will be at the DMA this Fall (I’ve already bought advance tickets, which are available online).

Finding an Old Friend
The next moring I got up and prepared for my meeting with Madame Courtet at the museum. When I arrived, she took me to a room in the back of the upstairs’ galleries and showed me many of Boucher’s drawings owned by the museum. This room is called the Cabinet des Dessins, and it was absolutely beautiful. I felt that the room definitely rivaled the art, with its floor to ceiling windows and built-in cabinetry. Mme Courtet told me that the room was designed in the 1950s by a friend of the conservatrice (female curator) during that time. I would love to have that space at my disposal as my personal office.

After I looked at the drawings, which honestly didn’t turn out to be that pertinent to my particular research topic, we went to the museum’s offices and library across the street. Here, I searched through piles of documents for anything that would aid in my research. I found a few articles, but nothing earth shattering. However, a real treat was coming up…

Richter3.jpgWhile I had been waiting in the foyer for Mme Courtet to arrive that morning, I had seen a postcard for James Tissot’s Le Petit Nimrod. My freshman year, I wrote my first semester-long research project on this piece and the effect of the contemporary thought on its iconography. Since then, I have always loved Tissot and his entire oeuvre (however, this piece holds a special place in my heart).

I am guessing that during my research, I had found that the painting was in Besancon. However, that would have meant little to me at the time. I knew that I hadn’t seen the piece on display in the museum’s permenant collections the day before. So, I decided to take a chance and ask Mme Courtet about it. I told her that I had written a text on its iconography, and she was very interested. She told me that the piece was currently off display due to the temporary exhibition, but that she would try to find it for me to see.

They store all of the paintings off display in a large space with a loft. There were paintings upon paintings stacked up. She was worried that she might not be able to find it, and obviously it wouldn’t have been safe for her and I to try to move any of the works ourselves (they are large and should only be handled by professionals).

Luckily, when we entered the upstairs loft, there it was, larger than I had imagined, in front of all the other works (see photo, I took a picture of the postcard after I bought it). The only thing better than getting to see this work in the museum was getting to see it in the reserve room away from all of the other visitors and the structured setting of a museum. It was surreal. My first love and my first subject as an art historian. I will cherish that moment always.

Who knew that my adventure on the Richter more than two years after my original exposure to this piece would bring me right back to James Tissot and the iconography of the Other? The centerpieces of my two greatest works of research – Tissot’s Le Petit Nimrod and Boucher’s La Tenture Chinoise – housed by the same museum! What are the chances?!

Richter4.jpgExploration
I spent the remainder of my time in Besancon exploring some of the city. I really wanted to see Le Doubs (the river that surrounds the city’s center) and just walk the historic streets, which are home to many cathedrals, shops, and historic monuments. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see more during my limited time in this beautiful city. I guess that means I have a reason to return. This trip was extremely relaxing and rewarding personally and in the context of my research. I ended the evening with a raspberry tart and a cafe mokka (the French have a different spelling). So delicious and so French!

The next day I would return to Paris, where my adventure continues…

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