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A Panoply of Power

Mme de Pompadour, by Maurice-Quentin Delatour
Mme de Pompadour, by Maurice-Quentin Delatour (this is a pastel – how did he avoid smudging??)

My mind has turned to Power & Money at the Louvre as I start to build the Entrepreneur’s THATLou. Sadly it’s rather soon. I say sadly, because there are just so many great anecdotes nestled in the halls of the Louvre. It will be a tough process of elimination more than anything. Should I focus on a region or country? A period of time, perhaps?

For this theme, could I give myself a real challenge and exclude all French monarchs? The Louvre does have 35,000 works from which to scrounge. And it’s not like France is lacking in colourful figures with tight fists on power: Mme de Pompadour, Mme de Sevigné and Diane de Poitiers are a few who come to mind – None actual Queens.  And ruthlessly ambitious ministers abound – we’ve got the clever economist Jean-Baptiste Colbert, of Colbertism (read, protectionism), the fearsome warrior, Anne de Montmorency (first constable to François I), and the clergymen-turned-politicians Cardinal Richelieu and Talleyrand. But it does seem a crime to leave out the rest of the western cannon just for France.

Alexander the Great 'The Azara Herm' 1st century AD after the original by Lysippus from circa 330 BC, Louvre
Alexander the Great ‘The Azara Herm’ 1st century AD after the original by Lysippus from circa 330 BC

What about Alexander the Great, and his equally important father Philip of Macedon? The Louvre just had an exhibition devoted solely to him. He had the nerve to attack the Persian Empire, pushing as far as the Indus River.  Speaking of the Persian Empire, we mustn’t over look Darius the Great, nor his father or son, Cyrus and Xerxes, respectively. His greatness and matching palace has merited more than one THATLou post.

Then what about the Iliad? The Trojan War is rich in power. Achilles, with his distinctly human faults, personifies power. Perhaps because of that very first scene with him in the Iliad, with Thetis, his goddess mother consoling the big whiney cry baby, trying to coax him into returning to war). There are so many scenes from his life to choose from, so many pots to choose from… the detail below is from an attic black-figured neck amphora from 520 – 510BC. A scene of Ajax carrying a dead Achilles, with Hermes on his left, Athena on his right.

Black figure pot painting of Ajax carrying Achilles with Hermes and Athena
taken from Louvre.fr

Moving on from Greece, one automatically thinks of Rome, no? Finding living fiction, the Julio-Claudian dynasty is of course oozing in power — and very, very RICH in soap-opera, with scheming murders, adultery and just plain juice. Yes, I think our next few posts may linger on the Roman Empire.

Milo of Croton devoured by a lion, Marble, by Pierre PUGET (Marseille, 1620 -1694).
gardens of the Château de Versailles, 1819
taken from louvre.fr

Milo of Croton was a powerful 6th Century athlete, having won the Olympics 6 times for his strength as a wrestler. As with any star in Greece, there were a plethora of legends about him. One story had him carrying a 4-year old bull on his shoulders before slaughtering and devouring him all in one day… Aristotle compared Milo to Heracles for his appetite: his daily diet was allegedly 20 lb of meat, 20 lb of bread, and eighteen pints of wine.

But it is Milo’s death which captivates most. His death was the story of pride: Well past his prime, the aged Milo decided to split a tree trunk he found already cleft. With his hand stuck in it, a pack of wolves devoured him. Modern literary references range from Rabelais to Shakespeare, all the way down to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when Catherine refers to Milo’s demise asking “Who is to separate us, pray? They’ll meet the fate of Milo!”

Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert authorised Pierre Puget (1620 – 1694), an academic sculptor, to use some marble that had been left in Toulon, and commissioned him to do a piece for Louis XIV.  Milo wasn’t a particularly popular subject in 17th C French scupture, but here Puget made him one, replacing the wolves with this fierce-some lion. Having him about to take a big juicy bite out of Milo’s rear-end. A sassy man this Puget was, as the thread keeping Milo’s demise together is about how he was vanquished by his pride and vanity, trying — and failing — to defy age and the weakness that comes with it. His roar isn’t just a physical one from those painful claws, no. Human glory is ephemeral, folks, and Puget wants you, and more importantly, the King, to know it. Life spans were shorter than they are now, so Louis XIV’s 44 years did not make him a spring chicken!

Falconet's Milo of Croton, 1754. Louvre Paris
Falconet’s Milo of Croton


Etienne-Maurice Falconet (1716 – 1791) took this sassy-ness one step further. Puget’s Milo at least has a small modicum of pride — standing, pushing the lion’s head away. Falconet tipped his hat to his elder by choosing this subject, but furthered Milo’s insult by making him a painful mess, a baroque basket case. He pits man against beast on equal footing, with Milo’s end clearly seconds away. This sculpture is small — .66m tall, .64m wide, .51m deep — and was the model which would gain Falconet entry to the French Academy (ten years later, in 1754). As it’s a small piece it’s tucked away at the end of the French sculpture wing, behind a series of rooms which run along rue de Rivoli. Quite different from Puget’s Milo, who stands smack dab in the middle of the Cour Puget, in the spotlight, where the noses of the public sully the windows on the street, looking into this Richelieu’s sculpture wing.

Louvre sculpture gallery with glass ceiling

Now aren’t you glad you read this entry? These Milos could appear in all sorts of THATLous, from Power + Money to Animals in Art or Athlete’s THATLou. And now you’re all prepped for any bonus point questions which may arise, even if asked to produce a limerick!

Frank Lloyd WRIGHT (1867-1959) Window from the Coonley House, 1912
photo taken from the Met’s website

Frank Lloyd WRIGHT (1867-1959)

Window from the Coonley House, 1912

Height 86 ¼ x 28 x 2 inches, glass and zinc

The Avery Coonley House, in a suburb of Chicago, was designed by FLW and constructed in 1907-8. Bonus fifty points if you get a tourist to take your whole team’s photo in the Frank Lloyd Wright room nearby — and for those New Yorkers who don’t know where this room is, shame on you. But to put THATMet aside for a moment I must tell you a quick story from FLW’s life, which you guys probably knew, but I didn’t and find it an absolutely bizarre and fascinatingdiscovery: FLW left his first wife in 1909 (in Illinois) for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a married client with whom FLW was having a long-standing very public affair. In 1911 he and Mamah moved in together in Scottsdale, AZ (where his maternal family was from) in a house he built and named Taliesin…

On August 15, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago, his manservant of 2 months, Julian Carlton, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and had a total blood bath, axing 7 people as the fire burned the house down.  The dead were: Mamah; her two children, John and Martha; Thomas Brunker, the foreman; Emil Brodelle, a draftsman; David Lindblom, a landscape gardener; and Ernest Weston, the son of the carpenter William Weston. Two victims survived —William Weston and draftsman Herb Fritz—and the elder Weston helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton, hiding in the unlit furnace, survived the fire but died in jail six weeks later. His wife Gertrude also survived, having escaped the burning building through the basement; she denied any knowledge of her husband’s actions. This entry is entirely too long for you to be reading whilst on a hunt, but one more fact I am compelled to raise: FLW rebuilt Taliesin and it burned down again in 1925 (to an electrical fire)! Talk about loyal to your land!

POINTS: 45

The above is the 2nd of a two-part series, giving you examples of the funny bits of useless knowledge you pick up going on THATLous and THATMets and whathaveyous. The first part of the THATMet Teaser concerned FLW’s teacher, Savvy Mr Sully.

“Still life with Carp” by Abraham van Beyeren, Louvre
taken from the Louvre website

Poisson d’Avril is the French version of April Fool’s Day, where on the 1st of April French people will post fish on each others’ backs. In tribute to this, the theme for next Sunday’s THATLou (a part of the Sunday series) is… you guessed it: Fish + Water! Lucky you’re reading this, as it’s you may very well pick up some terrific bonus points…

This “Still life with Carp” (creative name, no?) was painted by Abraham van Beyeren, a 17th Century Dutch master who’s niche was still lifes. He was a protege to Pieter de Putter. Though de Putter was a lesser painter, his name may be worth a THATLou goldmine —

It’s not guaranteed, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if for some hefty bonus points you just might be asked to write a limerick / haiku / rhyme about Pieter de Putter. These golden Carp could very well apply to the Animals in Art THATLou, or even the Food + Wine THATLou.

Oh yeah, and it’s not too late to sign up for the Poisson d’Avril Fish + Water THATLou, which is part of our Sunday Series open to the public. As we do the first Sunday of every month, we’re meeting at 2.30 on…. no joke… 1 April. Contact me now if you’d like to join a handful of veritable fisherman (among them Sasha Levensohn-Wahl, founder of Savoir Faire Paris, http://www.savoirfaireparis.com/)

Have I mustered your interest to put your Plume to Paper for Mr Pieter de Putter who just might have a Dutch stutter?

Chicago Stock Exchange Building Staircase, cast iron, walnut banister  by Louis Henri SULLIVAN (1856-1924)
taken from the Met’s website

Louis Henri SULLIVAN (1856-1924)

Chicago Stock Exchange Building Staircase, cast iron, walnut banister 1893

Louis Sully, as an old art history teacher used to lovingly call him, has been considered many things: The Father of the Skyscraper, the Grandfather of Modernism, the head honcho of the Prairie school. Mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, Savvy Mr Sully is one of the “Recognised Trinity of American Architecture” along with Henry Hobson Richardson (think of that horrible Trinity Church in Boston, ‘Richardsonian Romanesque’) and Frank Lloyd Wright (who needs no reminders). Demolished in 1972, there’s a smattering of the glorious Chicago Stock Exchange here and there —  a stone arch in the garden of the Chicago Art Institute and this beautiful ironworked banistered stairwell at the Met. Staircases lend themselves to arty photography, especially when they’re as pretty as this one. An extra fifty points for the team whose photo is the artiest – we’ll vote by consensus at the bar together (you’re not allowed to vote for yourself).

POINTS: 35

This is a two-part series of THATMet teasers. The same type of clue is given for THATLou (as you’ve seen in the Veronese Teaser)…

In fact, something that sprouted from Savvy Mr Sully (who ran in a December THATMet) is an idea to hold a THATLou photo competition. Should anyone have suggestions, I’m all ears!

I went to the American Library to hear Pamela Druckerman speak on her recently published book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.  The WSJ’s review headline was “French Parents are Superior”, causing a flurry of publicity that officially replaces Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as the latest all-the-rage parenting book in the States. Druckerman, a former WSJ journalist (thus perhaps the publicity-catching review — to position her book as polemic certainly helps sales!), has been raising her 6-year old and a set of 3-year old twins in Paris.

I have no intention of reading her book. STORSH, my one year old, would reap no benefit from my profound resentment at wasting my time on a parenting book; I’ve found them to give parents far too much credit. However, because a good friend in NY sent me the WSJ link and then in the course of two days I heard a plethora of references to Druckerman, my curiosity was peaked. I was relieved that at points her talk was more publicity-prone, with twinges of a sociological argument, more than any of the parenting pontification that I expected. Throughout it she kept referring to what research proved, even saying at one point that it was “aligned with science”. Is raising kids scientific? Her whole premise is that the French set strict boundaries for their children, but that within the parameters the kids can do whatever the hell they want. Is this scientific?

And is there really a ‘right way’ or a ‘wrong way’ to raise kids? Surely you don’t want some snot-nosed little brat with candy in their lap watching television in dirty pajamas in the middle of the day, but that’s basic common sense. We don’t have to consult experts or books to know that. But on a more mature, interesting level – because though I adore STORSH his age bracket isn’t the most scintillating – one instills in their child what one values. My wishes for him are simple: I’d like to see him develop into a well-mannered, well-read and widely travelled little guy who’s self-sufficient and engaged in society, whichever society he chooses to make home. But to reach this, all we as parents can do is lead by example. We’re simply guideposts.  As Druckerman told us anecdotes of how horribly the NY press treated her last week my mind wandered… If I want him habitually engaged in society, then we’ll have to be GOTV (get out the vote) volunteers during election time or pitch in at a community garden (although the only one I know of in Paris is a tiny patch at Marché des Enfants Rouges, so I guess we’ll have to make soup at St Eustache for the homeless). I was roused from my musings for the Q&A session.

The library crowd tends to be well educated and older. Last night’s reading, attended by probably a bit over a hundred people, had its share of 30 year old mothers mixed into the usual white-headed audience. The questions were slightly pissy, slightly aggressive and her tone was at times defensive, others dismissive as she cut people off. One of the questions pointed out that her talk was all about the public’s reaction to her book, opposed to about the book itself. This comment got a lot of nodding heads. Another question was by a mother of 3 (who’d been here for years) who asked if she didn’t think it was dangerous to idealise the French method to raising children. Druckerman dodged this, even when it was reiterated verbatim.  I don’t think there was one person in the crowd who had read the book (certainly everyone who had questions said they hadn’t), and none of left knowing more about why French parents were deemed wiser.

However, with more questions more of her experience researching the book came through, which at one point was amusing. Since most well-educated French women go back to work pretty soon after having a baby, and aren’t put under pressure to breast feed for long stretches, they tend to send their babies to the crèche, the state-run daycare — sometimes as early as 2.5 months. Druckerman said her American friends were horrified she let anything state run near her child, that it was like being told she sent her kids packaged up to the Post Office. I had similar reactions when I told friends in New York that STORSH was in the crèche at 9 months, but I think it’s a marvelous system. It socializes him. Plus he only gets Spanish from his father, el Argentino, and English from me, so it gives him a jumpstart to be around French. Druckerman pointed out, too, that the crèche provided her kids with 4 course meals of food she wouldn’t have even considered offering. When she told one of the French mothers about this American allergy to all things State, the mother said, “but I like La Poste.”

I like La Poste, too. Their soundtrack is nearly as catchy as SNCF’s. As for bringing up Bébé – be it in the States or France – there’s one thing I do know:  there’s nothing scientific about it.

This is the third of a three-part series about the Grand Palais. (First the second part see here, and the first part see here.) Written and photographed by Daisy de Plume.

FROM BEES TO FOOD (and back to design)

The most recent addition to the Grand Palais is its fashionista restaurant, the Mini Palais. Opened in the fall of 2010, it has clean minimalist lines, and like its larger counterpart (the unsurpassable Nave of the Grand Palais), is fully flooded in light despite the grey of Paris winter skies. The outstanding setting is between the Nave and the Colonnade — between the Palace’s metal structure and its stone façade. Warmer seasons afford a fittingly magnificent setting on the balcony, with views of the Alexandre III Bridge.

Upon entering the restaurant, one passes massive bronze doors of the Alexandre III Rotunda. They don’t fail to impress, nor do the delicately restored mosaics lining the floor. Redesigned by architects Gilles & Boissier, their aim was to resemble an artist’s workshop, whilst revealing the mammoth metal structures painted in the Grand Palais’s trademark mignonette green.

Eric Frechon, the restaurant’s consultant chef who holds three Michelin stars, has come up with an innovative menu including Clafoutis aux Cepes de Correze, Escargots dans leur Tomate cerise gratins au beurre d’Amande and Pluma de Cochon au Tandoori, Confit d’Oignon, Pommes Paille. Open from noon to midnight (2 AM on weekends), the Mini-Palais continues to cause a stir across Paris.

Reservations (01 42 56 42 42) are strongly suggested, unless you’re stopping in for a scrumptious dessert between lunch and dinner. Entrance: Avenue Winston-Churchill, Pont Alexandre-III 75008 (entrance via the Alexandre III Rotunda). Metro: Champs-Elysees Clemenceau / valet parking service is also provided. 

As promised in the first of this 3-part series, here is a list of WOW Factor Facts:

  • The Grand Palais was built in just 3 years, from 1897 to 1900
  • Workforce on the construction site in 1900 at its peak: 1,500
  • The flag flown over the building measures 4 x 6 m
  • Facade perimeter: 1 km
  • Total metal weight for the entire Grand Palais: 8,500 metric tons
  • Weight of steel in the Nave: 6,000 metric tons
  • Weight of the “mignonette green” paint inside the Nave: 60 metric tons
  • Total stone weight: 200,000 metric tons
  • Working area: 72,000 m2
  • Nave floor space: 13 500 m2
  • Nave length: 200 m
  • Height: 45 m under the dome

What’s a-Buzz About the Grand Palais?

This is the second of a three-part series about the Grand Palais (for the first post, see here), a loose tip of the hat to Walter Benjamin. All photos in this series are taken by Daisy de Plume.

The Grand Palais is divided into three distinct areas: The Nave (which has currently been taken over by French artist Daniel Buren – the show’s running till 21 June 2012), the Galeries Nationales (“Animal Beauty” is the exhibition including works from Breughel to Jeff Koons, da Vinci to Matisse. This show is running till 16 July 2012 – 11 euro admission) and the Palais de la Découverte (Science Museum – Hair and Science is their current exhibition, till 26 August 2012 – 7 euro admission). A separate gallery, known as the “Southeast Gallery” has the first Helmut Newton retrospective in France since he died in 2004.

All of these tenants – and their exhibits – deserve articles unto themselves, of course. However, I haven’t exhausted the Grand Palais tenant list yet, which is what I aim to cover herewith. Some GP occupants don’t fit into the sparkling cultural cosmos of Paris in quite the same way.

For instance, who’s above and below? As is commonly the case in France, we have some unlikely bedmates. In the basement the police HQ of the 8th Arrondissement has what must be a sprawling spread. And then if we toddle all the way up to the roof (oh, say 45 meters / 147 feet up) the most unlikely guests pay the most delicious rent: Two queen bees have their hives up there, in the pure air above the Champs-Elysees. I run treasure hunts at the Louvre for an occupation, but I have to say these bees are far more interesting that the short-term renters like Breughel and Matisse, Koons and Newton.

In May 2009 a local beekeeper, Nicolas Géant, set up shop on both the roofs of the Grand Palais and Garnier’s Opera House, adding to a surprising Parisian reputation as an urban jungle. Floral honey, which is made from pollen and nectar taken from a 3-km perimeter – read the Champs-Elysees’ many small flowers, lime trees, chestnuts and lavendars, the tree-lined Seine, perhaps a jaunt over to Invalide – is aptly labeled “Grand Palais Honey”.

Since then, beehives have been set up on the roof of the ultra-modern Opera Bastille and in the Luxembourg Gardens, among other Parisian landmarks. “In Paris, each beehive produces a minimum of 50 to 60 kilograms (110 to 130 pounds) of honey per harvest, and the death rate of the colonies is 3 to 5 percent,” said Henri Clement, president of the National Union of French Beekeepers, “But in the countryside (where flowers have more pesticides), one beehive only gives you 10 to 20 kilograms (about 20 to 40 pounds) of honey, and the death rate is 30 to 40 percent. It is a sign of alarm.


I’ve posted other of these snaps on Pinterest (my name there, surprisingly, is THATLou).

This is the first part of a three-part series about the Grand Palais, in a loose tribute to Walter Benjamin.

With an iron, steel and glass barrel-vaulted roof running almost 240 meters (755 feet) long, Paris’s Grand Palais was the last of the large transparent structures inspired by London’s Crystal Palace. Necessary for large gatherings of people before the age of electricity fully took off, every major city seemed to have a Crystal Palace, caused of course by a Universal Exhibition to boost city coffers. New York built its Crystal Palace in 1853 where Bryant Park now sits (ironically the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue is the former site of the city’s reservoir – not enough water to put out the Crystal Palace’s 1856 fire, I guess). Hailed as a masterpiece, NY’s Crystal Palace had a dome 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter (and hosted the largest crocodile ever caught). 50 years of engineering strides allowed for a dome twice that size capping the Grand Palais (70 meters in diameter). To give a more tangible comparison of this spatially vast behemoth, Vanderbilt Hall’s ceiling in NY’s Grand Central Station is a dwarfing 40 feet (12 meters); The Grand Palais’s ceiling height is more than 100 feet taller – soaring up to 45 meters (147 feet). I’ll leave a laundry list of colossal figures in the 3rd part of this 3-part series, but suffice it to say: finally Swift’s adjective ‘Brobdingnag’ is applicable!

The main space was originally connected to the other parts of the palace along an east-west axis by a grand staircase in a style combining Classical and Art Nouveau, but the interior layout has since been somewhat modified. The architectural competition was fierce and controversial, and ultimately resulted in the contract being awarded to a group of four architects, Henri Deglane, Albert LouvetAlbert Thomas and Charles Girault, each with a separate area of responsibility. The builders tried to compensate for a drop in the water table and a shift to the ground by supporting posts down to firmer soil. These measures, however, were only partially successful.  Additional problems due to the construction of the building itself revealed themselves over the past century. Differential rates of expansion and contraction between cast iron and steel members, for example, allowed for water to enter, leading to corrosion and further weakening. When finally one of the glass ceiling panels fell in 1993, the main space had to be closed for restoration work (just a small sign, I guess). Renovation work continued for 14 years, finally the Grand Palais was reopened in 2007.

I’ve posted other of these snaps on Pinterest (my name there, surprisingly, is THATLou).

THATd’Or was commissioned by the AFMO. My original goal had been to make the hunt exclusively about trains + motion. What could be more suitable than to tip one’s treasure-hunt hat to the history of this gorgeous building? As I’m sure you all know, the Musée d’Orsay was originally a train station, built in only 2 years and unveiled on 14 July 1900 for the Exposition Universelle. Until 1939 the Gare d’Orsay covered the southwestern French lines (thereafter it served the suburbs as the length of the building (138 meters) was too short for the longer trains which appeared during the electrification of trains). During the war it was where prisoners’ mail was dispatched. And before Mitterand unveiled it as a museum in 1986, it was the temporary home to auctioneers (while Druout was being built) as well as being the set for Kafka’s The Trial, by Orson Welles (1962). It’s clearly had several lives, but the Musée d’Orsay celebrates its train station roots beautifully and seemlessly.

So I’m just putting the finishing touches on a new Public THATLou; “All Things Gaul, for those who have the Gall” shall debut on, yep, you guessed it: Bastille Day! The Louvre is free on 14 juillet, yet I’m banking on the fact that most people are going to be watching the military parade on the Champs-Elysées or over at Place de la Bastille, out and about in the sun. Not holed up in a dusty old museum. Moreover, I don’t think a lot of people realize the museum’s free, so it won’t be as crowded as the first Sunday of the month, when the crowds can get a bit suffocating.

It’s the first Public THATLou we’ll have since the Easter Hunt and the last till the 1 November Toussaint “Death Hunt”, so don’t miss your chance to win the glory of France, a tremendously valuable All things Gaul THATLou prize (got at the Louvre gift shop, so I guess “tremendously valuable” might be called by some a tourist trinket).  I’m pleased as punch that Mary Kay, of the wonderful blog Out and About in Paris, has signed her family up and will go on her second hunt.

taken from Mr Shellshear.wikispaces.com

As for designing the hunt, All Things Gaul has been more a process of elimination than anything, since the Louvre is of course abounding in French-related treasure. Though the hunt will theoretically get our clever hunters to all floors of all three wings of the museum, I’ve tried to make it easier to strategize in concentrated areas.

Description de l’Egypte, Etat Moderne, Plate 87, Views of Qait Bey Fortress and the Diamant Rock, drawn c.1798, pub in the Panckoucke edition of 1821-9 (wikipedia.com)

It was hard to discard some wings. I considered including Egyptian works, since the French were the first Europeans in Egypt with Napoléon’s 1798 Egyptian Campaign, when the cocky 29 year old general wanted to sever England’s India route (and supremacy over the Mediterranean) by attacking Egypt. The campaign was a failure (Nelson captured Nappy’s enormous fleet at the Battle of the Nile off of Alexandria at the bay of Aboukir (so why, I wonder, do the French have a long narrow street crossing the 2nd Arrt named Aboukir?). Nappy had to leave Egypt to his man Kléber (who was assassinated in Cairo by a Syrian student in 1800) in order to try to escape land-bound up toward Syria). However, it was a fascinating failure, because Napoléon brought 160 scholars, scientists, engineers, naturalists, artists, (including Denon, for whom one of the Louvre’s three wings is named) to scrutinize Egypt. Thanks to this Egyptology was born, and a 23-volume “Description of Egypt” was published from 1808 – 1829. The size alone of the Louvre’s Egyptian collection (2 floors of Sully, nearly half of the wing!) attests to their world-famous focus on Egyptology.

But I decided to exclude the Egyptians from All Things Gaul and sprinkle it nearly exclusively on pieces by Frenchmen or of Frenchmen. We have Kings and Leaders, lots of lovely (naked) ladies, a Sevres wine cooler, a bed (What’s more All things Gaul than wine, women and a bed?).

There are a few exceptions, the Mona Lisa being one. She may not be by a Frenchman (though da Vinci did work for a French king and did die in Amboise, as written about in the Leonardo’s Lover! post), but thanks to her absurd popularity she’s come to represent Paris or France just as much as the Eiffel Tower. When 60% of one’s market relies on tourism and 80% of 8 million visitors a year go to the Louvre just to see her (so sad) then I think it’s fair to put her in an All Things Gaul hunt.

The Raft of Medusa in the Louvre, by theplagiarists.com

Stay posted for the typical give away clue — and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Géricault Raft of Medusa bonus question which appeared for our recent hunt for an Int’l law firm appears within this All Things Gaul hunt as well!

Annunciation 1440, Rogier van der Weyden
Annunciation 1440, Rogier van der Weyden (1399 – 1464), at the Louvre

Yesterday’s Christmas Countdown reviewed the symbolic elements that usually appear in The Annunciation, accompanied by some really 2nd-rate versions of the common subject found at the Louvre. As promised, today we’re getting the good stuff. In general my favourite periods of painting tend to be either Italian or Spanish Baroque. That said there are some things for which the early Netherlandish just can’t be beat — among them, symbolism and minuscule rich detail. So with that, I’ll leave you with three peerless Annunciations in Paris, NY and DC. Each detail in all three paintings have merited full PhD doctorate thesises. I will choose just one point and leave you with a short paragraph:

Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation at the Louvre (above):

Look at the small glass vase on the mantle above the fireplace, on the upper left hand side. The way it catches the light is brilliant, as is the shadow it casts on the grey corner. But it also means something – which is part of what makes this period so incredibly tight, that nothing can be left for ‘random’. The very shape of that carafe is another reference to conception and birth. Drawn from the ‘scientific’ world, alchemists of the time used them to mix so-called male and female elements and called them “bridal chambers”.  When elements joined to form a third substance it was called a ‘child of the union’. These “bridal chamber” flasks** appear in numerous paintings of the time from Hans Memling to Hieronymous Bosch, from van Eyck to our very own van der Weyden’s Annunciation.

The Merode Triptych (1427-1432) – Robert Campin, at the Met’s Cloisters (NY)
The Merode Triptych (1427-1432) – Robert Campin, at the Met’s Cloisters (NY)

The Mérode Triptych tells the story of the Annunciation, with the donors kneeling in the courtyard to the left and Joseph, a carpenter and Mary’s betrothed, is building a mousetrap on the right. The mousetrap symbolizes Christ’s trapping and defeat of the devil, a metaphor used thrice by St Augustine. More traps are found outside the window which Art Historian Erwin Panofsky (NYU, Princeton and Harvard) purported again symbolized that Jesus was used as a bait to capture Satan. Mice aside – can you see how the shutters are attached to the celling in Joseph’s studio? Such detail is a true delight and well worth taking the A train to the very top of Manhattan to see the Met’s medieval collection.

Annunciation 1434-1436, Jan van Eyck, Nat’l Gallery in Washington DC
Annunciation 1434-1436, Jan van Eyck, Nat’l Gallery in Washington DC

Though you may not be able to make this out, unless it’s projected on a large art history screen or in person perhaps, you can see that there are little words coming out of Gabriel and Mary’s mouths. In Latin, Gabriel says, “Hail, full of Grace…” and Mary demurs “Behold the Handmaiden of the Lord…”. If you can get past the somehow funny nature of the  cartoon-captions coming out of their mouths, you have to acknowledge that it’s pretty damned cool that van Eyck had Mary’s “Ecce Ancilla Dni” written upside down so that it would face God, since that is who she was addressing.

For a far more academic (and fascinating) piece on symbolism within Hans Memling’s Annunciation with Angelic Attendants by Shiraly Neilsen Blum, published by the Metropolitan Museum or Art in 1992, click on the link. This 16 page excerpt covers all three paintings as well as other Annunciations and their symbolism.