[A review copy of this book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my opinion.]
What did it mean to celebrate "la vie moderne" at the end of 19th century Paris? Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne, which accompanies a traveling exhibition of the same name, seeks to explore the lives and works of numerous avant-garde artists who lived, worked and breathed the fin de siècle era.
The culture in Paris at the end of the 19th century seemed almost designed to host the vast artistic explorations, interpretations and experimentation that the city's many artists were producing at the time. Some of the most popular subjects during this 30 year period were of the city's artistic underside: its cabarets, circuses, even brothels; intimate scenes, such as domestic life or private moments, were also commonplace.
Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne explores the artists, and their work, who re-imagined life in painting, sculpture and other ephemera in a fresh, modern way at the edge of the new century. The scope of the book is quite vast and includes substantial sections on Realism/Naturalism, Entertainment and Performance, Symbolism/Abstraction and Portraits. There are also some sub-categories in the larger sections, such as Daily Life, Landscapes and Toulouse-Lautrec. Each section features reproductions of artwork, with most of the images reproduced in larger sized and accompanied by biographical and analytical information. The information is written clearly and is accessible for general readers in addition to those with an interest or background in art history.
One of the paintings that immediately caught my eye while reading was Lucie Cousturier at the Piano by Maximilien Luce. This painting of an intimate daily scene, completed around 1905, is a striking portrait that speaks in color. The woman in the portrait was not just a random art model, but a woman known in the Neo-Impressionist circles of Paris. In addition to her work arranging art exhibitions, she produced her own artwork, mostly landscapes and still life paintings. She was also an accomplished art historian and published several studies on some of her prolific contemporary painters, such as Seurat, Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross.
Maximilien Luce, the artist, was a close friend of Lucie and painted her more than once. This particular portrait of her stands out because of its broad, impressive use of color. Everything from her clothing to the walls and even to the piano itself is showcased with impressions of color using wider brush strokes to give the impression of shadows, objects and even folds in fabric. The vibrant reds, blues, greens and whites play on each other to create a colorful, stylized image of a simple, daily scene: a young woman playing the piano.
Of course, the highlight of the book is the thirty-page (or so) section on Toulouse-Lautrec and his work. An entire review could be written solely on this well-illustrated section! One of my favorite 'Lautrec' pieces featured in the book is Le Divan Japonais, a poster created to celebrate the famous Divan Japonais cafe/cabaret. Divan Japonais came at a time when the Japonisme style, influenced by Japanese art and aesthetics, was heavily in vogue among European artists.
Toulouse-Lautrec's poster depicts Edouard Dujardin, a symbolist writer, accompanied by dancer Jane Avril; the pair are viewing a concert performed by Yvette Guilbert, well known for her signature full-length black gloves. Toulouse-Lautrec's use of color in this poster is similar to other Japonisme-inspired pieces produced around the same time, which often feature monochromatic color schemes accented with pops of brighter colors. Another poster featured in the Toulouse-Lautrec section of the book, 'Jane Avril,' features a similar "Japanese" inspired color scheme.
These are just two of the many pieces of art featured in Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne. I highly recommended this lavish exhibition album for anyone with an interest in 'la vie moderne,' French art history, or simply "art" itself!(less)
[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.]
For anyone familiar with Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, the idea of "Léonard, hairdresser to Marie Antoinette" will likely conjure up images of a well-dressed man catwalking down the halls of Versailles to the tune of I Want Candy.
Tradition has it that the real Léonard Autié began his career as a rural barber and eventually climbed to the highest rank imaginable for someone in his profession--hairdresser to the queen of France. But Léonard is something of a shadow figure in the history of Marie Antoinette, always shifting from story to story and never quite taking shape.
Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution by Will Bashor is one of the few English-language publications that deals with the subject of the mysterious Léonard Autié. The book's press release describes it as revealing "Léonard's mostly unknown story, his impact on events at the dawn of the French Revolution, the role he played in the life of his most famous client, and the chaotic and history-making world in which he rose to prominence."
There is a thin line to walk when writing about historical figures who have not left behind numerous definite examples of correspondence or established memoirs or other contemporary artifacts related to their lives. Léonard Autié is one such figure. In 1838--eighteen years after Léonard died--a memoir titled "Recollections of Léonard, hairdresser to the queen Marie Antoinette" was published by Baron Lamothe-Langon. Gustave Bord, author of a Fin de deux légendes. L'affaire Léonard, attributes them to Louis François L'Héritie.
These ghostwritten memoirs are supposedly based on the "journals and notes" that Léonard left behind after his death. In the source notes for this book, the author admits that Marie Antoinette's Head relies "heavily on Souveniers de Léonard." While it is understandable that an author would need to use the memoirs to help construct a narrative in a book about Léonard, Marie Antoinette's Head relies too much on Recollections of Leonard and even contains noticeably rewritten passages from the original publication.
Here is a comparison between a passage in Marie Antoinette's Head and a passage in the 1912 English edition of Recollections of Léonard, available for free at Archive.org.
Recollections of Leonard(pg. 28-29):
"For the second performance of the new pantomime, I made Julia a head-dress even more extraordinary than the first; this prodigious edifice of hair, tinsel, imitation stones, and of everything else which came under my hand, could not have been put into a bushel-basket. Accordingly the actress was received with a crescendo of enthusiasm.
The Gazette had mentioned my masterpiece that morning, and in the evening a considerable portion of the higher bourgeoisie and of the nobility had flocked to the boulevard to enjoy so new a spectacle. At the door of the theater there stood a long, double line of carriages... Nicolet had never seen so illustrious an audience in his smoky house."
Marie Antoinette's Head (pg. 13-14)
"For the second performance of the new pantomime at Nicolet's, Léonard made Julie a hairstyle even more extraordinary than the first. The prodigious concoction of hair, tinsel, imitation stones, and everything else he had at hand, was so large that it couldn't have fit in a bushel basket. Accordingly, the audience again received the actress with a crescendo of enthusiasm.
The Gazette de France had only mentioned his first masterpiece in the morning edition. In the evening edition it revealed that a considerable number of nobility and higher bourgeoisie had flocked to the boulevard to enjoy the new spectacle. At the door of the theater stood a long, double line of carriages. In fact, Monsieur Nicolet had never seen such an illustrious audience in his smoky theatre."
A rewritten passage such as this is a significant disservice to the reader. It does not add anything, other than what the original memoir has already published, and I feel it is just not acceptable. Although this is one of the most 'extreme' examples where an entire passage appears to have been rewritten, there are other shorter passages (sometimes just a sentence or two) which also reflect this type of paraphrasing. (Please note I am not referring to dialogue which was lifted from the memoirs and used in the book, but--as in the previous example--the thoughts, words and sometimes even sentence syntax of the memoir.)
The primary struggle I had with the book's narrative, aside from rewritten passages, is that it tells the reader information from Recollections of Leonard and to an extent other sources--but it, far too often, does not show why it is telling the readers these things.
Take, for example, a passage about Axel von Fersen: (pg. 103)
"The count, who was also colonel of the regiment of the Royal Swedish Army, did not, in fact, love any of the women of the court; the brilliant officer was obsessed with a lady of more exalted rank: the queen herself.
Once admitted to the queen's circle, Fersen had such self control that nothing in his behavior, actions, or speech betrayed his secret. And Marie Antoinette, capvited by the charisma of the Swedish officer, could not help but love him. Her looks, and even her words, had been so encouraging that the colonel confessed to her that she alone filled his mind with thoughts of a love, albeit a "hopeless' one.
The queen's warm response was difficult to conceal from the courtiers. She even sent him a note that opened the secrets doors of the Petit Trianon to him. Despite these rather telling details, Leonard insisted that nothing dishonorable occurred between the two."
This passage stuck out to me because it asserts several things in a very short span: that Fersen did not love any women of the court, that Fersen was in love with Marie Antoinette, that Fersen's obsessive feelings were not revealed because of his "self control," that Marie Antoinette "could not help but love him," and that her looks and words encouraged him to confess his "hopeless" love to her.
However, the book does not back up these assertions with any evidence. Who found out about Axel's confession of love? How was it known that she "could not help but love him"? Where is this information coming from? The information, as it turned out, came straight from the memoir and once again in occasionally strikingly similar language.
While the book does occasionally note that the ghostwritten Léonard likely exaggerated certain instances (such as a claim that he rescued a half-dressed Marie Antoinette during the March on Versailles which would be right at home in a Dumas novel!) far too much of Recollections of Leonard is parroted as fact without contextual support.
There is an understandable hurdle when it comes to reconstructing the life of someone who has, in so many ways, disappeared from record. And the book does information from other sources, such as information about Marie Antoinette from Madame Campan's memoirs. But too much of the book relied (and in many cases, simply rehashed or rewrote) on the memoir's version of events.
Just as a history of Marie Antoinette's life cannot be written solely from the memoirs of Madame Campan, the history of Léonard (and those he interacted with) cannot be constructed primarily through a retelling of his ghostwritten memoirs.(less)
[A review copy of this book was given to me by the publisher upon my request]
'I feel as though the universe is going to fall in upon me.' [--attributed to Louis XVI upon his ascension to the throne by British Ambassador to France, Lord Stormont]
Where, in the annals of history, does Louis XVI lie? He is often dismissed as a stupid and weak king--even a tyrant--who deserved his bloody end. But what was the true character of Louis XVI? How did his personal characteristics and actions affect his life--and the fate of the French monarchy, the revolution and the nation itself?
Despite its title, Louis XVI and the French Revolution by Alison Johnson is more focused on studying the king's personal character than his role in the revolution. Johnson, who quotes heavily from Louis XVI's contemporaries, uses mainly primary sources for her discussion of the private character of a decidedly public figure.
Who was Louis XVI? Unlike his wife, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI did not leave behind an extensive amount of correspondence that might give us a better glimpse into his private thoughts. Subsequently, many of the impressions we can make of Louis XVI's personality come from the impressions he made on other people. Accounts from the Abbé de Véri, comte de Maurepas, Lord Storemont, Gouverneur Morris--and more--are abundant in this new study and offer a fresh glimpse into the life and character of his much-maligned king.
One of the themes apparent in Johnson's book is to rectify some of the more popular conceptions of Louis XVI, such as the popular depiction of Louis XVI as an intellectually shallow man. Even the comte de Saint-Priest, who of the king said that "never was a man less fit to reign," admitted that Louis XVI might "have filled other roles" in life because he was "well-versed in literature, knew several languages, had some astronomical knowledge, and had an extensive knowledge of geography and marine affairs." Louis was also heavily involved in scientific endeavors, such as the exploration of the comte de Lapérouse.
Many aspects of the king's character as it related to his family, his people and his desire to reform and improve the government of France are discussed in the book. Johnson has included examples from many contemporary journals, memoirs and letters which reveal a more complex view of Louis XVI than is usually held in historical study--together, it reveals a man who was intellectually gifted, driven by justice, kind, humble, and who had a sincere personal care for his people--but who was, ultimately, the right kind of king at the wrong time.
Despite the book's title, I do feel as if the book is more of an analysis of the king's public and private character rather than an analysis of his role in the revolution itself. I do think this aspect of the book is very worthwhile because it does reveal aspects of the king's character that are often ignored or overlooked in other studies about him.
At the same time, however, I feel that the study of the book is somewhat lopsided. Contrary to the title, I feel like the book focuses more on the king's character and behavior prior to the revolution and, subsequently, there were some missed opportunities for a deeper look at the king's behavior during the revolutionary years.
For example, the Manifesto he left behind before the royal family's failed flight to Montmedy is mentioned only in passing: "To complicate matters, when he escaped he had left behind him a letter enumerating his grievances against the revolutionaries and disavowing various decrees to which he had been forced to acquiesce, such as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy."
The Manifesto was written at a time when the king believed himself just hours away from living under what he felt was the threatening pressure of Paris--but the book does not even quote the Manifesto at all, much less look at how it may have represented Louis' true thoughts.
I also felt that the book sometimes unfairly portrayed certain other figures of the revolution, in particular Robespierre--in a book that is attempting to shake off the undeserved popular beliefs surrounding Louis XVI, it was unusual to see another person painted with broad strokes based on popular misconceptions.
Despite these two issues, however, I do think that Johnson's book adds something significant to the study of Louis XVI that many other books have ignored or only briefly touched: a more intricate, deeper look at his personal character that can help fill in the cracks of readers or historians who are trying to get a clearer picture of this man, this king, who once ruled all of France.
I recommend this book as part of a study of Louis XVI, particularly due to the abundance of primary source material used in the book.
"My mother liked to boast that her numerous daughters were 'sacrifices to politics.'"
The apt opening line from Becoming Marie Antoinette, the first n...more"My mother liked to boast that her numerous daughters were 'sacrifices to politics.'"
The apt opening line from Becoming Marie Antoinette, the first novel in Juliet Grey's Marie Antoinette trilogy, is made all the more compelling by the final entry in the trilogy: Confessions of Marie Antoinette.
The last novel in the trilogy begins in the midst of the "October Days," when a large mob comprised mainly of Parisian women marched on the palace of Versailles. Their attack on the palace ultimately led to the claiming of the royal family, who were taken back to Paris in triumph. It ends, of course, where Marie Antoinette herself ended--on the guillotine. In between, the profound losses and increasing danger experienced by Marie Antoinette, her family and her loved ones are compounded by the increasingly complicated and politically shifting Revolution.
Readers may be surprised that Confessions of Marie Antoinette tells not just the last chapter in the story of the titular queen, but also the story of a young woman named Louison Chabry. Louison, based on a real woman living in Paris during the revolution, introduces a different perspective on the unfolding revolution while also allowing for a more complete narrative. Louison, for example, is able to witness events that Marie Antoinette would not have witnessed--but without them, readers may feel lost or confused about the resulting behaviors or actions taken by Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and other characters in the book. While I didn't feel as connected to Louison due to her late introduction in the trilogy, I did appreciate that her story allowed for a fuller depiction of events in the narrative.
Of course, the primary challenge of presenting the life story of any historical figure, much less a figure like Marie Antoinette, is being able to craft a narrative that not only covers an expansive number of years, but is able to be both fictionally compelling and historically sound. With the trilogy format, however, Juliet Grey has allowed herself to create a much more detailed picture of her life that allows for the inclusion of more characters, more incidents based on real life events, and a deeper picture of the "character" of Marie Antoinette herself. Grey's narrative particularly shines when it submerges itself in the human emotion of events--the depiction of the mob invasion of the Tuileries Palace, where Marie Antoinette and her family were threatened and insulted, is of particular note.
The development of Marie Antoinette's character throughout the trilogy is most apparent in this final work, where we finally see the emergence of Marie Antoinette's courage, intelligence, determination--and even desperation--as she and her family attempt to navigate their way through the revolution. Another aspect of Marie Antoinette's character which emerges are her realizations about her life, her loves, her triumphs and her mistakes. The last portion of the book, which covers the queen's unfortunate ride to the guillotine and contains some symbolism which readers of the first novels will likely take note of, is especially moving. (Be sure to read with a tissue box at hand!)
Confessions of Marie Antoinette is a solid finale to the trilogy which shines the most in its emotional and human portrayal of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI and their family. Out of every component in the trilogy and the last novel, I was most impressed with the creation of a three-dimensional, human character out of both Marie Antoinette and, most tellingly, Louis XVI, who is often reduced to caricature but is here presented as a flesh and blood human being. Historical fiction readers and readers interested in Marie Antoinette will likely appreciate this detailed, emotional and human look at her story.