French Impressions: Margie White and her American Girls Art Club in Paris – a year of art and literary experiences
12 Friday Oct 2012
Book reviews about Paris and France by The American Girls Art Club in Paris, books about Paris, expatriate writers in Paris and France, France, Margie White, Paris, Paris authors, Paris Writers Club, Paris Writers Retreat, Paris-based authors, The American Girls Art Club in Paris
Margie White is an artist, writer, reader, an independent bookseller and retired litigation attorney from Chicago, Illinois who has spent the last year in Paris with her husband. She has kept a blog of her Paris art and literary experiences called, The American Girls Art Club in Paris. She will wrap up what she has come to see as her own gap year in Paris at the end of October, and looks forward to continuing her creative pursuits back home.
AWP: Your career has taken you from the practice of law into the world of writing and books. What inspired you toward a life and career so dependent on words and the ability to communicate? What influenced this vision?
MW: My favorite thing about the practice of law was always the writing. I loved researching and writing a good brief. Contrary to what most people think about legal writing, it can be an extremely creative process. First you search out the building blocks of information, and then you have to design a coherent and persuasive story.
I was always a big reader and writer. I admire a well-told story made of good building blocks, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, and I aspire to do it myself. I am especially interested in historical fiction and narrative nonfiction, because it combines historical research with storytelling.
I’ve also been an amateur artist most of my life. I even started college as an art major before I switched to pre-law. I still love to paint and draw, I love the act of capturing a likeness, but for some reason, art alone isn’t satisfying enough. Pictures alone never tell the whole story. I need words for that. That’s why, for me, the best of both worlds is to see and read and write about art. And there’s no better place in the world to do that than Paris.
AWP: Together with your husband, you have spent a year living and working in Paris. During that time you have focused on your writing: lectures, author events, attending writers’ workshops in Paris, and, of course, writing. How has this experience, coming from the practice of law in Chicago to a writer in Paris, changed your world?
MW: I am essentially the same person as I was when I arrived in Paris, but now I am like an aged wine or a steeped tea. After marinating in the cultural life of Paris for a year, I’ve become more truly myself. And now I’ve got great scarves too!
AWP: Who participates in the writers’ workshops you’ve attended?
MW: I attended a Paris Writers Retreat in September with the literary agent Wendy Goldman Rohm, and was one of twelve other strong, creative women, from college age to middle age and beyond. There was even a mother-daughter team. They came from London, Belgium, France and the U.S., and we each had such a uniquely personal story we were preparing to write. Wendy helped our stories take shape and direction as the week went on. We were quite a force!
AWP: What is it about writers and Paris?
MW: It’s got to be the history, the romance, the fantasy. What writer or artist doesn’t dream of sitting in a café with a notebook or a sketchpad, being like Hemingway or Picasso for a day or a week or a year? There’s the challenge of knowing that the best artists and writers in the world have succeeded in capturing Paris—and you wonder if you could too, if only in your own small way.
AWP: As you prepared for your year in Paris, you studied the American Girls Art Club in Paris, exploring Paris in the footsteps of the artists and writers from 1893 who came before. You write a blog by the same name. An underlying theme of your blog is the message of freedom for women. Why is this message significant, especially for women today?
MW: I am fascinated by the stories of women artists who came to Paris to study art at the turn of the century. I admire their spunk and tenacity in a world that told them they should only be amateurs. Remember the quote about Ginger Rogers? That she did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels? Similarly, the female artists of the 19th century did everything the famous male artists did except in corsets and with chaperones. Some women artists even disguised themselves as men or as lower class women so that they could have the freedom they needed to pursue their art. I think the inspiring message from these stories, especially for women, is that we can’t let someone else’s idea of what we should be get in the way of what we are meant to be.
AWP: What modern trend do you think these women of the historic American Girls Art Club in Paris, would love most?
MW: That’s easy: women’s pants!
AWP: In your blog you review books about Paris and France. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about this genre?
MW: I have read more than 100 books about Paris or France this year, from classics to historical fiction to memoirs, and I find it surprising that there is so much left that I haven’t even gotten to yet. I go to my favorite Paris bookshops and come out with a huge stack every time. I wish I could write a review for every book I’ve read, but I just can’t keep up. If you look at my “Year of Paris Reads” (work still in progress) you’ll see why!
AWP: Napoleon Bonaparte, (1769-1821) Emperor of the French, who established the bureaucratic structure of the modern French state, and reactionary pragmatist regarding women, said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. In what way does Napoléon’s statement hold true with your experience living in Paris? How is Napoléon’s statement understood by women of today?
MW: It’s funny, because what I’ve read about Napoléon Bonaparte leads me to believe he had bizarre relationships with women, and yet this wonderful quote is attributed to him. I couldn’t agree more. Women seem to have a sense of their own power here, and they don’t have to sacrifice one kind of power for another. You can have both; style and intelligence, flair and depth, femininity and strength. In Paris, you get to be yourself, and it is almost always your best self.
AWP: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
MW: I loved and highly recommend the Age of Desire by Jennie Fields. It’s the fictionalized story of Edith Wharton’s years in Paris from 1907-1910, and in particular, her surprising mid-life affair with Morton Fullerton, who would be described in today’s slang as “a real player.”
Edith Wharton’s maiden name was Jones, as in “keeping up with the Joneses.” She was a wealthy 5th Avenue society woman who entered into a traditional marriage with an uninspired man. She had an extraordinary talent for writing and was drawn to Paris after she had written The House of Mirth. Edith and her husband began renting George Vanderbilt’s apartment on rue de Varenne every winter, and Edith threw herself into the Paris salon life, which was a good match for her own vivacity and intellectuality. Her husband suffered from depression, refused to learn French, and withdrew from the social life of Paris. Then Edith met Morton.
Age of Desire gives the chance to peer inside Edith Wharton’s life to watch a fiercely independent woman come completely unglued by a passionate, illicit liaison in Paris. It’s a good, fun read about one of my favorite literary icons. I wrote a review and designed a literary tour of Paris based on the book, which you can read on my blog.
AWP: What was your most memorable meal to date?
MW: Of course, the food in Paris is a constant revelation, but just a few days ago I took a bite of a savory crepe, and I said: “I think this is the best single bite of food I’ve ever had in my life!” We were at a small little crêperie in Chartres where they had an extensive menu of crêpes and sandwiches on pain Poilâne. It was hard to choose, but I picked a buckwheat crêpe with smoked duck, rhubarb, apple, mushrooms, goat cheese and greens, drizzled with balsamic. Oh. My. God.
A Year of Paris Reading by Margie White
Bold = Literary tour, book review or mention on my blog,
American Girls Art club in Paris at WordPress.com
* = Read before my Paris year but reread in whole or part
20th – 21st Century Life in Paris
1. Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowland*
Lovely essays by a wide variety of writers who lived in Paris.
2. Paris, Paris by David Downie
Smart essays about the history, sites and personality of Paris by an American who has lived in the Marais district for many years
3. Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin
The funny story of an American’s job at a Paris ad agency for 18 months
4. Paris My Sweet by Amy Thomas
A pastry blogger’s two years in Paris, with a guide to all of the best boulangeries and patisseries in Paris. Keep this one in your tote bag.
5. My Life in Paris by Julia Child*
Julia Child’s years in Paris on rue de L’Université.
6. The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter
A bohemian’s view of Paris on foot, told by a long-time expat who lives in the heart of the Left Bank.
7. C’est La Vie by Suzy Gershman
A newly widowed woman, the author of the Born to Shop Paris guides, faces the challenges of moving to Paris and dating older French men.
8. The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebowitz
Pastry chef and cookbook author begins a sweet but perplexing new life in Paris. Includes recipes and advice on leaving and eating well in Paris.
9. Paris In Love by Eloise James
A romance writer’s year in Paris with her reluctant teenagers, including a guide to her favorite restaurants, shops and small museums.
10. True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris by Lucinda Holdforth
Smart mid-life memoir about the author’s trip to Paris in which she follows in the footsteps of Paris women she admires, from Madame Pomadour and Josephine Bonaparte to Colette and Edith Wharton.
11. Chronicles of Old Paris: Exploring the Historic City of Light by John Baxter
12. Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
13. Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick*
14. Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis by Alice Kaplan (Read Alice Kaplan’s interview in A Woman’s Paris.)
15. Into A Paris Quarter by Diane Johnson
World War II Era
1. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)*
The fictional story based on the 1942 Vel d’Hiv round-up of Jewish families by French authorities who were collaborating with the Nazis.
2. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
A multi-generational memoir about a Jewish family’s collection of Japanese netsukes, from their acquisition in Belle Epoque Paris through their near loss in World War II and beyond. (See also 19th c. Paris)
3. Wine & War by Don and Petie Kladstrup (2001)
The story of the struggle and resistance of French winemaking families in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace during Nazi occupation.
4. Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass
Fascinating nonfiction account of the Americans who stayed in Paris during World War II against the American Ambassador’s advice, including Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co.
5. Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling
A story of Nazi art looting in WWII Paris told by the son of Jewish art dealer. An exceptionally researched and beautifully executed book about lost paintings, lost love, the art of survival and the power of the imagination.
6. Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent by Hal Vaughan
At best, Chanel would do anything to survive in WWII Paris. At worst, she was an anti-semitic Nazi collaborator and morphine-addicted snob who not only slept with the enemy, but worked as their agent. The evidence suggests the worst.
7. Suite Françaiseby Iréne Nemerovsky*
Beautifully linked stories about the years of German occupation, as told by a Jewish author who was deported and killed in Auschwitz decades before the book was published
8. Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel*
A special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Monuments Men, risked their lives to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.
9. And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding
The Hemingway Era
1. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (2010)*
Hadley Hemingway’s fictionalized story of her marriage to Ernest Hemingway and their years together in Paris
2. Paris Without End by Gioia Diliberto*
The more thorough nonfiction account of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway’s marriage
3. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (2011)
The story of Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka and her model and muse who lived in Paris in the 20s and 30s, with a character modeled after Hemingway
4. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston
A novel in a creative scrapbook style about an adventurous young woman who comes to Paris to work at a magazine in the 1920s
5. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway*
Ernest Hemingway’s story of his early years in Paris with Hadley, written with regret and published after his death
6. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway*
A thinly disguised fictional story about a group of heavy drinking expat Americans who live in Paris in the 20s.
7. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
The autobiographical story of Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, who were leaders of the modernist expat art and literary community in Paris in the 20s and 30s.
8. Paris Was Yesterday (1925-1939) by Janet Flanner
Based on Flanner’s “Letter from Paris” in the New Yorker.
9. Walks in Hemingway’s Paris: A Guide for the Literary Traveler by Noel Riley Fitch
Best walking tour through the Left Bank for literary travelers.
19th Century Historical Fiction
1. The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields
The fictionalized Paris love story between Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton during the years that Edith rented the Vanderbilt townhouse on rue de Grenelle.
2. Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore
A bawdy mystery about the Impressionists obsession with the color blue.
3. Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell*
The tragic love story of Claude Monet and his first wife, model and muse Camille.
4. Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace
A fictionalized account of Van Gogh’s last months in Auvers-sur-Oise, from the point of view of Dr. Gachet, his friend, doctor, model and fellow painter.
5. I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto*
The story of John Singer Sargent’s most famous model, the American beauty Madame Gautreau, and the painting that scandalized Paris.
6. The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland*
The fictionalized story behind Renoir’s painting
7. Lydia Cassatt Reading the Newspaper*
The fictionalized story of Mary Cassatt’s years in Paris with her family and sister Lydia
8. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.
9. The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay
19th or 20th Century Nonfiction
1. The Greater Journey by David McCullough*
2. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
3. The Judgment of Paris by Ross King*
4. The Personal Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe
5. Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiles Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count by Jill Jones
6. Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 by Jeffrey H. Jackson
19th Century Fiction
1. The Ambassadors by Henry James*
2. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo*
3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert*
4. Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
5. Old Man Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
6. Trilby by George du Maurier
1. Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran
The fictionalized story of Madame Tussaud’s years in Paris as the owner of a Paris wax museum before and during the Revolution.
2. Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford
The enjoyable, anectdotal biography of Louis XV’s famous mistress.
3. Walks Through Napoleon and Josephine’s Paris by Diana Reid Haig
A small guidebook to help you tour in and around Paris in the footsteps of Napoleon and Josephine with recommended shops and restaurants along the way. From the Church of St. Roch on rue Saint-Honoré to Malmaison and Fountainbleu.
4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Believe it or not, I’d never read this before I got to Paris.
5. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
The story of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, whom he wed in order to have an heir.
6. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber
Fascinating look at the role of fashion in revolutionary France.
7. Napoleon & Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce
Paris Art Books, Nonfiction and Memoir
1. The Hare with Amber Eyes
Part family biography, part art history, this is the story of the Euphrussi family collection of Japanese netsukes, small ivory carvings. The story begins in Belle Epoque Paris with the art collector and flaneur Charles Euphrussi and continues through and beyond Nazi occupied Vienna.
2. Paris, The Impressionists by Ellen Williams
Walking tours of the artists’ studios, homes and the sites they painted, with period café and restaurant recommendations
3. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
The exhibition catalog of the Berthe Morisot Exhibit at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris in 2012, the first retrospective of the artist in Paris in over 70 years, including biographical texts by family members
4. Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir
Jean Renoir’s biography of his father, full of touching detail and memories
5. Artist in Residence: A Guide to the Homes and Studios of Eight 19th Century Artists in and Around Paris by Dana Micucci
Travel guide to the artists’ homes that have been turned into museums, including Bonheur, Courbt, Delacroix, Daubigny, Millet, Monet, Moreau and Van Gogh
6. The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe
A thorough nonfiction account of the lives of Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, Morisot and others
7. Modeling My Life by Janet Scudder
The autobiography of an American sculptor who came to study art in Paris in 1893 and ended up staying most of her life
8. Overcoming All Obstacles: the Women of Académie Julian by Gabriel P. Weisberg and Jane Becker, Ed.
Catalog of an exhibition held at the Dahesh Museum in New York, focusing on the women who studied at the Académie Julian in late 18th century Paris
9. Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux
The autobiography of an American painter who has been called a female Singer Sargent. She studied in Paris in the late 1900s
10. The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century by John Miller
An extensive listing, with photographs of many of the studios of artists in Paris from Montmartre to Montparnasse.
11. An Interlude in Giverny by Joyce Henri Robinson and Derrick R. Cartwright
The exhibit catalog for An Interlude in Giverny at the Musée d’Art Américain Giverny in 2001, with essays about the life of Frederick and Mary MacMonnies whose home in Giverny was the center of an American art colony in the late 1890s and early 1990s.
12. A Flight With Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies by Mary Smart
A thoroughly research biography of the life of Frederick MacMonnies, and American sculptor and painter, with a complete catalog of the artist’s works
13. Rue de la Grande Chaumiere: The Cradle of Montparnasse by John Crombie
A small guidebook from a local Paris press about the history, artists and sites in the heart of Montparnasse
14. The Journal of Marie Bashkirtself
The amazing journal of a Russian aristocrat who came to study painting at Académie Julian in Paris in the 1880s, but who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.
15. Painting Professionals: Women Artists & the Development of Modern American Art 1870-1930 by Kirsten Swinth
The story of the unsure art training and career paths of American women painters in the U.S. and abroad in the late 19th and early 20th century.
16. Little Women Abroad by Louisa May Alcott and May Alcott
17. Studying Art Abroad by May Alcott
18. May Alcott: A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor
19. French Ways and Their Meaning by Edith Wharton
20. Rilke in Paris by Rainer Maria Rilke & Maurice Betz
1. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
2. Long Ago In France by MFK Fischer
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, What’s in a Word? There’s more to French class than you thought. Jacqueline Bucar, French teacher and immigration attorney, invites us to stimulate a way of thinking and learning that expands our understanding of the world and ourselves through the study of a foreign language. She shares “what’s in a word,” a way of thinking, a “mentality” that helps define the people who speak it and their culture.
Why on earth would you want to teach French? Be practical, it’s a tough job market out there, is a common saying writer Dana Wielgus heard from classmates, friends, and family. Frustrated, saddened by comments like these only made her more determined. Including a list of resources.
Stars, Stripes and Seine: Americans in occupied Paris 1940-1944, by Alan Davidge. 5,000 Americans refused to leave Paris after war broke out in September 1939. Who were they? Read the stories of how Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Arthur Briggs, Drue Leyton, and others lived and breathed Paris during the war.
The Child Madeline, by writer and educator Natalie Ehalt who shares her love of Madeline and brings a deserved respect for girls and children worldwide. Including excerpts from Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales, by Ludwig Bemelmans.
African-American Expatriates in Paris, by writer Kristin Wood who shares a few of our favorite books written by and/or about African-Americans in Paris and France. Some are novels; some are histories; all are fantastic reads.
Franglais: Modern French-English words, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who writes that many French speakers are appalled by franglais, but there are those, like us, who find it fascinating. Included is a useful vocabulary of French to English translations for franglais, where you’ll find words like, “les baskets: sneakers or trainers—literally, the shoes worn to play basket ball,” which is one of our favourites.
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2012 Margie White. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.