Four Women of the Belle Epoque


Marie-Therèse Durand-Ruel Sewing, 1882

I want to share with you an appreciation for the representations of Marie-Therese Durand-Ruel by Renoir; Elisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, by De Laszlo; and two others, Lady Richmond and Jane de Glehn, painted by Sargent. To me they represent an essential characteristic of the civilization they lived in: a tranquil confidence.

The Renoir picture of the daughter of the famous art dealer Durand-Ruel is now in the Clark Museum at Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is a side view of a young woman sewing in a garden, crowned with a brilliant orange-red bonnet. It is of course much more than that. It makes a statement about an era, about the habits and interests of a whole generation.

The De Laszlo shows the Countess Greffulhe, the most famous Parisienne of her time, who although faithful to the philandering Henry Greffulhe, conquered the hearts of numerous eminent Europeans of the 19th and 20th century, notably Marcel Proust, who borrowed from her to create the Duchess and the Princess of Guermantes in his great novel In Search of Lost Time. Engaging with her across more than a century now, one can believe in her gleaming intelligence and love of beauty, science, and art. This picture is in a private collection, according to information at the De Laszlo Archive Trust.

The Sargent picture evokes a place, in which the women play an important but anonymous role, engaged in a private conversation over a table in a gloriously lit loggia at an Italian villa. The women were part of a group of friends, including Sargent. This picture is about the place, the atmosphere, but also about the women, showing a respect for them despite the lack of any attempt at rendering their features. This picture can be seen at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.

These three pictures carry to me the spirit of a bygone era – one that produced a horrible war at the end, but one that also produced a panoply of brilliant artists and authors, who still have a lot to offer us.

For more about the Countess Greffulhe:,_Countess_Greffulhe


Elisabeth Comtesse Greffulhe, 1909


Breakfast in the Loggia, 1910

About France

I have read about a couple of authors who have characterized the French as being disappointed and discouraged. The theory is that the idea of France as a leader of civilized life has suffered a check. The idea is that the French are envious of the role that English plays in today’s world.

I hope that this is not true. For I have to say that what I find in France quite contradicts this. I have always found, in every part of that country that I have visited over the last twenty years, a proud people, very welcoming of me and my wife, whatever our competence in their language might be. (Believe me, for myself in the beginning it was quite negligible. In Montpellier in 1995 I was proud of being asked, by two young girls, what time of the day it was – even though the only thing I could do to answer was show them the face of my watch)!

We have visited Paris most often. This is a beautiful city, human in scale in a way that New York is not, which I admire. (There are too many skyscrapers already, so bless the Parisians for saying no more Montparnasse Towers)! In Paris, for us, there have been really very few problems. Most of the people we have to do business with speak better English than we do French. But when they get the idea that we want to speak their language, they are perfectly willing to do that too. That to me is gracious, even magnanimous. And we find that routine. There have been almost no occasions when a French person deliberately made us feel like foreigners.

We spent time in the Dordogne, near Sarlat, a part of the country that I compare to the Adirondack Park in my state of New York – but with much better wine. Another time we stayed in Menton, on the south coast, where we were traveling as members of a chorus, close to Italy but not really tempted to go there, for the city itself was sufficiently interesting. We drove through the mountains, along the Gorge de Verdon, to the beautiful village of Moustiers-St Marie, where countless visitors since the Middle Ages have made their pilgrimage. This village depends now on tourism, but it has a rich cultural and craft history. The people there were very welcoming. I could go on for all the parts of France we have visited, from Normandy to Strasbourg, from Sancerre to Tours. Everywhere we met only kindness and interest in our well-being.

There was a time in Sancerre when we were attending a language course at the Ecole de langues. My wife had a problem with her eyesight. The course director sent us to her own general practitioner who quickly referred us to a specialist in a nearby town. We went there by cab, and the driver waited in town for us to finish our business, and brought us back. We got excellent medical care, even though we were foreigners. I can hardly imagine the same good fortune happening to any tourist in my country.

Once we were in Rheims, and undecided about lunch, we bought some wine and charcuterie, and went to a local park to have a picnic. Our surroundings were clean and pleasant, and we had a wonderful time. Again, in my country, this little adventure would not have been possible. There would have been a lot of trash, and unpleasant people in the area.

We rent cars in France and travel on the AutoRoutes. The roadside Aires are magnificent by comparison with those in the USA; the road surfaces are smooth, the traffic is well-regulated, the trucks have to travel slower than anybody else. All of these things are worse in the USA than in France.

When we visit museums in France we find almost every time a class of students, led by their teachers, being instructed in the arts and history of their country. Generally this does not happen in America. If the French complain about their education system, imagine what they would say if they lived in New York.

My father’s tomb is at the military cemetery in Colleville, on the Normandy coast. We have often seen classes of students, led by their teachers, visiting the cemetery, and learning about the recent history of this part of their country. After seeing this I do not listen to people who make disparaging remarks about France.

We can only spend a few weeks at a time in France. To keep up our skills in the language, we take part in a literature group and a conversation group, each of which meets once a month. I have become a reader of French literature, particularly late 19th and early 20th century works. I see in this the origin of many of our cultural memes. The ideas that founded our country come in large part from the work of 18th century French writers. We cannot forget the support of the French in our own founding as a nation. Likewise, the works of many modern French writers and authors fascinate millions of Americans. What happens in French politics shows up on our TV. So, even though we speak English here, we owe a lot to French ideas, and we care about what happens there.

So, to my friends in France, not numerous but well -loved I say, forget about disappointment. You have a great country, and we still have a lot to learn from the way you do things.

A Failed Audition

I have been singing as an extra with Albany Pro Musica since 1990. This despite not being able to read music, at least not at the beginning. This failing of mine, that dates back to grade school when my parents and teachers allowed me to opt out of music class in exchange for doing more arithmetic, has been a limitation in my choral career. It slows me down in learning new pieces.

At times I thought maybe I would study music and learn how to sight read, but I never got around to doing that. I tried a couple of times to become a regular member of the chorus, auditioning with the founding director, David Janower. But being able to sight read is a requirement for full membership, and as I got older I think the quality of my singing declined a bit. I finally gave up the idea, but I remained a member of the “B” team and got to sing one or two concerts every couple of years. There are some good musicians who were not accepted into this group, which is officially called Albany Pro Musica Masterworks. So I was happy to be in Masterworks.

When David passed away a couple of years ago, the principal chorus sang with a number of interim directors before hiring José Daniel Caraballo, who moved to this area from Vero Beach. The first production involving Masterworks was scheduled for this spring, and it was necessary for everybody to have an audition with the new director.

I was not looking forward to this audition. I was rusty, and I had heard from some choristers that it consisted of a series of exercises of increasing difficulty that stopped only when one made a mistake. The audition itself seemed to me to go OK, but it really did not. I got an email explaining that I had trouble matching pitches, remembering patterns, and intonation, i.e., holding a pitch instead of drifting flat. I had to agree: with a diagnosis like that I would have a hard time participating.

But I was not entirely satisfied that this was a definitive judgment. In addition to certain physical frailties, I have substantial hearing loss, and I use hearing aids. These are sophisticated programmable devices, and I had four programs designed for different situations. Could it be that these were at fault, reporting incorrect pitches? I downloaded an application to my Iphone, called PitchPerfect ($2.00 from the Apple Store). This “listens” to pitches that are played or sung, reports the letter of the note, the frequency, and plots a whole note on the treble or bass clef. It can even generate leger lines, if necessary. I played a C on the piano, and this program dutifully reported the fact. Then I tried to match the pitch as best I could. B. It turns out all pitches on all my programs were reduced a semi-tone. This is because most of my hearing loss is in the upper frequency ranges, so the programs compress the sounds to push them into my better listening range. Most of the time it does not matter, but I noticed that a lot of musical pieces that I know well did not sound so great with these hearing aids.

I went to my audiologist and got a new program added, just for music, that does not change the pitches that are played into my ears. I got a second audition.

The result was much better. I could match pitches and remember short passages played on the piano. I still have a problem with intonation, but that is much more manageable than not being able to reproduce pitches that other people hear. I will have another audition and we will see then if I can fix the intonation problem. In the meantime, though, I feel pretty happy with the new program on my hearing aids. Music sounds better, and it is easier to produce.

I am adding an update. I had a second audition and was permitted to sing. But I really could not fix the problem and had to drop out.

An Observation on Regret from Proust

Lately I have re-reading Proust. Here is an example of why.

In “À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs” Proust’s young stand-in protagonist is visiting the studio of the fictional painter Elstir at his villa near the seaside resort of Balbec. It is about sunset, and he is about to go home. He asks Elstir about an old  watercolor of a young woman in theatrical costume, guessing correctly that it is a portrait of Odette, a woman with a checkered past as a “cocotte”, now married to Swann, a sophisticated Parisian clubman. He also guesses correctly that Elstir was a friend of both of them years ago, when they all were part of the circle of a wealthy woman, a circle where Elstir was remembered as not particularly brilliant. Elstir reacts at first with a discontented facial expression, but then, instead of dismissing his young guest, he offers a philosophical comment:

“There is no man, however wise he might be” he told me “who has not at some time in his youth pronounced some words, or even lived a style of life, the memory of which is disagreeable to him, and he would wish had never happened. But he should not regret it absolutely, because he could not be assured of becoming wise, insofar as that is possible, unless he has passed through all the incarnations, ridiculous or odious, that have to precede the last incarnation. I know there are young people, sons and grandsons of distinguished men, whom their instructors have taught nobility of spirit and moral elegance as soon as they went to school. They have perhaps nothing to regret in life, they could publish and sign everything they did, but they are poor spirits, powerless descendants of doctrinaires, whose wisdom is negative and sterile. One does not receive wisdom, it is necessary to discover it oneself, after a journey which nobody can make for us, nor spare us, because it is a point of view about things. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that you find noble, have not been given by fathers or teachers, they have been preceded by quite different preliminary events, having been influenced by what was around them that was bad or banal. They represent a battle and a victory. I understand that the image of what we have been during an early period is no longer recognizable, and in any case unpleasant. It must not be denied however, because it is a witness that we have really lived, and that is according to the laws of life and the mind, that we have, from the common elements of life, of studios, of artistic circles if we are talking about a painter, extracted something that surpasses them.”

Whatever we regret in the past – an invitation declined, an appointment missed, an obligation ignored, denied, or forgotten, a bad habit, a serious fault- is part of our education in the broadest sense. This is not an argument to repeat our mistakes or cherish them; but our experiences – even the bad ones- give us what is best in ourselves.


Doing the Brahms Requiem

On May 3 2014 Sharon and I formed part of the chorus of Albany Pro Musica to perform Ein Deutsches Requiem, by Brahms, under the direction of the opera director Sara Jobin, with John Cheek and Maureen O’Flynn and the Pro Musica Orchestra, the flexible ensemble organized by Anne-Marie Barker-Schwarz. Ms. Jobin is not the regular conductor of Albany Pro Musica, but stepped in for this concert after the founding director, David Griggs-Janower, died in August. Rehearsals started in September, and were interspersed with rehearsals for other concerts, including the Dvorak Stabat Mater only a month ago.

During her rehearsals, Sara concentrated on diction and text, but also worked hard on pitch and rhythm with the expanded chorus. Many of the singers had performed this piece a number of years ago, but many were new and had little experience singing in German. We worked on prononciation up to just before walking on stage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Sara insisted that everybody also learn the meaning of the words, believing that this was an important key to conveying the emotional import of the text. Psychologically this makes sense, because a lot of vocal and facial expressions can be influenced unconsciously by the meaning of the text; it might be possible to conjure these up like an actor, but it is probably easier to depend on a more instinctive mechanism. Every conductor has an approach, but all the good ones I have worked with have insisted on singing with feeling. That is a large part of what choral music is all about.

A slender woman, Sara nevertheless is a commanding presence on the podium, moving at times more like a dancer. Most conductors harangue the singers to watch them, but she did not have to do this. I found it fun to watch her, and in the end I felt better prepared than usual.

The text of this well-known piece is not a standard Catholic requiem, but a selection of religious passages that are somber and philosophical, summarized best by the texts of the opening and last movements, remarking the happiness of those who have suffered but pass on in the faith. The final movement, “Seilig sind die Töten” is a serene evocation of this hopeful feeling. The melodies are beautiful and the dynamic shifts in the piece are impressive.

One never knows about the size of the audience in advance, but the house was reasonably full – about 700. After a couple dozen hours’ worth of rehearsal, and perhaps an equal number of hours of practice at home, the singers, the orchestra and conductor, and the officers and staff members of the collaborating organizations came together to produce about an an hour and five minutes of complex and beautiful music, a great classic. It was a satisfying experience.

I joke around with fellow choristers after concerts: “Another piece of ephemera down the tubes!” Maybe I should not. To me the enjoyment of being part of the performance lasts much longer than that of the audience member, but the regret of having to stop working on a piece calls for a sort of distancing. I remind myself that there will be other pieces to sing, and start looking forward to the next thing. I will file this one in my memory as one of the most rewarding ever.

An independent review of the concert appeared today in the Albany Times Union.

Proust in Search of Redemption

I have been re-reading “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” recently, and during this time I found on the internet a couple of interesting pieces by Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire, a French poet and essayist. After leaving some comments on her blog I was very pleased that she took the trouble to write back to me. She wrote a book “Proust- ou la recherché de la redemption” which I ordered through Amazon and devoured in a single afternoon, as I found it impossible to put it down. The book has two parts – one devoted to Proust himself, and the second focused on the core of Proust’s message in the Recherche, which she thinks is fundamentally religious, something that had not occurred to me before. As she notes, certainly Proust writes very often about churches, but his hero and his characters do not talk much about religion. Instead Proust pursues the goal of immortality by resurrecting the past, both by overt recollection of the past, and by celebrating the famous involuntary memories (déjà vu), touched off by sounds or tastes, sometimes by sights, which evoke with amazing completeness specific moments of the past. She notes that many turn away from Proust, unwilling to spend time on what they feel is an excessively detailed recitation of the inner life of the hero, a sensitive and sickly person, a close observer of others, who feels a vocation for writing but does little to pursue it, because he cannot think of a subject. In the last chapter of the Recherche, Proust apparently speaks through his hero, and describes how he came to realize what he had to write about – namely his own internal life, with all the complex relationships that connected it to the worlds of art, literature, and even science, as well as the people he knew. This will bring back the past in a real way for him, allowing him to dwell in multiple times, and allow him to speak to future generations, the closest we can get to eternity in the real world. It is this sentiment, so powerful that it led Proust to live his final years as an ascetic, that Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire finds religious.

This reminded me of the poem by Horace (3.30)

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

reglalique situ pyramidum altius…

Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei

vitabit Libitinam…

« I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the royal structure of the pyramids…I shall not wholly die and a greater part of me will evade Libitina (Goddess of Death)… ».

I can add to this example the Shakers, the religious sect that thrived in the northeastern United States from the late 18th to the early 19th century, who thought that their celibate way of life, organized around common labor and housing, was a paradise on earth.

Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire writes at the end of her book on Proust: “Listen to him.” I have to agree with this; this is an immense and influential work,very worthwhile to read, and more than once. For the artist, and as Proust conceded, for the savant, work is a kind of salvation from obscurity. We want our lives to have meaning in the real world, and those who can create something for future generations to use or treasure are more likely to succeed in this than most.

La Belle Personne

« La belle personne » est un film de jeunesse (2008). (Alerte Spoiler – toute l’histoire est racontée ici). L’histoire commence avec Junie, une jeune fille qui arrive à un lycée à Paris. Elle a perdu sa mère récemment et elle habite avec son cousin Matthias, aussi un étudiant au lycée. Elle assiste à des classes. On perçoit immédiatement qu’il y a un instituteur d’italien, de Nemours, un jeune homme beau et un séducteur et des étudiantes et des institutrices !!

Un jeune homme qui s’appelle Otto tombe amoureux de Junie, et après un peu d’hésitation, il se dit amoureux d’elle. Elle lui donne des baisers, et demande qu’il lui reste fidèle. Or, personne  ne sache que de Nemours lui aussi est tombé amoureux de Junie. De Nemours rompe avec toutes ses maitresses, institutrices ou étudiantes, sans explications.

Matthias, le cousin de Junie, est gai, et il est poursuit par un jeune homme dont il n’est pas amoureux. Matthias aime un autre jeune homme et il écrit une lettre d’amour ni adressée ni signée, mais indiscrète, qui tombe dans les mains de tout le monde, mais que tout le monde pensent ait tombé de la poche de l’instituteur,  de Nemours. L’amant de Matthias demande à l’instituteur de réclamer la lettre à Junie, qui était la dernière d’avoir lu la lettre. Mais il demande que de Nemours dise que la lettre est vraiment de lui-même, d’éviter l’embarras pour Matthias. C’est ce que de Nemours consent à faire. Mais Junie dit qu’elle a déchiré la lettre. Alors elle, l’amant de Matthias, et l’instituteur récrivent la lettre en effet. L’histoire passe en avant.

Le jeune homme qui n’est pas aimé de Matthias, qui n’était pas convaincu par cette fausse histoire de la lettre, attaque Matthias et lui blesse avec des ciseaux. La police l’arrête, mais il est relâché peu après.

Junie déclare à Otto qu’elle va partir, parce qu’elle a peur de quelqu’un. Otto n’accepte pas cette histoire. Elle explique finalement qu’elle a peur de tomber amoureuse d’un homme, qu’elle ne nomme pas. Elle lui donne un petit livre et invite franchement des caresses d’Otto. Le lendemain Junie reste absente de la classe d’Italien. Otto demande à un autre ami d’espionner à Junie. Il voit Junie et de Nemours parlant ensemble. Cet ami stupidement donne à Matthias un rapport assez inexact que de Nemours et Junie s’embrassaient.

Le lendemain matin Otto se suicide en sautant d’un balcon à l’école. L’instituteur d’Italien donne sa démission en effet, afin de faire ses attentions à Junie. Mais elle, amoureuse de lui mais craignante son infidélité, décide à fuir la situation. C’est la fin.

C’est fondé en partie sur une ancienne histoire attribuée à Mme de Lafayette, « La princesse de Clèves. »

Dirigé par Christophe Honoré

Junie – Léa Seydoux

Nemours – Louis Garrel

Otto – Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet

Palazzo Donn’Anna

Hello everyone,

Here is a painting known in our family as The Bay of Naples, by an unknown artist. My grandfather purchased it in Ohio around 1950.  By searching Google Earth I found that the building in the background  is the Palazzo Donn’Anna, a prominent landmark. I am curious if anyone has an idea who the artist might be, the time at which the artist made the painting, or anything that would improve our knowledge of its provenance.

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