Oct 24, 2014

The Last Time I Saw Paris.

The last time I saw Paris was many moons ago when my mother, sister and I took a trip on the Orient Express. I was very busy as a freelance cinematographer, a job that took me to the capitals and hamlets of the world filming feature films, television movies and documentaries. So when mother suddenly asked if I could take a ride with her on the Orient Express, I thought she was kidding. But I surprised her. A film project I was slated to work on fell through and I had some spare time.

"Ready when you are."I told her.
"What for?" She questioned.
"The Orient Express of course."

We spent a week walking around Paris, then an overnight trip on the Orient Express and on to Venice for a week. A most spectacular trip filled with memories and anticipation to see these wonderful places again. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw Paris, and Venice.

I had landed in Paris many times thanks to my career. I got to know it well. So I naturally became a tourist guide for my family. We visited the Mona Lisa, walked the Champs Elysees, frequented the sidewalk cafes. We even had the opportunity to take my mother to Maxim's on Mother's Day. But that was many years ago.  I now felt I needed to visit this favourite city again.

Three years ago my wife and I journeyed with a single carry-on bag and a personal tote to Rome where we trod the streets for two weeks. This year we decided to reprise the experience in Paris. However, this visit was going to be a little different. Both my wife and I had taken up sketching and water-colour art, so art and the art experience was to be a major component of our trip.

Touch down at Charles de Gaul airport was easy, as was the skip through the airport with our small carry-on bags to the train, to the city. Our journey ended with a ten-minute hike to our rented apartment where we rested for the day.

The next day found us at Monsieur Fernand, a small bakery on the corner of our street where an array of croissants, buns and coffee greeted us. This was the Paris breakfast I remembered. Then we meandered through the busy Paris streets, winding our way up to Montmartre.

Montmartre is a small hill-top village/suburb of old Paris. Renoir, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh and so many other artists lived and worked there. As we reached the base of the 300 steps leading up to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur Basilica, we found the Funicular, a cable railway that transported us smoothly up the small mountain, that took the sting out of climbing.

On top, haze blanketed the spectacular views of Paris, but we found other avenues to explore. Winding cobblestone streets through the old village were laced with cafes and trinket stores, and Place du Tertre (the main square) was filled with artists selling their renditions of Paris to tourists who flocked and sipped coffee in the surrounding street side cafes. As we wound our way around the small streets and pathways, we found the Salvador Dali Museum and a square where Picasso shared a studio with many other avant-garde and soon-to-be famous artists like Mogdigliani.

The highlight of our first day was the discovery of Le Moulin de la Galette. Once a hot spot of dance and frolic, this was the place where Renoir painted his masterpiece "Bal du Moulin de la Galette." This has always been one of my favourite paintings. The sheer joy at the dance hall on a Sunday afternoon is depicted underneath the trees in dappled light. Colourful dresses and a joie de vivre, which so many other works don't have, exude from this painting. The place is now a cafe and the dance hall at the rear no longer exists. We decided to have lunch there to celebrate our first day in Paris. This was our small version of Renoir's painting, as we were served lunch on the small patio where sun light filtered through the trees to cast the dappled shadows.

Just down the road we found our first sketching opportunity at Place Dalida. Dalida was a singer, so beloved that they erected a statue and named the intersection after her. But facing up Rue de l'Abreuvior toward Sacre Coeur was a wonderfully sketchable perspective on Montmartre. We obliged. But of course every other artist who has sketched or painted Montmartre has found this special view too. We were in good company.

Late afternoon found us walking down the mountain streets past a home of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and an apartment where Vincent Van Gogh lived with his brother Theo. Further down we sat at the cafe used in the French film "Amelie" and then past the base of Rue Lepic in the Pigalle area, where the famous cabaret theatre Moulin Rouge sits.

I remember on a 1980s business trip through Paris, I had a night off. I decided to take myself to the Moulin Rouge burlesque cabaret. Just me at a centre table served with French Champagne, filet mignon and topless dancing girls doing the Can-Can all around me. Ou la la.

On this trip, our walk home from Montmartre was spent shopping and gathering a truly French dinner; red wine from Bordeaux, a selection of cheeses from local farms and pate from northern France, with a local baguette to blend it all together. All this and the fine company of my wife.

This first day would be a reflection of the busy, yet relaxed Paris experience we were to explore. We wanted to find culture and humanity by walking the streets and getting to know the areas. This we did, yet we always found time to sketch.

The old adage of travel to get away from things has its drawbacks for some, because you always take yourself with you. You just can't get away from your own ego. But, with travel, you must be your own best friend and guide. Be enthralled by your own creativity and the way you find and discouver new experiences. Go out of your way to search out something. Let your minor troubles blow away. Enjoy the rain. Stop and delight in your surroundings. Find a few moments of quiet wonder in your day. For us, sketching has become a quiet moment. It's almost a meditation. In sketching you study details and connections, and observation brings things together in a way nothing else can. Too many of us journey through life and miss life itself. We want to see everything, but we end up missing most, and feeling nothing.

In Paris we attended a street art show at Place Bastille, sampled the Marais area and the Jewish quarter with lunch at the famous L'As du Fallafel. We strolled Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint Louis, and lunched by the Seine in Hemingway's favourite park. We browsed the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and bought "'A Movable Feast," where Hemingway writes about his adventures in Paris. We stood in the teaming rain chatting with a couple from Chicago for an hour while waiting to enter the Louvre, while a couple of celebrities where shown the "Mona Lisa." Paris was an every-day feast of great moments. Each had its qualities and we were never rushed.

The Louvre is a very special place and we quickly made a bee line for the "Mona Lisa" to view Leonardo da Vinci's great work before the huge crowds overwhelmed the gallery. I made it to the front where I was eye to eye with Mona for the longest time. Some think it's a small painting but its 21 x 31 inches. When it's close it doesn't look so small and for the first time I could see the colours, the landscape in the background and the eyes starring at me. The Louvre is filled with a wealth of great masterpieces. But Mona is the star. And a great one at that.

Mona's seduction of me was quickly brought down to earth by an Australian at the back of the group who shouted, "Give others a chance at the front."

I turned my head and shouted back, "Come and join me."

Then I turned back to experience my intimacy with Mona for one last time. Crowds were gathering, so we headed to another gallery where we were face-to-face with "Liberty Leading the People," by Delacroix. To think that this painting stirred a population from one revolution to another. This painting is big in idea, scope and size.

We soon found a cafe and coincidently were seated in a most spectacular spot. Before us was an ornate arch leading back to Delacroix's wonderful painting. At the rear of the gallery were doors leading back to the "Mona Lisa," and the view below us down the stairs was the back of the statue "The Dying Slave," by Michelangelo. Underneath and just down the hall stood "Venus de Milo."  All this surrounded us while we munched muffins, drank black coffee and sketched the scene in this place that was once Napoleon's palace.

One could spend a lifetime in Paris and not see everything. Best to experience the place slowly. We could always return. We didn't over-do the galleries, but aimed at specific things we wanted to experience. In the Museum D'Orsay we headed to the top floor to see the Impressionist gallery, and I aimed for one of my favourite paintings,  Renoir's "Bal du Moulin de la Galette." Yes, this was the depiction of the afternoon dance at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre, where we had had lunch. Standing eye-to-eye with this work of art, I was struck by how large it is; 52 x 69 inches. It glows, like seeing the painting in huge, high definition. The colours are so vibrant, and the faces I had grown to love were just a couple of feet from my eyes. It's filled with fun and humanity where people are together and enjoying the dance in full swing, and I became so totally involved with this painting that I was enjoying the music in my own mind. WOW. The dappled light on the scene had so much impact on me. It was as if I was a part of the picture. Talk about emotion. My eyes were damp. It's such an overwhelmingly beautiful painting.

Then there were more. This museum is filled with great art by Renoir, Monet,  Pissarro, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet, Degas and a host of other artists I have studied and many I have not. The art in Paris is magnificent. Like the Orangerie gallery. It's a small museum across the river from the D'Orsay, at the Tulleries Gardens. You walk into two large oval rooms and, in each, you are surrounded by a continuous painting of water lillies by Monet. They are huge. Not just one room, but two. This gallery was especially constructed for, and designed by, Monet. I'm not a big Monet fan, but I was impressed by this gallery. And downstairs were more paintings by Renoir and others.

We walked the Gardens of the Tulleries and the Champs Elysees, we bought souvenirs at the Opera House and Maxim's, marveled at the Galleries LaFayette and sat down by the Seine and sketched Notre Dame Cathedral at sunset. Of our many sketches, Luxembourg Gardens was an experience where we both sat in chairs beside the gardens and sketched a panorama of the Palace and the gardens, while children were playing with sailboats on the large pond and a small orchestra in the gazebo filled the air with chords of wonderful, classical music.

The place we loved the most was Montmartre. We returned two more times at the end of our stay to feel the vibe of this little bit of restored Paris. We discovered the only remaining vineyard in Paris and bought a painting from an artist at Place du Tertre. But, by far the most memorable moment for me was to walk around the home where Renoir lived and painted (now the Montmartre Museum), where so many of his most memorable works such as "The Swing" and "Bal du Moulin de la Galette" were painted.

I have seen many of the world's great works of art during my travels around the world, but I must harken back to our own sketch group in Victoria, and the Urban Sketchers movement through out the world, and think that probably some of the greatest works of art sit in closed sketchbooks on artists' shelves, never to be seen.

Our ten day journey to Paris was filled with involvement of life and art at the speed of a sketch. What a lovely way to experience a place.

The last time I saw Paris, I was thrilled.


"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
- Mark Twain

Art is about emotion; if art needs to be explained it is no longer art. "- Pierre-Auguste Renoir

To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them."- Pierre-Auguste Renoir

"Do not be troubled for a language, cultivate your soul and she will show herself."
- Eugene Delacroix


My Paris sketchbook consists of twelve pen & ink and watercolour sketches:


"Bal du Moulin de la Galette."