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No one would dream of painting such a picture now. A pubescent girl, half-draped in a Greek tunic and preparing for a bath in a reedy pool, covers her breast and turns her head as if surprised by an intruder. And though the pose may be based on classical precedents of “Susanna and the Elders,” this is unquestionably a real girl showing real discomfort. The male gaze has never seemed so possessive — except that it’s not a male gaze, it’s a female gaze, and a mother’s gaze at that. The painter is Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun, and the model is her 12-year-old daughter, Julie, posing for a pastoral portrait titled “Julie Le Brun as a Bather.” The possessiveness and the discomfort seem uncontrived because the mother/painter was rightly concerned for the happiness and security of her much-loved only child, and the daughter/sitter would have had to feel discomfort, as any normally restless 12-year-old would, holding an unnatural pose in a drafty studio for as long as it took to complete a highly finished portrait commission in 1792.

Discomforting as the subject matter may be, the picture holds us because, like most of Vigée Le Brun’s best work, it marries technical finesse to revealing characterization. They’re not all this good. Among Vigée Le Brun’s 700 paintings, a fair number seem less like works of art than commercial transactions. The nobles and potentates of Europe paid her very high prices to flatter them, and she did. “On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined,” wrote Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Furthermore, she was an arch-conservative in her aesthetics as well as her politics. (She professed to believe, for example, that the Russian serfs were “happy” in their servitude.) You don’t get much innovation in Vigée Le Brun. What you do get, as in the portrait of 12-year-old Julie, is something like a glimpse into the human soul. More… “Mother/Painter”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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What is so American about Edward Hopper?

This is the question I pondered at this huge retrospective of his work in the heart of Paris. There seems to be a Hopper retrospective ever few years or so in the United States. His images have become so familiar, so iconic in their simple compositions and their isolated characters sitting silently in public and private spaces. His most famous painting, “Nighthawks” (1942), has been reproduced and caricatured so often you are surprised when you actually stand in front of it, the dramatic contrasting light between the diner’s inner, yellow hues and the shadowy street never match a reproduction. The painting practically glows from the interior outward, the light indistinct in source. It seems as if the whole canvas must be illuminated from behind. “Nighthawks,” like many of his works of the era, have become iconic of the mid-century era, their compositions inspiring… More…

On a gray morning in Paris, I pushed back the heavy velvet curtains in my hotel room. There, just across the street, almost close enough to touch, was Charles Garnier’s extravagant opera house — the Palais Garnier. I didn’t know where to look first. The Corinthian columns with gilt capitals? The rose granite friezes? the shiny tips of gold Pegasus wings?

 

I left the curtain open and padded into the bathroom. A glance in the mirror over the sink revealed a sight anything but grand: the face, so pale; the multidirectional hair, frizzy with split ends; the pajamas, gaping around the shoulders. After gazing at the confectionary Opera, my reflection nearly gave me culture shock.

Mustn’t look in the mirror again today, I thought, and dressed quickly, keeping my gaze trained out the window.

The Opera’s busy style… More…

When we think of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the first thing that comes to mind is his masterful Journey to the End of the Night. After that, we maybe remember he was a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Semite.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. 240 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.

Ernst Jünger, the German writer, remembered in his journal the typical conversation to be had with Céline: “He said how surprised he was that, as soldiers, we do not shoot, we do not hang, we do not exterminate the Jews — he is astonished that someone in possession of a bayonet does not make unlimited use of it.”

It wasn’t just his charming conversation — as recounted in Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, Céline also wrote propaganda pamphlets, dedicated one of his books to the hangman’s noose used… More…

 

Philip the Second is an afterthought. That’s what a college professor once said. We were reading Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. The professor was pointing out the significance of the book’s title. Philip II comes at the end, and he’s really just the name for an Age, an Age defined by The Mediterranean and The Mediterranean World. The beginning of the book is mostly about geography, weather, seasonal migrations of various kinds of animals. Braudel was of the Annales School, a group of historians for whom history ought to be told in the little stories, the ground level (literally), the details of life as it is experienced by the mostly unnamed creatures who toil for their time and then pass away.

Wandering through the New York State… More…

 

In the first years of the 19th century, Napoleon decided he’d had enough of the Haitian patriot, freedom fighter, and self-proclaimed defender of the French Revolution, Toussaint Louverture. Louverture had organized slave revolts in Haiti and defeated armies sent by the Spanish, English, and the French. A man of the Enlightenment, he took the ideas of liberté, egalité, and fraternité quite seriously. Never sentimental, Napoleon realized that France’s Caribbean colonies were heavy on the lucre, and that he needed slave labor to keep the profits flowing. Louverture had become a nuisance.

Louverture was tricked into a meeting and then captured by the French in 1802. He was brought back to France, where he lived and quickly expired in a little dungeon called Fort de Joux. But before his death, he’d managed to stir the hearts of quite a… More…

 

 

If you were to go looking for evidence of France’s huge North African population, you’d find it in the grim public housing projects of the suburban cités, in the gritty peripheral neighborhoods of Paris, and near my home in the relatively privileged 5th arrondissement, where the Great Mosque draws enormous crowds on Fridays and during Ramadan. You would be hard pressed, however, to find many North Africans in the corridors of French business or political power, where they are close to invisible.

And yet, for the last year and a half, a woman of Moroccan-Algerian descent has become famous as one of the most influential and glamorous figures in France. Rachida Dati is the minister of justice, and until recently one of President Sarkozy’s closest confidants. She is a self-made success story who radiates chutzpah, for lack… More…

 

 

Last Saturday morning my family slept in. The Saturday before as well. And the Saturday before that. This fact might sound banal — especially since by “sleeping in” I mean we got up at 8 a.m. But for me and other parents with grade school-aged children throughout France, it was practically revolutionary. As far back as anyone can remember, French kids have had classes on Saturday mornings — if not every weekend, then every other week. And now, rushing to get the kids out the door on a day one might normally consider part of the weekend is a thing of the past.

I grew up in Western New York, and recall learning in Madame Keller’s high school French class that in the faraway country where people spoke an unpronounceable language and ate smelly cheese, kids had… More…