In the second edition of our new series, There’s Only One Paris we travel to the Musée d’Orsay. Here we explore turning points in art… and in life! Learn more about these participatory stories here and read the first story, revolving around the Eiffel Tower, at this link, the third story on the Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne here and the fourth story on Notre Dame here.
Before launching into the story, I would like to thank everyone who contributed ideas. The piece was originally inspired by two comments, Christine D Mo suggested The Musée d’Orsay as a story venue and then Mona Sonderborg Tompkins put forth the potential subject matter of artist Camille Claudel. The wheels started spinning to weave together this particular story.
A number of other people chimed in when the Orsay was announced as the topic and when I solicited feedback on Impressionist artists. These include Melanie Faye Pender Miller, Tommy Thorburn, Diana Booth Ranke, Pam Kurtz and Janet Conroy.
Another special mention goes out to my friend Véronique Savoye of French Girl in Seattle – Takes France, who provided the names for the main characters: Aurélien and Bénédicte. I hope the fulfill your expectations!
Lastly…. watch out for the character from the Eiffel Tower story… she makes a quick cameo!
I hope you enjoy this week’s story! Happy Reading!
There is Only One Paris #2: L’Age Mûr at the Musée d’Orsay
“Mesdames, Messieurs, je vous prie de bien vouloir patienter pour régulation,” a muffled voice cracked through the Métro car’s speakers, notifying passengers that the train would be held up with traffic control.
I’m totally going to be late! This was such a bad idea! fumed Aurélien. It was 1:45 pm. He was cutting it close. He might manage to arrive just in the nick of time, if he was lucky. This was supposed to be ‘fun,’ and now it felt like he was going back to school.
It had all started six months ago, to the day. Aurélien’s boss, Valérie, had requested a meeting. That was definitely a bad sign. It was only the second time they’d had one-on-one since, well, his job interview. Word had gotten around that there would be some layoffs at his company… and it seemed like Aurélien was going to be among the first sent to the chopping block.
He had to confess. While he’d been a ‘good’ employee these past seven years, he wasn’t exactly passionate about his job. He arrived on time. He made all his deadlines. He was amiable to his colleagues, but, in true French work style, he kept his distance. He always passed his annual performance assessments without any issues and, consequently, received the standard pay rise. But let’s face it, he just wasn’t that into mortgage reassessment insurance. How had he ended up there?
Rue de Bac.
“Enfin, finally only one more stop,” Aurélien mumbled to myself, as he stood up and went over to the Métro car doors in anticipation.
Sure enough, when he’d entered Valérie’s office for that fateful meeting, doom was hanging heavily in the air. She didn’t beat around the bush. He was getting his walking papers, along with half the team, which made him feel a tiny bit better. Normally in France employers had to give you three months notice, but with a fat payout, he was free to go that day and would qualify for a generous two years of unemployment benefits. Where did he sign?
At first Aurélien took the layoff as a stroke of good luck. It would give him a chance at a fresh start. He felt quite confident he could find a new job in his sector, sans problème.
After a three-week holiday hopping around the Greek Isles with his girlfriend, he returned to Paris energized and ready to tackle his job hunt. He spent hours sifting through job websites. He signed up for email alerts. He sent off dozens of resumes… but he was only getting standard copy-and-paste rejection emails in reply. Unfortunately, his situation wasn’t quite the same as it was when he was last on the job market seven years ago.
He was now 48, which meant, professionally speaking in France, he was practically prehistoric, or at least from the Stone Age. He was too experienced, too unmalleable, too expensive… or so it seemed based on the radio silence he was getting. Nevertheless, he did have some friends around the same age who’d recently landed new jobs. Why wasn’t he even being called in for interviews?
His initial optimism waned as the weeks tricked into months. He was crawling out of bed later and later. He didn’t bother shaving every day. The dishes were piling up in his kitchen, as were the wine bottles in his recycling bin.
He got something of a wake up ‘call’ three months later when his girlfriend rang to say that things weren’t working anymore. There was no point in discussing, she added. She’d had a chance encounter at the boulangerie and had been swept off her feet by a new suitor. She wished him the best of luck—he would need it.
“Ouch,” winced Clarisse, upon hearing the details. She and Aurélien had been friends since middle school. After sensing that he wasn’t doing so well, she’d invited herself over for apéro, which forced Aurélien to tidy up his place and empty his recycling bin.
“Aurélien, you didn’t like your job and you didn’t really like the previous one,” noted Clarisse, always the wise one. “Why don’t you use this time to figure out what you really want to do? Didn’t you first want to study art history? Why don’t you attend some art talks or something? Getting in some culture might give you fresh perspectives. At the very least, it’ll get you out of the house.”
Aurélien had studied art history—for one year. Then he finally gave into his parents, who’d been pressuring him to studying something more practical. Now 20+ years later, look what position his business degree had put him in: jobless, inspirationless, girlfriendless… Okay, maybe it wasn’t fair to blame the last ‘less’ on his studies, too.
As soon as he heard the little click release of the Métro door, he flipped up the handle, jumped out of the car, and flicked his head back and forth in search of a sign leading him to the correct exit. The yellow lights of the Métro signal clock blinked 1:52 pm. He had eight minutes.
In the days after his apéro with Clarisse, her words of wisdom were doing laps around his mind. She had a point. Although he might not make a complete 180-degree turn career wise, some cultural outings could help reduce his anxiety, and his self neglect. What’s more, his unemployment status granted him free entrance to most museums. Therefore, the diversion wouldn’t even cost him a cent.
Coming home one afternoon from the wine shop—he had brought his wine consumption in check, however, he’d also bought an exceptional goat cheese at the fromagerie that he absolutely needed the perfect pairing for—he stopped in at the news kiosk. His natural reflex to pick up the latest edition of GQ was intercepted by a small white and blue magazine: L’Officiel des Spectacles, the weekly listing of Paris’ cultural offerings. He was surprised to see the magazine was still in print, now that everything was going online these days. He placed a 1-euro coin in front of the news-vendor and slid the little booklet into his bag, next to the bottle of Pouilly Fumé.
Okay, maybe he hadn’t totally gotten his wine intake under control. That evening while nibbling away on his chèvre, he couldn’t resist the temptation to check his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page. He immediately noticed that something was different. The picture he’d taken of her, all tanned and smiling on a cobbled street in Mykonos, had been replaced with a new photo. There she was, smiling broadly, in Venice of all places, arm-in-arm with another man. It had to be her boulangerie Romeo. Aurélien flung his phone on the coffee table next to his picnic dinner, plunked himself down on the sofa, ripped off a chunk of baguette, copiously smeared it with goat cheese and topped up his glass of crisp wine.
And this was exactly where he awoke the next morning, or rather afternoon, as he’d achieved a new unemployment wake-up time record of 12:55 pm.
“Aurélien, pull yourself together,” he scolded as he sat up and brushed the baguette crumbs off his face. His hazy eyes surveyed the contents of his coffee table: an empty bottle of Pouilly Fumé, the axe murderer remains of his goat cheese, several chucks of now stale baguette and something white and blue. L’Officiel. He snatched up the tiny magazine and flipped to that day’s date.
“Ah ha!” he declared when his finger stopped on the words: ‘Musée d’Orsay,’ free tour, 2 pm.’ It was 1:05 pm, he could make it there on time. And with that, he tossed the magazine onto the apocalyptic coffee table and bolted for the shower.
It should normally have only taken him 20 minutes to get from his apartment in the 14th arrondissement to the Orsay Museum, but the Métro gods were not on his side that afternoon. As he hopped down the steps to the platform, a train was just pulling out of the station. The next one wasn’t for another six minutes, an eternity by Paris daytime Métro standards. To prevent himself from getting annoyed or antsy, he distracted himself with thoughts of what awaited him at the museum: Monet’s delicate water lilies, Renoir’s rosy-cheeked ladies, van Gogh’s undulating clouds and Degas’ dainty little dancers. Yes. It would be nice to revive his love of art.
Sadly, little of this joy was still showing on Aurélien face as he jogged up rue de Bellechasse, the time flirting dangerously close to 2pm. Arriving in the plaza in front of the museum, Aurélien jetted towards the shortest line, neglecting to see it was for special card holders only. Reaching the revolving entrance doors, the security guard raised his eyebrow when Aurélien presented his unemployment card. He pointed to the list of cards which normally granted skip-the-line access, but rolled his eyes and waved him through nonetheless.
More card flashing got him past the ticket controler, who sent him in the direction of the tour desk. It was hard not to stop in awe upon entering the Musée d’Orsay. In the 1980s the former Belle Epoque train station had been converted into a museum to offer the collections of the Jeu de Paume museum a more spacious home. Its vast main hall, with its gigantic arched ceilings adorned with elegant rosettes, still beautifully reminded the building’s original raison d’être.
Right then Aurélien didn’t have time to admire its splendor. He quickened his pace and craned his head up at the huge clock which presides over the hall. It was 1:58 pm. He’d made it. Proud of his victor, he whipped around and… Wham!
“Oh la la! I’m so sorry!” he emphatically apologized, horrified that he’d just crashed into someone.
“Aurélien?” asked his run-in victim, who seemed unscathed by the incident.
“Bénédicte?!” Standing in front of him was his first-year university crush.
“Wow, it’s so nice to see you!” she cheerfully replied. “What’s it been… 20 years?”
“Something like that…” he managed to spit out while trying to catch his breath and regain his composure.
It was more like 25 years. After Aurélien had switched degree programs, they’d run into each other occasionally around the Sorbonne, but he never worked up enough guts to ask her out. When he finished his degree and went on to do an internship at his first insurance company, he started hanging out less and less with those original university pals. He’d see Bénédicte’s name on the occasional group email with invites to 25th or 30th birthday parties—this was way before the days of Facebook—but over the years, as everyone settled into their professional lives, these eventually dried up and beautiful, bright Bénédicte had also drifted from his life.
“How are things going?” She asked, with one eye on the clock.
“Ahhh, things are fine. No, they are great!”
“Still working in insurance?”
“Um, ah, something like that…” he fumbled, not wanting to get into the details of his current unemployment woes.
“Shouldn’t you be at work right now?” she asked, puzzled.
“Ahhh, it’s a day off…” he blurted without thinking.
“Ahh, I see,” she replied. “I’d love to chat, but I really have to run.”
“Me too, I have a tour.”
“Oh really? So do I,” she said while slowly steering them in the direction of the tour desk.
“What a coincidence!” he exclaimed as they neared the desk. “Which one are you attending?”
“I’m not attending a tour, per say…” Bénédicte started.
“Professeur Conroy, there you are!” shouted a frantic woman from behind the tour desk, waving a clipboard wildly at Bénédicte.
Aurélien’s mouth dropped as Bénédicte turned her head to the tour attendant, giving her an ‘I’m coming’ gesture.
“Pardon… is this the 2 pm highlights tour?” Aurélien hadn’t noticed the appearance of a woman, wearing an Eiffel Tower scarf, at his side.
“No, the highlights tour meets over there,” Bénédicte kindly informed the woman, in perfect English, before turning her attention back to Aurélien. “There’s only one tour in French starting at 2 pm. I’m so pleased to see you’re still interested in art, Aurélien, and especially the topic of my tour.”
Aurélien’s eyes drifted over to the desk, where there was a large sign advertising the tour of the day:
Artistes Femmes: un Autre Regard / Women Artists: Another Vision
His eyes darted back to Bénédicte, or rather to Professor Conroy.
“Oh, yes… yes… of course. I can’t wait,” he stammered as visions of Monet’s bobbing water lilies, Renoir’s luscious ladies and van Gogh’s curvaceous clouds pranced out of his head as quickly as Degas’ little dancers.
“Messieur, please register so we can start the tour,” ordered the tour desk attendant, prodding her clipboard at Aurélien. He duly jotted his name and email down on the form while the attendant herded together the other’s who’d signed up for the tour.
“Mesdames, Messieurs, what an honor it is to have Professor Conroy with us today. Art History professor at the Sorbonne, author of six critically acclaimed books and renowned expert on women artists of the 19th and early 20th century, I am certain you will have an enlightening tour with Professor Conroy.”
The tour attendees all clapped to welcome their accomplished guide. Aurélien was still in his state of bewilderment, both from running into Bénédicte and at the description of her illustrious career.
“Thank you so much for such a glowing introduction, Christine,” began Bénédicte. ”As the title of this special tour indicates, we will be looking at some key works produced by women artists that are rightfully displayed in this prestigious museum. We will see how the works and careers of artists like Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalès and Camille Claudel helped change the course of art history and paving the way for more equality in the art world, something that was quite daring for the time period. There’s no better place to do this than in front of the artworks themselves. So, without further ado, please, follow me.”
As the tour proceeded, Aurélien had more and more trouble concentrating, but it was not because of Berthe Morisot’s blurry brushstrokes. He was enraptured by Bénédicte. She had always been top of the class, so Aurélien wasn’t surprised that she was so knowledgeable, it was her passion for the subject that hypnotized him. Soon he was hanging on her every word.
Bénédicte plunged the tour attendees into the movement and realism of Rosa Bonheur’s Ploughing in Nevers, a scene of a farmer arduously dressing autumn fields with his cattle. The group peered into Mary Cassatt’s Girl in the Garden, quietly observing the young subject of the painting sewing amidst bright flowers and greenery. They entered the world of Belle Epoque bourgeoisie in Eva Gonzalès’ A Box at the Theatre des Italiens, locked in the sudden gaze of a glamorous theater-goer. Aurélien would never look at Impressionism the same way.
“For our last work, I would like to show you one of the museum’s most important sculptures,” announced Bénédicte, as she escorted the group back down to the museum’s lofty main hall. They did not go to the ground floor, but instead to a side mezzanine. Passing by the works of Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle and Aristide Maillol, they came to a halt at an imposing composition in bronze.
“This is L’Âge Mûr, Maturity, one of Camille Claudel’s masterpieces,” introduced Bénédicte. “Claudel can be admired for her ingenious talent, for her struggle being a woman artist and for the challenges she went through in her tumultuous relationship with her mentor, Rodin. A state commission secured by Rodin in 1895, Claudel produced this work soon after their breakup. In it we see a middle-aged male figure, interpreted as Rodin, entering the embrace of old age, depicted as an elderly woman. Behind him on her knees, is youth reaching out for him, trying to retain him, this is Camille. She not only captured the intensity of the moment, of her experience, but also her soul. Finished on the eve of the new century, one could even say it illustrates the trials and tribulations these daring women went through to usher in a new era for women artists.”
The group broke into thunderous applause at the conclusion of the tour. Obviously Aurélien was not the only one enraptured by Bénédicte. He waited in the background as some of the attendees exchanged a few personal words of thanks to Bénédicte. When they’d all gone, he meekly stepped forward.
“That was amazing, really,” he humbly praised.
“So, does that mean you’ll take days off to come to the museum more often?” Bénédicte suggested with a wink.
“Well, actually I have a confession to make,” he launched. “I was laid off not that long ago. So, right now, every day is a day off.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry to hear that, Aurélien,” she replied with sincerity.
“Seeing you in action makes me think I should have carried on with my art studies all those years ago!” he joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
“It’s never too late!” she rightfully affirmed. No, it wasn’t too late, not for a lot of things in his life.
L’Âge Mûr. Was Aurélien ready for his own age of maturity? Would he have enough courage, like these audacious artists, to forge his own new path?
“Would you like to grab a coffee?” asked Aurélien in an attempt at his first bold step. “It would be nice to catch up a little more.”
“I’m afraid, I can’t,” she said. “I have an appointment with one of my PhD students. Speaking of which, I should head out so I’m not late.”
“Ah okay, no problem, you’re obviously very busy,” he stammered, somewhat embarrassed for having put forth the invitation.
“But if you’re free next Wednesday, I am giving a talk on Camille Claudel at the Rodin Museum. Why don’t you come?”
“That sounds great.”
“2 pm, on the dot,” she teased in reference to their run-in at the beginning of the tour as she turned to rush off to her meeting. “See you then!”
He gazed up at the museum’s gigantic clock. Yes, he would be on time. He was now ready to reset his personal clock.
There’s Only One Paris Episodes
Did you like this story? If you missed the others, you can catch up on them at these links:
Episode #1: A View on the Eiffel Tower
Episode #3: In Search of Lost Time at the Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne
Episode #4: Our Lady of Hope: Notre-Dame
Episode #5: Aux Folies de Belleville
Episode #6: The Magic of Montmartre
Episode #7: The Secrets of the Catacombs