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Picturing a World

At the Florist

Before I saw Béraud’s Promenade, featured in the last post, I had seen Hassam’s Florist, which illustrates the custom of being accompanied by a uniformed maid when out and about in Paris (very handy for having someone to carry purchases as well as to announce respectability). Countess Marie Bashkirtseff and other privileged students at the Académie Julian were escorted to class by a maid. For Jeanette and other foreign students, however, such close chaperonage was unnecessary. The streets of Paris were safe and American girls were notable to Europeans for their independence. Read More 
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Afoot in Paris

Jeanette walks to and from school every day, at first accompanied by Cousin Effie and eventually on her own with fellow students. I wanted to know how closely she would have been chaperoned. Besides reading social history, I took note of how women were depicted on the streets in paintings. Béraud’s two hatless, gloveless “promenaders” in their neat, black, similar costumes look to me more like shop assistants, out perhaps on an errand, than either fashionable Parisiénnes or girls of dubious virtue. Their chumminess may include an awareness of the man behind them, or it may simply be the giggling companionability of friends. Read More 
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Cirque Fernando

After their successful outing to the World's Fair, Edward takes Jeanette and Effie to the Cirque Fernando (later the Cirque Medrano), which featured horseback riders, clowns, and acrobats in a wooden hippodrome on Montmartre, built like a giant circus tent. Degas' painting of Mlle La La, hanging from a trapeze by her teeth, led me to have her perform that night. Later in the novel, my characters see the painting itself at the 4th Impressionist show. For Toulouse-Lautrec's depiction of the ringmaster and a rider, click here.

For a spring 2013 exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library centered on this picture, click hereRead More 
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World's Fair (IV): Merlin

Burne-Jones's Merlin was, in fact, shown at the Paris World's Fair of 1878. It played perfectly into my wish to touch obliquely on the topic of an older man's infatuation with a younger woman while dramatizing only the barest beginnings of Edward and Jeanette's romance.

To my mind, Burne-Jones is a strange artist, often gorgeous and repellent simultaneously. Readers, how would you answer Jeanette's question in the novel: Is this painting wonderful or ghastly? Read More 
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World's Fair (II): Prince of Wales

The use of plate glass for such things as ceilings and display windows was an innovation of the 19th Century. The way that glass is both transparent and a barrier between inside and out was, furthermore, something that people noticed. Outside, the Great Exhibition Hall reflected the sky in ever-changing movements of color and light. Inside, on bright days, the brilliance of the natural sunlight it transmitted had to be controlled by movable screens. Read More 
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Beggar's Polka

Hippolyte Grandcourt is a wholly imaginary character whose presence enabled me to incorporate anecdotes about Paris beyond the action of the novel. Don't rely on him to tell the exact truth; don't even rely on him for anecdotes that exactly replicate my sources. He was not, for instance, present when Offenbach handed the mendicant his Beggar's Polka.

The music of Jacques Offenbach is specially associated with the Second Empire of Napoleon III—he's the composer of the Galop Infernal (1858) that we all know as the music to the can-can. Read More 
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Jeanette's Party Dress

If Jeanette had seen this fashion plate of only a year earlier, she might not have been so mortified by the stripes in the outfit she had to wear to the Renicks' dinner party. Then again, according to Louise Hall Tharp, in 1877 Augusta Saint-Gaudens (the almost identically named wife of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens) had a Parisian dressmaker do over her Boston wardrobe, including pleating a striped skirt so that only the gray was visible.

Later in the novel, Jeanette, Amy, and Emily use plates from Cornelia’s discarded fashion magazines to get ideas for their own artwork. They were not alone: A current major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is devoted to Impressionism, Fashion, and ModernityRead More 
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Cornelia's Party Dress

Carolus-Duran was a fashionable portraitist specially noted for his ability to paint fabrics and lace. In the novel, he eventually paints a portrait of my society hostess, Cornelia Renick, and takes Jeanette on as a pupil. Before I reached that part of the story, though, this Portrait supplied me with a dress for Cornelia to wear when Jeanette first meets her at a dinner party given by the Renicks to welcome the Murers to Paris. Read More 
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Boulevard Montmartre

In New York City, Jeanette has been told about an art school called the Académie Julian. Now in Paris, in Chapter Eight, as soon as she and Effie have rented an apartment, they set out to find it. The school, which admitted women students (unlike the national École des Beaux-Arts) was located in the Passage des Panaromas, a shopping arcade that ran—and still runs—north from the rue Saint-Marc to the boulevard Montmartre. Jeanette and Effie walk its length and are momentarily baffled when they find themselves here, on the boulevard beside the Theatre des Variétés. I have stood at this very spot; the passage would be to the right if it were in the oil sketch, Read More 
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Jeanette Sterling Smith

This is the Jeanette Smith whose expulsion from Vassar and subsequent studies in Europe set me investigating women art students in Paris. The photograph, taken in Dresden, is my only concrete memento from her time abroad. After I had written the early chapters of Where the Light Falls, I looked at it again and thought, "Nah, not Jeanette Palmer." A girl with this face and these clothes didn't fit into my story as I told it to myself (though I did adopt her plumpness). The image I have in my mind of Jeanette's face is much closer to that of Eleanor Norcross.

Readers, for you is it the mysterious girl on Rita Frangie's alluring cover for the novel? How do you form your mental images of characters in books? Read More 
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