La Place de la Contrescarpe

In May, 2017, I received an email message from two researchers in Europe, classical philologists who were planning an international conference on the “practice of the progymnasmata,” to be held in Paris in January, 2018. “We would be very pleased,” they wrote, “if you would join us for this conference.”

Although the topic – an ancient cycle of rhetorical exercises – was dear to my heart, and a trip to Europe certainly sounded nice, my first impulse was to decline the invitation. I didn’t know the organizers and assumed they had just come across my name on a list somewhere. Besides, I had largely stopped going to conferences. I found the travel uncomfortable; and, even when reimbursed, the costs seemed extravagant for any benefit I – or anyone else – derived.

And yet . . . it was Paris, during winter break; and the organizers were offering to pay my way. I was intrigued by the line-up of speakers they sent, and I welcomed the light the meeting would shine on our shared topic. And perhaps, I thought, the trip would do me good: I hadn’t traveled much in recent years, except to see family in North Carolina and my daughters wherever they happened to be. The latter urged me to go. So I said yes.

Then, in October, something happened that put everything else out of mind. When later I happened to think of the trip, it seemed frivolous. But I never canceled the reservations; and, by late December, I found myself frantically writing my paper and finalizing my plans. Consulting travel guides, friends, and family, I plotted the five days I would spend in Paris on my own, before the conference began.

Fortunately, I knew the city. It had been thirty-six years, but a semester in France during college had left a deep impression on me. I felt like I was returning to a familiar scene, which freed me from having to do or see certain things. It was this, I think, more than anything, that led me, in the days before departing, to begin to anticipate the trip with some pleasure. I could just wander, I thought. I could be free.

Of course, there were things I wanted to see, places that had not been part of my earlier Paris: the Marais, Belleville, the Canal Saint-Martin. In addition, in 2016, I had read Elaine Sciolino’s The Only Street in Paris, about the Rue des Martyrs; I wanted to explore that neighborhood. And, looking at maps, I stared endlessly at a little triangle in the Latin Quarter, around the Rue Descartes, where I thought (mistakenly) the conference would be held. I imagined turning down this street, walking up that.

The one thing I wasn’t looking forward to was the flight. In fact, I agonized about it. I had begun to get sharp headaches during air travel; and I had never been a good sleeper on planes. If I didn’t sleep on this flight, I worried, the first day of the trip would be wasted. I would arrive in the morning exhausted and have to drag myself through the long hours until I could go to bed. So I studied all the different ways people sleep on planes: drugs, herbal medicines, earplugs, eyeshades. I bought valerian root, paid extra for a window seat, planned to wear shoes I could slip on and off easily and a sweater to keep warm.

In the end, I didn’t sleep a wink. From the time the plane left Boston, my eyes were open. During the flight itself, I was fine: I read, watched TV, played solitaire. But when we arrived in Dublin the next morning, I found the wait endless. I remember walking to the restroom in a daze. Later, at Charles de Gaulle airport, we had to walk on and on, through customs, through passport check, through the airport itself. I struggled with the RER ticket machine; and, on the train ride into the city, I remember thinking that I wouldn’t make it. It was cold and gray out as we wound our way towards the city center. I suddenly felt old and tired. Was this a mistake? Five days alone, in Paris, in January?

Paris Métro

But after wandering in the bowels of Les Halles Métro station for half an hour before surfacing in the heart of the city, and then finding a café where I devoured a breakfast of coffee, croissants, eggs, ham, and juice – un petit déjeuner américain– I felt refreshed. I grabbed my bags, headed out into the street, and walked toward the river. And there, standing at the corner of the Place du Châtelet, with the Île de la Cité and the whole Left Bank spread before me, my heart suddenly lifted. I was in Paris, and I had nothing to do, nowhere to go, no responsibilities to meet.

I started walking, and I didn’t stop for five days.

I headed first for the Île Saint-Louis, where I was staying. After checking into my hotel, I walked to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, just a bridge away. Once there, it all came rushing back to me: spring days on that very street decades ago. But the bustle did not allow for much nostalgia: the shops were in post-holiday sales mode, and the crowds were out in force: couples strolling, friends shopping, children weaving in and out on scooters. The excitement carried me along. As I walked, I stared at the buildings: that perfect Parisian streetscape. It was cool out, but the air was soft, not like winter in New England – you wanted to be in it.

I walked by the Musée de Cluny and the famous cafés of the Left Bank: Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, Brasserie Lipp. Down a side street, I found the Church of Saint-Severin, which I had visited once long ago. Back on the Boulevard, I stopped to look in shop windows and lingered outside the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, listening to a Dixieland jazz band.

On a nearby street, I ate lunch, then walked up the Rue de l’Odéon to see where Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore, had once been located. Later, I walked down the Cours de Commerce Saint-André, then up the Rue de Seine to the river, my head swiveling from side to side to take it all in. Back on the Seine, I walked past the Institute de France, the Place Saint-Michel, and Notre-Dame Cathedral. Soon I was back on the Île Saint-Louis.

It was still light out, so I kept going, heading for the Right Bank to stroll around the Marais. After having a cup of coffee on the Rue Saint-Antoine, I walked over to the Place des Vosges, which I was seeing for the first time as twilight descended on the city. Later, I wandered the streets around the Hôtel de Sens. As with so many places during my trip, I had the neighborhood largely to myself. As night approached, the city felt gray and aloof, but I took it all in, lingering or proceeding as my heart directed.

I stayed up as late as I could. But by 8 or 9 pm, having been awake for nearly two days, I was beginning to fail. So I headed back to my hotel, stopping in the middle of the Pont Louis-Philippe to look at the lights of the city as they glistened on the river. The Île Saint-Louis is an island, of course, in the middle of the Seine, just east of its bigger, busier neighbor, the Île de la Cité. A single street, the Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, runs down its middle; another encircles it, all the way around, with cross streets linking them. It was an ideal base for my trip, as central as I could have wished yet surprisingly homey – like a little village in the middle of the city.

From the Pont Louis-Philippe, I walked the short stretch to the Île’s liveliest spot, the corner by the Pont Saint-Louis, where four cafés face one another, the little plaza in their midst lit up on this Saturday night, with couples and groups talking and laughing. After lingering a bit, I walked down the street to the Hôtel du Jeu de Paume, recommended by a friend of my sister. My room upstairs was cozy, clean, and quiet, and I slept soundly.

The next day, Sunday, was heartbreakingly beautiful. The sky was crisp and blue, the city inviting yet serene on this day of rest. I struck out early. Walking along the quais of the Left Bank, I passed a succession of bridges on my right: the Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts, Pont du Caroussel, Pont Royal, Pont de la Concorde, Pont Alexandre III, Pont des Invalides, finally crossing over on the Pont d’Alma, and walking up the Avenue Montaigne to the Champs-Élysées.

After stopping for coffee on the Avenue Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, I proceeded down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, past the Élysée Palace, up the Rue de la Paix to the Place Vendome and the Place de l’Opéra, then onto the Boulevard des Italians and the Boulevard Montmartre. Cutting through the Passage Jouffroy, I strolled up the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre into the 9th arrondissement.

After getting a sandwich at the foot of the Rue des Martyrs, lively on this Sunday afternoon, I circumnavigated the triangular “La Nouvelle Athènes,” walking up the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, past the lovely Place Saint-Georges, down the Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle to the Église du Trinité, over the Rue Saint-Lazare, and back up the Rue des Martyrs. I then walked all the way up to Sacré-Coeur Basilica, stopping by Square D’Anvers for coffee and chocolate before the final climb. At the top, a singer serenaded the crowds. This was tourist Paris, something I avoided most of my trip. Still, the weather was lovely, and the view, irresistible.

I returned to the center of town by the Métro. On the pedestrian bridge connecting the Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis, roller bladers danced around little traffic cones for an appreciative audience. I stood and watched, enjoying the blue sky and Sunday crowd.

Later, on the Île, there was a protest with a marching band.

That night, after browsing the shops along the Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, I ate dinner at the Auberge de la Reine Blanche, recommended by a shopkeeper on the island.

On Monday morning, I took a train from Gare Montparnasse to Chartres, about an hour away, to see the cathedral. Its interior had recently, and controversially, been cleaned, centuries of dark grime removed. I wanted to see it. In 1982, I had spent a week in the town, living with a family while we studied the cathedral in detail. This time, I would stay only a few hours.

cathedral plan

It was cold and rainy, the town nearly deserted, the cathedral empty except for a few tourists. From the outside, I stared at the west façade, its sculptural program the subject of a paper I had written long ago. I felt like I was in the company of an old friend. Inside, I looked up at the west rose, with its three lancet windows beneath. We had been taught to admire especially the right one, which depicts the tree of Jesse. After looking at it for a few minutes, I turned and walked up the nave.

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After lunch in a nearby café, I returned to Paris by train, walking in the rain from Montparnasse to the Île Saint-Louis. Later that night, I strolled along the Right Bank to the Palais Royale and had dinner on the Rue Etienne Marcel. On the way back to the hotel, I stood again on the Pont Louis-Philippe, staring upriver at the Pont Marie, already my favorite of the five bridges linking the island with the rest of the city.

Tuesday I got up early and walked to the Canal Saint-Martin by way of the Marais and the Place de la Republique, where I had breakfast on a side street. I walked along the Canal to the Rue Lafayette and then doubled back on the other side, down the Boulevard de la Villette into Belleville. Later, in the Parc de Belleville, I walked up the stairs of the Passage Julien LaCroix and looked out over the city from the heights. There was no one there but me. On the Rue de Belleville, I took the Métro back to the Île.

That afternoon, after resting at the hotel for a bit, I went back to the Latin Quarter and wandered around, visiting places I had noticed Monday morning on my way to Montparnasse. A light rain fell as I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens to Gertrude Stein’s old apartment on the Rue du Fleurus. At the Place Saint-Sulpice, I stopped for a glass of wine at a corner café, keeping warm and dry on an otherwise wet, chilly afternoon.

Wednesday was my fifth and final day before the conference began. In the morning, I walked again to the Latin Quarter, up the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, as I now knew well how to do. I was finding myself drawn to this neighborhood. I had breakfast in a café and wandered the streets by the Panthéon. That afternoon, I checked out of my hotel and took the Métro to the Avenue Daumesnil in the 12tharrondissement, where I would be staying for the conference. After checking into my new hotel, I took a walk up the Avenue Michel Bizot to a public library off the Rue de Lagny to work on my conference paper. On the way back, I stopped for dinner at a restaurant on the Cours de Vincennes.

For the next three days, from Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon, I attended the conference at the Université Paris-Est Creteil (UPEC), a short Métro ride from the hotel. There were about three dozen attendees, mostly European: French, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, German. Each of us gave a half-hour talk and answered questions at the end. My fellow attendees were friendly, the hosts gracious, and everyone patient with the three monolingual Americans. I was gratified and impressed by the multidisciplinary enthusiasm for our shared topic – and we had a lovely dinner in the Latin Quarter Friday night.

But, to be honest, it felt like every other conference I’ve ever been to: a lot of sitting. After all the exertion of the previous days, all the time out-of-doors, all the freedom to do what I liked and go where I wanted, the days at UPEC felt a little tiresome. I found myself longing for my “old” life on the Île, walking the streets of the Latin Quarter.

Those five days . . . they already seemed like an epoch to me, bracketed off from the rest of my life yet resonant with it in so many ways, like tendrils touching on times past, present, and future. What made those days feel so momentous? The conditions were hardly propitious: it was rainy and cold, I was alone. I visited no museums, saw no shows, had no extravagant meals, met no interesting characters. In some ways, it was just a mundane visit to a large city. I walked. I looked at things. At night, I read about those things and planned the next day, when it started all over again: the walking, the looking, the reading.

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And yet something happened. I experienced an exhilaration I had not felt in years. I think it was partly physical; looking at the phone app that counted my steps, I was astounded at the numbers I racked up Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday: more than 26,000 steps each day! There was also the freedom of those days: being out of my routine, away from home, with no schedule to follow, no meetings to attend. And, of course, there was Paris: “the last of the human cities,” Joyce called it – lively, diverse, and intimate all at once.

But there was also this: walking those streets, from morning to night, turning this way and that as the whim occurred – watching the people, stopping to read plaques, enjoying the smells of the boulangeries, seeing the lights on the river – I called up something from my past that I thought had been lost. I didn’t recover it, of course, simply by walking around Paris. But I did glimpse it, just ahead of me, turning a corner, as the winter wind raced down a narrow street. I followed that apparition, though my legs ached, through the city. And for reasons I don’t fully understand, the pursuit invigorated me.

One afternoon, in the Marais, I stood in front of an old bookshop, staring at the window display. I thought of Lambert Strether in Henry James’ The Ambassadors, sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens: a middle-aged man visiting Paris for the first time, on an errand from the New World, yet feeling, all of a sudden . . . free.  “He had never expected – that was the truth of it – again to find himself young.”

There were twelve of us in the group. Nearly four decades later, I still remember them all vividly: Mebane, Eileen, Maggie, Margaret, Stan, Mark, Sarah, Joyce, Lisa, Norwood, John. There was also our professor, Larry. It was 1982, spring term of our junior year; we were in France on an art history program, students at Davidson College in North Carolina. I was 20 years old, on my first trip abroad. I had lived my whole life in North Carolina. The flight to Kennedy airport was only the third time I’d ever even been to New York City. Paris was . . . unimaginable.

Outside the Hotel Star, spring, 1982

The program consisted of three courses: Nineteenth Century French Painting, which we studied in Paris, mostly at the Louvre and Jeu de Paume museums; Medieval Art and Architecture, which we studied all over France, driving from cathedral to cathedral and camping at night; and an independent study of our own design, which we proposed and had approved by a faculty sponsor before we left North Carolina – mine was a study of James Joyce in Paris: I would read his works and consider how that city – how cities in general – shaped his fiction and how being in Paris, in turn, shaped my reading of Joyce.

Larry taught the art history courses: he was deeply knowledgeable, a skilled lecturer, intellectually demanding – but light-handed as a chaperone. We worked hard on the days we were “in school”; at nights and on weekends, he left us alone. But he wasn’t the only teacher; each of us was responsible for teaching two topics to the rest of the group. In fact, before the program even began, we had to submit two long research papers to Larry. Then, during the trip itself, we shared what we had learned with the group. My topics were medieval sculpture and the paintings of Edgar Degas. We were assigned the topics randomly, but (like the others I’m sure) I developed an avid interest in mine.

In fact, it was one of the most intellectually exciting times of my life. Isolated as it was, in rural North Carolina, Davidson opened a wide window for me onto the world. My first semester, the fall of 1979, 52 U.S. embassy workers in Iran were taken hostage, and as one country descended into revolution, the other seemed to break apart at the seams. That spring, I was in an anthropology course; as the crisis deepened, our professor scrapped the syllabus, and we embarked on a weeks-long study of Islam. It was liberating – to learn so much about something you knew nothing of before, to feel your horizons expanding, your understanding of the world deepening.

Davidson College, NC

Besides anthropology, I studied history, religion, philosophy, science, drama, German. In English, I had scholars and writers for teachers: I took a whole course on the poetry of Yeats, two on Shakespeare, another on the novels of George Eliot. I went to see classic films every Wednesday night and attended lectures on a wide variety of topics. I wrote for the campus newspaper and tried my hand at fiction and poetry.

But the subject that intrigued me the most was art history. I knew nothing about it when I enrolled in an introductory survey my sophomore year. I purchased the course text, a big, expensive book titled History of Art by H. W. Janson, and showed up for the first class on Elm Row, where we sat in a dark room with two screens in front of us and two slide projectors behind us, as images flashed on the wall, and Larry, over in a corner, provided commentary: pointing things out, asking questions, helping unspool what at first seemed obscure or mundane. I loved the combination of concrete visual analysis – composition, line, color, form – and historical inquiry, thinking about works of art in the contexts of their making and use. I felt like I was learning not just about painting and sculpture but about the history of the world, about truth and beauty, about what it meant to live on earth, experiencing and representing life with others.

Looking back, the approach was fairly traditional; our “history of art” was told, after all, from the standpoint of an elite institution of higher education in the late twentieth century West. The other students, like me, were middle- and upper-middle class white Southerners. But I had glimpses of other ways of thinking. In a course on modern American drama, we read Death of a Salesman and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and talked about “the vital lie” at the heart of the American experience. It was deeply unsettling.

All that was swirling around in my head in the spring of 1982. But the trip to France was also important for me socially. I had been at Davidson for two and a half years but had made few close friends. In France, the twelve of us, mostly strangers before, were thrown together seven days a week for months. We studied together, ate together, practiced French together, went to cafés together, walked the city together. There was no Internet back then, no cell phones, no TV in the hotel, and we had no homes to return to at the end of the day. We were together all the time – and when we weren’t doing our work, traipsing through museums or touring cathedrals, we were playing. On the road, we traveled four to a car; Larry would tell us in the morning where the next site was and what time to be there. Then off we went, taking turns at the wheel, getting lost, laughing and singing, stopping in villages for bread and cheese, and riding on to the next stop. We got to know each other well.

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In Paris, we lived at the Hotel Star (now Hotel Alizé) on the Avenue Emile Zola, near the Charles Michels Métro station in the 15th arrondissement. It was a small place on the corner of a busy street, four or five stories tall; it had a lobby and dining room, a tiny elevator and a spiral staircase. The rooms were small, two beds and a window with bathrooms down the hall. What I remember most, though, were the breakfasts downstairs every morning: the strong, hot coffee, mixed with hot milk, the fresh croissants and rolls, the fruit preserves and French butter. I had grown up with cold cereal and white sandwich bread, toasted, spread with margarine, and washed down with Tang. This was a revelation.

We learned the neighborhood inside and out: the bars and cafés, the boulangeries, fruit stands, and grocery stores. We frequented the bistros around us: the Café Linois, Hôtel de Cahors, Restaurant Le Commerce, Chez Francois. In my journal, those names are sprinkled on every page. There was a cheap place we liked for couscous, another for oeufs mayonnaise. We discovered a little park, the Square Violet, where on spring afternoons we tossed a Frisbee – until the Parisians found it objectionable and a policeman told us to stop. Back at the hotel, we drank red wine from plastic jugs that we filled at a neighborhood store. We played cards and talked into the night.

We also wandered far and wide, hanging out in the Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, Montmartre, and Montparnasse neighborhoods. I saw kids sniffing glue in the Place Saint-Michel and visited the “new” Shakespeare and Company on the Rue de la Bûcherie, using the lending library there for my independent study. I heard Vivaldi at the Sainte-Chapelle, went to the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay for Easter services, and saw a Tennessee Williams play in the Latin Quarter. It was all thrilling to me: the freedom and mobility, the grandness on such an intimate scale.

Somewhere in Europe, summer, 1982. Photo by Wendy Hopfenberg.

Of course, most days were spent in “school.” For Nineteenth Century French Painting, we used the Musée Marmottan, Musée Rodin, Centre Pompidou, and other sites, but our main classrooms were the Louvre and Jeu de Paume museums, which we came to know intimately. The latter was my favorite: a long, narrow building on the northwest corner of the Tuileries Gardens, where the great French Impressionist collection was displayed. (It has since moved to the much grander Musée d’Orsay.) We spent whole days there and in the Louvre, often with just a break for lunch, concentrating on one or two artists each visit, and proceeding day by day, week by week, through the nineteenth century, from classicism, romanticism, and realism to impressionism and modernism.

Musée du Louvre, 1982

We studied the works of Jacques-Louis David, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and others, by closely analyzing their paintings, in person. Sometimes Larry was the lecturer, sometimes it was one of us. We took extensive notes and, since there were only twelve of us, were expected to participate actively: ask questions, make observations, agree or disagree with others’ analyses. At the end of the course, there was a day-long essay exam.

Musée du Jeu de Paume, today

The artist I was most interested in, of course, was Degas. By the time of the trip, I had written a long paper on his work and felt something of an expert, at least at the level of an undergraduate. And since my lecture was late in the semester – Degas’ most important works came in the 1870s and ‘80s – I had practically the whole trip to keep learning about the topic, refine my understanding, sharpen my analytic skills, deepen my knowledge of the historical and artistic context. In my free time, I often went to the Degas room in the Jeu de Paume to see the paintings in person and practice the order in which I would present them. Later, lying in bed, I would rehearse my remarks: what I would say in front of each painting, how I would say it.

My drawing of the Salle Degas, 1982

The day of my lecture, May 10, was a beautiful spring Monday in Paris. In the morning, at the Louvre, Eileen lectured on the Salon. After a break for lunch, we reconvened at the Jeu de Paume for my lecture on Degas. We gathered outside first, in the Tuileries Gardens, for remarks about the artist’s biography, the historical context of his work, how he fit with the other painters we had been studying, etc. Then, we headed inside, and I led the group through the paintings I had chosen, stopping at each one for analysis, questions, discussion. I still have my hand-drawn map of the Salle Degas, with the paintings numbered in the order I planned to address them.

Edgar Degas, Portrait de l’artiste, 1855

I began with some early portraits, mostly of the artist himself, his siblings and other relatives. Degas was born in 1834 into a wealthy Parisian family. His banker father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he developed an early interest in drawing. Out of high school, he took private art lessons and later attended the École des Beaux-Arts, where he met the painter Ingres, who told him, “draw lines, young man, and still more lines.” One of the first works I shared with the group was an early self-portrait, Portrait de l’artiste (1855), painted when Degas was only 20 years old, my own age as I looked back at it that day. One sees in it hallmarks of the painter’s early style: the muted colors, the skill in drawing, the formal composition – and yet there’s something unexpectedly emotional, ineffable, about the work. (Perhaps one also sees here the arrogance that would put off so many of Degas’ fellow painters.)

That mixture of the classical and the modern, the coolly academic and subtly expressive, is even more on display in Degas’ first great painting, La Famille Bellelli (1858-67). This painting fascinated me from the beginning, though, at seven feet by nine feet, I was wholly unprepared for its size, its grandeur on the wall of the Jeu de Paume. For me, it was a work that repaid repeated observation.

Edgar Degas, La famille Bellelli, 1858-1867

On its surface, the Famille is a portrait of a well-to-do family – in fact, it’s Degas’ aunt, her Italian husband, and their two daughters. It’s clearly a product of the artist’s formal training and the academic style of mid-nineteenth century French art, with its aristocratic subject matter and monumental approach. And yet this is a surprisingly modern scene, a family caught in momentary suspension, in their own home, by a clever onlooker. The composition shows Degas’ talent for line and placement, the figures grouped in a formal arrangement that also expresses an unmistakable interior drama. Note, for example, the triangles formed by the mother and her two daughters: the dutiful girl on the left whose own triangle is subsumed within the larger one of her mother, the girl on the right, one leg rather insolently tucked under her skirt, set apart from the other two – she is within the larger mother-and-daughters triangle but also on her own, looking away. As for the father, he is outside the frame altogether, he and his wife staring in different directions.

As arresting as La Famille Bellelli is, Degas’ most important works were still to come. After meeting Manet in 1864 – so the story goes – his style begin to change. He became more self-consciously modern and began to associate with the circle of artists known as the Impressionnistes. By the 1870s he was exhibiting with the group and hanging out at the Café Guerbois in Montmartre. From them, he learned to paint a new kind of subject matter: the everyday life of the city, its ordinary figures, scenes, and movements – though Degas’ Paris would remain thoroughly aristocratic, the world of the racetrack, opera, and dance. He differed in other ways from the Impressionnistes, ridiculing, for example, their habit of painting out of doors. Art for Degas was not simply about capturing the play of light on forms; it was about getting at something deeper in one’s subject, something that required study, thought, and distance. He once advised a young artist to pose his model on the ground floor and paint it on the first.

Edgar Degas, Classe de danse, 1871-74

One can see Degas’ ambivalence about modern art in his famous Classe de Danse (1871-74), which is both within and without the Impressionistic orbit. It is certainly a “slice of life,” of ordinary people and their ordinary activity; but it’s a characteristically interior scene, the artist here less interested in light and surface, more in line, color, and composition. Note, for example, the strikingly diagonal perspective.

The real shock of Degas’ modernism, however, would come a little later, with his paintings of bar scenes, prostitutes, and laundry workers. The 1875-76 painting Dans un Café (often called Absinthe, after the greenish drink at the center of the painting) still disquiets viewers, as it did when exhibited more than a century ago. What are we to make of this portrait of the demi-monde? How should we feel about modern art if this is the world it depicts? about modern life if this is its record?

Edgar Degas, Dans un café, 1875-76

There were things about Degas I came to dislike. He was argumentative, anti-Semitic, misogynistic. He had an aloof, detached view of the world which can be seen in his late work Le Tub (1886), where one finds little of the humor or joy of the other Impressionnistes. And yet it’s hard to deny the visual interest here, the originality of composition and approach. One can be ambivalent about Degas; one is never bored.

Edgar Degas, Le tub, 1886

The Impressionnistes were not alone in heralding modernity. The same Paris bar where Degas staged his Absinthe in the mid-1870s, the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on the Place Pigale, was the hangout of the composer Erik Satie, who played piano there in the 1880s. Below is a recording of his Gymnopédie No. 1, performed by Robin Alciatore. I wonder: did Degas ever hear Satie playing this piece? Did Satie ever see Degas’ Absinthe?

After graduating from Davidson in 1983, I never studied art history again. The papers I wrote for Larry in 1981-82, on which the remarks above are based, reflected the scholarship of that time and my own limited abilities as an analyst. One thing we paid little attention to in 1982, for example, was the provenance of the artworks we studied, their history as material artifacts – what happened to them after they were finished, how they came into the possession of the state, etc. These are all matters of deep fascination now. Two of the five paintings discussed above, for example, never left Degas’ possession while he was alive. Portrait de l’artiste was inherited by his brother René and left to the state at his death in 1927. La Famille Bellelli, meanwhile, exhibited in the Salon of 1867, didn’t again see the light of day until Degas’ death in 1917, when its showing caused a sensation. It was acquired soon after by the Musée de Luxembourg, from which it moved to the Louvre in 1929, the Jeu de Paume in 1947, and, in 1986, the Musée d’Orsay, where it is today a centerpiece of that collection.

The other three paintings discussed above, La Classe de Danse, Dans un Café, and Le Tub, were all purchased in the early 1890s by the Parisian collector Isaac de Camondo, scion of a family of Sephardic Jews who fled Spain in 1492, settled in Venice, and eventually made their way to Istanbul, where their fortunes rose as bankers for the Ottoman Empire. In the 1860s, the family migrated to Paris, where Isaac, born in 1851, became an early champion of the Impressionnistes.

Below is a 1910 photograph of “la salle Degas” in Isaac’s apartment at no. 82, Avenue des Champs-Élysées. You can see on his walls Absinthe, Le Tub, and other celebrated works. Isaac de Camondo died childless in 1911, leaving his collection to the French state.

The “salle Degas” in Isaac de Camondo’s apartment

Isaac’s cousin Moïse lived on until 1935; he bequeathed the family mansion on the Parc Monceau to France as the Musée Nissim de Camondo, named for his only son, a fighter pilot who died in World War I.

Heartbroken, Moïse withdrew for the rest of his life. But the family’s worst tragedy was still to come: Nissim’s sister, Béatrice, convinced she would not be persecuted by the Germans when they invaded France, was deported in 1942 with other French Jews. She perished in Auschwitz, along with her husband and two children, the last of the Camondo line.

Why did I know none of this in 1982? How can one talk about Absinthe without talking about Isaac de Camondo, on whose wall the painting hung for two decades? And why, in 1982, did we not talk about the Jeu de Paume itself, the building used by Hermann Göring during the Occupation to store “abandoned” art (including paintings by Degas) for shipment back to Berlin, for himself and Hitler?

During my lecture on Degas, I must have stopped in front of a dozen paintings, including all those mentioned above. By the third or fourth one, I noticed other people following us. They were obviously English speakers, tourists, probably Americans – I never knew. They listened to my comments, followed my finger as it traced lines in the air, moved with us from painting to painting. I am sure the attraction was not me: I spoke with no particular skill. But I had something they probably lacked: I had knowledge about the objects on those walls. I knew the history of their making and reception and could tell stories about them. That knowledge came from nothing more remarkable than study: it came from reading everything I could get my hands on about Degas, developing interest in and enthusiasm about him, finding threads that connected his works with one another and with history.

There was probably never more than a handful of people following us that day as I shepherded the group from one painting to another in the Salle Degas. But in my memory of that spring afternoon, the audience grew, picture by picture, into a rapt little crowd.

It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

(Here, the jazz group Pearl Django performs Django Reinhardt’s “Montagne Sainte-Geneviève” from New Metropolitan Swing, 1997.)

On the third day of my trip, a Monday, I left the hotel on the Île Saint-Louis early in the morning to make my way to Montparnasse for the train ride to Chartres. I was walking up the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, as the map directed, when I suddenly came upon a small square, an opening in the street as it met several other streets, all coming from different directions. The space was about 100 feet across, paved in cobblestones, with a circle in the middle planted with trees. Across the way, I could see my route continuing south. But the square before me was so charming that I literally stopped in my tracks. Later, on the train, I consulted my map and wrote down its name. It was the Place de la Contrescarpe.

The square is near the summit of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, the Left Bank hill where Clovis, the first Christian king of France, built a church, where Sainte Geneviève was venerated for centuries, where Abelard founded his university, where the Panthéon sits today.

Just to the east of the summit, behind the Panthéon, is the Place de la Contrescarpe, where the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine and the Rue Descartes, both coming in from the north, form a V and intersect with the Rue Lacépède coming in from the east and the Rue Blainville coming in from the west. Proceeding south at the other end of the square is the Rue Mouffetard – the “Rue Mouffe,” as Parisians call it – a narrow, ancient market street.

Here’s a closer look:

Place de la Contrescarpe from

The square is in the exact center of the 5tharrondissement, the very point where its four districts meet.

The districts of the 5th arr.; in the center is the Place de la Contrescarpe

On the north side of the square is the Café Delmas with its bright red awning – I had breakfast there Wednesday morning. On the east side is a burger joint and, next to it, the Café des Artes. On the south side is the Café la Petite, where I had coffee several times, and la Brasserie La Contrescarpe. The west side, once home to a chocolate factory with the unfortunate name of Au Joyeux Nègre, is lined now with small shops. Most of the people moving through the square, as far as I could tell, were students; I watched them hurrying by on foot, bicycle, moped. (The photos below are from further down the Rue Mouffe.)

The Place de la Contrescarpe was not part of my 1982 stay in Paris; it doesn’t show up in any record I kept, and I have no memory of either name or place. When I look back at my journal, I can see that there were whole parts of Paris we didn’t experience. We moved about the city freely – I remember listening to musicians in the Métro, eating crepes in the Place Saint-Michel, walking along the Boul’ Mich. We spent time on the banks of the Seine, around the Louvre and Champs Élysées, and further north and west, in and around Montmartre, by the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Bois de Boulogne. But we neglected Paris’ eastern neighborhoods. I don’t remember ever visiting the Marais, the Canal St. Martin, Belleville. And, as far as I know, I never saw the eastern part of the Latin Quarter – the neighborhoods behind the Panthéon.

The Panthéon

The irony of all this, given my passion at that time for Hemingway, Joyce, and Orwell, is that this area, in and around the Place de la Contrescarpe, was their hangout! In fact, many writers and artists of the early 20thcentury found cheap living quarters here, among the students and workers of the eastern 5tharrondissement. James Joyce and his family lived at 71 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine for much of 1921; it was where he finished Ulysses. A few feet up the hill and across the street, at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, is where Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley lived from January 1922 to August 1923, their first apartment in Paris. On the other side of the Place is the Rue du Pot-de-Fer, where George Orwell lived from 1928-1930 – he wrote about it in Down and Out in Paris and London.

And there were artists and students here long before the 1920s: Rene Descartes lived at 14 Rue Rollin from 1644-48; Denis Diderot, at 3 Rue de l’Estrapade from 1747-1754; Paul Verlaine died in a garret at 39 Rue Descartes in 1896. The area was the location of the famous Maison de Pomme de Pin (the Pine Cone), a cabaret where Francois Villon drank in the 15th century, Rabelais in the 16th.

Even more incredibly, the route I took that Monday morning from my hotel on the Île Saint-Louis to Gare Montparnasse for the train ride to Chartres turns out to be one of the most famous walks in American literature – the very course that Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton take in chapter VIII of The Sun Also Rises, when they have dinner on the Île and then stroll around the island before crossing to the Left Bank and climbing up the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine to the Place de la Contrescarpe. They then walk down the Rue Mouffetard, turning right on the Rue du Pot-de-Fer and eventually making their way to the Rue Saint Jacques and the Boulevard Port Royal, where, after the latter becomes the Boulevard Montparnasse, they meet Brett Ashley for drinks at Café Select.

Hemingway gives a fuller account of the neighborhood in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of 1920s Paris. In fact, the opening paragraph of the first chapter, “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel,” is all about the Place de la Contrescarpe, including the “cesspool” that was the Café des Amateurs, a notorious hangout for drunks and vagabonds, which eventually became La Chope and later, Café Delmas. I have yet to find a photo of the Café des Amateurs, though I have found an old photo, from early in the twentieth century, of the S bus waiting in the Place de la Contrescarpe, just as Hemingway described it.

And I have found many old photos of the Hotel des Sports, across the square, where the Brasserie La Contrascarpe is now.

On the Internet, you can find an old video of Jacques Brel singing a song about the Place de la Contrescarpe, emphasizing its poverty and dereliction:

Place de la Contrescarpe, the tramps dance in a circle
Place de la Contrescarpe, they click their heels
They have frozen feet, their hands in their holed pockets
Place de la Contrescarpe, they dance in a circle


But if poor, the place doesn’t appear to have been especially grim. There’s a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, taken in the mid-1950s, of a boy on the Rue Mouffe carrying two large bottles of wine. His immense self-satisfaction seems to have been a neighborhood trait.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Rue Mouffetard, Paris” (1954)

For centuries, the area around today’s Place de la Contrescarpe lay just beyond the walls of Paris. In fact, the word “contrescarpe” refers to the outer slope of a ditch dug outside a defensive wall. In his blog on the Civil War, Craig Swain uses Dennis Hart Mahan’s textbook on military fortifications to explain how such a wall and ditch work.

Here’s a detail of the ditch, with Swain’s annotations:

In the drawing, G and H are the crest and foot of the scarp, the side of the ditch closest to the wall; I and K are the foot and crest of the counterscarp, the other side of the ditch. The Place de la “Contrescarpe,” in other words, was located just outside the wall that once encircled Paris.

That wall can be seen in Dulaure’s medieval map of Paris (Pl. III, Paris de 1180 a 1223, from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection):

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

The wall was built between 1190 and 1215 by Philip II, also known as Philip Augustus. In fact, the structure is often referred to as Philippe Auguste’s wall, the oldest Parisian wall whose plan we know. Below is a detail from the Dulaure map, showing, at the bottom center, the Porte Bordelle with the Rue Mouffe heading south out of town. Just outside the Porte is where the Place de la Contrescarpe is located today. And just inside the Porte at that location, clearly seen below, is the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, one of the landmarks of medieval Paris.

Philip’s wall was later encircled, at least on the Right Bank, by the wall of Charles V (built between 1356 and 1383). On the Left Bank, however, the old wall was strengthened rather than encircled. In the 16th and 17th centuries, both walls, Philip’s and Charles’, fell into disuse. Charles V’s Right Bank wall, in fact, was removed completely during construction of Paris’ Grand Boulevards. By contrast, parts of Philip’s wall are still visible on both banks.

Here’s a detail from another map of the area, dated 1380. which shows Philip’s wall, the gate through which the Rue Mouffe passed, and the countryside beyond (the map is oriented with east, rather than north, at the top). One can see in the upper right hand corner the little village around the Church of St.-Médard (still there today just down the Rue Mouffe from the Place de la Contrescarpe). (The map, by Henri Legrand, is Pl. V, Paris in 1380, from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.)

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

In the map below (a detail), from 1530, the ditch outside the wall is especially clear. By now, the area between Paris proper and the villages beyond is filling in rapidly. (The map is by Georg Braun, Pl. VIII, Paris in 1530, also from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.)

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Visible above, in the lower left-hand corner, are two churches inside the city wall near the Porte Bordelle: the old abbey church of Sainte-Geneviève, which we saw above, and, beside it, to its left, the newer church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. The latter remains to this day; the church of Sainte-Geneviève, by contrast, was later torn down to make way for the Rue Clovis, though the abbey itself remains, now used by the Lycée Henri-IV, one of the most prestigious secondary schools in France.

In the photo below, you can see the church of St. Étienne-du-Mont on the left. Across from it, on the right, is the former abbey of Ste.-Geneviève (now Lycée Henri-IV); the abbey church is gone, though the bell tower remains (minus the steeple).

Below is the famous 1615 map of Paris by Mathieu Merian (Pl. XV from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection). Oriented with east at the top, you can see the Charles V wall encircling the Right Bank (to the left in this view) and the smaller Philippe Auguste wall encircling the Left Bank (to the right here). Just inside the wall, in the upper right quadrant, the steeple of the abbey church of Ste.-Geneviève is visible.

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Below, in a detail from the Merian map, one can see, to the left of the Ste. Geneviève steeple, where the Place de la Contrescarpe will be one day, just on the outside of the Porte Bordelle (called here Porte St. Marcel).

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

By the time of the 1735 map below, by Jean Delagrive (le neuvième plan de Paris, from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection), Philip’s old medieval wall is largely gone, though one can see its former location along the streets that replaced it.

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

In the detail below, you can make out a “R[ue] Contrescarpe,” just below the Rue St. Marcel (today’s Rue Thoulin), though there’s still no “Place” de la Contrescarpe.

The 1874 map below (“Le vieux Paris, plan topographique de la Montagne Ste.-Geneviève à Paris du XVIe au XIXe siècle avec texte explicatif” [detail], from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) shows the location of the old wall, long gone by that time. Again, a “R[ue] Contrescarpe” can be seen, though there’s still no “Place.”

Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Our first glimpse of that comes in the mid-19th century map below, “Plan d’ensemble des travaux de Paris . . . de 1851 à 1868” (detail), also from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Here, you can see, in bright red, the wide path of the new Rue Monge being cut through the area by Baron Haussmann. You can also see a little red square in the middle: the new Place de la Contrescarpe!

Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Compare the blue ovals in the following two maps of the Latin Quarter, the one on the left representing the neighborhood in 1790, the one on the right, the neighborhood in 1900, both from the Atlas Historique de Paris. By the time of the later map, the Place de la Contrescarpe has been formed, shown here as a green square with white center.

It’s somewhat surprising, given its origins in an open area beyond the city’s medieval wall, that the Place de la Contrescarpe wasn’t actually formed until 1852. And, given our image of urban design in the Haussmann era, it’s also striking how small and cozy it is. This is no grand expression of French empire, like the Place de la Concorde; its genius is precisely its intimacy. This is a gathering place for neighbors.

Christopher Alexander, “Small Public Squares,” from A Pattern Language

The Place can even be said to exemplify one of Christopher Alexander’s design principles in  A Pattern Language (1977). In Pattern #61, “Small Public Squares,” Alexander writes, “A town needs public squares; they are the largest, most public rooms, that the town has” (311); they accommodate “public gatherings, small crowds, festivities, bonfires, carnivals, speeches, dancing, shouting, mourning.” But we often make them too large, Alexander complains, and then they “look and feel deserted.” He argues that “open places intended as public squares should be very small,” with a diameter of about 60 feet; any larger and they begin to seem “deserted and unpleasant.”

Bastille Day, Place de la Contrescarpe

Google Maps’ measuring tool puts the diameter of the Place de la Contrescarpe at around 100 feet; French Wikipedia has it bigger: 40 meters, or nearly 130 feet. In any case, it is larger than what Christopher Alexander recommends. Still, the square seemed intimate to me, the perfect size for the tight-knit urban neighborhood that surrounds it. Its appeal, at least for me, can be seen in the way I kept coming back to it. In my short stay in Paris, I think I walked up to the Place de la Contrescarpe four times: for coffee, meals, or just to stroll.

On Tuesday afternoon, after having a drink at the Café la Petite and wandering around the neighborhood, it began to rain. Thinking I could do some work on my paper if the weather deteriorated, I searched the Internet for “public libraries” in the vicinity and found one nearby, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, just across from the Panthéon. So I walked to the building and went inside.

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

I realized my mistake immediately: this was no ordinary public library. There were security guards and registration desks and the discrete hush of an important place. I read a sign on the wall indicating that the library was, in fact, part of the University of Paris. I was about to leave, disappointed, when I decided to ask one of the guards if they allowed visiting scholars to work there, just for an afternoon?

“Mais oui, monsieur,” the man said, pointing to a computer where I could register for a temporary user’s card. At the terminal, I struggled to understand the form but eventually finished and submitted it. I then stood in line to get my card. When my turn came, the official at the desk quizzed me skeptically about my answers, some of which I’m sure made no sense. But when I showed her my University of Massachusetts faculty card, she became more agreeable; and, within five minutes, my photograph was taken and a plastic ID card issued. She explained how many books I could check out, how long I could keep them, and when my membership would expire. She then handed me the card and pointed towards the main staircase.

When I got upstairs, I followed the signs to the main reading room. But when I opened the door and looked in, I was stunned. It was one of the most beautiful reading rooms I’d ever seen. And it was full of students working very quietly. I discretely took a couple of photographs with my phone and found an empty seat at the one of the long tables.

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

Trying not to bother the people around me, I took out my things quietly and began organizing my thoughts, jotting down some notes in my journal, doing a little work on my conference paper. Logging into the Internet with my new ID and password, I sent one of the photos I had just taken to family and friends. “Guess where I am?” I asked.

Later, I heard back from my friend Wendy, who traveled with me in Europe in the summer of 1982. A talented photographer, she emailed her appreciation of the picture I had sent and joked about my long-lost youth, which I had lamented in my message. “It’s a gorgeous photograph,” she wrote, “with all those lights on the same low plane and the arches and so many people clearly being very quiet. I blew it up and they indeed looked quiet and serious. And when I blew it up even further and looked at the different people, one of them struck me as a young David!”

Maybe I had been there before! Maybe I had sat at that very table, under that very lamp, and read quietly.

No, I would have remembered that. Still, it all seemed . . . telling: to have come that far, to have crossed an ocean, to have wandered all over that city, and then to end up spending the afternoon much as I do back home, surrounded by students and books, in a library.

Ah, but what a library!

3 thoughts on “La Place de la Contrescarpe

  1. loved it dave…read it last nite on my cheap little tablet in bed…your writing is amazing….I will be looking up a few words in the dictionary today!


  2. This is so great! i love the old photos from your time in Europe and the first song attached is so pretty…

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