Photographs by Krystal Kenney
Coco Chanel had helped cure the writer’s broken heart, recounts Justine Picardie, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar UK, in a recent talk in Paris about the famous couturière. Ms. Picardie’s then husband and father of their two sons had just announced that he had fallen in love with someone else, putting a swift end to their 21-year marriage. It was on the heels of this devastating news that Ms Picardie found herself, on a freezing February day, at Aubazine Abbey, the 12th century monastery where Gabrielle Chanel had been raised by nuns, after having been abandoned by her itinerant father. Conducting research for a biography on the milliner-turned-fashion phenomenon, it was at Aubazine, with its austere beauty and echoes of its most famous and famously resilient inhabitant, that Ms Picardie found solace and the strength to move past the heartbreak. Mlle Chanel would eventually play a part in her biographer’s romantic fate, but more on that later.
This talk, delivered to a spellbound audience over tea at the Hôtel Ritz, was followed by a visit to Chanel’s fabled apartment on the Rue Cambon. With its Coromandel screens and mirrored staircase, the third floor apartment, above the ground floor store, remains unchanged since the couturière’s death in 1971 at the age of 87.
These activities were just two of many special events during a weekend in mid-October organized by the American Friends of the Museé d’Orsay. Based in Paris, AFMO is a non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for the Orsay and Orangerie museums. About one million Americans visit the museums annually, making up the largest number of foreign visitors to these institutions. The attractions are many. The former has the distinction of housing the largest collection of Impressionist art while the latter contains Monet’s panoramic Water Lilies, among many other treasures.
Guests from all over the U.S. and London included Patricia Abramson, Michael Altman, Cyanne Chutkow, David Parsons and Melinda DeChiazza, David Downton, Flavie Durand-Ruel, Noah and Maria Gottdiener, Belle Hahn-Cohen, Marlene Hays, Peter Heydon, Richard Knaub and Luis Camarate, Ethan Koh, Rosalind and Kenneth Landis, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Carine Menache, Nicola and Mark Meskin, William Rhodes and Cristina Valencia, Peter and Susan Solomon, Nancy Goodes, Karen Levy, Judith Ehrlich, Andrea and Paul Vizcarrando, Caroline and David (Tiger) Williams.
In the planning for months by AFMO Executive Director Verena Thornton and staff, the weekend was a veritable movable feast. Attendees were spoiled for choice with visits to private art collections, prestigious homes and behind-the-scenes tours of national treasures and public gardens. The festivities kicked off at the magnificent U.S. Ambassador’s residence where Ambassador Jamie McCourt gave guests a warm welcome, and culminated in an elegant gala at the Musée d’Orsay.
Just before the gala, guests had the pleasure of witnessing, champagne glasses in hand, Elizabeth Kehler, AFMO’s Chair of the Board of Directors, being awarded the insignia of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in recognition for her contribution in furthering the arts in France and abroad. Ms Kehler stands in good company. American recipients of the award include Agnes Gund, Marilyn Horne, Richard Meier, Robert Paxton, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Uma Thurman.
Afterwards, before sitting down to a delectable dinner, guests enjoyed a private viewing of the Orsay’s blockbuster, once-in-a-lifetime exhibit, Picasso. Bleu et Rose.
And before that, there was an embarrassment of riches. In addition to the Chanel event, fashion lovers visited Maison Schiaparelli, Elsa Schiaparelli’s iconic couture house on the Place Vendôme. Highlights include Giacometti gold columns, Marcel Vertès collages and various artifacts such as a Salvador Dalì powder compact.
Art lovers were hard pressed to choose from among a multitude of options: a private after-hours tour of Picasso: Masterpieces! at the Musée National Picasso-Paris. Many of the artist’s greatest works, some of which were shown in Paris for the first time, were brought together thanks to exceptional loans; a visit to the iconic artist’s studio at the newly opened Giacometti Institute, repository of the world’s richest collection of works by Alberto Giacometti; a visit to Auguste Rodin’s home, atelier and garden in Meudon, outside of Paris where the artist created many of his most important pieces.
And, in addition to private visits to the Guttklein Fine art Gallery and the Gagosian Gallery, guests had the privilege of taking behind-the-scenes tours at the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée du Louvre. The elegant Hôtel Le Bristol too, where many of the attendees stayed, enlightened visitors about its Gobelins tapestries and notable portrait of Marie-Antoinette painted by François-Hubert Drouais, Madame de Pompadour’s favorite painter.
Last, but certainly not least, art historian Flavie Durand-Ruel dove into the archives of her ancestor, illustrious Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, offering a glimpse of the man for whom art reigned supreme. Indeed, towards the end of the 19th century, Durand-Ruel became the most important advocate of French Impressionism, helping establish Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley among others.
Antique aficionados also had plenty to feast on. Joseph Achkar and Michel Charrière, renowned interior designers, opened the doors to their own sumptuous residence, the Hôtel du Duc de Gesvres. The meticulously restored 17th century mansion earned its owners the Institut de France’s highest award for restoration. Lighting designers and distinguished private art collectors Max Blumberg and Eduardo Araujo also welcomed visitors to their beautiful home, with its neo-classical art collection and expansive views the Tuileries gardens and the Musée d’Orsay.
There was quite a lot for history buffs too including a private visit to the National Archives located in the Hôtel de Soubise. The 18th century mansion graced with a majestic courtyard, is home to the Iron Chest which holds some of France’s most precious documents. And the Bibliothèque Nationale, at its Richelieu site, is a feast for the eyes. Formerly the residence of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin in the 17th century and then the Royal Library, it houses prestigious collections of manuscripts, maps, prints, photographs, coins and medals. Its 19th century oval reading room is a light and airy neo-classical masterpiece. After the visit, guests were treated to lunch in the library’s wood-paneled Salon d’Honneur under the gaze of Voltaire.
Nor were nature-lovers left out in the cold. A guided tour of France’s main botanical garden, the Jardin des Plantes, located in the 5th Arrondissement, was balm for the soul in today’s hectic world with its rose garden, greenhouses, labyrinth, gazebo and aviary. There’s even a zoo, home to some 200 species of animals.
The festivities were capped off with a gala at the Musée d’Orsay in the museum’s opulent Salle des Fêtes, a former 19th century ballroom. Enjoying the company of France’s newly installed Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, guests were treated to gastronomic delights created by Gabi Shafir, Executive Chef of the Moroccan royal family. The fragrant eucalyptus centerpieces memorably added to the sensory experience.
AFMO’s A Weekend in Paris showcased some of the very best France has to offer in terms of culture, fashion, history, gastronomy, even botany, stimulating all the senses. Being witness to all that beauty and sophistication, it is no wonder that Paris is known as the City of Love.
And speaking of love, how did Justine Picardie’s own story end? Happily, for she found love, dear reader. It was “the man on the left” – the one seated next to her at a dinner party – a party she did not want to attend. He is a British aristocrat, just like the main loves of Chanel’s life. The romance blossomed as this man, Ms Picardie’s now husband, helped the biographer with her research on the legendary designer, guiding her to archives in the Scottish highlands. So, if you have the chance to attend a dinner party, do not refuse the invitation, for you never know what pleasures it may bring. And, if you can, do attend AFMO’s fête next year. You may not find love, but you will certainly be enchanted.
To find out how you can be a benefactor, visit: http://aforsay.org/membership/
The Gala Evening at the Musée d’Orsay
Cocktail Reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence
At the National Archives
Behind the Scenes at the Museé d’Orsay
Visiting the Bibliothèque Nationale
A talk by author, Justine Picardie about Coco Chanel during tea at the Ritz
A Private Viewing at the Musée National Picasso
At the Giacometti Institute
At Guttklein Fine Art
Touring Le Bristol’s art treasures
And finally – the Jardin des Plantes Garden Tour