Thursday, May 28, 2009

Art Work at Maison Conti

One thing I really enjoy about living in a big old house is that there is lots of wall space. Since I'm a printmaker, I have been collecting prints for many years. My husband as well happens to have inherited several really fine prints. At Maison Conti we have on display some lovely prints and a painting or two.

Normally different people who stay with us notice different things. Someone might notice that the coffee is particularly good (we grind it fresh every morning); often people will remark on the fresh fruit or fresh-squeezed orange juice we serve for breakfast and several people have praised the china we use in the morning. (It has hand-painted designs by a French botanical artist). Few people, however, notice the art work. There have been two artists who have stayed with us who did comment on our collection. It always gives me a great deal of pleasure when someone enjoys our art collection, as I really love the pieces we have gathered. None of the prints have very high value, but they are all excellent works.

The photos I've posted here are my favorites from our collection. The first is a Marc Chagall printed in 1959. It is unsigned, but does have a certificate of authenticity which came with it when I bought it from a gallery on the rue de Seine in the summer of 2000. I spent that summer living in Paris and every day I walked past this lithograph which hung in the window. The illustration is of Ruth the Gleaner and Chagall did a series of illustrations for the bible, this being one of those. There has been a lot of abuse of Chagall's prints since his death, since he did not destroy his plates. There have been unauthorized impressions made from his plates and sold as originals. I was told he supervised this particular impression, but of course I can't be sure.

 The next is a gorgeous etching by Whistler. The family story goes that Rick's grandfather met the father of James Whistler while they were working together in Russia on the railway system. Whistler's father was selling prints from his poverty-stricken son and Rick's grandfather purchased several. All the grandchildren in Rick's family received two etchings a piece, The one I've photographed here is called "The Kitchen" and was made in 1885, presumably by Whistler's own hands. If you want to see a wonderful photo of him with his etching press, visit this link.

The next two prints, a poster advertising the Musée Grévin (still open on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris) and the cover of a magazine L'Escarmouche (the skirmish) were purchased in Paris in the summer of 1999 at a very wonderful gallery in Le Marais. These are likely reproductions of the original Lithographs, and at the time they were printed, in the late 19th century, they had no value. They were simply publicity. People saved these things over the years and now they are collectable. I find them both very charming and evocative of that era when Paris really was the center of culture.

The mermaid print, entitled "The Echoing Shore" is an original wood block print made by John Edgar Platt in 1931. He was an Englishman who studied traditional Japanese wood block printmaking (known as moku hanga) in Japan. He became a real master of this very demanding technique and created many western images using the Eastern method.

 Another exquisite wood block print in our collection is "Hummingbird and Fushia" by the very talented Japanese artist, Toshi Yoshida, who spent some time in Mendocino, California where he created this work in 1971. I bought the print in California in the early 90s. Mr. Yoshida died in 1995.

Another treasure Rick inherited were a group of Albrecht Dürer prints. This botanical is one of several we have framed in our entry. It is obviously a reproduction, but a really excellent one and it is already almost 75 years old.

 The last piece is one I really adore. It is not easily photographed as it is quite shiny with varnish. I hope to be able to learn how to clean an old oil painting one of these days. This one is by an unknown artist. The painting is signed, but indecipherable. Certainly the artist was no one of note. But the painting was created in the 19th century and oozes charm. The subject is "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" which was a required subject matter during the student days of those times. This one has an original take. I found this painting on when I was decorating our house. I was very pleased with the find! And it was not at all expensive. It seems that in France people have things like this in their houses which have come down to them through the generations.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Le Perche, a very well kept secret!

People ask us if we have any horror stories associated with buying our house in Montmirail, or if our workmen abandoned us in the middle of our remodeling job. Friends and clients are curious to know if we’re treated like outsiders in our village or if the local people resent our presence. We’ve heard a lot of uncomfortable stories of Americans being the targets of unscrupulous contractors or passive aggressive neighbors. Invariably, these cautionary tales happen to Anglophones who settle in the south of France. There are entire towns in the south where the population is primarily either English or American. We’ve met people who’ve lived in France for 8 or 10 years and have never had the occasion to learn the language. They work with and for expatriates like themselves. Of course they also pay more for the real estate and drive up the prices. In a sense, one can’t blame the locals for being a bit annoyed. We have never had any kind of problem in France based on being American. In fact we’ve had the really good fortune to have nothing but delightful and helpful neighbors and extremely competent and very reasonable contractors. Northern France is a wonderful place to live and we are some of the very few Americans in our area. The villagers of Montmirail are happy to have us inhabit the beautiful house they all take pride in, and we have never experienced any negative feelings directed at us. People are open, very polite and patient with our less-than-perfect French language skills. In our region, one seldom sees tour buses and there aren’t long lines of foreign visitors queued up in the heat to catch a glimpse of some famous object or landscape. You see few people clutching guides books to their chests; traffic jams are few and far between. When we sent Rick Steves our web site address last year, he liked what he saw but couldn’t locate us on a map. When we told him we were in Le Perche, he had never heard of it. He was unwilling to come visit us because, he said, he can only keep current on the sites already in their guide books. In other words, guide books tend to replay the same old sites over and over again. This is one reason that, to foreigners, our area is almost unknown. On the other hand, to Parisians, the name Le Perche has a magical ring. It conjures up rolling green hills, deep forests, gently flowing rivers and always the idea of good food and relaxation. One city nearby, Bellême, is jokingly referred to as the 22nd arrondissement of Paris because so many Parisians have country homes. This Parisian influence on the area is fortuitous since it means there are great restaurants, charming shops and healthy economies which keep the villages vibrant. Someone once said of president Eisenhower’s project to create a freeway system from the east to the west coast of the U.S., after the war, that it was an accomplishment which allowed one to travel the entire width of the country without actually ever seeing anything. Much the same happened in France, when the autoroute system was completed during the early 70s, the Perche was passed by and it fell into a sleepy obscurity. This area was always on the frontier between English Normandy and the French Loire Valley, so its history is one of neutrality. There is a genuine peacefulness one feels in the gentle landscape. Its greatest claim to fame had always been the development of those large, gorgeous Percheron horses, bred for the crusades and for knights with their heavy metal armor. Now the Perche has become a kind of haven for back-to-the-land, city weary but very well-educated Parisian entrepreneurs. The organic food movement here is smart and enthusiastic. Cheese, lamb, produce, even snails, are all local specialties, but the most renowned product is the Baguette du Perche. One of our clients, a French businessman who lives in Singapore but who has friends in the area and stays with us frequently, remarked at breakfast the last morning we saw him that there is nothing like a baguette in any other part of the world. It cannot be duplicated. The famous Perche baguette is made with organic wheat, grown and milled locally. One of our favorite local producers bakes hundreds of loaves of bread at a time in his traditional wood-fired oven, using all the techniques and tools that have existed for hundreds of years. The recipe really can’t be improved upon. Gourmet magazine did an article about the Baguette du Perche last May and the New York times published a really nice article about the region in March 2007.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cooking Courses at Maison Conti

Alex Tallen is our wonderful cooking instructor. She grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota but now lives in France. We've known Alex since our daughter Emily was at George Washington University (1997-2000). Alex and Emily were both in the theater program there and both had interest in France, so they naturally became friends. Alex had just spent a year as an exchange student in France and spoke very well. She was asked to be the Washington D.C. tour guide for a French film actor when he came to give a workshop at GW. One thing led to another and Alex married the actor and moved to Paris. Emily married an actor herself and lives in Paris. Alex and Emily live within just a few blocks of one another. This is not where the similarities end. Alex and Emily's birthdays are only one day apart, they both recently had babies (born only two weeks apart), they both love to cook and both of them are vegetarians. Alex, unlike Emily, however, got a diploma at the famous Ritz Hotel Cooking School in Paris (in the Place Vendôme). And even though she doesn't eat meat herself, she creates meals of all kinds. She is extremely creative in her choice of ingredients. She has the true chef's ability to take any ingredient and create a meal around it. Her primary focus is always on fresh, local products. These are just a few of the mouthwatering dishes she has offered at Maison Conti, taken from the fall and spring offerings: Creamy fennel soup with star anise and hazelnuts Jerusalem artichoke purée with mango coulis Salmon w/ cranberry beurre blanc Rhubarb and orange flower tart This summer Alex offers a course in preparing a really fabulous cocktail party with impressive canapés that are beautiful, delicious and yet easy to prepare. Alex is also available to lead cooking courses and adventures for any private special occassion. Check out a more complete description of her classes at:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

2 Shows to See if You're in Paris

There are a couple of shows going on in Paris currently that il faut voir! The master printmaker, poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) has a show of his engravings at le Petit Palais (avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris). Blake's work is not often on display, so this is a rare opportunity to see his beautiful and bold work. The show is open until the 28th of June. Blake illustrated his own poems, for example Tiger Tiger Burning Bright: Tiger, Tiger, burning bright In the forest of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? An interesting note on this particular poem: if you recite it to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, you find that it is the same rhythm. This was pointed out to me years ago by a Blake scholar. I leave it to you to figure out why. Alexander Calder, the mobile artist, an American who lived for many years in France, has his work on display at the Pompidou Center (by locals known as the Beaubourg). His work is also very rarely in museums, especially his circus, which is utterly delightful. He studied to be an engineer before devoting his life to his exteemly clever art. The circus, which he created while living in France during the '20s, draws on his understanding of mechanics. His wire sculptures are also deceptively simple but very skillfully realized. They move and cast shadows. It's well-worth finding the film, Le Cirque de Calder (1961) and seeing the wonderful performance of Calder's circus by the artist. You can view it on-line at The entire circus is at the Beaubourg until July 20th along with a lot of other fabulous Calder creations.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Journal of Possibilities - a workshop with book artist Gail Rieke

We're very excited to have Gail Rieke coming from Santa Fe, New Mexico to give a workshop at Maison Conti in October. Gail is an incredibly talented book and assemblage artist and a very warm and inspiring teacher. She's given lots of classes at the Center for the Book, which is where I met her. Gail has led several art adventures to Japan with groups of her students, but this is her first visit to France! Her Creative Retreat at Maison Conti will be an absorbing and energetic mini-week full of practical information and your own finished travel journal/memento. If you're planning a trip to Europe this fall (and why wouldn't you be?), be sure to add this event to your itinerary. You'll be well taken care of at Maison Conti and the price of the seminar includes your lodging in our 4 star Bed & Breakfast and all your meals, wine and transportation. It promises to be an unforgettable week! To explore the luscious world of Gail Rieke, visit her website at: Gail was also the featured artist in Indie Arts DVD Magazine, summer 2008 edition. If you don't know about Indie Arts, check them out at You can order back issues for $16.95. Each issue is nearly 2 hours of viewing pleasure, chock full of artistic inspiration. Here's they describe their interview with Gail: Collage, Assemblage and Installation Artist Gail Rieke takes us on a tour of her studio which she describes as an installation art space. Her work also includes art journals that document her travel experiences. Japanese art and Tea Ceremony profoundly inpires her work and she shares photographic impressions from Japan. To learn more about the course visit: or email