In Saint Denis, carmelites lived well

Maxime Le Boucher, Visit of Louis XV th to Madame Louise de France, his daughter

You are going to think I have become a bigot and can only write about churches and nuns but my discovery of the week is the museum of Art and history  in Saint Denis, set in an old Carmel where Louis XVth’ seventh daughter and last child (Madame Dernière) became a nun in 1770. It was only a 20 minute metro ride from the 8 th arrondissement and it is a good excuse to visit the Royal Basilica where all the kings and queens of France are buried, ten minutes away.

Founded in 1625, the carmel was also a hospital and a part of the cloister is left

What attracted me to Saint Denis was the exhibition of prints produced and collected by Edmond Frapier, who ran la Galerie des Peintres graveurs and was very active between the two wars in Paris. He founded a social Museum in Nogent sur Marne dedicated to techniques of engraving and printing. And had decided to let everyone have a chef d’oeuvre at home through prints. Thus the title of the show: “A chef d’oeuvre in your salon”. He worked with the greatest painters of the time, such as Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Rouaud, Utrillo, Matisse and Maillol and was a predecessor of another huge prints collector, Henri Marie Petiet , who has been recently revived by the biography written by Christine Oddo.  (until March 5).

Maurice Utrillo, La rue d’Orchampt, lithography 1925-26

There is a very special atmosphere around the cloister where an old XVII th century apothicary with beautiful pots,  can be seen as well as many paintings by Laurent Guillot,  of the Carmelites assembled in the “chauffoir” (the heated room) or tending to the sick. I particularly liked the “Table pour balayer”, a weekly schedule of which sister would clean which room!

The “table pour balayer” (table for cleaning) listed every name of the sisters who were to broom that week

There are scenes of the Carmelites leaving Brussels to settle in St Denis and a lovely painting of Louis XV visiting his youngest daughter, Madame Louise de France, in 1770. Thanks to her, a beautiful chapel was built by Richard Mique, the architect of the Hameau de la reine and of the gardens of the Petit Trianon with Hubert Robert. Mique built many houses for the court and eventually replaced Gabriel as First architect of the king. The building became a tribunal at the end of the 19 th century and now serves as exhibition space.

Madame Louise de France became a Carmelite as Sister Thérèse de Saint Augustin

The museum is very large and on the top floors there is a collection of paintings and documents devoted to the Commune de Paris. The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 28 March to 28 May 1871. It inspired Karl Marx and Zola and Gustave Courbet was among the artists who participated. There are interesting portraits by Jules Girardet of Louise Michel, one of the anarchist ladies who helped build the barricades, whom my old professor from Yale, John Merriman describes at length in his book “Massacre” published in 2014.

Jules Girardet, Louise Michel harangue les communards, Oil on wood

The room of decorative arts from the 1920’s includes Francis Jourdain’s furniture and decoration. He was unknown to me but  his “meubles interchangeables” with infinite combinations of cupboards and mobile furniture are very clever. There is also a room devoted to surrealist poet Paul Eluard who was born in Saint Denis.

Francis Jourdain, bedroom in Hélène Henry’s apartment, 1928

There are  many paintings of Saint Denis by Corot, Caillebotte and Canella, among 40 000 items deposited in the museum, including archeology and religious paintings.

I ended my visit in the Chapel designed by Richard Mique which is a lovely contrast to the surrounding streets. Saint Denis was the stage of dramatic bombings near the Stade de France in 2015 but it was very quiet that morning. I enjoyed discovering the former monastery with its royal remembrances in this fiercely communist town. And there are no queues to get in! (Musée d’art et d’histoire de Saint Denis, Edmond Frapier exhibition until March 5)

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