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In Paris, I sketch and paint. I arrive with a theme in mind that I’ve studied for months in advance. My first theme, several years ago, was the opera Carmen, by the French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875). Prior to my trip, I attended an avant-garde performance of Carmen at Théâtre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. In the story, a soldier falls in love with Carmen, a beautiful girl who works in a cigarette factory. Carmen, however, does not reciprocate the soldier’s love. The Jeune Lune’s portrayal of Carmen, a gypsy heroine, was of an intelligent, yet fragile, teenager who used her own cleverness and happenstance mischief for day-to-day survival without causing any real harm. This young Carmen was much more convincing to me than the traditional American portrayal of her.
I had to learn more. I listened to several recordings of Carmen, read Georges Bizet: Carmen by Susan McClary, perused a novella by Prosper Mérimée, and watched film interpretations of Carmen, including those by Peter Brook, Francesco Rosi and my favorite, a flamenco version by Carlos Saura. I studied 19th century French art and found that Carmen, an outsider, was a perfect example of Orientalism’s tragic anti-hero.
Research complete, I packed my carry-on bag with make-up, a change of clothes and my two-week itinerary: museum sketching in the mornings and neighborhood sketching in the afternoons and evenings.
I was ready, waiting, when the doors to the Musée du Louvre opened. I was there to see two paintings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Une Odalisque (1814) of a “harem woman,” whose accessories suggest the sensuous Orient, and The Bather, known as the Valpinçon Bather (1862) of a nude as seen from behind.
The next day I was at the Musée d’Orsay to study the wild landscape of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) of two clothed men having a picnic in the Tuileries Garden with two disrobed women. I imagined the personal narrative of each of the women in the paintings. What circumstances led them to be the muses of Ingres and Manet? How do they continue to captivate us as we study them today, painted on canvas?
Exhausted from visiting museums and walking miles over the previous two weeks, I discovered a young, precocious ”Carmen” embodied by a sixteen-year-old Parisian girl who was not enjoying tea with her parents and brother at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. Smartly dressed, and wearing flip-flops, one moment she’d flirt and tease––the next, she’d shrug and slump, then cover all but her eyes with her menu and at once flutter the menu in the air like a fan. Sitting across from this spirited young creature, recalling my two daughters at that age, I couldn’t sketch fast enough. The hotel’s waiters, prim and proper with their hands clasped behind their backs, looked over my shoulder at my sketches and smiled.
Back at my apartment, every surface was covered with interpretations of this Carmen, now in ink and brush, from the most promising sketches I’d collected that day. I searched for the right impression—my Athénée Carmen’s flirtatious tease with the slight snap of her scarf against her leg. I added a brilliant palette of watercolors to accentuate a shimmer here and a flutter there.
Each year after my Carmen study, a new Paris theme has followed, until my favorite theme emerged: A Woman’s Paris™, which is about discovering Paris through its women.
A Paris hotel we think you’d like . . .
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Opera devotee or seeking background about “Carmen?” Writer Barbara Redmond consulted Georges Bizet: Carmen by Susan McClary , available at our Amazon.com French Marketplace.