Follow the ICAA daily from April 24th through April 30th as we study the classical architecture, interiors, and landscapes of Paris through observational drawing and painting. Based on the ICAA’s annual Rome Drawing Tour, the Paris program is led by prominent architect Kahlil Hamady and designer Leslie-jon Vickory, alongside renowned watercolorists, Bernd Dams and Andrew Zega. Daily blog posts are provided courtesy of Rebecca Allan, MFA, who has joined the ICAA in Paris for this remarkable tour.
Friendships that are forged in the shared experience of studying great buildings and landscapes, especially in unseasonably cold weather, have a warmth that sustains them. Saturday, April 30th, the last day of the Paris Drawing Tour, was perhaps the most meaningful, as the group had shared many rare experiences, and filled sketchbooks with corresponding evidence. On a tour of Malmaison led by Andrew Zega, we witnessed the exquisite interior decoration, furnishings, and gardens commissioned by Josephine and Napoleon epitomizing the Empire style. Josephine purchased the country château, just a few miles outside Paris, in April 1799, while Napoleon was still in Egypt. Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, two of the most fashionable architects of the day, were commissioned to redecorate the château so that it would be suitable for its distinguished occupants. On this day, the gardens at Malmaison, a particular passion of Josephine’s, were brimming with coral-red fritillaria and chartreuse euphorbia plants. Malmaison was one of the most visited and copied houses of the time.
From Malmaison we boarded the bus to the Désert de Retz, an extraordinary 18th-century estate built by the French aristocrat François Racine de Monville. Comprising a variety of buildings and follies each in a different and exotic style, it contains sculpted gardens that were designed by this French aristocrat who was a musician, architect, and landscape designer. The most intriguing structure on the estate is the colonne brisée (shattered column), made to resemble the base of a giant stone column that has been broken. We examined the impact of recent restoration work, which is remarkable in that over the centuries the entire structure had deteriorated into a ruin, and is now being faithfully reconstructed. We were preceded by distinguished visitors to the Désert de Retz: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the French Surrealists.
At the farewell dinner for the Paris Drawing Tour, participants gathered one last time at the studio of Zega and Dams, for this occasion furnished with round tables elegantly set for the meal, and illuminated by a fire in the marble fireplace. Kahlil Hamady toasted our hosts and thanked the participants for their dedication to the study and practice of classical architecture and art. Kahlil and Leslie-jon Vickory, who co-organized the program, emphasized the important point that through the shared appreciation of classical architecture we preserve our cultural heritage and bring it forward to enrich what we create: the houses, buildings, cities—indeed the communities—that express the highest ideals of humanity.
Friday, April 29th found the Paris Drawing Tour participants in the Quartier Latin, at one of the most significant neoclassical monuments in Europe. The Panthéon (Greek for “every god”) was designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot and constructed over a period of 34 years between 1757 and 1791. This majestic structure of stone and marble evokes Bramante’s Tempietto (1502), and overlooks all of Paris. Immediately preceding our visit to the Panthéon, our group enjoyed a private tour of the Bibliothèque St-Geneviève before it opened to university students who quickly occupied every one of its reader tables. Built by architect Henri Labrouste in 1851, the original structure occupied the site of the College de Montaigu. The library inherited the collections of one of the oldest abbeys in Europe, the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève. The gracious archivist unveiled for us Labrouste’s original drawings. Everyone marveled at the inventiveness, clarity, and originality of Labrouste’s manner of rendering the poché (the black portion of an architectural plan representing the walls and columns). The architect’s deployment of the most subtle tones of grey, pink and blue watercolor to delineate the building’s components left even the most accomplished architects among us in a state of worshipful awe. Now that we are card-carrying readers of the French National Library, we can return any time.
The pièce de résistance on Friday was a private tour of Atelier Rinck on the Avenue Daumesnil with master craftsman and co-owner Bruno Sachet. Monsieur Sachet described the history and organization of Rinck, one of the world’s pre-eminent firms to maintain the classical techniques of ornament in its design and fabrication workshops since it was established by Jean Rinck in 1841. Rinck specializes in the trades related to fine woodwork, leather, metalwork, ironwork, stonework, and decorative painting. A rare highlight was seeing some of the custom-made tools and patterns that are used in the creation of special mouldings, as well as a cabinet embellished with shagreen, an unusual decorative treatment using sharkskin.
The enduring value of France’s fine crafts and their preservation through education were the main focuses of the past two days on the Paris Drawing Tour. Thursday, April 28th began with an incredible private tour with Francois Jourdan, President of the Fondation Coubertin, located about 45 minutes by bus from Paris, in Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse. The Coubertin Foundation maintains the traditions of the fine manual trades by training young people (under the age of 30) in the crafts of fine furniture-making, metalwork, and stonework. Within the foundation, the four workshops of L’Atelier Saint-Jacques are dedicated to producing as well as restoring masterworks such as Rodin’s Gates of Hell, which was first made at the Coubertin foundry using the lost-wax process.
Returning to Paris, we met Andrew Zega and Bernd Dams at Les Invalides, where they introduced the history and architecture of this complex of buildings that served as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans. The buildings house the Musée de l’Armée, the military museum of the Army of France, the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, and the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine, as well as the Dôme des Invalides, a large church with the burial site for some of France’s war veterans, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte.
On Wednesday, April 27, we began the day with a fascinating tour of the Musée Nissim de Camondo (part of Les Musée des Arts Decoratifs) with Jean-Pierre Constant, decorative arts scholar and lecturer at the École Constant. While it is filled with some of the most extraordinary examples of 18th-century French decorative arts, the Musée Camondo is imbued with a layer of melancholy, as it was a home occupied by a divorced man who lived there alone after a series of family tragedies. Moïse de Camondo, a Turkish-born Parisian banker during the Belle Époque, was a passionate collector of French furniture and art objects from the eighteenth century, and he amassed a collection of unusual quality.
In 1911, he hired architect René Sergent to build a private mansion next to the Parc Monceau that would be worthy of this collection and suitable for his family. The residence was modeled after the Petit Trianon in Versailles, but behind the décor of wood-paneled apartments were hidden the accouterments of modern life. Camondo intended to give the mansion and collection to his son Nissim, but Nissim was killed in World War I. After this tragic loss, he decided to bequeath his property to Les Musée des Arts Décoratifs. During World War II, his daughter Béatrice and her family died in the Nazi concentration camps.
Later in the day, we met at the Louvre to see a comprehensive exhibition of the French painter Hubert Robert (1733-1808). Robert’s views of classical and contemporary architecture were enormously popular during his lifetime. His depiction of immense, crumbling monuments of an imagined past earned him the nickname, “Robert des Ruines.” We also took advantage of the opportunity to visit Napoleon’s apartment before the museum closed.
On Tuesday, April 26th, the Paris Drawing Tour participants used the singular colors and materials of the architecture of Paris—distinguished by nuanced yellows and greys—as a portal for understanding the city. Engaging with this specific aspect of the city, the group took up sketchbooks and watercolor brushes to record their observations of the Louvre’s courtyard. The original plan to work outdoors in the Cours Carrée was thwarted by 40-degree temperatures, and we were welcomed by the Cafe Marly staff to take over their tables (underneath heat lamps, thankfully), where en plein air became possible. The morning objective was to make studies in wash. Instructor Kahlil Hamady asked everyone to focus on articulating passages of space by noticing how the cloud-filtered light could be translated through diluted watercolor pigment. Remembering a point that draughtsman Bernd Dams made the day before, I thought about how drawing, like sleep, cannot be rushed and is therefore one of the most direct routes to cultivating deep concentration.
The afternoon was devoted to artist Andrew Zega’s demonstration of his technical process in watercolor. Zega began by showing images of bird paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) an American ornithologist and illustrator, as well as Albrecht Durer’s beautiful study of grasses. Returning to the underlying principles of the behavior of light against both natural and manmade surfaces, he emphasized the purposeful choice of materials such as Arches hot press watercolor paper, which is chosen for its ability to stand up to repeated layers of wash, and its warm white tone. Zega’s method (never clean your palette!) for rendering things, such as aged stone, soot trails on a slate roof, or varieties of moss in an antique garden urn, highlighted the continuity of his practice and the alchemical aspect of painting. Vestiges of old colors left on a dirty palette are the basis for the next painting’s undertones. In their respectful and painstaking approach to classical painting, Zega and Dams remind us that, when we give ourselves over to the humble observation of the material world, we appreciate more fully the legacy of classical art and cultural history. We are as a result inspired to champion and preserve it.
There is no more distinguished repository of cultural history than the Bibliothèque Mazarine within the Palais de l’insitut de France. Originally created by Cardinal Mazarine (1602-1661) as his personal library, it holds one of the richest collections of rare books and manuscripts in France, and is the oldest public library in the country. On a private tour led by Monsieur Yann Sordet, Director and Chief Curator, we viewed a selection of rare architectural treatises and pattern books, including Vitrivius’ and Serlio’s treatises, in addition to other original historical documents. We concluded the day drawing in the library as evening light filtered through the mullioned windows, in view of (portrait busts of) a few great thinkers including Marcus Aurelius, Benjamin Franklin, and Seneca.
On Monday, April 25th, participants absorbed a full day of lectures including “Traditions of Architectural Rendering,” and “History of the City of Paris and French Classicism,” in the immaculately organized and beautifully appointed surroundings of Andrew Zega and Bernd Dams’ studio.
Trained as both architects and historians, Zega and Dams are consummately skilled artists known for their expert restitutions of historic buildings. Zega discussed the history of architectural drawing and its evolution as a scientific subject emerging in the 15th century as artists flocked to Rome and other classical sites, to document their newfound interest in antiquity. Calling our attention to the representation of architecture in the resplendent Gothic manuscript, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Dams pointed out how 14th-century French artists were nonetheless depicting architecture in a rather rudimentary way, compared to their Italian contemporaries.
The artists also described their own working process, a rare collaboration in which Dams (who describes himself primarily as a draughtsman), creates precise drawings in pencil on Arches watercolor paper in preparation for Zega to fully render them in watercolor. Our group then visited Sennelier, a renowned art-supply store, on the Quai Voltaire, to select materials for their drawing and watercolor painting practice. Finally, enriched by the day’s historical and technical teachings, we walked to the Cours Carrée at the Louvre, where we ended the day intrepidly drawing in spite of the chilly Paris air.
On Sunday, April 24th, participants arriving from the U.S. and Italy for the ICAA’s inaugural Paris Drawing Tour gathered at the studio of Bernd Dams and Andrew Zega, a few blocks from the Louvre, for a celebratory welcome reception. Architect Kahlil Hamady and architectural designer Leslie-jon Vickory, who co-organized the program with the ICAA, discussed its purpose—to enhance the knowledge of American architects, designers, and students in French classical architecture, interiors, and landscape. They gave a descriptive overview of some of the remarkable sites that participants would be visiting, from the Bibliothèque Mazarine, France’s oldest public library, to the Fondation de Coubertin, an organization which supports the professional, intellectual and cultural formation of young people through vocational training in metalwork, carpentry, and stonecutting. Leslie-jon and Kahlil talked about the incredible generosity of the architects, designers, craftsman, curators, and other specialists in Paris who are enthusiastically opening their doors in order to share their knowledge with us.