A la Maison Fournaise

Funny what happens when you let a story take you by the hand. This little tale started with a photo I found online a few days ago.

I looked at delightful Audrey Tautou, impersonating the great Coco Chanel, and I wondered how anyone could look this good, dressed as a man and wearing a black canotier (boater hat.) That got me thinking le canotier was the couvre-chef (headgear) of choice of many, starting in the late 19th century. The popular straw hat was most commonly seen in a much lighter-colored version, often adorned with a wide brim ribbon. Le canotier is a bit of a cheeky hat, and it tends to fight for attention with the person wearing it. Illustration:

French singing and acting legend: Maurice Chevalier
Daddy Long Legs: Fred Astaire
Lovely Audrey Hepburn

Coco Chanel knew she was on to something when she adopted the whimsical hat at the beginning of her career. All most women had known until then was the ornate, cumbersome, heavily decorated headgear de rigueur during la Belle Epoque.

From Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn)…
… to Coco Chanel,
(wearing one of her early creations in 1910)

 

Coco Before Chanel (the movie)
La Belle Epoque meets Chanel

Truth be told, Chanel adopted something that had been around for years, and made it her own. In the 1880s, le canotier became popular first with men, then with children and women. It was reserved for athletic activities: cycling, hunting, and horseback riding. In the early 19th century many indulged in a favorite summer hobby: le canotage (canoeing.) Boats – often handmade – were everywhere on the Seine river, in downtown Paris, and outside the city. I wrote a story about the illustrious river a few months ago, and I mentioned les Canotiers (the Canoeists) who discovered the joys of rowing and the world of boating. This was documented by artists, among them painters in the Impressionist movement.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894),
a good friend of the Impressionist crowd

 

Gustave Caillebotte

Canotiers in Chatou
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

It was important to look the part while rowing, and the straw boating hat, worn by the French navy crews, was adopted early on by all. This started among Parisians an enduring fascination with the nautical clothing style, in particular la Marinière (French sailor shirt.) 

A French girl all the way: Marion Cotillard

I could have stopped when I reached this point in my story. But there was more to tell. From the straw boating hat, to the Canoeists, I started thinking about how very few foreign visitors realize how beautiful the Seine river banks are outside of Paris. Most tourists will stay downtown (or take day trips to Versailles) but few will travel to the western outskirts of the French capital and follow the river, as it heads towards Normandy and finally flows into the English Channel in le Havre.

(photographer unknown)
La Seine near Chatou
(Y. Capelle)
Near Bougival
(flickr.com)

On the way, bucolic scenes await as the Seine meanders through small towns, Croissy, Chatou, Rueil-Malmaison, Bougival. This may not be the mighty Mississippi river, but I am guessing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would have enjoyed following the old Seine, and exploring some of the islands discovered on the way, l’Ile Fleurie, l’Ile des Impressionnistes.

La Seine in les Andelys (Upper Normandy)
(photographer unknown)
Bords de Seine (Seine riverbanks) near Chatou
(Jacques Souben)

While I lived in Paris, I was fortunate to work for many years in one of these small towns, Rueil Malmaison. American Express France was headquartered there. The building – and my office – overlooked the majestic and peaceful river. I am happy to go back today, and to take you with me. This was the view from my office window for a while.

la Seine and la Maison Fournaise
panoramio.com
(Hebrard)


Très joli, non? Let’s get closer, shall we? We have arrived on a small island, l’Ile des Impressionnistes (Ile de Chatou,) connected to the towns of Rueil-Malmaison and Chatou by a bridge. There, time has stopped.

The “old” Chatou bridge (1870s)

The most famous building on the island is an institution of sorts, the type of place where one often thinks: “If only these walls could talk…” As a history buff with a healthy respect for the past, you know how much I love these.

Ile des Impressionnistes, Chatou
La Maison Fournaise

Bienvenue à La Maison Fournaise. This restaurant was a popular place in the 19th century. Remember our friends les Canotiers (the Canoeists)? This was one of their favorite destinations on Sunday afternoons. Every week, Parisians flocked to la Gare St Lazare and after a 20-minute train ride, arrived in Chatou, looking for a good time. La Seine provided affordable entertainment. Swimming and fishing were favored by all. Sunday boaters could also rent sailboats or canoes.

L’Ile Fleurie, Chatou
(Musée Fournaise)
Fishing party, Chatou 
(Musée Fournaise)

Artists were attracted by the exceptional light and shadows they found by the river where ancient poplars, willow and chestnut trees provided shade on hot summer days. La Maison Fournaise‘s guest lists reads like the Who’s Who of the Impressionist movement: Monet, Manet, Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Pissaro, and the painter and art patron Gustave Caillebotte were all regulars. Later on, Vlaminck and Derain, the founders of Fauvism, opened a workshop in Chatou. Matisse visited them on a regular basis. There were politicians; there were intellectuals and writers, Guy de Maupassant, Guillaume Apollinaire. They ate and often stayed at La Maison Fournaise overnight. La Fournaise,” as it is sometimes called, is a piece of property purchased in the 1850s by a river toll collector, Alphonse Fournaise. Capitalizing on the new tourist trade and the emerging canoeing craze, he promptly established a boat rental business on site, with the help of his son, Alphonse Jr. Meanwhile, his wife took care of the restaurant and the small hotel in the main building. The most famous person in the family was lovely Alphonsine, their daughter, who counted many admirers and friends among the customers. La Fournaise quickly established itself as the epicenter of the Impressionists’ social life in Chatou. Through the 1870s and 1880s, the business prospered. The restaurant was known for its terrace, overlooking the Seine river and surrounded by an ornate cast iron railing; its murals, painted on the building façade by visiting artists, its food, and its clientèle.

La Maison Fournaise, late 19th century
(Maurice Leloir, 1851-1940)
Fournaise boat rental business, Chatou, early 20th century
(Musée Fournaise)
Maison Fournaise:
La terrasse (the terrace,)  today

Renoir, who stayed chez Fournaise on a regular basis between 1868 and 1884, felt inspired by the pastoral surroundings. He immortalized La Maison Fournaise in one of his most famous paintings, Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party.)

(1880-1881) 

The scene depicts Renoir’s friends and acquaintances on a hot summer day. Some noticeable characters are the Fournaise children, Alphonse Jr. and pretty Alphonsine, both wearing straw boater hats, on the left. The young woman kissing the dog is Renoir’s future wife, Aline Charigot. On the right, also wearing a canotier, Gustave Caillebotte, painter, photographer, and art patron, straddles a chair. The painting captures the lively and relaxed atmosphere of the Impressionists’ lazy Sunday afternoons in Chatou.

Many years later, Alphonsine Fournaise took over the family business, but the restaurant closed down in 1906. A few years later, her father’s old boat rental business followed suit. The world was changing fast and many deserted the area. The building and grounds fell in a bad state of disrepair until the property was purchased by the city of Chatou in 1977.

Maison Fournaise at the end of WW2
(courtesy of the City of Chatou)

In 1982, it was registered as a Historical monument of France. The city received subsidies from the state and from private organizations (including the Friends of French Art in Los Angeles who restored the beautiful iron railing.) A massive renovation effort was undertaken from 1984 to 1990. Today, the restaurant has reopened and a museum is located in Alphonse Fournaise’s old boat workshop. 

The renovated façade 
(courtesy of the city of Chatou)
A message left by writer Guy de Maupassant,
restored to its former glory

I started working part-time for American Express in my early 20s as a customer service  representative, while I studied English at the Sorbonne university. I remember looking longingly at the old building across the Seine river – the restaurant had recently re-opened – knowing that I would be having lunch there sooner or later. After graduate school, I was hired full time by American Express, and there were many opportunities to follow in the Impressionists’ footsteps. Birthdays, engagements, or just casual Fridays: My friends and I would head over chez Fournaise, a short car ride away. In the winter, we had lunch indoors, waiting for the weather to warm up so we could finally enjoy the renowned terrace. The food may not have always been up to old Madame Fournaise’s standards, but the view and atmosphere were unmatched in the area. Ever since I moved to the United States, a reproduction of Renoir’s masterpiece, Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party,) has been hanging on the wall above my desk, a reminder that I, too, got to sit on the renowned terrace chez Fournaise.

Many years later, during our annual visit to Paris, it was time to christen American-born Junior. We booked a private room in the restaurant before going to church. I was really happy to go back to my old hunting grounds that day.

Memories, memories…

Like so many other prestigious or anonymous visitors before us,  we had a lovely time chez Fournaise, enjoying a stroll by the Seine after lunch as Junior and his cousin ran along the river banks, imagining the canoes, the sailboats, and the artists who had sat outside and painted in the shade of the ancient trees.

Next time you visit Paris, why don’t you, too, follow la Seine all the way to Chatou? No need to wait until Sunday afternoon, or wear a canotier. The Canoeists and lovely Alphonsine may be long gone, but la Maison Fournaise is still there, by the river, waiting…

La Maison Fournaise (Renoir)
Alphonsine Fournaise (Renoir)
Renoir

I can’t leave Chatou, because my painting is not finished yet. It would be nice of you to come down here and have lunch with me. You won’t regret the trip, I assure you. There isn’t a lovelier place in all of Paris surroundings.
– From a letter Renoir sent a friend in 1880

A bientôt.

Afterword:

My brother, who is a good man, braved the cold on his bicycle this weekend to ride to the American Express building in Rueil Malmaison (he lives nearby with his family) and took several great shots for me. This one is my favorite. Merci, petit frère!

La Maison Fournaise while standing in front of American Express

 

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)

58 Comments

  • What a lovely post, French Girl in Seattle! I see I’m going to learn a lot from your beautiful blog. Thank you for saying Hi over at my place ~ it’s great to meet you, having read many of your comments over the time at Virginia’s place. À bientôt…

  • I enjoyed this lovely post in so many ways particularly the beautiful photos and those Renoir paintings. You certainly had an amazing view from your office window and it’s so nice to learn about these lesser known areas near Paris. Incidentally I wore one of those straw boaters as part of my summer school uniform!
    http://missbbobochic.blogspot.com/

  • BEYOND WORDS…. yet again….this is one of my favorite places, although i have never stepped foot there…the love and dream of which i speak grew from my love of Renoir…i have often pondered “what were each of the patrons of the boating party thinking-doing-talking about-the whole impressionist movement and resulting art sets me all a flutter with my own daydreams and feelings of light and movement..if that makes any sense…and now on my next journey to gay paris this is on the list of MUST SEE-MUST DO! oh and one final question …how on earth did you get any work done with a view like that from your office….my days would have been spent gazing out the window wondering ….if this place could talk-with all my heart thank you for a slice of history coupled with your personal histoire-love love and love it! HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY too and a wonderful week to follow!

    • Dear g– Once again, thank you for the enthusiastic and heartfelt comment. I did not know you admired Renoir and his famous painting, the Boating Party. I can see why you enjoyed this story. To answer your question, it was not too difficult to work AND admire the view outside, as I was a telephone service Rep when I started working at Amex. It was actually quite fun to be able to chat with Cardmembers while amiring the peaceful view– especially during conflictual calls 😉 Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  • J’adore quand la “petite histoire” (= la notre) rencontre la Grande. Par un fil que tu tires , te voilà reliée à Renoir, à Coco Chanel et tant d’autres.. Quelle merveille!Quelques petites reflexions: je ne m’y connais pas autant en histoire de la mode que toi, mais j’ai longtemps pensé que Coco Chanel avait choisi le canotier surtout parce que c’etait un chapeau d’homme, donc plus leger , plus simple que les “monstres “feminins portés à cette époque; Elle aimait l’élégance “pratique”, et donc masculine de cette époque.Bravo pour ton incitation à aller voir un peu ailleurs qu’à Paris.C’est vrai que les rives de la Seine sont une merveille.J’ai vécu à Rouen, j’aimais le côté tres bucolique, calme et ondulant du fleuve.Le “dejeuner des canotiers”, tableau mythique, j’aime son utilisation dans .. Amelie Poulain (nous revoilà avec A. Tautou!), et le vieux peintre fragile qui s’interroge sur ce que pense la demoiselle au fond, celle qui est la seule à ne pas s’amuser, les yeux dans le vague..Et enfin, un grand merci aux amis americains qui aident à sauver ou a restaurer des monuments français! comme je leur suis reconnaissante, à mon petit niveau, de pallier aux carences ou aux impossiblités de l’etat français..
    Bref, encore un post magnifique qui donne beaucoup à réfléchir, un grand merci à toi!
    Promis, si tu viens dans mon coin, je t’emmène à Antibes! :o)

    • Ah Malyss… Quel plaisir en effet de s’insérer [modestement] dans une telle histoire… Tu as parfaitement raison au sujet du canotier et Chanel. Elle devait certainement apprécier son côté pratique et dépouillé, mais a aussi réalisé le “potentiel” de ce petit couvre-chef insolent. Rouen est une bien belle ville, et j’aimerais bien y retourner un jour, dans un de nos périples, malheureusement trop rares, en France. Marché conclu. Nous irons faire une ballade ensemble à Antibes quand je reviens sur la Côte d’Azur.

  • Oui, the view from your office window was très joli! I didn’t realize Maison Fournaise is where Renoir got his inspiration for that wonderful painting… Le Déjeuner des Canotiers! That is really neat. You have to admire a woman that can dress as good as a man and even better as a woman. Fun post. =)

    • Merci Sandy. I do admire “Mademoiselle,” her career, and sense of style, as you know. I am actually quite pleased about the fact that I, too, got to sit in a Renoir painting. Wish I had realized at the time how cool it really was. 🙂

  • Oh my goodness! This post is sooooo wonderful. ‘The Luncheon of the Boating Party’ is one of my favorite paintings ever. So festive and beautiful, and i’ve always wished i could step into it. (and would were that possible!) Would love to go back in time and go canoeing with Renoir and his friends. I adore your blog. And thanks for visiting and following mine! 🙂 Now i must go out and find myself a straw boater. Afraid i can’t live without one now.

    • Bonsoir Mary. Who does not love that painting, right? Well, you know where to go now if you want to “step into it,” or at least sit on that beautiful terrace like Renoir and his friends used to do. Let me know if you find a decent straw boater in Seattle. I might get one myself (it certainly beats a baseball hat if you ask me.)

  • What a nice blog. I love and know all the old faces, have to come back to read your whole story. Just want to say I am your new follower.
    Have a happy Valentines day
    Riet, Holland.

  • hello Sister,
    “de rien” for the pictures, it was funny to ride on snow, juste before go to restaurant with Johanna and the parents!
    Don’t forget that just in front of “Fournaise”, there is an old house (historical)”la maison Gicquel”. It is not on the Chatou Island, but on the Rueil Side.
    La Maison Giquel located at 49 quai Adolphe Giquel in Rueil-Malmaison. It was a former open-air dance hall frequented by the impressionistic painters.(une guiguette). It was also a small factory to build small specific boats to cross the river…. and a small “Auberge” at the biginning
    Best regards and kisses From my “little” favorite town. Tell to your readers, that near from my house, we have a golf, a closed and opened swimming pool, 6 good restaurants around the “impressionnist place” in front of the Chatou island and “FOurnaise” restaurant!

  • Wondeful and so complete! I posted more or less on the same issues in a number of posts and can only confirm all your sayings! 🙂 … and have had lunch at La Fournaise a number of times. Always a special feeling!

    • Dear Peter. Thank you. All I need to do is go back to your site and go through your archives. I can only imagine your photos are a lot better than the ones I found online… La Fournaise is a wonderful place. People are sometimes disappointed in the food and service, but never in the view and astmosphere!

  • Hello Véronique,
    First, merci beaucoup for visiting my blog, your kind comments and for being a follower, you are very welcome!

    Because of the freezing weather here, very low interior temperature, I was not really able during the last 2 weeks to spend enough time at the desk to visit the blogworld and writing comments. So, since it gets milder today I try to catch up with everybody.
    I need a bit more time to read your posts more proper, don’t like to overfly.
    But for now, this post is very interesting, beautiful pictures, a lovely story, and you made a good piece of research.

    It would be lovely to meet you one day, whenever you’ll be in the Périgord again, you are welcome at La Pouyette, near Riberac in the Périgord blanc/vert.

    For today – all my best wishes for a lovely St. Valentine’s Day.

    Warmest greetings et a bientôt,
    amicalement,
    karin

    P.S. I’m a native German and neither my English is perfect nor my French 😉 :). Sorry for any mistakes.

    • Bonjour Karin, and thank you for stopping by today. I will make sure to contact you when I go back to the beautiful Dordogne. I had no idea you were German so your English can’t be that bad 😉 Come back anytime. My stories tend to be long, and that is why I can only post once a week. I like to pick a topic, research it, and then see where it is going to take me… A bientôt.

  • Veronique, What a lovely reminder of this actress…I adored Audrey Tautou in the Coco Avant Chanel movie. I actually had rented it last year and then my friend from Vancouver, CA sent it to me as part of my Christmas Gift.

    I love the pics of the hats…and I recall from the movie I had seen & how she began to create them…she was definitely the first of her kind in her ability to step out of the box and do something so different for the women of her day. She had no fear; and if she did, she hid it well!

    The pics and narration of them all from France were so yummy! Thanks for sharing your experiences…
    Makes me long for France in the worst way.

    ~Merci, ~CC

    • Merci CC. I remember you are a fan of Mademoiselle Chanel, too. Yes, Audrey Tautou was lovely – and perfectly cast – in that movie, wasn’t she? This has been a fun story to tell. Fashion, art, history, personal memories: they don’t come any better than this! I am glad you have enjoyed it too. Come back soon! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  • What a delightful post! I feel like I just traveled down a lovely river, seeing something beautiful at every turn and stop! When I was painting in Monet’s Givernt years ago, we spent a Sunday in Vetheuil and took a boat down the river. With the sun reflecting on the water, I suddenly felt like I was seeing the world just as they saw it. I’d love to do it again someday! Happy Valentine’s!! XO

  • What a delightful post. You’ve shared some of my favorite art, not to mention the gorgeous images of the countryside. You know how to make my heart sing. ~ Sarah

  • What a lovely post with such interesting information. The paintings are so familiar and it is very nice to know the background details. I agree with you that it is too bad that so many people don’t go outside of Paris. I know several who only go to Paris – that is like coming to the US several times and only visiting New York. There are so many interesting places not far from Paris and with the good fast trains one can go in a different region very quickly. I am pleased that this historical place was renovated – many historical places don’t get a second chance like this.

    • Vagabonde– Thank you for your visit. You will have to go to La Maison Fournaise next time you visit Paris. It’s really fast to get out to Rueil Malmaison with the RER train as you know, and from there, it is only a short walk away.

  • WOW! So interestingly told. The history is fascinating and the way you weave a post is so captivating. My husband and I were fortunate enough to get to see Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party when it was on loan at the Phillips Collection Museum in Washington D.C. many years ago. The original is astonishing as it is the size of an entire room wall. I was so moved by his works (it was an entire special exhibit) that I found a lithograph copy of The Boating Party and have had it hanging in one of my homes ever since. Hope you are having a wonderful week, my friend.

  • How funny, this is the first time I’ve visited your blog only to find you are writing this week about the area we are living in right now. We live just down the road from Rueil Malmaison but not on the river. I had no idea there was so much to explore there. Can’t wait to visit – that snow is all gone now! In another coincidence, I just visited the Musee Marmotton Monet last week and my love of the impressionists was re-ignited. Thanks for such a lovely story.

    • Welcome Nicola. So you live near Rueil-Malmaison, eh? I guess this post will get you started, sightseeing-wise. I am sure you have visited the Château de la Malmaison built by Napoleon for his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais? If not, you should rush there… There is a lot to do and see in your neck of the woods!

  • Véronique

    Magnifique !
    Au -dessus de tout compliment! Je suis conquis d’autant que je connais parfaitement ces lieux, je suis natif de Saint Germain-en-Laye, et j’ai une habitation à Louveciennes,à 3 kilomètres de Chatou.

    Un chaud et grand merci.
    Rémy Clauvel

  • Véronique,

    Tout ce que vous faites est formidable.

    excusez mon enthousiasme débordant.

    Amicalement à vous.

    Rémy Clauvel

    • Votre “enthousiasme débordant” me fait chaud au coeur. Il est toujours agréable de voir ses efforts appréciés. C’est la plus belle récompense pour quelqu’un qui, comme moi, écrit de belles histoires sur un blog depuis tant d’années. Merci, Rémy.

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