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
|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.
|La Seine near Chatou
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)
|Bords de Seine (Seine riverbanks) near Chatou
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
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
|Fishing party, Chatou
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
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.)
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.
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)|
“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
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|