Anka Muhlstein was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1996 for her biography of Astolphe de Custine, and has twice received the History Prize of the French Academy. Her new book, The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels, will be published in France this fall; an English translation will be available in the US in January 2017. (May 2016)

Degas Invents a New World

Edgar Degas: Frieze of Dancers, oil on canvas, circa 1895
Degas was a loner. He had always felt alone. Alone because of his character, alone because of his unyielding principles, alone because of his severe judgments. He exhibited with the Impressionists but he didn’t consider himself a member of the group, if for no other reason than that he violently rejected the very idea of painting outdoors. “If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on the people who paint landscapes from nature,” he told the art dealer Ambroise Vollard.

A Most Successful Woman

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Self-Portrait, 1790
It comes as something of a surprise that we have had to wait until 2015 for a comprehensive exhibition in France of the work of Madame Vigée Le Brun—perhaps the most gifted French portraitist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an artist who gave posterity the most enduring …

The Victory of Queen Margot

Marguerite of Valois as a child; portrait by François Clouet, circa 1561
There are figures in French history who tower like monuments. Saint Louis, the Capetian king, a symbol of justice, Joan of Arc, warrior and martyr, and Henry IV, the great peacemaker, are three unmistakable paragons who personified a certain idea of French greatness. Oddly enough, Henry IV’s first wife, Marguerite …

Did Patrick Modiano Deserve It?

Patrick Modiano, Paris, 2007
This fog that envelops people and places explains a lack of depth and individuality in Modiano’s characters. The author, and therefore the reader, are left on the outside, giving rise to the feeling that one is always rereading the same book. This is doubtless the reason why Modiano, in spite of his remarkable talent, and a success that has never flagged in the past forty years, has not acquired the indisputable stature of very great novelists.

The Genius in Exile

Joseph Roth; portrait by Mies Blomsma, November 1938. Roth wrote at the bottom, ‘That’s really me: nasty, soused, but clever.’
Hitler was named Reich chancellor on January 30, 1933. The very same day, Joseph Roth boarded a train from Berlin to Paris, never again to set foot in Germany. Thus began his life as an exile.

The Cut of Coco

Gabrielle Chanel, 1931
“I…am an odious person,” Coco Chanel declared. Not many would have begged to differ. Chanel’s tongue was quite as sharp as her shears and she treated everyone who worked for her harshly, playing one against the other. No one escaped her malice.

His Exile Was Intolerable

Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostende, Belgium, 1936
On February 23, 1942, Stefan Zweig and his young wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil. The following day, the Brazilian government held a state funeral, attended by President Getulio Vargas. The news spread rapidly around the world, and the couple’s deaths were reported on the front page of The New York Times. Zweig had been one of the most renowned authors of his time, and his work had been translated into almost fifty languages. In the eyes of one of his friends, the novelist Irmgard Keun, “he belonged to those that suffered but who would not and could not hate.”

Broken Blossoms

Marie Duplessis (1824-1847), courtisane francaise, elle inspira le personnage de Marguerite Gauthier de
In the pecking order of the demimonde of nineteenth-century Paris, the courtesans ranked highest. Merchants of love though they were, they stood apart from the prostitutes who walked the streets, from the grisettes who only took money from their lovers, if at all, to round out their salaries as seamstresses …

Paris: The Thrill of the Modern

Mary Cassatt: Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 32 x 23 1/2 inches, 1879
To walk into the first few rooms of the exhibition “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” now at the Metropolitan Museum, is to allow oneself to be immersed in the sweetness of life in the Belle Époque.