Monday, June 20, 2011
I have always been a great lover of house museums. I have visited the homes of 10 or 15 U.S. presidents . I loved seeing James Buchanan's stately mansion (he was the 15th president of the United States, for those of you who were wondering), Eisenhower's perfectly typical suburban-like home in Gettysburg and Teddy Roosevelt's place in Oyster Bay, which is adorned--if that is the right word--with the heads of dead animals. Visiting house museums I learned that Mark Twain was neighbors with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in basically a one-room cabin. I think walking through a person's house connects you to historical characters in unique ways. You can imagine Twain chatting with Stowe in the back yard.
But there are house museums with the emphasis on the house and then there are house museums with the emphasis on the museum. In Paris, it is mainly the former. This trip Dr. Nell and I visited Alexander Dumas' house (he wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) and the students visited the Rodin Museum in the Hotel Biron, which Rodin used as a workshop starting in 1908. In Dumas' case, the house generally holds artifacts about his life but none of the furnishings or decoration from the time he occupied the house. (There is a writing table in the mock-castle based on The Count of Monte Cristo that he used as his space to write)
Rodin's sculptures (and some paintings) are on display at the Rodin Museum including the ones everybody knows like The Kiss, The Gates of Hell (my favorite) and The Thinker. For some reason, when I saw The Thinker this time, all I could think about was the early 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in which The Thinker was a touchstone statue on his college campus. The best character in that show, of course, was Maynard G. Krebs, a beatnik cum airhead.
Don't misunderstand me. I learned a lot at both houses. Dumas was half-black. Rodin was educated by the Christian Brother and Rainier Maria Rilke served as his secretary. And Rodin suffered some serious set back in his career. He was refused admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Art and when he was commissioned to create a monument for Victor Hugo to be displayed at the Pantheon, the work was rejected by the Society for the People of Letters for lacking clarity and being vague. And he suffered some harsh criticism. One critic opined that his statute of the author Balzac pioneered a new way to portray the human body, a way in which a person's brains are outside the head. (The Society of the People of Letters apparently was a glutton for punishment. It had commissioned this statute as well. In the case of the Balzac piece, Monet, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec sprung to Rodin's defense. Finally, Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for nearly 40 years.
Later in the week we will visit the "mother" of house museums, the palace at Versailles, and Claude Monet's home. Despite its opulence, I find it hard to imagine myself into the palace. At Monet's house (which also displays his work but still has some of his original furniture), I can feel him as a living breathing person. For me, that is what a house museum should do.