In Paris, Canvassing an Old Art District

In Paris, Canvassing an Old Art District
A slice of everyday Parisian life: Children play near their parents on a spring day in the Square des Batignolles, a park near the center of the 17th arrondissement. (AL SEIB / LAT)
PARIS--People who like French Impressionist and Postimpressionist art are familiar with Paris' 17th arrondissement, whether they know it or not.

Claude Monet and his contemporaries painted the great steam engines that puffed through the 17th arrondissement on their way to Gare St-Lazare, the train depot just to the south. Edouard Vuillard painted portraits of his mother in her apartment on the 17th's trendy Boulevard des Batignolles. And pointillist Georges Seurat captured Parisians at play on a Sunday afternoon on Ile de la Grande Jatte, the tiny isle that lies nearby in the middle of the River Seine.

Today, art schools still thrive here and give the district a bohemian air. Film crews stake out its picturesque 19th century alleyways and broad boulevards lined with restaurants and boutiques. (In the hit film "Amélie," the title character's love interest was raised in Batignolles, a village within the 17th that's a postcard of mansard roofs and red geranium-stuffed window boxes.)

Of Paris' arrondissements--the 20 numbered districts that start in the city's geographic center and swirl out counterclockwise--the 17th hardly ranks as a top draw. North of the Louvre, the Champs-Elysées and other major attractions, the 17th's only well-known landmark is the Arc de Triomphe, which stands at the district's southern boundary. In my wanderings last spring, I came across few other tourists. And that's a large part of the area's appeal.

Designed in 1860 by Paris' renowned urban planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the 17th arrondissement enclosed a cluttered collection of middle-class aspirations--industrial, architectural and artistic. It was--and still is--an eclectic area of industrial railways, serene stretches of parkland enlivened by marionette theaters and carousels, and soaring glass-block buildings along the main thoroughfares. Among its historical footnotes: The Eiffel Tower was designed and built here, and composer Maurice Ravel of "Boléro" fame maintained a discreet pied-à-terre in the center of the district.

For visitors like me, who have already seen Paris' best-known sights, the 17th arrondissement holds the promise of the city's often-overlooked, day-in-the-life charms. There is no Eiffel Tower here, but you can still watch the trains chug their way into the city, see artists at work in ateliers on narrow cul-de-sacs, or join a rainbow of umbrellas on a drizzly day in the Square des Batignolles, where locals feed bread crumbs to flocks of fussy ducks. To me, this is the real Paris--worthy of a stay in its own right, or at least a day trip.

This was the colorful backdrop we had in mind when my siblings and I gave my mother, Bobbe, a Paris holiday for her 80th birthday. Mother is a fan of Seurat, the inspiration behind Mandy Patinkin's character in "Sunday in the Park With George," for all you Stephen Sondheim followers. Seurat's painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (now at the Art Institute of Chicago) inspired us to visit this island in the Seine.

What, I wondered, did La Grande Jatte look like now? Did stately Parisians still stroll through the grass beneath spindly trees? Was there anything left of Seurat's moment in time--that moment when the 19th century was drawing to a close and the modern age was a smoky stain on the horizon?

Getting to La Grande Jatte, just north of the 17th arrondissement, proved surprisingly easy. From the last stop of Métro Line 3, Pont de Levallois Bécon, I walked about 10 minutes to a footbridge from the Quai Michelet on the south bank of the Seine to the island.

Well-maintained, mansion-size houseboats ran in a neat line down the bank almost to the Levallois bridge. Small dinghies clung to the sterns like children hanging onto their mothers' dresses. In the distance, a few smokestacks still sent white plumes into the air, blown by the wind and dispersed toward the horizon. This scene, at least, the artist would have recognized.

The rest would look different. La Grande Jatte has been built over with houses and apartment blocks. The road along the island's southern edge is named for Seurat, but it is the eastern end where he would probably feel at home.

Here the river has cut high, steep banks that fall to swirling water. Poplar trees shade a paved path along the northern bank. Residents of central Paris no longer come here in droves for the day, but locals do: joggers, parents pushing strollers, retired couples walking the dog. Songbirds compete with the groan of barges, which still sweep up and down the river. At high tide, the water turns some areas into a swamp of sorts, and ducks no longer have to share the space with city dwellers.

Seurat was so taken with this place that another one of his masterpieces, "Bathers at Asnières," was set across the river from La Grande Jatte. Though the landscape has changed, it was not hard for me to summon the spirit of the artist. As we walked along the river path toward the bridge, a man reclined on his back, propped up on his arms like the pipe smoker in Seurat's "La Grande Jatte." A small dog dashed by, looking for all the world like the beribboned pooch the painter had so carefully recorded.

Up on the bridge, high above the northeastern point of the island, the silhouettes of people passed to and fro in the gray light of late morning. To the southwest toward the Pont de Courbevoie, the bridge where Seurat painted a loving landscape of jetties and boats and fishermen, a sailor in a red jacket pulled in a sailboat. Above him, a gabled yellow house added another color to my visual canvas.

All of the people-watching had made Mother and me hungry, so we walked to the landmark Café la Jatte on Boulevard Vital Bouhot. In the 1991 film "Company Business," Gene Hackman trades drinks and spy talk with a sultry Frenchwoman in this restaurant. Ever since I saw the film--and the skeleton of a massive marine dinosaur called a plesiosaur, which hangs from the ceiling--I knew I had to visit.

Café la Jatte is an open, airy space of black beams and brick, linen-covered tables and harlequin-patterned chairs. While dodging some of the most aggressive sparrows I have ever encountered--dive bombers and aerial acrobats that flew loops over the breadbasket--we tried to enjoy what turned out to be a good lunch. Mother ordered a salad of crabmeat, avocado, shrimp and grapefruit; I devoured salad greens topped with smoked salmon, cold cooked potatoes and olive oil with crushed peppercorns. We shared a crème brûlée that had us dueling spoons like musketeers. It was expensive--meals easily can run $30 or more per person--but the food was worth it.

After lunch we headed for the National Museum Jean-Jacques Henner in the 17th arrondissement. Henner (1829-1905) was an Alsatian painter whose works are displayed in a 19th century house. It's under renovation, but two of the three floors remain open. Admired in his own time, Henner has been largely forgotten, which is too bad.

Although his style changed with every new mode--and there were many during his lifetime--Henner painted portraits with a timelessness that I found just as worthy as his more famous contemporaries. His oil-on-wood portrait of his niece Eugénie and nephew Jules shows the influence of Manet, and his 1874 portrait of Henriette Germain owes a debt to Renoir. They are lovely paintings, and the house itself is typical of what the nouveaux riches built as the 17th arrondissement evolved throughout the 1800s.

Another morning Mother and I went shopping along the 17th's Rue des Dames and Rue de Levis. The latter was partly blocked by a crew filming an eye-catching scene: a red-haired woman in a mustard-colored cloak talking to a midget in an apron. Walkie-talkie-waving men in black shooed shoppers away, so we never did find out more about the project.

We ducked into a little bookshop called Fontaine, where I bought two volumes of the "Harry Potter" series in French for my niece, who is studying the language, then ordered café crème at Café le Sauret. Just off Rue des Dames we came across a short pedestrian street, Passage Geffroy Didelot, lined with French flags. Through large windows, we could see into a series of ateliers where brightly splashed canvases crowded the walls. In one room, a man with dark curls carefully laid a stroke of paint on a canvas just out of sight. He pushed his chair back, studied the stroke, scooted forward and laid down another stroke before pausing once again.

Next door was a dentist's office. A woman in white created a dental plate with much the same intensity. The juxtaposition made me smile: art and industry overlapping. That's the 17th.

On our last day we nudged ourselves southeast, just across the border into the 9th arrondissement, to the Musée de la Vie Romantique, or the museum of the Romantic period.

The converted 19th century house contains novelist George Sand's collections, including a model of the left hand of one of her lovers, Frédéric Chopin, and a necklace of Egyptian scarabs.

An exhibit of Martine Franck portraits of French notables lined the walls of one room. We also saw a portrait of Sand, a motherly-looking woman with a long, intelligent face. It is hard to imagine her dressed in trousers and top hat, smoking a cigar and attracting a coterie of lovers.

We ate quiche and salad in the museum's garden and watched white clouds sail across a flawless sky. Like the rest of Paris, we decided, the 17th arrondissement has many faces, and as Hemingway so memorably wrote, the journey is always worth the effort.

Susan James is a freelance writer in La Cañada Flintridge.