Thomas Jefferson, after his time abroad as the American Ambassador to France, once said “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself if I tried. Just when you start slipping into dozy complacency about the treasures all around, a new discovery flashes in your path that rekindles the spark of wonderment you felt in your belly (in your soul?) on your first day in Paris.
It’s a reminder of historical accomplishments and at the same time an enticing invitation to unlock that latent genius that we all secretly hope lies within us. If by nothing else than simple osmosis, being surrounded by inspired objects makes inspiration seem that much more attainable. And that, for me, is when Paris is at its best.
One of these moments happened when I got off the métro at the station of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, along the #4 line. It’s been converted into a sort of temporary museum, showcasing facsimiles of noteworthy documents over the last couple of centuries. There was such an impressive collection of artists, musicians, and other brilliant thinkers that even though it would make me late for my street-level appointment, I had to run my camera along the length of both the uptown and downtown platforms. Some highlights:
A 1945 top-secret memo from Eisenhower, signaling the defeat of the Nazis and the end of World War II…
…next to an 1809 manuscript by Napoleon’s hand…
…next to a Renaissance-era letter to the Pope by French king Francois the 1st:
You could watch Einstein’s pen working out his General Theory of Relativity…
…and Marie Curie’s calculations during her breakthrough research of radioactivity:
There were also some intriguing musical documents including a score written in Mozart’s hand in 1786, followed by that of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and Debussy, respectively:
Some extraordinary objects left behind by some of history’s greatest artists were also on display. Three portions of Delacroix’s sketchbooks from 1825 were a pleasure to take in:
As was a charming letter and self portrait by Henri Matisse:
The sketchbooks of Toulouse-Lautrec proved that during the Belle Époque, inspiration could strike the page at any moment:
And even without a drawing the handwritten letters of Impressionist artists take on their own gravitas, as in Monet’s letter here, written to help raise money for the purchase of a Manet masterpiece so it wouldn’t leave France in the hands of an American collector:
Or here where Degas writes a note to Manet himself to thank him for a gift, beginning with “My dear Manet, you had hoped to please me and you have succeeded.”:
Finally, to prove that the Impressionists weren’t the only ones pushing the limits of 19th century creativity, a few pages of Thomas Edison’s notebooks showed a glimpse of how he too would change the world:
And that was that–a flash of history and of brilliant minds and of ink-dipped quills–and all I had to do was exit a subway train. Paris at its best, indeed.