The Great Pencil Hunt, Part Two

Picasso's atelier 1936-55
The house where 'Guernica' was painted in 1937, by Pablo Picasso.

Beaux-Arts and Blockx; Greeks and Walking

Paris:- Wednesday, 15. October 1997:- The weather is trying to be good today and it is getting better. I am on the Left Bank, after crossing the Pont Neuf, and if weather is going to be better, this is a good side of the river to be on.

Right at the south end of the bridge, where quai des Grands Augustins runs into Conti, there is no bus or métro. With the weather heading towards good, walking is more than okay - to tell the truth, I don't even mind rain here.

On foot then, and I have 'pencil' on my mind. This started last week, somewhat fruitlessly - so I continue this week and continue in the Quartier Latin, and since if I head west on Conti, I will come to the quai Malaquais and the 'Beaux-Arts,' there may be pencils here too.

Just off the quai, in the rue Bonaparte where window, Paris-American the traffic slides down from Saint-Germain in long strings, I see the 'Paris-American' frame shop. It looks a bit antique so I give it a visit. It is full of frames - it is a big place - but I see no pencils.

All the same I ask and the lady says this establishment is having its 100th birthday this year, but there are no pencils. "Next door," she says, "Are the art supplies." And sure enough, next door there is a smaller shop with the same name and it has art supplies.

There is a lot to see in the window of Paris- American; especially the articulated models, for drawing, made of wood.

It has both the German aquarelles I used in the past and it has the Belgian aquarelles I'd like to try - the 'Blockx.' The printed color-sample sheet I have is nowhere near a proper representation of the real colors - which I am shown in this shop. The 'Blockx' are not cheap - the little pans - 'godets' - run between 30 and 45 francs each; depending on the color - with vermillion being the most expensive.

Aquarelles are fragile - light can bleach them - so using some from a manufacturer who has been making them 120 years, is sort of a guarantee that the colors will stand up over a period of time.

This 'Paris-American' shop is the art-supply sample colors - Blockx shop physically closest to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, located around the corner on the quai Malaquais. Art students are not big customers in this shop because of the high-end nature of its wares - art students will buy here only to get some one special item, for which there is no lesser alternative.

This printed color-sample, bears little relation to hand-painted samples of the same paint by 'Blockx.'

There is some confusion about the shop's anniversary too - whether it is past or yet to come; and while consultations are made about this, real customers come in - and I've already found out they do not have 'my' pencil, so I leave. 'Paris-American,' 100 years old, plus-minus six months; good selection of good stuff.

On the quai Malaquais, I am just about to waltz by the imposing Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, when I realize it is open. Late last spring, I was around here and was disappointed to find it closed. It is not on my 'visit-today' list, but I go in anyway, to get the basic picture.

The two students manning the info table just inside the door assure me that the 'Beaux-Arts' - pronounced 'bos-ars' - is not a fusty old place with academic professors - it is the nec plus ultra of modernity.

Some of this I have seen around town and all I can remember about it is that it is forgettable. Nevertheless, I am shown a brochure, and it seems to have interesting contents - and I promise to return in order to get the 'facts' about the place.

I come away with seriously good intentions, plus some info about the current exhibition, 'transit;' details of which can be found in this week's Café Metropole column. Also I have a little history about 'femmes' and the Beaux-Arts.

Ladies were trying to get into it as students in 1880, but it took until 1896 before they were allowed to enter its library. The following year they were permitted to follow some courses - anatomy, art history, design - for two hours a day; and 144 signed up. The director wanted them confined to learning to teach applied art; to be kept away from the 'Grand Art.'

The atelier of painting, the 'Humbert,' was opened to women in 1900, and for 23 years remained the only one accessible to women at the Beaux-Arts. They didn't necessarily have the status of 'student' which meant that their works were often not judged, and they couldn't enter competitions.

The numbers seem to be cloudy for the past, but today the average number for women students is 57 percent, globally. The first woman teacher appeared in 1968, and now there are nine out of a total of 62; which is a bit lower than the national average for art schools.

As artists, women are under-represented in important exhibitions, such as the 1995-96 'Féminin-Masculin.' For this the proportion was 49 women artists to 137 men, which amounts to 35 percent.

Men seemed to have noticed that women were good at knitting and needlework. When these were mechanized, men said women would only be in art, as a pastime; they said women would not take it truly seriously.

I think maybe men take themselves a bit too seriously. Maybe they are too serious for Paris even. On the other hand, if there's anything seriously wrong with contemporary art, we can blame men. How's that?

Down the quai, right at the beginning of the quai Sennelier window Voltaire and facing the pont du Carrousel - facing the Louvre! - is Sennelier.

Inside its old-time shop door, paint is poking me in the face. I touch and my finger-tip is yellow. I go in the back and they have all the color pencils. There is canvas, paper and upstairs, up narrow, wooden stairs which turn at the top, there is more; and behind, in another odd room there are easels and stands and everything you want.

By the time I return on Friday, the companion 'Beaux-Arts' window has been re-done, but not my 'history.'

Sennelier's name is on a lot of products; on the oil-paint, for example. Photographs in the shop show generations of Senneliers mixing paint; show Sennelier's horse-and-delivery wagon in front of the shop - the same shop - and I think, this must be 'it.'

There is a lady customer selecting some paints and papers from a lady salesperson, and they are speaking Spanish. It is not the Castilian of Spain, and I overhear 'Mexico City.'

I talk to the man running the phones and the sanctuary of the accounts - right beside the door - and he says he will get a press dossier for me for Friday, so I do not ask a lot of questions - which turns out to be a mistake.

Without it, without facts that is, I think I saw somewhere that Sennelier started in the 1860's. Within a month or so, they will open a new exhibition space for the easels and atelier furniture; probably in the back, off the courtyard. In one blitz phrase, I think I hear I may be standing on the same spot as Picasso when he was paying his bills here.

From what I've seen so far, this makes two places where I can get the 'Blockx' aquarelles, but I forgot to look for the pencils at Sennelier's. [When I come back on Friday, the shop will be closed for lunch; when I phone on Friday, it will be too late to fax the 'history' to me.]

I cross the quai and see that if I take the pont du Carrousel I can cut through the Louvre to the métro at Palais-Royal.

At the corner of the bridge, a biker-type asks me if I know where to find the Café Greco. He was told it was right across the river from the Louvre.

From the Pont interior Sennelier Neuf to here there are no Café Grecos, I tell him. Further on, there may be, but I think he should go towards Saint-Germain and away from the quai. He shows me his notes and they are in Greek. I don't know if the names are generic or approximate spellings. He wants to know how to get to the Cité Universitaire too; and he doesn't want to walk much. He wants to know where to find Chinatown.

Inside Sennelier, you are 'inside' the 1890's, with the artists who were there, then.

The two are near the ends of the 13th and 14th and the Cité Universitaire is a fair walk from the nearest métro. The RER is closer, but any way you use the RER, it is a fair walk. The Greek has stout shoes - boots, really - and I tell him Paris is made for walking.

My having walked through a good part of Greece once makes no impression at all. He doesn't care for walking, even in Paris. I walk across the bridge, through the Louvre, across the Cour Napoléon, through the north side of the Louvre, and come out by the métro Palais-Royal.

I need a café after all that, so I walk through the place and over to the café across from the Comedie Française. It is a very small café, and there is hardly any room to even stand in it.


The 'ENSBA' - the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts - has a website that you may wish to consult; especially if you think it'll take me years to get back to it - on account of this 'pencil' search going on for slightly longer than eternity.


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