Pierre Prins - 'L'Ami de Manet'

photo: vernissage, rest fournaise

The veranda of the Restaurant Fournaise
overlooks the Seine.

The 'Forgotten' Impressionist Comes Home

Chatou:- Saturday, 10.April 1999:- In late February I managed to stumble on the 'Impressionists' near where I live to the west of Paris. They have been around here since they invented this art form, but it took me 12 years to find them.

They were not hiding; I was just spending a lot of time in Paris instead - cruising around cobbled pavements instead of cruising around the Seine where many of the Impressionists worked, lived and played. After I 'discovered' these painters' hideouts, I went back to working the cobbles and the métro lines that run underneath them.

I didn't forget the Impressionists and the Musée Fournaise didn't forget my winter visit. A couple of weeks ago, an invitation arrived for the 'vernissage' today for the exhibition by the painter Pierre Prins.

You probably don't know Pierre Prins, 'L'Ami de Manet.' On the other hand, if you've been looking over the Musée d'Orsay carefully, you may know a modest amount about him.

This lets me admit I don't know much about what's in the Musée d'Orsay. While it was being transformed into a museum I knew a fellow who had the job of photographing everything that was destined for the museum; and he had to go to places like the old salt mines at Compiègne to do some of the work.

Before there was a Musée d'Orsay, the works of the Impressionists were scattered all over the place. Some were in the Jeuphoto: entry area, musee fournaise de Paume or the cellars of the Louvre and some others were in old warehouses, and it all had to be dug up and looked at and catalogued. My pal, the photographer, worked a couple of years just on his end of the job. He said it was pretty dirty work sometimes, and it was very cool in the salt mines.

The entry area of the Musée Fournaise, with the balcony to the upper left.

The collection of the Musée d'Orsay contains everything concerning visual arts produced in the last half of the 19th century - so among many other things, this is the National and Paris museum for the works of the Impressionists. Open now for the past 11 years, 30 million visitors have stopped by to take a look.

Train stations, even one built in 1900, were popular attractions as well as functional. I'm sure the Impressionists don't mind being in Orsay today. But while they were alive, I think many of them preferred to be on an island in the Seine, to the west of Paris.

I park under the bridge ramp where I'm directed instead of beside the modest Musée Fournaise on the Ile de Chatou which is now called, Ile des Impressionists. There are a lot of other cars parked here.

Remembering last time, I am expecting there will be 15 or 20 impressionists 'fans' here for the vernissage. Just inside the door, I handshake Chatou's Madame Brigitte Parée's hand and then Monsieur Christian Murez' - respectively the hands of the deputy mayor's and the mayor's.

Which reminds me I didn't send a print copy of the last feature to Anne Galloyer, who is luckily right there to assure the mayor I am not some kind professional wine-and-cheese sponge of a 'vernissageur.'

The reception area of the museum is jammed, and people are lined up the stairs to the mezzanine above. Going up myself places me directly in front of Monsieur the Mayor again. Justphoto: three prins, two visitors as the welcome speeches go off, I manage to get behind a bit, even though I seem to be mixed in with all the notable people who are connected to the exhibition.

The interior is lighter than shown here; but the lights are too bright for the pastels - substituted by photographs.

Let me explain. The museum is not small; it is just made up of a lot of small spaces, stairways, a mezzanine, little semi-rooms, beams, ports in the ceiling, backstairs, odd corners - all a bit like one of the métro's odder tunnels, and with this vernissage, it is like rush-hour.

And what have we here? Pierre Prins. In 1869 he married Fanny Claus. In the same year she appeared as the standing figure in Edouard Manet's 'Le Balcon,' shown at that year's Salon. You can see the painting at the Musée d'Orsay, and the sketch for it, with Fanny sitting in Berthe Morisot's position, is in a private collection.

By a fluke of bad luck Prins did not expose anything at the first exhibition of the Impressionists at Nadar's atelier. Three years later, Fanny's fragile health failed forever. In the spring of 1878 as the flowers bloomed, Prins took his pastels to the countryside around Paris.

He was fascinated by haystacks, the villages, skies and the setting sun. He did not blindly follow the Impressionists even after they exploded in 1886, three years after Manet's death. Prins was satisfied with 'good nature' in the manner of Corot, and with the light and shadows of Daubigny. Later in life he was associated with the 'école de Rambouillet,' which started out modestly enough as a 'Salon du Village.'

Pierre Prins was not a commercial success. Speculators made fortunes trading in paintings by Corot,photo: impression of musee Rousseau, Daubigny; and the dealers pushed the newer names who they thought could be equally successful.

By 1907, Prins was shown in a gallery exhibition and critics were enthusiastic about his qualities as an 'accomplished impressionist,' although some of the works shown were then 30 years old.

An 'impression' of the Seine, from one of the museum's upper windows.

Few of Prins' works entered the trade; most were sold to friends and the 'friends of friends.' By 1942, again in the galleries, he was characterized as the 'forgotten impressionist' or 'l'ami de Manet.' The few museums with his works, display them infrequently due to the fragility of the colors.

Prins used no fixative for his pastels, so they would retain their brilliance. But, unfixed, they do not withstand exposure to light.

I guess this is the reason most of the 80 works by Pierre Prins on display today look so fresh, and some even glitter. The small print next to nearly every work also says it is a photograph of the original. Amazing photographs that glitter like the original paintings or pastels.

In a way Pierre Prins launched the ex-boathouse and now museum where today's exhibition is taking place. His 'Soleil couchant sur la Seine à Chatou' and 'La Grenouillère' - the floating restaurant - were shown in 1943 at Chatou's Hôtel de Ville, and the idea was born to have a museum.

This began to be realized only in 1979, with the acquisition of the old riverside café and boathouse, which were almost total ruins. After a lot of work, the 'Maison Fournaise' was put of the supplementary list of historical monuments in 1982.

Since then it has received support from the state, the region, the department and the town of Chatou; as well as the 'Amis de la Maison Fournaise' and the USA-based 'Friends of French Art.'

If you do not care for massively institutional 'art factories' the Musée Fournaise will be a modest surprise. From its outside, it looks fragile and temporary; but its interior - the arrangement of all its modest spaces - is a delight in itself. It is a place to explore.

The bonus is Pierre Prins' sketches, pastels and paintings. These too are modest in subject and size, but they are much more than mere daubs. To be taken in slowly. And at thephoto: exterior musee fournaise end, then take yourself to the adjoining restaurant and is the day is pleasant, you too can sit on the veranda beside the Seine and see if you feel 'bucolic' too.

The entry to the museum, with the restaurant behind it.

This restaurant and its veranda are the location of the actual vernissage, and all who are helping to open the exhibition gather in it. For me it is another chance for a photo, so I do not try the wine or the impressionist version of the cheese and crackers.

Pierre Prins - 'L'Ami de Manet' - who wrote, "Vous êtes un buccolique, un contemplatif, un tendre, Virgile vous eût aimé..." This exhibition continues until Sunday, 31. October.

Musée Fournaise, Ile des Impressionistes, 78400 Chatou. RER 'A:' stations Rueil-Malmaison or Chatou-Croissy. Open Thursday and Friday from 11:00 to 17:00 and on Saturday and Sunday, from 11:00 to 18:00. Groups can make reservations for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays. Entry: 25 francs. Info. Tel.: 01 34 80 63 22.

My first - and accidental - visit to the Musée Fournaise was made in late February and was featured in the 1. March issue of Metropole.

There is an additional note to today's visit. You will find it in the companion feature, 'Modest Boatworks To Become 'Gare d'Eau'.'

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