Paris in Paintings -The Toast

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Home: The Toast

Susan Harlan’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

When I was in Paris recently, I wondered what would happen if I just never went home. Most people wonder this in Paris. It is not novel.

When I graduated from college, I was all set to move there and start an internship at The International Herald Tribune. I can’t remember how I managed to get this internship. It seems that it should have been more difficult. But I have the sense that most things I accomplished when I was younger, including getting into college, have become much more difficult since then.

I didn’t really know much about journalism. I had been an English major, and I wanted to be a professor, but before that, I wanted to live in Paris. More specifically, I wanted to live in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

I had spent a semester of my junior year abroad, living in an apartment near the Parc Monceau, right around the corner from my best childhood friend Anne, who was also studying abroad through her university and staying with a French family. I spent a lot of time in this family’s apartment, which looked exactly like what I thought a Parisian apartment should look like. Everything beautiful, but comfortable and lived-in. Rugs strewn about. Cornices.

We drank red wine out of a box that was kept in the pantry and listened to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” over and over again. Titanic had just come out, and it was huge. When French people asked me if I had seen it, they said, “Tee-tan-eque.”

Paris was an actual place to me, but it was also a fantasy: a city represented in films, books, music, and paintings. Baudelaire’s Paris. Edith Piaf’s. Coco Chanel’s. Simone de Beauvoir’s. Always someone else’s. I went to the grands cafes in Montparnasse and tried to commune with the spirit of American expat writers, but I knew the cafes were just filled with tourists. They would not connect me to a lost Paris.

The American in Paris is a cliché in most of its forms, but I wasn’t old enough to understand that yet, or to know what I wanted from this narrative. The city is more than a series of faded black-and-white photographs of streetlamps in the mist, but I wasn’t old enough to understand that yet either. I wanted this place, but it was only partly real to me. Maybe the places we love are always only partly real to us.

Then, right after graduation, I changed my mind. I found that wanted a person more than I wanted Paris, and I chose the person. Oddly enough, he had been my roommate during our semester abroad: a person very much bound up in what Paris was to me. So Paris was replaced with Seattle, a place to which I could not assign any narratives, a place entirely unknown. I left my would-be boss in the lurch; her voice on the phone was cross and confused.

Fifteen years ago, I made Paris a counterfactual.

When I was in Paris recently, I wondered what would happen if I just never went home. I bought a cheap painting of the Sacre-Coeur from one of the touristy booths along the river. A canvas that I could roll up and put in my suitcase and stretch over a frame when I got home. Years ago, some time after I did not move to Paris, I had started collecting kitschy old paintings of the city. Compensation by way of endless reproductions of a place. Now the collection lines my staircase in my house in North Carolina, hung gallery-style from floor to ceiling – or as near to it as I could reach, balancing on the stairs with a hammer in my hand.

When I bought the house, I didn’t hang the paintings up right away. In part, this was practical: there were so many of them that I knew it would take time to plot where they would go and then to hang them all. But I also wasn’t sure I wanted to see them, so I left them in neat stacks in the closet.

They are mostly from the middle of the century, some from a bit earlier, all of various monuments and city streets. Famous streets and anonymous streets. People passing by, shopping, and sitting in cafes. Three Place de la Concordes. Four Notre Dames. Six Sacre-Coeurs.

When I look at them, I see a place I recognize, but I also see an imagined place.

They are all different. They are all the same. Two are actually the same Paint by Numbers image of the Arc de Triomphe, done by different people. There are minor variations between them, mostly in the thickness of the paint. In these images, tiny people hold umbrellas and walk in the rain.


In one, a rosy Arc de Triomphe is surrounded by bright pink bushes: formless masses – the scene, ultraviolet. The vantage point seems to be an apartment window above the Place de l’Etoile where the artist can see everything. There’s an enormous red car in the foreground that is out of proportion with the rest of the scene. Otherwise, the cars are little black flecks of paint, and the people, dashes of purplish-brown. Four years ago, I bought a big green Arc de Triomphe painting when I was visiting my sister in San Francisco, but later I realized that it was Washington Square Park in New York City, where I used to live. I had walked under that arch many times: Stanford White’s Arc de Triomphe, a copy. And both the arch and the arc, of course, copies of Rome.

I have bought my paintings at flea markets, antiques malls, and vintage stores. I have rummaged around for them, moving aside other paintings, searching. And then I have brought them home: some in suitcases, wrapped in sweaters, some in my car, some under my arm. I bought one Eiffel Tower on my way out to dinner with a friend and carried it around all night. I found one, in which Notre Dame is framed by fall leaves, at a vast Southern antiques mall, hidden behind generic landscape paintings. Along the river, the green bookstalls are open for business. The sky in this one has a fake Impressionist quality – it glows, as if warmed by the sun that is just beyond the frame.


I also have a watercolor of Notre Dame, which depicts the same green bookstalls. Women in bright dresses browse the wares, and a riverboat passes below. The cathedral is rendered very precisely, almost like a postcard photograph, but everything else is hazy and soft, as if seen through a screen.


The color of the Seine varies from one painting to the next. In one, it is light blue, dark blue, and mustard, all shot through with white. The sense of a reflection, the sky like a swimming pool. In another, the river is brown, blue, and cream. Somehow these colors make water. I’ve always thought that the river is gray, and maybe a little bit green.

The paint in the oil paintings is thick, as if applied with a palette knife, and some of the images seem to want to jump right off the canvas. But the watercolors flatten the city, the colors washed across the paper. My watercolor of the Place de la Concorde is dark and foreboding, more like Transylvania than Paris, the sky almost black, the fountains and obelisk like exotic, mystical Egyptian monuments. A haunted place.


I thought that these paintings would fix the city in my mind, but I have found that they created a whole new city, or several cities. I have also found that they are really all haunted. Sometimes when I walk up to bed, I think they are reminders of something far off. Reminders of how things present can invoke things absent.

In one, the city is bright blue and white. This Eiffel Tower is too thin on top, and it leans very slightly to the left. Sometimes I wish I could correct it.


When I was in Paris recently, I wondered what would happen if I just never went home. I would have to get another job. Send for my dog Millie. Find somewhere to live.

It snowed for days, and the city streets were quiet and empty. It was hard to keep warm; I layered the springy clothes I had packed, having assumed that March would not be arctic. French people walked around in leather jackets.

I was content to have the streets largely to myself in the cold. I went into a garden store along the river and bought a garden gnome and put him in my purse. I walked past tourists taking pictures of everything. Pictures of their tour buses and pictures of gift shop signs. I walked the pathways of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, over hills, stepping carefully around the ice.

I walked past the Eiffel Tower, iron like a gate, latticed like a doily on a hall table. There were crowds of people, so I kept my distance and watched them shuffle around in the tan dirt, moving forward in line. The air was all smog and lawn clippings. I thought of my blue painting, my warped Eiffel Tower.

One afternoon, I watched the Scottish rugby team practice in the Jardin des Tuileries. Then I sat by one of the fountains and wrote postcards.

After a few days of snow, it began to rain, and the city was washed of its snow and quite wet, a landscape of grays. It looked like a street scene in one of my paintings: a vaguely bohemian vision of a horse-drawn cart in front of a restaurant called Chez Tonton. A cold, dark day. A day for an umbrella.


One evening, I sat on the terrace of a cafe that was enclosed in thick plastic, warmed by space heaters, and filled with cigarette smoke, and I thought about counterfactuals. Each choice closed down so many other narratives. Other ways things could be.

I have a few paintings of similar cafes. In these images, as in reality, the chairs are arranged facing out to the street, and there are small bottles of Perrier on cracked marble tabletops and blackboards in the windows listing specials.

My waiter asked me if I liked my steak with sauce bearnaise, and I said yes, I liked it very much, and I listened to the wind batter the plastic walls.

Later that night, I walked to the Place Vendome, most of which was shrouded in enormous advertisements. The buildings, hidden. I looked up at Napoleon’s column. Such a tiny man, up there on the top.

He seemed apart from the city, surveying it from a distance. But he had a good view. He could see everything all at once, and hold it all in his field of vision, letting nothing go.

Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Guardian US, The Morning News, Roads & Kingdoms, Nowhere, The Awl, Public Books, and Curbed.

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