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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

16. The Villa Brune

Updated: May 26, 2020

If you've ever done any local history in the U.S., you may have come across, at some point, Sanborn Maps. The Sanborn Map Company created these maps of American municipalities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; they show streets, buildings, rail lines, and other mappable features of municipal life in fantastic color-coded detail .

A similar set of maps were made of Paris in the late 19th century and, if you search with enough patience on a pandemic-sheltered Sunday afternoon, you will find the digitized square that shows the exactly location and layout of a narrow dead-end street called Villa Brune. In French, besides meaning a country house, villa can mean a residential street that ends in an impasse--a dead end. Villa Brune runs for a block or so at the southern edge of Montparnasse, between the Porte d'Orléans and the Porte de Vanves. It's about a half hour's walk from the Luxembourg Gardens. The street juts off of the rue des Plantes in the 14th arrondissement. In the 1920s, the neighborhood contained small commercial businesses--G. Maillan dealt in new and used wine bottles and baskets at rue des Plantes 57-61--a convent or two, and the usual complement of bakeries, greengrocers, and wine shops. The rue des Plantes crossed over a sunken rail line and, if you take the first right after the railway bridge, you find yourself on Villa Brune. It juts up towards the railway (nos. 1-5 on the left, 2-8 on the right) and, when it gets to the railway barrier, takes a 45 degree turn to the left (nos. 7-15).

At no. 5 in the 1920s was a ceramic factory for Pironneau, a maker of ornamental wreaths and flowers for tombs and the winner of the silver medal in tomb decor at the 1900 Paris World's Fair. The rest of the street was residential and, according to the Annuaire du commerce Didot-Bottin (the Yellow Pages of early 20th century Paris), was home to a number of artists. Several sculptors lived there: Charles Jonchery, Robert Lanz, Pierre Fournier des Corats. Sculptors may have been drawn to the street by the proximity of the Fonderie Valusani, a bronze foundry at the corner of Villa Brune and the rue des Plantes. Rodin himself had had his works cast in bronze there.

At no. 3, next to the ceramic wreaths factory, a number of artists kept their studios: Jules-Emile Zingg, who exhibited regularly in respected shows; Fernand Pinal, who showed regularly with the Société des Indépendants; Louis-Ernest Lessieux, who experimented with pyrography---burning elaborate designs into wood. A lot of complicated French names, I know, but notice how many artists lived on this street--not Sunday afternoon painters, and also not artists that we remember now. Working career artists. Montparnasse was, in the 1920s, the center of the Paris art world--and these studios were just close enough to the grands cafes of the Boulevard Montparnasse to claim closeness, but far enough that the rents would not have been so exorbitant. These were the years when the Steins held their salons in the rue de Fleurus, when Picasso swanned around in his beret. The artists in the Villa Brune likely sat at the next tables over from the Steins and their friends, passed Hemingway on the street and wondered at the American's height. Their work was the avant-garde of an earlier generation, the avant-garde of the Impressionists, not of Bréton, Dali, and the Surrealists.

Jules-Emile Zingg, Harvest at Amoudans; back of painting signed "Zingg 8 Villa Brune Paris XIVe"

The artists who passed through studios on the street came from abroad, as well. The American sculptor Alexander Calder rented space at no. 7 in 1930. There he demonstrated his Circus to artists including Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and architect Le Corbusier. Calder's Circus now has pride of place at the Whitney Museum in New York. And, between 1923 and 1925, the English artist Sir Matthew Smith lived at 6bis Villa Brune. Smith had studied briefly with Matisse before the war, and had spent time in Pont-Aven and around Brittany. He knew the artist Roderic O'Conor, who had been part of Gauguin's circle. Smith owned, for many years, a painting by Gauguin: a still life of fruit in a bowl, inscribed to none other than Louis Roy.

Smith was not the only resident of the street during those years who had held a painting by Gauguin in his hands. Across the street from Smith, at no. 3, lived Francis Norgelet. Norgelet was one of the only residents of Villa Brune who was not an artist--but he compensated by being, instead, an art critic and a man of letters. Norgelet had lived at no. 3 Villa Brune at least as early as 1919.

How do I know? Because when Francis Norgelet purchased over two dozen Gauguins from the artist's former landlady in Brittany in 1919 and 1920, he signed his name and address on the receipts.

Two men connected by two circumstances: their addresses and paintings by Gauguin. Not just any paintings, either, but paintings that came from Gauguin's early period, his time in Brittany. Could this be a coincidence?

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