Pat and Bob in Europe

by Bob Herbert

Pat and Bob in Europe


            There were two wonderful times in the late 1980s when Pat and I traveled together in France and the Lowlands. I went to Paris one early summer week to work on the Seurat show I was preparing for Paris and New York in 1991. Loving art and France, Pat joined me after I had a few days of business meetings and library work in Paris. We stayed in the Hotel des Deux Continents on the rue Jacob, near St. Germain des Près, where Pat and Fred had stayed in 1952 when visiting me from London, during my Fulbright year. Fi and I had stayed there also, in 1955, and on subsequent visits, so we came to know the Chresteil sisters who owned and managed the hotel. One of the maiden sisters had since died, but the other treated Pat and me like familiar old-timers, and invited us for a tea at her nearby apartment.

            After a few days together reconnoitering Paris museums, we got a rented car and headed south to a village in the Nièvre in central France where we had an extraordinary couple of days with a farming couple who owned two Seurat panels. I had learned about them from a friendly art dealer who had tried unsuccessfully to buy the pictures. When I wrote from Paris, M. and Mme. Dufour insisted upon inviting us to stay with them. We were surprised and delighted to find them living in a rather small farmhouse perched atop a hill outside a rural village. Suzanne Dufour had been given the two Seurats by an elderly Parisian couple for whom she had worked in Paris, because in 1940 she had helped them flee in advance of the Germans. She drove their rented van, stuffed with art works, to Clamecy, a late medieval town in northern Burgundy, where they had a home. While caring for them there, Suzanne met Georges Dufour who brought farm produce to the city market. They married and had two children, grown up and living in Paris when we visited the parents.

            Suzanne was very art-minded and in addition to the two Seurats, she had the house full of mostly Sunday paintings she bought in the region. She subscribed to a Parisian art review and knew full well the value of the Seurats (then about a quarter of a million each). She had prepared for us the bedrooms vacated by her two children, and you can imagine Pat’s delight at the furnishings: rustic tables, bureaus and beds covered in handsome traditional cloth, some of it embroidered. For two days Suzanne made tasty meals with the farm’s chicken, pork, vegetables, and fruit. She was loquacious and reminisced about the 1930s in Paris, and about her occasional trips to Paris to keep up with the art world. Georges was more the shy provincial farmer, terribly pleased at our visit, and eager to show us the nearby countryside as a substitute for talking.

            Pat and I returned to Paris after going to Lyon to see the textile museum––you know Pat’s love of textiles––and the fine arts museum. We had an evening in Paris with my artist friends Anne and Bertrand Dorny, whom I had known since 1968 when we all met as parents of children who went to the same school. Before we headed home, Pat had a couple of meetings with some women who were in the midst of forming a French chapter of the DES-Alert movement.

            The second trip, about a year later, also involved my work on the Seurat retrospective. Ellen d’Hoen, a Dutch friend of Pat’s, was moving to Paris (she worked for an NGO) after having set up DES in Holland. She drove us for a weekend to a “secondary residence” in northern Burgundy that she shared with her boyfriend, and expat American living in Amsterdam. They spent the time bottling wine which we all fetched from a nearby farmer-vintner. Ellen’s boyfriend had packed the car with empty bottles which we filled with a hose coming from a tank in the basement of an unkempt barn. We lightly corked the bottles for the drive home, and then on a lovely sunny afternoon we carefully wired down each of the corks. We had supper with vegetables, fruit, and cold beef bought not far away in a village market, and on Sunday, breakfast and lunch with the same kind of provisions.

            Back in Paris, I rented a car for our drive to Brussels––more Seurat work––then on to Amsterdam for a visit to the city and its museums. En route we detoured to Gouda so that Pat could admire the ceramics in the museum there and in local stores. Pat didn’t acquire any pottery then because she was travelling light, and we both resisted buying aged Gouda cheese. Ellen had told Pat that her boyfriend was a great cook of homemade pasta; they invited us to supper in Amsterdam. We arrived about 7, only to find the boyfriend (I’ve forgotten his name) beginning to crank out the pasta strips which then had to dry. At about 10.30 we finally sat down to supper to a carbonara, more than a little tipsy from glasses of the Burgundian wine that whiled away the hours. Our goal in Holland was the Kroller-Muller museum which is situated in a large nature park in Otterlo. In a very handsome building of the 1930s by the architect Henri van de Velde, there’s a magnificent collection of early modern art, including six Seurats and the largest collection of van Goghs other than those in the van Gogh museum itself. You can imagine Pat’s joy because van Gogh had been one of her passions from girlhood. The K-M didn’t lend, so my visit was devoted to close study of the Seurats that I couldn’t exhibit but needed to refer to in the catalogue. We stayed overnight nearby, and the next day we had time to walk around the K-M’s extensive park, well peopled in sculpture, including work by another of Pat’s favorites, Rodin.

            Here a short excursus: In May 1956, when Fi and I had a year of doctoral research in Paris, we had gone to the Kroller-Muller museum on our Lambretta, after a couple of days’ work in Brussels. From prior correspondence, I had an appointment with S. van Deventer, a former curator at the K-M. He and his wife were very welcoming, and introduced us to their son who had Down syndrome. They gave him a wonderful life. He had a large scrapbook with reproductions of paintings by van Gogh, and some attendant postcards that documented their trips to all of the painter’s favored sites in France and the Lowlands. He talked excitedly about each of those trips and remembered a good deal about the landscapes and how van Gogh painted them. Later, Fi and I said more than once how rare it was to have such a heart-warming encounter with an otherwise deprived young man. Van Deventer told us a charming story that evoked van Gogh’s well-known painting of the baby of the Arles postmaster Roulin. He was in Arles after the war to give a lecture on van Gogh. Afterwards as the crowd was milling around, there was a confused bustle and a large woman dressed in an over-the-hill fur coat came pushing through crying for “le docteur van Deventer.” When she came next to him, she thumped herself on her chest and cried “Me voila! Je suis le bébé Roulin” (“Here I am, I’m the Roulin baby!”).

            Of course that year with Fi in Paris was one of the best I ever had. Thirty years later, the short trips with Pat in Europe were a another grand time. Instead of traveling alone, as I usually did when pursuing my work, I twice had Pat’s stimulating company. We had lots of time to chat about art, about politics generally, and about Berkeley politics in particular. She was very proud of Martha, Anthony, Nora, and Celia, and kept me up-to-date about them, while asking about Tim, Rosie, and Cathy. I’m really glad that Tim’s conferences in California have kept up our ties with the Codys!

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