Le Weekend, 5/19/23: Poems of the Soul and Gender Identity in Lyon 🇫🇷

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May 19, 2023

Dear Frenchly Readers,

The sublime, yet mostly unheralded painter, Louis Janmot, was born in Lyon, France in 1814 and lived all of his life in his hometown until he died in 1891. He was a pupil of Ingres, and a French Neoclassicist—with subdued colors that stained the canvas instead of covering it like thick butter, and a beautiful, unironic love of natural forms, be they human, flower, or cloud.

You may never have heard of Janmot. Neither had I until I went to the MusĂ©e des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. (Reader, I loved this museum. So much so that I have written an entire piece for you, here, about what a gem this museum is. And no, it is not the same MusĂ©e des Beaux-Arts as the one in Brussels that houses that famous Brueghel painting, which W.H.Auden wrote about in his amazing poem on suffering. There are dozens of MusĂ©es des Beaux-Arts, in fact. The name simply means, “Museum of Fine Arts.”)

It was the room with the Janmot series, called “L’Âme Poème,” or the “Poem of the Soul,” that stopped me in my tracks; to borrow from Zora Neale Hurston, my own soul crawled out from its hiding place.

These paintings, and the accompanying poem written by the painter, are like an early film, with each enormous painting telling the next part of the story. Together, the tableaux depict a deep love between a young, androgynous boy, and a girl, who is his soulmate, a platonic ideal. Together the boy and the girl grow up, learn about religion, wander the beauteous natural world and, eventually, their souls fly to the heavens. The boy, however, cannot follow, and he is thrown back to earth, where he mourns his companion. Janmot spent his entire life on this project, which is split into two series. The first eighteen paintings are in color and were created between the years of 1835-1855.

The black and white drawings of the second series, which Janmot worked on for the rest of his life, take a darker turn. Here the young man is tempted by evil and succumbs to an orgy. His soul longs for purity and, eventually, after his mother intercedes and speaks with God, he is transported to the Heavens. It was Delacroix who insisted that the paintings be shown. And, indeed, the poet Baudelaire was so moved by Janmot’s work, which he described as having “infinite charm that is difficult to describe; something about the sweetness of solitude…” that he, too, became their champion.

As I stood in the room at the Musée des Beaux Arts, taking in Janmot’s sensitive portrayal of friendship and love and then the incredible loss and confusion, I was bowled over. And I wondered, if there is pain like that, then what is faith?

But it was not just the story itself as it was being told in the mid 1800s that was making me feel so much. There was something more at play there, something I wonder about: To me, these are paintings that are not just about love and faith, but are also about a boy who is unsure if his place in the world is to be male, as he is born, not female, where he feels most comfortable. The paintings where he is in a circle of women, for instance, holding hands, or sitting by his friend’s side, show both a content safety and a sense of insecurity; the look on his face is one of a desire to be accepted. In the later drawings, when Janmot starts to make the young man look more male, and, in particular, in those of the orgy, it’s unclear to my modern eye whether the real issue is just that a bacchanal of drink and sensuality with women is impure, or evil? Or if the greater problem is that this is just not where the man’s true desire resides. I wonder, today, looking at these paintings if Janmot wasn’t sending an SOS into the future about the subtleties of love and the incredible loss and pain that is inflicted when society doesn’t accept a person as they are and condemns how they express their love, or just themselves.

Of course, Auden said it best: “About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters…”

À cuisiner, regarder et lire çe weekend:

Ok, so it’s spring. I don’t know about you, but I am noticing some of my winter pudge and trying to get rid of it. I’m doing more walking after dinner and trying a little intermittent fasting. Others of you might be hopping on bikes or donning running shoes or swimming. With impeccable timing, our friends over at agnès b., have just announced a partnership with Nice-based Café du Cycliste, a French outdoor adventures clothing brand for both men and women. Ok, so here’s the giveaway part for you good, patient readers: The first 5 people to email me their favorite places to jog, walk, swim or bike, with a reason for why, will get a partially recycled  black agnès b./ Café du Cycliste water bottle mailed to you from the SoHo agnès b. store.

To watch? Andrea Meyer and I worked together on a review/interview hybrid about a new movie from acclaimed director, Dominik Moll. 

Read: A Le Monde (in English) review of the new Indiana Jones movie, which just premiered at Cannes yesterday.

And, finally, from our readers. A handful of you sent me your holy places on the planet. I am going to share some from a few of you!

1.The Saint Chappelle is awe inspiring.
2.Notre Dame de Riems when the light comes through the Chagall stained glass.
3. The Puget Sound when the Orca as swimming though, breathing in the air on the Oregon Coast.
4. And hearing my daughter laugh. —Jennifer Falzerano

1. The Vatican.
2. Augusta National Golf Club.
3. The beach at Maunday’s Bay in Anguilla.
4. The Scottish Highlands.
5. Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence.—John Sabino

1. Steam bun (bao) at the Four Seasons in Singapore.
2. Truffle soup at Les Trois Chevaux NYC.
3. Sea urchin from Iceland at Huitrerie Regis Paris.
4. Tendon salad antipasto at Hostaria Romana Rome.
5. Cocada at the entrance of the Cementerio del Este Caracas. —Vivian Wilthew

And though I can’t tell you how to make truffle soup this weekend and I’m not sure I’d, myself, be up for tendon salad or sea urchins to munch on, I can suggest a perfect May weekend with Melissa Clark’s spin on a Turkish yogurt cake, which is a little more yogurty than a French yogurt cake. I don’t know about you, but May is hard to enjoy—everything goes so fast, there is so much to do! I like this recipe because it’s perfect on a sideboard for a long Sunday of gardening and playing outside. Also, bonus, it’s only got 6 ingredients and takes a scant hour, including cooking.

Get out and play. À bientôt,


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Caitlin Shetterly is the Editor-in-Chief of Frenchly. She is also the author of 4 books: Fault Lines, Made for You and Me, Modified and the upcoming novel, Pete and Alice in Maine, which will be published on July 4th, 2023 by Harper Books. She is a native daughter and she lives with her two sons and husband in an old house on the coast of Maine.

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