It was in the Musée Rodin that I first realised what Art was capable of. Trailing along behind Monsieur S., our strenuously Francophile teacher in his sadly unironic beret, we had already “done” Notre Dame. Then came a route march through the Louvre. Before its airy makeover with the glass pyramid, the Louvre felt like the worst kind of museum-punishingly vast, the walls of its interminable corridors lined with dukes with beards like spades and spoilt, mean-mouthed women in poodle wigs. After some hours, footsore and deafened by culture, we got to the “Mona Lisa”. I remember thinking how small she was. And how podgy. The famous smile hinted at embarrassment that all these people would bother coming so far to see her, when really she was nothing special. We adored Monsieur S. and we listened to him hold forth, complete with faux-Gallic gesticulations, about a turning point in the history of portraiture, the subtle handling of flesh tones, blah blah. But it was no good. The “Mona Lisa” was such a masterpiece, we could hardly see her. Or discover her secret for ourselves, as teenagers badly need to do, whether in love or art.
The last thing we wanted at the end of that day was another damned museum. But with the light fading to the freckled silver that makes the Parisian skyline look like an early photographic print, we found ourselves in rue de Varenne. You have to cross a cobbled yard to get to the front door of the Hotel Biron. The Biron is actually a perfect small chateau, like a doll’s house lowered from heaven into seven acres of exquisite formal gardens in Faubourg Saint-Germain. Built circa 1730, it was first a private house, then a school. By 1905 it was in disrepair and the rooms were let out to several tenants. At one point, they included Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Isadora Duncan, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Rodin himself. The queue for the bathroom must have been quite something.