Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

The Last of the Season – Château Chantilly from a Painter’s Eye

November 19, 2013 by Doug Cushman

If you threw a rock outside of Paris proper in any direction, chances are you’d hit some kind of château. Throughout the convoluted Parisian history, royal residences have been built, destroyed, rebuilt and repaired. Some of the most notable are Vincennes, Fontainebleau, Malmaison, Compiègne, Blandy-le-Tours, Sceaux and, of course, the famous—and infamous— Versailles.

But of all the châteaux within a short train ride outside of Paris, the Château de Chantilly holds a special place. It even prompted President Nixon to comment on an official visit to the town of Chantilly in 1968, “Why have I been taken to Versailles seven times and never here?”

A short history: A mansion was built in 1484 but was replaced by the Petit Château around 1560,and stayed in the same family for generations. It was then sold to other families, the most famous of which were the Bourbon Condés. In the 17th Century Le Grand Condé commissioned André le Nôtre to design the gardens. Le Notre had just finished the gardens at Versailles. The Grand Château was destroyed during the Revolution. The Duc d’Aumale, who owned the property at the time and exiled to England, returned and rebuilt the Grand Château. The Duc bequeathed the Chantilly estate to the Institut de France in 1884, on condition that his collection of art would be open to the public. The collection itself rivals that of the Louvre.

In modern times the Chateau has had an interesting history, including a host to a triathlon and movie set backdrops, notably The Longest Day in 1962 and the James Bond thriller A View To a Kill in 1985.

Just across the road are the Grandes Écuries, or the Grand Stables. It’s said that the Duc de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, believed that he would be reincarnated as a horse after his death. So, in 1719, he asked the architect, Jean Aubert, to build the grand stables (rivaling the château itself in size and grandeur.). They are considered to be some of the most beautiful horse stables in the world.

The castle is a constant inspiration. From a painter’s point of view, however, approaching a series of watercolors over 5 months is daunting. Not only does he have to deal with the usual hazards of painting en plein air—hauling an easel, paper and supplies onto a train, erraticweather, changing light and hordes of gawking tourists who must talk to you while flashing a camera in your face—but he needs to find a way to mirror the rich detail in the towers, spires and walls of the chateâu…without painting every damn window he sees.

I decided to paint what Emily Dickenson calls “a certain slant of light”; the way the sun hits the rounded roof towers and walls. I love watercolor and think it’s the perfect medium to capture that transientlight. The white paper itself is an essentialpart of the painting. The trick is to not let on that you’re leaving a lot of the paper unpainted, that most of the color and value goes into the shadow areas with accents of green, blue and red painted in the background.

The light is the thing.

These paintings took about 2-3 hours apiece to paint, all on site. No fixing in the studio. Those were the rules. The foundation of a watercolor is a solid drawing so I spend as much time as it takes to get it right. Much of the time was taken in just the drawing.

Last Wednesday was the end of the painting season for me. The air was cold, the wind blew bitter down my neck. The light was still marvelous but the days are shorter.

It’s time to pack up my easel and paint, wash my brushes and perhaps schedule some painting classes on the castle grounds for next year.

The Chateâu Chantilly is worth a visit even if you’re not a painter. It’s an enchanting castle unlike most of the grand “boxes” one sees around the French landscape. It’s a short day trip just outside of Paris proper and easy to be back in time for dinner in the big city.

But as a painter, of course, the start of a new painting season begins next spring. I can’t wait to see the sun hit the spires and roofs and the bright, yellow green of the blossoming trees and to breathe in the refreshing country air.

But then, I wonder what the chateau looks like covered with snow…