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In Paris, Canvassing an Old Art District

The colorful 17th arrondissement paints a vibrant portrait of life in the City of Light

September 15, 2002|SUSAN JAMES

PARIS — People who like French Impressionist and Postimpressionist art are familiar with Paris' 17th arrondissement, whether they know it or not.

Claude Monet and his contemporaries painted the great steam engines that puffed through the 17th arrondissement on their way to Gare St-Lazare, the train depot just to the south. Edouard Vuillard painted portraits of his mother in her apartment on the 17th's trendy Boulevard des Batignolles. And pointillist Georges Seurat captured Parisians at play on a Sunday afternoon on Ile de la Grande Jatte, the tiny isle that lies nearby in the middle of the River Seine.

Today, art schools still thrive here and give the district a bohemian air. Film crews stake out its picturesque 19th century alleyways and broad boulevards lined with restaurants and boutiques. (In the hit film "Amelie," the title character's love interest was raised in Batignolles, a village within the 17th that's a postcard of mansard roofs and red geranium-stuffed window boxes.)

Of Paris' arrondissements--the 20 numbered districts that start in the city's geographic center and swirl out counterclockwise--the 17th hardly ranks as a top draw. North of the Louvre, the Champs-Elysees and other major attractions, the 17th's only well-known landmark is the Arc de Triomphe, which stands at the district's southern boundary. In my wanderings last spring, I came across few other tourists. And that's a large part of the area's appeal.

Designed in 1860 by Paris' renowned urban planner Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the 17th arrondissement enclosed a cluttered collection of middle-class aspirations--industrial, architectural and artistic. It was--and still is--an eclectic area of industrial railways, serene stretches of parkland enlivened by marionette theaters and carousels, and soaring glass-block buildings along the main thoroughfares. Among its historical footnotes: The Eiffel Tower was designed and built here, and composer Maurice Ravel of "Bolero" fame maintained a discreet pied-a-terre in the center of the district.

For visitors like me, who have already seen Paris' best-known sights, the 17th arrondissement holds the promise of the city's often-overlooked, day-in-the-life charms. There is no Eiffel Tower here, but you can still watch the trains chug their way into the city, see artists at work in ateliers on narrow cul-de-sacs, or join a rainbow of umbrellas on a drizzly day in the Square des Batignolles, where locals feed bread crumbs to flocks of fussy ducks. To me, this is the real Paris--worthy of a stay in its own right, or at least a day trip.

This was the colorful backdrop we had in mind when my siblings and I gave my mother, Bobbe, a Paris holiday for her 80th birthday. Mother is a fan of Seurat, the inspiration behind Mandy Patinkin's character in "Sunday in the Park With George," for all you Stephen Sondheim followers. Seurat's painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (now at the Art Institute of Chicago) inspired us to visit this island in the Seine.

What, I wondered, did La Grande Jatte look like now? Did stately Parisians still stroll through the grass beneath spindly trees? Was there anything left of Seurat's moment in time--that moment when the 19th century was drawing to a close and the modern age was a smoky stain on the horizon?

Getting to La Grande Jatte, just north of the 17th arrondissement, proved surprisingly easy. From the last stop of Metro Line 3, Pont de Levallois Becon, I walked about 10 minutes to a footbridge from the Quai Michelet on the south bank of the Seine to the island.

Well-maintained, mansion-size houseboats ran in a neat line down the bank almost to the Levallois bridge. Small dinghies clung to the sterns like children hanging onto their mothers' dresses. In the distance, a few smokestacks still sent white plumes into the air, blown by the wind and dispersed toward the horizon. This scene, at least, the artist would have recognized.

The rest would look different. La Grande Jatte has been built over with houses and apartment blocks. The road along the island's southern edge is named for Seurat, but it is the eastern end where he would probably feel at home.

Here the river has cut high, steep banks that fall to swirling water. Poplar trees shade a paved path along the northern bank. Residents of central Paris no longer come here in droves for the day, but locals do: joggers, parents pushing strollers, retired couples walking the dog. Songbirds compete with the groan of barges, which still sweep up and down the river. At high tide, the water turns some areas into a swamp of sorts, and ducks no longer have to share the space with city dwellers.

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