21 December 2015

Effet de Lumiere: The Albertine Reading Room

“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life.” - Marcel Proust 

Effet de lumiere.  The effect of light.  It's a thing in itself in French in a way that the discrete English words do not convey.    A sense of magic gets lost in translation.
Another term  borrowed from the French is trompe l’oeil.  Literally, meaning to deceive the eye,  it  usually refers to a style of painting where the two dimensional image can also  be interpreted figuratively.

Both of these techniques were used by the artists of Atelier Meriguet Carrere when they designed the Albertine Reading Room for the French Embassy in New York City.  Architect Jacques Garcia was fortunate to have one of the few remaining  mansions designed by Stanford White to work with, the historic Payne Whitney home located on Fifth Avenue.  It has a cousin, one of my favorite places in Manhattan, the bookshop at the Neue Galerie at 1048 Fifth Avenue (at 86th Street), a building originally designed as as a home for a wealthy industrialist,  William Starr Miller, by the firm of Carrere & Hastings who also designed the New York Public library building on Fifth Avenue (at 42nd Street).  The French connection is that Miller ordered the architects to design his townhouse in the style of the French king, Louis XIII.

The Albertine is named for  the elusive female character who gives her name to the sixth volume of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu - Albertine disparue (1925), translated into English variously as The Sweet Cheat Gone, The Fugitive, and Albertine Gone.   Like its namesake, the reading room is not exactly what it appears to be.  The lustrous mahogany bookcases are actually made from a humble wood that has been stained to a waxy satin finish,  the rich-looking moldings are faux brass, and the panels inlaid on walls and doors  are examples of trompe l'oiel painting.  

“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.” – Marcel Proust

Garcia modeled the heavenly ceiling where the planets orbit the sun  bounded by the houses of the zodiac   after an original music room at Villa Stuck  in Munich Germany designed by the Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck in 1898.  A ravishing blue night sky bends down to touch the tops of the bookcases.  A golden zodiac appears to circle among moving sprays of stars.  The night sky overhead has depth  thanks to a combination of sponge painting and brush stroke while the stars are composed of a judicious mixture of gold paint interspersed with genuine gold leaf.   So, is this a fresco?  Not quite, as no plaster was used in its making.  The zodiac ceiling was painted in the Atelier's Harlem studio, then transferred to the reading room's ceiling.

Albertine Books is  a dual-language  reading room and bookshop, offers cornucopia of French-language books and English translations, with over 14,000 titles from 30 Francophone countries.  Visit the Albertine at 972 Fifth Avenue (at 79th Street) or explore here.

Addendum: Spring 2017.  The Albertine Prize, a reader's choice award for condemnatory French fiction in English is here.

1. John Bartelstone, photographer -  Atelier Meriguet Carrere, designers - The Albertine Reading Room, French Embassy, NYC. 
2. unidentified photographer - Ceiling of the Music Room at Villa Stuck, Bavarian Arts & Crfats Magazine, courtesy University of Heidelberg.


Rouchswalwe said...

Oh my ... how wonderous. Amazing! Stunning ... I'm running out of adjectives. Merci for this, dear Jane! And happy winter solstice!

Hels said...

My students have spent a bit of time recently on Marcel Proust and his world.

And so we are not surprised at all that The Albertine was named for an important female character who gave her name to the sixth volume of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. Since Proust died in 1922 and the sixth volume was posthumously published (1925), this part of the town house was not in the style of King Louis XIII. Not that I mind :) Perhaps the the artists of Atelier Meriguet Carrere were hoping to introduce the late author to a new American audience?

Jane said...

Hels, I think the French Embassy was clever to name the reading room in honor of one of their best known authors. I would have voted for names from Colette - Cheri, Gigi, Mitsou, Vinca, etc.

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, it is magical, isn't it? You would love the English & German reading room at the Neue Galerie, not least for the view of Centr5al park across Fifth Avenue and the Metropolitan just down the avenue.
Aside from the museum itself, you would be a good judge of the food and drink at Cafe Sabarsky in the museum. They have chefs straight from Germany making the Wiener schnitzel and the Linzer torte.

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh, this sounds like a trip to put on my list. Ja! Wiener Schnitzel and Linzer Torte are two basics that are difficult to do well. I'm making a note of the Cafe Sabarsky now. Danke, dear Jane!

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, I don't read German although I've tried a few times when I was desperate for information but I can tell you about the English language collection at the Neue Galerie bookstore which is excellent so I'm betting that the German selections are just as fine. By the way there is a second cafe in the Galerie (in the basement. Cafe Fledermaus!