The Carnavalet Museum in the Marais district of Paris re-opened in May 2021 after four-and-a-half years of intensive renovation.
This is a free museum about the history of Paris. It belongs to the city of Paris and is located in two historic mansions that were built four-and-a-half centuries ago, in the middle of the 16th century. Of course, any buildings that are so old need to be patched up from time to time, and brought into line with current safety standards, particularly for fire safety. But this has to be done while preserving the original character of the historic buildings.
The painting in my lead photo (above) is one that I remembered from earlier visits to the museum. It is a View of the Market and Fountain of the Innocents, painted in Paris in 1822 by John James Chalon (1778-1854). The museum bought it at an auction at Sotheby’s, New York, in 1986.
The two mansions of the Musée Carnavelet were apparently built with different ceiling heights, which meant that to go from one to the other there were always a few steps to climb. During the renovation period, this new connection between the two mansions was built in the form of a ramp for wheelchair accessibility, with couches where visitors can have a rest between different sections of the museum.
Because of the age of the buildings, there are still some narrow places where visitors tend to bunch up, but the crowding was not nearly as bad as I had experienced at the Louvre the day before.
According to the label on this painting, Monsieur Vincent was a “man of the church” who ran a 17th century orphanage for abandoned children with the help of a group of nuns called the Daughters of Charity and a group of high-society women called the Ladies of Charity, who helped fund the project.
The babies in the painting are tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes, making them look like miniature Egyptian mummies. The French label says the babies are emmaillotés, meaning swaddled. When I was a child, one of the few Bible verses I could recite was the one from Luke 2:7 that was read to us at school every year at Christmas: And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. This worried me, but not because of the swaddling clothes; when I realized what a manger was, I was afraid a cow might bite the baby by mistake.
In Paris, I have often ridden the Vélib’ bikes along Boulevard Raspail, going to or from Montparnasse or going to the Maillol Museum, but I never knew who the boulevard was named after until I came across this bust in the Carnavelet Museum.
It turns out that François-Vincent Raspail (1794-1878) was a French biologist, chemist, physician and attorney. After the Revolution of 1830 he became a well-known socialist politician who was imprisoned more than once for his political activities. He ran unsuccessfully for President of France in 1848 and later served as a representative in the House of Deputies for many years. He was also the author of numerous scientific papers and of the best-selling Manuel annuaire de la santé, a popular guide to good health that he updated annually.
One of the streets that intersects with Boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse is the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, named after a French historian and professor who, like Raspail and Victor Hugo, went into exile when Napoléon III made himself the emperor of France.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) lived for the last ten years of his life in an apartment at 29 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, having moved there from his previous apartment at 222 Boulevard Raspail. He and Simone de Beauvoir are buried in Montparnasse Cemetery at 3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet.
See also: Street Market on Boulevard Edgar-Quinet.
Another street that intersects with Boulevard Raspail is Boulevard Arago, which turns out to have been named after the writer and politician Étienne Arago (1802-1892). Like Raspail and Quinet, Arago was a supporter of the Republic and went into exile when Napoléon III took over as emperor of France. Later, Arago served briefly as mayor of Paris in the difficult year of 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War.
I used to cycle on Boulevard Arago particularly when I was staying in a studio apartment at the corner of that boulevard and rue Broca in the 13th arrondissement.
Also, I once went to Boulevard Arago to see an artists’ colony called La cité fleurie — but actually all we could do there was to look in through the locked gate. (See my post Château de la Reine Blanche and scroll down for La cité fleurie).
All you loyal readers of my post Les Bouquinistes might recall that I am a big fan of the outdoor book stalls along the upper banks of the Seine, so I was happy to see that the Carnavalet Museum has a painting of a “Bookseller on the Quai des Grands Augustins” by Bernard Boutet de Monvel (1884-1949).
The label next to the painting explains: “A poet once wrote that Paris ‘is the only city in the world where a river flows between two rows of books.’ Booksellers sell second-hand books and posters outdoors along the banks of the Seine. The passer-by seen here seems very absorbed in what the vendor is showing him.”
The exhibit in the Carnavalet Museum that surprised me the most was this one of the desk of the American author and art collector Gertrud Stein (1874-1946). In the background is a large photo showing her at this desk in her apartment in rue de Fleurus, near the Luxembourg Gardens. The woman in the doorway is no doubt her partner Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967).
I must admit I wouldn’t have thought to include them in the museum, but the accompanying text explains that Gertrud Stein “had a lot of influence in art spheres” and that her books and collection of art works “allowed certain artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to make a name for themselves.” The desk was donated to the museum by the Stein family in 2019.
Location and aerial view of the Carnavalet Museum on monumentum.fr.
My photos and text in this post are from 2021.
See also: my earlier post on the Musée Carnavalet. (Notice how high the pictures used to be hung, before renovation. Now they are about 10 cm lower, on average, so children and other short people have a better chance of seeing them.)
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19 thoughts on “Carnavalet Museum re-visited”
I don’t think it would have been a cow – maybe a donkey.
When my children were born, I swaddled them – not as tightly as that, but my mother explained to me that it made them more comfortable since they had been constricted in the womb.
Looks like they’ve done a cracking job there Don.
Yes, I’d call it a very successful renovation.
I wonder how Raspail would have advised people to stay healthy during this pandemic.
There was a cholera epidemic in France starting in the 1830s, and I have come across scattered references to Raspail’s recommendations, such as frequent handwashing (which was a radical idea in the 19th century) and free medical care for the poor.
So glad to see the Carnavalet is open again. It’s one of our rainy day favorites since it’s free. There are wonderful free museums in Paris. You don’t have to spend a fortune.
I was there on a rainy day, by coincidence, but I would have gone no matter what the weather, since I had reserved a time slot for that day. The permanent collection is still free, but you have to reserve online and show your reservation and vaccination certificate at the gate.
I love the bookseller and I can understand the Stein desk. There’s a lot of history in this. The photo of the ramp between the houses does not show. It is just a black space. I am always having problems getting my media to work .
Thanks for your comment. Strange that the photo of the ramp doesn’t show on your screen; it appears every time on mine. Is anyone else having this problem?
The ramp appeared in mine. No problem.
It’s really neat to see the large photo of Gertrude Stein. She’s a fascinating figure. This NPR article from 2011 about her and her brothers is very good. It includes the photo reproduced at the Carnavalet Museum. Henri Manuel (1874–1947) was the only French photographer who ever asked Stein to pose for him. (See one of his photos of her here).
Thanks for your comment and the links. I must admit I was a bit irritated by the Henri Manuel photo, because of the white flowers placed right behind her head. At first glance, I thought they looked like antlers.
That’s funny, I hadn’t noticed the flowers! But I see what you mean. Also, she has a rather blank expression, but that was the case in some of the photos Man Ray took of her as well.
Great post, Don! I’m very excited to visit this museum, having waited several years for the refurbishment to be completed. One thing I remember in reviews prior to the refurbishment is that the signage wasn’t in English and that if you don’t speak French you won’t necessarily know what you’re looking at. Did you notice English descriptions during your most recent visit?
I’ve just had a look through my photos (the unedited versions) and see that they have English descriptions just about everywhere.
Perfect! I’ve downloaded the app as well, so hopefully that will give a bit more insider information on everything.
I’ve so been looking forward to this reopening. It’s on my schedule for our November trip to Paris.
It looks like they’ve done a great job on the renovation, very sympathetic to the old buildings. I like the idea of finding portraits of the people for whom Paris streets were named! But my favourite is ‘Bookseller on the Quai des Grands Augustins’ – it sums up the eternal appeal of Paris 🙂
Yes, I found the renovation very successful. They managed to retain the character of the old buildings while improving and expanding the layout of the museum.