A Color Line in Far-off France
- story and photos by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
I am writing this while sitting in a rental house built in 1801 near walnut groves and Sarlat, France. I’m not just across the bridge, but across the pond, as people used to say….
Just as there is a Gnat Line in Georgia, a Live Oak Line in Mississippi and, yes, that almost-forgotten surveyors’ stitch dividing North and South called the Mason-Dixon Line, there is an imaginary but real demarcation in France. You notice it when you travel to the Southwest and leave the stony grays and muted bronzes of beautiful Paris behind. You dive headfirst into less-subtle colors, vibrant and unabashed.
There’s a definite French Color Line
Across the Bridge
And then, there is the Dordogne, where I roost for a few weeks. It seems the cows are redder, the grass greener and the people lifted from Kat Fitzpatrick’s bees-waxed paintings. The sunflower fields not yet combined are still beautiful, their autumnal heads brown and gold and bowed. Everywhere, daring color.
This visit has been an immersion study in how to throw caution to the wind and use color. You can’t help but learn here in the land of coral stone houses with limestone roofs and bright purple doors. My eyes hurt from looking, and I keep making mental notes.
The floor-length curtains of this house are the orange of a daring young girl’s first prom dress. Cobalt bottles are in all the windows, and kitchen cabinets are bright yellow like Bluebird school buses. Hot air balloons of red and swimming pool blue float by in the afternoon sky.
On rare days when I make no day trips to castles or wine caves, I ramble about my rental digs and pretend that I live here permanently, free of all impulse to paint a room off-white, or beige, or anything remotely timid. All these years I’ve opted for what the accursed Southern Living would call “neutral,” the better to show off paintings or furnishings. No more of that for me.
I shall be a reformed subtle colorist, evangelistic in my new palette.
One day I took a tour of the late Josephine Baker’s former home, Chateau des Milandes, so near here that we once would have been neighbors. I felt right at home when I found magnolia trees in the front courtyard.
But foremost I delighted in her bathrooms – she added them to the castle – which were better to see than even the banana belt she famously wore in her Paris burlesque performances. One bathroom is designed in the style of the bottle of her favorite perfume, Arpege, with – quoting the tour brochure -- Murano molten glass tiles and gold and black mosaic. Tubs are aqua, and pink.
You could soak away a lot of blues in an aqua tub.
The village markets that happen somewhere every day are layer upon layer of festive color, kaleidoscopic walks into the heart of this old and civil civilization. You pass tomatoes and zinnias, tablecloths and meringues, walnut crackers and bedroom slippers. The lettuces alone make me rethink green.
If I could wrap myself in something here, in Southwest France, it would be the small-town markets, where neighbors still greet one another with two kisses and many words, and each vendor has time to squander on even an indecisive customer. Almost everyone leaves with a colorful market basket full of bronzed bread, red wine, ripe cheese, fresh flowers -- and a dog trotting along behind.
When I get home, I plan to colorize my life, the way Ted Turner did all of those old black and white movies. Paul Newman’s eyes will be bright blue. No black and white, but red all over.