John Buchanan’s passion for Paris

Calling John Buchanan a Francophile is an understatement.

“I’ve always wanted to be a Frenchman,” said Buchanan, the ebullient director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums. “I just can’t decide which century.”

Buchanan’s passion for French culture and history pours out when you travel around Paris with him. He was strolling the Left Bank on a sparkling October morning, describing everything from the Delacroix murals in the Church of Saint-Suplice to the pungent pleasures of the beloved Barthélémy cheese shop. He loves floating around Paris, one of the world’s great walking cities, where something wondrous or unexpected always captures the eye. It could be the gilt-winged horses on the towers of the Alexandre III Bridge or the jackal-like gargoyles on the Gothic Église Saint-Merri. An artful display of perfume bottles in a shop window. The mass of red geraniums spilling from a wrought-iron balcony above the famed Café de Flore.

“It’s an eye show. Wherever you look there is something to see, an image of beauty,’’ Buchanan said. He’s been here innumerable times since he first visited as a boy from Nashville, but he’s still enthralled by the City of Light. On this particular Sunday, he was visiting some of his favorite people and places in Paris.

He stepped into the Brasserie Lipp on the tree-lined Boulevard Saint-Germain, where he likes to lunch when he’s in the neighborhood. It’s a Paris institution that’s been serving Alsatian cuisine since 1880. The downstairs dining room, with its brown leather banquettes and brass chandeliers, is adorned with Art Nouveau ceramic-tile panels of tropical plants and birds, and a ceiling mural with African nudes. They exemplify what Buchanan calls “the taste for the exotic” in the early 20th century.

He comes here for the hearty food and lively atmosphere. “It’s cholesterol heaven,” said Buchanan, who goes for the choucroute, a traditional dish of sausage, ham, bacon, boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. Generations of artists and politicians — from Proust to Picasso to Georges Pompidou — have patronized the brasserie, where families make a ritual of lunching after Sunday church. At a nearby table, a woman tucked into her choucroute with a schnauzer in her lap.

Earlier in the morning, Buchanan paid a visit to his friend the Baroness Hélène de Ludinghausen, an arts patron and philanthropist who’s the last surviving member of Russia’s noble Stroganoff family.

The Stroganoffs’ extraordinary art collection, gathered over 500 years, was confiscated by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and nationalized. Buchanan and his wife, Lucy, got to know de Ludinghausen in the late 1990s, when he was director of the Portland Art Museum. They worked together to bring an unprecedented exhibition of the Stroganoffs’ holdings, culled from the Hermitage and other Russian institutions, to Portland in 2000.

An elegant and earthy woman with a great throaty laugh, de Ludinghausen lives in a 16th arrondissement apartment filled with objets d’art: 18th-century French paintings, 19th-century Chinese screens, exquisite silver daggers from India and Tibet. The baroness, who served as director of Yves St. Laurent’s couture shops for 30 years, sat on a plush red couch, smoking a cigarette and talking about fashion, art and animals. Her houseman served coffee with a white cockatiel named Cleo perched on his shoulder.

“I used to have a pig, but she went to England and died of depression,” said the silver-haired de Ludinghausen, who once shared her home with the pot-bellied porker and a duck named Dushka, who got eaten by a fox. Unlike others who’ve tried to recover their family’s confiscated patrimony, de Ludinghausen renounced any claim to hers and started a foundation to preserve the art and historical sites in Russia that once belonged to the Stroganoffs.

“I love her zest for life, her magnetic personality, her passion for her family,” Buchanan said after bidding the baroness adieu. He was on his way to see another friend, Louis Albert de Broglie, who owns one of the most remarkable and historic shops in Paris, Deyrolle.

Founded in 1831, this self-described “cabinet of curiosities” is a combination taxidermy shop and natural history museum. Located in an 18th-century building on the Left Bank’s Rue de Bac, it houses a mind-blowing menagerie of stuffed tigers, bears and boars, vultures and water buffalos, apes, antelopes, penguins and porcupines. The antique cabinets and glass cases are filled with insects that glow like jewels — emerald-green African beetles, ruby-red ones from South America, blue and black Malaysian butterflies.

“I came in one day in my 20s and was absolutely fascinated,” said Buchanan, walking amid the lions and peacocks.

Beloved by generations of scholars, artists and children — the Surrealists Salvador Dali and Max Ernst were regulars — Deyrolle lost nearly 200,000 shells, animals and minerals in a devastating 2008 fire. The cultural community came to the rescue, raising money to rebuild the charred shop and replenish its collection. Artists created Deyrolle-inspired works that were auctioned off to benefit the cause. Specimens were donated from collections around the country and de Broglie, a stylish former banker who bought the legendary company in 2001, was able to purchase thousands more.

Leaving the peaceable kingdom, Buchanan headed over to the Right Bank to another favorite place, the Musée Nissim de Camondo on the Rue de Monceau. In 1914, banker Moises de Camondo, scion of the Sephardic Jewish family known as the Rothschilds of Istanbul, built this 18th-century style mansion to house his magnificent collection of 18th-century French decorative art, furniture, paintings, silver and porcelain. It was inspired by Le Petit Trianon at Versailles.

The powder-blue voyeuse chairs in the large study were once owned by Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth. The gleaming silver tureen and wine coolers in the formal dining room were part of the Orloff silver service commissioned by Catherine II of Russia. After Camondo’s son, Nissim, a French flyer, was killed in World War I, his father decided to bequeath the house and its collection to the French state in Nissim’s memory. The museum opened in 1936, a year after Moises’ death. His daughter, Beatrice, was later killed at Auschwitz.

Today, the museum is one of several run by Les Arts Décoratifs. “I call it the Frick of Paris,” said Buchanan, standing in the marbled entrance hall. He pointed to the luxurious corner cabinet on the landing of the staircase, with its gold-on-black Japanese lacquered panels. “That is one of the most sublime examples of 18th-century French lacquered furniture. Everything here is perfection.”

The museum borders the lovely and historic Parc Manceau, where Buchanan likes to run and stroll. It was designed in the style of an informal English garden for the Duke of Orleans in the late 18th century (he was later guillotined during the Reign of Terror). Many of the Impressionists painted here, including Monet, who made a series of works in the park in the spring of 1876.

Unlike the grand Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries, Parc Manceau is more intimate and private. “There’s just something very calming about it,” said Buchanan, walking beneath the giant sycamores in the fading afternoon light, the autumn leaves crunching beneath his feet.

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