Art and History Intersect at a Paris Shop On the Left Bank of the River Seine, directly across from the Louvre museum, a crowded little shop has provided supplies to artists for more than 100 years. Cezanne bought oil paints there. Picasso liked their gray pastels. The shop, Sennelier, is a Paris repository of art history and commerce.
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Art and History Intersect at a Paris Shop

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Art and History Intersect at a Paris Shop

Art and History Intersect at a Paris Shop

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On the left bank of the River Seine, directly across from the Louvre Museum, a crowded little shop has provided supplies to artists for more than a hundred years.

Cezanne bought oil paints there. Picasso liked their gray pastels. And NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg paid a visit to this Paris repository of art history and commerce.


Sennelier - S-E-N-N-E-L-I-E-R - spelled out over the door in gold letters on a dark green background. Sennelier opens Monday afternoons at 2:00 on the dot. And by 2:15, it's full of customers.

(Soundbite of foreign language spoken over speakerphone)

STAMBERG: Dominique Sennelier, the owner, is either on the speakerphone or on the store's much-paced wooden floor.

Mr. DOMINIQUE SENNELIER (Owner, Sennelier's): Every Monday afternoon, I'm in the store for to meet the painters. If they want some technical advice, we are in the store. And my grandfather was doing the same. My father, then, during all the 20th century - we have been, all the family...

STAMBERG: Dominique's daughter Sophie is the fourth generation Sennelier to work in the store. She is a painter. Her dad's a chemist. Art gives them a meeting place.

Ms. SOPHIE SENNELIER: We speak the language of color together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of conversation in foreign language)

STAMBERG: A photo of two young children hangs near Sophie's desk.

So, this would be the fifth generation?


STAMBERG: Ei-yi-yi-yi-yi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: The patriarch was Gustave Sennelier, Sophie's great-grandfather. From age 16, Gustave worked various jobs to help his family. But after work, Gustave worked some more at his passion: chemistry.

Mr. SENNELIER: Every night, between 7:00 until 10:00, during five year, he learned the chemistry. Because he was fascinated by chemistry (unintelligible).

STAMBERG: In 1887, Gustave Sennelier opened this art supply store, then, as now, located just a few blocks from the most famous art school in Paris. In the beginning, Gustave sold paints made by various manufacturers, then he decided to produce his own paints.

Dominique says his grandfather traveled all over Europe buying the very best raw materials: pigments from minerals, plants, animal bones. And to bind the pigment powders, he used honey from the French Alps, gum Arabic, eggs...

Mr. SENNELIER: And he built the range of oil color of Sennelier in two years with a collaboration of unknown and known painter. And one of the unknown painter was Cezanne.

STAMBERG: There were art supply shops all over Paris in those days to service all the artists. Cezanne was staying near the Sennelier shop, and he and other neighborhood artists would drop in to ask for a different shade of this or a darker version of that. If he didn't stock the color, Gustave Sennelier would create it for his painters.

No ledger books recorded customer's names, but Dominique Sennelier has it on good authority.

Mr. SENNELIER: We know that for Cezanne, we know for Bonnard, because when my father met Bonnard, because he was living very close from here. We have met Soutine, Gauguin was customer when he was in Paris. And all the main painter have been - one time, they push the door of the store of Sennelier.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Vuillard bought Sennelier canvases. Dominique gets calls from museum curators who spot the store's stamp on the back of the canvas and have some questions. Like Cezanne, nobody had heard of Vuillard when he was a customer.

Mr. SENNELIER: Even today, we supply many artists, unknown. But tomorrow, maybe we are the Cezanne of the 21st century.

(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)

STAMBERG: Maybe the 21st century Cezanne is right here, right now. One of the shoppers that Monday afternoon was Jason Logan, an art director from Canada. He came in for Sennelier's ink and sketchpads.

Mr. JASON LOGAN (Art Director): There's probably a couple places in New York and a couple of places in Toronto where you can get this brand, and it's - so to go to the source is kind of exciting, you know.

STAMBERG: A textile designer named Amelie(ph) is asking Dominique Sennelier about an ink for etching. She says she always learns something new when she comes to the shop.

Ms. AMELIE (Textile Designer): I think this is the best, because it's really for professionals. (Unintelligible) everyone can buy, of course, that's only -I can find everything I want.

STAMBERG: Picasso found most of what he wanted at Sennelier. He lived nearby on Rue des Grands Augustins. One day, Picasso came in asking for colors that he could use on any surface without first having to do any special preparation or coating. Dominique's father spent a year working on it, and voila!

Mr. SENNELIER: Sennelier oil pastel has been created at the demand of Picasso in 1948, and invented and created by my father.

STAMBERG: Oil pastel is like a stick of colored chalk, but waxy, not powdery. So, it can go on thickly, in dense, vivid color and not smudge.

Mr. SENNELIER: With the oil pastel, you can paint any kind of support: glass, plastic, wood, metal. And the oil pastel has been done at the beginning only for Picasso.

STAMBERG: Dominique's father didn't really believe in the product, but he made it anyway - forty-eight colors, forty sticks of each. Picasso bought 30 in each color. Monsieur Sennelier put the leftovers out on a shelf, and other artists snapped them up. So oil pastels became a store staple - in Paris first, now all over the world.

(Soundbite of man speaking foreign language)

STAMBERG: Pencils, pastels, inks, watercolors, oils, shelves crowded with artistic possibilities in this small shop on the river. There's a second Sennelier store in another part of Paris.

For customers like Amelie, it's a pilgrimage.

Ms. AMELIE: Here it's like I'm going to buy me a present, you know. I can buy something else in a different shop, but here, it's for my pleasure that's like a jewel - something that I'm going to use, but very carefully.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can peek through the windows of the Sennelier art shop and get a look at its floor-to-ceiling shelves of art supplies at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Don Gonyea.

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