When Julia Child published the first volume of the book that made her famous, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961, it was the culmination of a love affair with France that had begun in the early years of her marriage to Paul Child.
The two Americans had met in Ceylon during the Second World War. After the war ended, they married and set up housekeeping in Georgetown, but it wasn't long before Paul, who worked for the State Department, was posted to Paris. Thus began their exploration of France and all its pleasures -- including its cuisine, which Julia later popularized in America through her books and television shows.
Paul's photographs of their years in France are included in France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child, a handsome, large-format book published this week by Thames & Hudson. In the prologue excerpted below, author Alex Prud’homme writes about Paul (his great uncle), Paul’s passion for photography, and for his wife, Julia.
Alex Prud’homme writes:
In 2004 I helped Julia Child write her memoir, My Life in France, which was illustrated by the photographs of Paul Child, Julia’s husband and my grandfather Charles Child’s twin brother. When that book was published in 2006, there was a tremendous public response—both to Julia’s stories and to Paul’s evocative images. On countless occasions, people said to me: “I love those pictures. Have you ever thought of doing a book of Paul’s photographs?” The answer was yes.
My Life in France was largely the story of how Paul and Julia lived in France both after the Second World War and then again in Provence in subsequent years. France is a Feast is a visual extension of Julia’s memoir, an extension that lets Paul’s imagery take the lead. It shows the story of the Childs’ lives in Paris, Marseille, and elsewhere throughout France between 1948 and 1954, largely through Paul’s photography and from Paul’s perspective. During the roughly five years that Paul and Julia lived in France, Paul developed his skills as a photographer and his philosophy as an artist and, as I hope this book demonstrates, became a twentieth-century photographer of note. All of which sets his marriage to Julia and their years in France in context.
Paul Child later became best known to the public as Mr. Julia Child: the man who helped illustrate her cookbooks with drawings and photographs, and the calm guiding hand behind television’s ebullient “French Chef.” But Paul was my great uncle, and I knew him as a far more complex and polymorphous man than that description suggests. Foremost, he was a talented artist: a photographer, painter, lithographer, woodworker, metalsmith, stained-glass expert, writer, and poet. He was also a world traveler, a linguist, a black belt in judo, a deeply read teacher, a sophisticated diplomat, and a reticent man who trained himself to be an effective visual and verbal communicator. And, of course, he was a food and wine lover who first tutored his wife in the joys of la cuisine française.
Though Paul Child was not a professional artist, he easily could have been. He and Julia were childless, and Paul devoted nearly every minute of his free time to photography, painting, and writing. But while his twin, Charlie Child, was a full-time painter, Paul made art while maintaining a career: as a schoolteacher before the Second World War, and as a Foreign Service officer after the war. Paul was just as talented as his twin with a paintbrush, and their styles were similar but not identical: Charlie’s paintings tended toward the dramatic and mystical, while Paul’s evinced a more graphic realism inflected with cubism and moments of surrealism. When it came to photography, Paul stood alone; Charlie was only a snapshot taker. And it was in photography that Paul found his most natural artistic voice.
Paul had a keen eye, and he strove to make timeless, meaningful images—portraits, cityscapes, architectural views, and landscapes from riverine meditations to sweeping mountain vistas, and so forth—in a manner attuned to the best of mid-twentieth-century photography. While some may regard him as an accomplished amateur, he was passionate and persistent, with an excellent eye, and his work holds up in the company of his more exalted contemporaries, many of whom he knew both personally and professionally.
Paul was a prolific picture taker, who rarely left the house without at least one camera slung over his shoulder. In the course of his adult life he shot thousands of images across the country and around the world, in black and white and in color. By the end, the archive he amassed was broad and deep. For the sake of clarity, we have largely limited this volume to his black-and-white images taken between 1948 and 1954, a body of work which has a distinct look and feel to it.
Though Paul was stubbornly independent-minded, no artist works in a vacuum, and he was inevitably affected by the people and events swirling around him. In the post–Second World War years, people from around the globe congregated in Paris, filling the cafés, sidewalks, and galleries with their fizzy ideas, artistic experiments, and unsettled energy. As chief of the Visual Presentation Department at the U.S. Embassy, Paul was in the thick of this cultural ferment, working simultaneously as an organizer, curator, and promoter of American cultural exhibitions in France. He was engaged in what amounted to a “soft power” propaganda effort (in contrast to the “hard” power of military force) to forestall a Communist takeover and build friendly relations between the United States and its European allies during the Cold War. These external tensions and pressures undoubtedly influenced Paul’s worldview, and thus his art, if only obliquely.
And then there was Paul’s wife: Julia McWilliams Child. She was ten years younger than Paul, and not well known at the time, but she was a sunny, questing, powerful personality who had a profound impact on her husband’s evolution. He adored her and photographed her constantly; without realizing it at the time, he was chronicling her rise from a fumbling know-nothing in the kitchen to an accomplished cook and author, and America’s first celebrity TV chef.
Paul could be mercurial: charming one minute and prickly the next. A born intellectual, he attended Columbia University only briefly (1921–1922) due to financial constraints, but compensated by reading deeply and traveling widely throughout his life. A high-school teacher for many years, he had a strong pedagogical bent. He was thoughtful and sensitive, and often very funny, but at times he could appear to be brooding, judgmental, or snobbish.
Julia was the opposite sort of personality: a tall, loud Californian (as she described herself) whose warm, plain-spokenness hid a subtle mind. She softened Paul’s edges and encouraged his humor; she adored his fortitude, creativity, and knowledge; she understood his emotional neediness, and she pushed him to try new things.
“Without her, I’d probably be a miserable misanthrope,” he’d write, knowingly.
At the start of their marriage, Paul was the senior partner in their relationship, an older, worldly man who tutored Julia about travel, art, food, literature, music, politics, economics, and sex. He enjoyed her “long gams” and good-natured inquisitiveness, which he called la Juliafication des gens (the Juliafication of people). He marveled as she warmed up the coldest policeman, grumpiest waiter, and most shrewish fishwife, and employed her bright eyes and welcoming smile to elicit carefully guarded recipes from tight-lipped restaurateurs. “She could charm a polecat,” he chuckled.
In France, Paul and Julia were deeply in love—with each other, with photography and food, with the people and the places they encountered. They were each other’s best company, and spent hours exploring, looking, and tasting together. Their years living in France were a high point in their eventful lives, a tremendously invigorating personal, professional, and cultural adventure.
“I was so excited” to be in that place at that time, Julia recalled, “that I some-times forgot to breathe.”
Paul felt the same way. In February 1949, after taking Julia and some friends on a five-day car trip from Paris to the Mediterranean and back, via Grenoble (this was Julia’s first extended view of the country), he wrote in a kind of ecstasy:
“[France] was really a sort of dream . . . if it wasn’t a beautiful castle then it was bands of mist in the peach-orchards, and if it wasn’t a 14th-century bridge then it was a deep valley with a brook at the bottom made of quicksilver. We went from cloud to cloud in our 5-day Heaven. . . . Nougat de Montélimar was as good as ever and so was the smell of sage at Avignon. We sang ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ under the first arch of the bridge itself, and drank Pouilly outside of Aix on a lovely hillside. . . . After coffee at a little town in a deep valley we climbed up and up, the air sparkling cold and the sky a deep blue with hot sun pouring down—over and through a series of grand passes, then into the non-Mediterranean world on the other side, with ever-greens and snow on the slopes . . . with more wonderful towns clustered periwinkle-like in the cracks. . . . [In Grenoble] we came into fog and dramatic giant clouds wrestling with the mountain-tops . . . [at the Hospices de Beaune] the blue nuns! The wine we drank: Nuits Cailloux! The snails! The courtyards and the streets! . . . The evening ended . . . with armloads of Mimosa and sparkling faces and little exploding rockets of remembrance lighting up the talk. I really feel as though I’d performed at last a deep-seated duty to Julie—she loved it so much. We all did. It was a brimming cup.”
Excerpted from FRANCE IS A FEAST: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child, by Alex Prud’homme & Katie Pratt
Text © 2017 Alex Prud’homme
Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc, www.thamesandhudsonusa.com