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Surprising Stories: Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais: Resistance and Sacrifice

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The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin at the Rodin Museum. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr

Today, perhaps more than any other time in recent history, we are aware of the fragility of the human body. The ongoing Covid pandemic and the worldwide protests against police brutality, makes it clear that how we view our bodies is changing how we view the world. This week’s Surprising Story looks at Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Burghers of Calais from 1895, one of his most inspiring monumental works of public sculpture that epitomizes how artists cast the human form to inspire social change.

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Surprising Stories: Fragile Flowers: Redouté, Prints and Porcelains

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Rosa Gallica Pontiana and Rosa Centifolia Foliacea by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

For most of Spring 2020 many of us have missed being able to see, touch and smell beautiful flowers up close. We can look wistfully beyond closed garden gates to try to catch a glimpse of blooms or instead settle for virtual bouquets. Long before Instagram, many artists attempted to capture the ephemeral beauty of flowers, however, few succeeded as well as Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Often called the “Raphael of flower painters,” the Belgian artist is still admired to this day as an international master of botanical illustration. Working for kings, queens, empresses and princesses, Redouté produced over 5,000 prints during his lifetime, but his recordings of Empress Joséphine’s flowers at the Château de Malmaison stand out as the most enchanting. This week’s Surprising Story looks at a lesser known aspect of Redoute’s work: his prints which inspired a rare and magnificent porcelain service dedicated to the Empress Joséphine. 

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Surprising Stories: Joséphine’s Black Swans

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Title page, Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes Vol 3. Black swans, kangaroos and dwarf emus all frolic in the splendid gardens of Malmaison

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his pioneering book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2010), referred to the  bird as a metaphor for understanding unpredictability, arguing that “black swans” are events that come as a surprise, undermine common knowledge, and often rationalized after the fact. In today’s world, COVID-19 can be considered a black swan. As Taleb writes: “A small number of black swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.” It is within this context that we are launching our new series, Surprising Stories, featuring intriguing aspects of French history and culture. We start by starting with the little known topic of Joséphine Bonaparte and her black swans.

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