Sunday, April 18, 2021

finally, the Kauer clan

My grandmother Ruth had four grandparents like everybody else, but only 3 pairs of great-grandparents, as her grandmothers were sisters. Each of the three pairs had numerous great-grandchildren, and my grandmother was remarkably well-informed about her extended family, so I have quite a lot of info about these 19th and early 20th century people. Although the three founder couples lived their whole lives in very modest circumstances in their respective provincial towns (one in Krefeld and the other two in Simmmern) many of the children and grandchildren used the opportunities of the Gründerzeit for geographic and social mobility.

I made blogposts about two of these clans, namely the Düsselmann family from Krefeld, and the Imig family from Simmern back in 2009, but never got round to the third clan. So here, finally, comes the Kauer family, also from Simmern. As before, details left in German are generally from my grandmother (or from the notes of her aunt Johanna), any info I have added or confirmed independently from my own research will be in English:

Mathias Kauer * 21. 6.1813 Simmern + 2. 4.1885 Simmern, a shoemaker at Simmern.

} oo 13. 9.1844 Simmern unter Dhaun (NB different place from the town of Simmern)

Katharina Sophia Weis * 25. 3.1815 Raversbeuren + 8. 1.1862 Simmern

Mathias Kauer (1813-1885) - one of the earliest family photos we have.

Note on Mathias Kauer's ancestry: His maternal grandfather Karl Henrich Weyland (1745-1796) from Idstein (Taunus) was Jewish and converted to protestantism to marry Katharine Margarethe Schmidt (1749-1792). We don't know whether the subsequent generations knew this. My father was adamant his grandmother Helene didn't, but I tend to think that naming her daughters Ruth and Esther was a hint that she did. Obviously, in the Nazi era you would have buried that little detail deep and not mention it to your grandchildren. Compare and contrast: Mathias's paternal grandmother, Maria Magdalena Hebel, was a first cousin of the writer Johann Peter Hebel. And that detail, although just as remote as our drop of Jewish ancestry, was known and remembered by everybody.

Note on Katharina Sophia Weis - her lineage is described here based on a family history written by her brother Christian Gottlieb Weiß in 1891. Her sister Maria Margaretha Weiß (1809-1885) married into the village inn at Hahnenbach which is shown here.

Note also that, in contrast to the other two clans, the names Kauer and Weiss are widespread and very little help with genealogy.

The couple had 8 children and 18 grandchildren:

1. Christoph Gottlieb (1845-1909) - the station master of Adamsweiler
oo Margarete Imig (1847-1930)
1.1. Christoph Gottlieb Matthias *12.10.1875, + 11.11.1875
1.2. Johanna Sofia * 9.11.1876 Mühlhausen, + 26.11.1953 Hahnenbach
1.3. Auguste (1879-28.9.1952) oo (1900) Wilhelm Fuchs (1872-1963) Postinspektor Münster a.St.
1.3.1. Helene (1901-1965) oo Karl Betz (Witwer; Kinder Hella und Karl-Heinz aus erster Ehe)
1.3.2. Natalie “Nelly” (1906-1984) oo (1931) Christian Paust
1.3.2.1. Dieter Paust
4. Anna Katharina (22.12.1880-16.4.1965 Heidelberg Handschuhsheim)
oo Heinrich Thiebold (12.4.1877-24.8.1948), Oberlehrer in Brebach (Saar)
4.1. Erwin * 1902, an Krupp gestorben
4.2. Martha (1907- nach 1983) oo Willi Helmer, Saarbrücken +1986
4.2.1. Dieter
4.2.2. Ingeborg
4.2.3. Annemarie *1941?
4.3. Robert * 1910 oo Aenne Schmidt oo Friedel
4.4. Hertha * 1917 Güdingen + 2005; oo August Rudolf Bladt, Lehrer o/o 1944
4.4.1. Lothar Bladt * 1944 Eberbach (Baden)
4.4.2. Astrid
1.5. Louise Regina gen. Kätha (1883-1960)
1.6. Helene oo Julius Düsselmann
1.6.1. Ruth (1908-1993)
1.6.2. Werner (1911-1941)
1.6.3. Esther (1918-1983)
1.7. Karl (1888-1891) an den Masern gestorben

2. Karl (1846-1910) Postmeister in Herdecke oo Susanne Auler
2.1. Karl (ca. 1877-1904)
2.2. Gustav

3. Wilhelmina * 25.11.1847 Simmern + 23.3.1850 Simmern

4. Friedrich (1849-1921), Direktor der Taubstummenanstalt Wriezen
oo Auguste Kaufmann aus Marienburg a.d. Nogat (heute Polen)
4.1. Hedwig oo Morgenstern, Arzt in Wriezen (We think he was Jewish and may have died in the Holocaust, but we don't know for sure.)

5. Katharina Sophia (*12.9.1851 Simmern + 24.12.1880 an Scharlach/Diphtherie oder bei Geburt von 1.?) oo 1879 Friedrich Schmitt (1844-1912), von Beruf Schmied, Simmern Hundsgasse 1. August (1880-1921) Lehrer zuletzt in Wiesbaden, + an TB, ledig

6. Maria Magdalena (1854-1934)
oo 19.4.1879 Gustav Auler (-1906), Färber, Auler-Haus am Simmerbach,
+ an Folgen einer Kriegsverletzung von 1870
6.1. Luise ( -1925) oo Heinrich Faller
1 Sohn
6.2. Sophie oo Leonhard
1 Sohn, * 1916, + Norwegen [laut Ruth]
1 Tochter [laut Johanna]

7. Johanetta Augustina (1855-1931)
oo Heinrich Martin (-1902), Schneidermeister, wohnten im Kauer-Haus in Simmern
7.1. Henriette gen. Jettchen (-1948), ledig
7.2. Johanna (-1960) oo Albert Klugt, Lokomotivführer, Simmern
7.2.1. Ruth
7.2.2. Albert
7.3. Lina oo Karl Kehrein (-1942), Bäcker in Kirn
7.3.1. Heinz (-1944) oo Else
7.3.1.1. Elke
7.3.1.2. Rainer
7.4. Helene (1891-) oo Schmidt, Textilgeschäft in Idstein
7.5. Sophie, oo Gottfried Goldbeck, Juwelier in Wiesbaden 1. Gottfried (Friedel) + bei Stalingrad

8. Christina * 1.6.1858 Simmern + 8.12.1858 Simmern

Monday, April 12, 2021

coffee time

A little light relief for plague year two - there is a lot of research on the effects of caffeine, simply because it's easy to round up a bunch of students, give them caffeine or placebo, and let them do some tasks. However, we're still surprisingly uncertain about the real life effects of coffee consumption on heart, brain and everything else. As the people championing the legalisation of drugs like to point out, coffee is much more powerful than things like cannabis or ecstasy, so if coffee were to be invented today, it would risk being banned straightaway. (Some authorities did try banning it in the past and failed.)

So what do we know and what remains to be uncovered? In my feature I've rolled out a bit of the cultural history and discussed some of the questions being investigated right now. Bottom line, while we're still unsure about many things, the health advice has become more encouraging in recent years. Moderate consumption of coffee probably isn't going to be detrimental to your health.

The feature is out now:

What coffee does to body and mind

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 7, 12 April 2021, Pages R311-R313

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Roasting beans is a crucial step in producing the complex mixture of flavours found in coffee. (Photo: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay.)

Oh, and I was very glad to discover in the course of my research for this Bach's coffee cantata. Here's the video that inspired the introductory paragraph of the feature:

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich

I'm sharing some vintage photos in a new flickr album of family history with social context, i.e. no portraits, but people engaging in activities or posing outside their work place, this kind of thing. To provide some more supporting information than I would put on flickr, I've started a new series here, which is called "Every picture tells a story". I've retrospectively tagged the recent blog entries about Heinrich's string quartet and about the station master of Adamsweiler to become the first parts of the series. (Part of the inspiration is the ongoing series of picture stories in Der Spiegel, called Familienalbum, where I submitted the string quartet photo but failed to get it published.)

Now to a village inn that was run by a cousin of that Adamsweiler station master in the 19th century. The connection goes via the Weiss family which is extremely well documented thanks to a write-up from the 1890s which luckily survives in a transcript. So, essentially, our station master's mother was Sophie Weiss, and her sister Maria Margaretha married an innkeeper called Johann Peter Schmidt in Hahnenbach, and his daughter married Ferdinand Weirich, whose name appears on the sign here:

This postcard is from the 1890s, it carries the signatures of the inn keeper family as well as the station master family who had come over from Adamsweiler to visit (maybe 200 km away). This may have been part of a legendary journey to the home land to find husbands for some of the five daughters. Helene, who signed the card, married in 1907, so it was definitely before then.

Ferdinand Weirich's daughter Lina married Christian Giloy, and they kept the business going. In the more recent picture below the signage refers to her as the widow of Chr. Giloy, but I'm not sure when he died. The picture could be from the 1930s I guess, which is also when the oldest daughter of the station master, who had remained unmarried, acquired a piece of land from her cousins and built a house on it to retire there.

(Loving all the bicycles in this photo, today I wouldn't dare to cycle there, the roads are murderous.)

Some dates for the four relevant generations - quite incomplete, which is why I'm struggling to date the second photo:

Maria Margaretha Weiß (1809-1885) oo 1842 Johann Peter Schmidt aus Hahnenbach

Wilhelmine Caroline Schmidt (*1848) oo Ferdinand Weirich

Carolina Weirich (1871-1951) = die alte Lina oo Christian Giloy

Ferdinand Giloy (1895-1979) oo “junge Lina”

The place was still in the same family in my childhood, but I'm not sure who owns it now. It's been known as "Hahnebach Stubb" in recent incarnations.

Friday, April 09, 2021

a short-lived city

#lostcities bonus episode: Hamborn

When I was rounding up 10 cities which my ancestors inhabited between 1900 and 1970, it struck me that my in-laws were attached to one city during that time, but with a duration of stay that is unrivalled on my side. A young couple arrived in the industrial city of Hamborn (now part of Duisburg) from rural East Prussia in October 1922. She registered at the new residence on the 13th, he started work at the coal mine Gewerkschaft Friedrich Thyssen, Schacht 1/6 on the 23rd (and yes, I have the documents for both these dates). They married five months later and stayed at Hamborn the rest of their lives, which in her case meant more than 56 years. The last of their children died there in 2015, so that makes 92 years of family presence.

That’s real commitment to a place. The lifetime of Hamborn as a city was much shorter, however. After a decade of dramatic population growth, the village, which had only started to run a market in 1898, became a city in 1911. In 1929, its 132,000 inhabitants lost the fight against the all powerful neighbour and became part of Duisburg, initially as a conglomerate called Duisburg-Hamborn, but from 1935 simply as one of many districts of the city of Duisburg. Although many never accepted that state of things. Postcards were still printed with the line “Industriestadt Hamborn” (the example below dates from 1961, would you believe). Another city lost to the efficiency drive, like Rheydt on the other side of the river Rhine.

I borrowed the photo from the usual source, but we do in fact own a specimen of this postcard, and around 20 more. I've visited the attractions in the two frames at the top, but need to go back to see the old town hall and water tower in the one at the bottom left.

#lostcities series:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935 - 1945
  7. Aachen 1936 - 1940
  8. Idar-Oberstein 1940 - 1962
  9. Bad Nauheim 1945 - 1972
  10. Würzburg 1961 - 1968

Saturday, April 03, 2021

flattening the Earth

Some thoughts on

Mercator: The man who mapped the planet
Nicholas Crane
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2002 / Phoenix paperback 2003

The Mercator projection is everywhere these days, although some of us are aware that it is problematic because it inflates the size of countries further away from the equator, thus creating the wrong impression that South America is no bigger than Greenland, and Africa smaller than North America. Alternatives are available but rarely used.

The reason is, of course, Google maps. The Mercator projection is mathematically the simplest way of straightening a globe to make a flat map. You just use the longitude and latitude lines as an orthogonal coordinate system, as your x and y axes. So once you know coordinates of places, it is computationally extremely simple to create a flat map. Nothing wrong with that when you do that for a city map or even a small country, but when people use Mercator to (mis)represent the globe, as Royal Mail does, I come out in a rash.

Reading the biography of the man behind the projection, I learned that mathematical simplicity wasn’t his motivation. He had happily drawn heart-shaped maps of the world before, and he had produced much-coveted globes. The problem he set out to solve was based on the fact that sailors in his time navigated by compass bearing, i.e. the angle between their direction of travel and the measured direction of magnetic north. The simplest way to navigate would be to keep this bearing constant throughout. However, this isn’t the shortest route on a globe, and on most maps it isn’t a straight line. So, to Mercator, the attraction of the orthogonal projection was that the longitude lines will always be straight and vertical, so a route following compass bearing will always be at the same angle to them and thus also be a straight line. Simples.

Born in 1512 as Gerard Kremer, the son of a cobbler latinised his name in line with humanist contemporaries such as Erasmus. His life of just over 80 years neatly falls into two halves, split by a near death experience courtesy of the Spanish Inquisition, after which he decided the Spanish Netherlands weren’t safe for him and settled in the small town of Duisburg on the other side of the river Rhine. Having grown up not too far from that place, which in the 20th century became a major centre of heavy industry complete with Europe’s largest inland harbour, I found it cute to read about the peace and quiet Mercator found in the town, where he completed most of the work that he is remembered for, including the first maps using his famous projection and the book of maps that gave us the word “atlas”.

His move was linked to plans to launch a university at Duisburg, which then fell through. The town later did get a university, which was founded in 1655 but dissolved in 1815. The modern university was set up in 1972 as a Gesamthochschule. In 1994 it was named Gerhard-Mercator-Universität, but in 2003 Mercator lost this honour again, as his university merged with the University of Essen.

Another irony is that, while Mercator mapped all of the known world, and even some speculative geographies that turned out to be fictional, such as a ring of islands surrounding the North Pole, he never left the boundaries of a map of the Rhineland area shown at the front of the book, which covers around 400 km by 600 km. (It amused me that this map prefacing a book about a map maker shows Cologne on the wrong side of the river Rhine. As Colonia is a Roman foundation, it’s not hard to remember that it belongs on the left bank.)

Crane published the biography in 2002, before Google maps started flooding the world with Mercator projections, but I was still a bit disappointed that the epilogue doesn’t even mention the perception problems it creates and the alternative projections that others have produced to create a fairer representation of the planet. The biography is available as an e-book but the paper version seems to have gone out of print, unfortunately. Mercator's 500th birthday in 2012 would have been an opportunity for a new edition both to celebrate his work and re-assess it in the brave new world of Google maps.

PS: I just discovered his descendants are on GedBas. No obvious connection to my family history, but good to know.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

recording some progress

Plague Year(s) Bach Project, 14th month

In March, I managed to memorise the first half of the gigue in D minor (38 bars out of 76) so I'm quite happy with that.

Staying in the 2nd suite, I am now hoping to learn the other minuet, to complete the movement 2.5 which I started in January. See that month's blog entry for the relevant links. I already know the last bar of the D minor minuet, as it ends on an open D chord, and playing that before starting the D major minuet is an enormous help, because the first note fills in the missing F# to switch from minor to major. (This is one atom of Bach which I understood all by myself, so ignore me while I'm gloating about it.)

At the output end of the pipeline, I am now beginning to get some recordings that I am almost happy with, see the first youtube upload. I will list recordings under step 5 below, and possibly replace them if and when I manage to get a less embarrassing one of the same movement. Also hoping to get some outdoors videos, see if the birds would like to sing along ...

So after 13 months with 360 practice days, 12 movements studied, and 385 bars memorised, my list now looks like this:

1) movements I've studied for a month, then put aside for now
1.1. Prelude
1.2 Allemande

2) movements memorised in a significant part
1.3 Courante (2/3)
2.5 Minuet I&II (1/2)
2.6 Gigue (1/2)
3.4 Sarabande (1/3)

3) movements memorised in their entirety
1.4 Sarabande
1.6 Gigue
2.4 Sarabande
3.6. Gigue

4) movements memorised and synchronised with metronome
1.5 Minuet I&II

5) movements recorded on video
3.5 Bourree I&II - here's the VIDEO

I may have snapped this one accidentally while trying to set up the camera for a video, but then I decided I kind of liked it.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

greetings from Adamsweiler

As I've been obsessing about old postcards for my #lostcities recently, I remembered this little treasure which isn't really from a city, but a village in Alsace, but it has the bonus feature of showing seven members of my family.

If you look at the picture of the railway station on the right:

you see from left to right, my great-great-grandparents, their five daughters - my great-grandmother being the youngest of the quintet, she's probably the last one in the line, followed by the station staff. The photo dates from 1900, which is the year the first of the daughters married.

So that is
Christoph Gottlieb Kauer (1845-1909)
Margaretha Imig (1847-1930) (see the Imig Clan entry for her extended family including dates and descendants for her daughters)
Johanna
Auguste
Anna
Kätha
Helene

I have a half-finished book about the station master's family in the drawer, one day I'll have to dig that up and make it presentable. Among the interesting issues to be discussed in this oontext is how the dramatic expansion of the railways brought both social mobility and geographic movements. The parents in this family both hailed from small town Simmern, both from modest craftsmen families, and CG Kauer would normally have become a cobbler like his dad. As a young recruit, he was severely injured in the war of 1870 and the railway career was kind of the consolation prize he got for that.

PS The village is now called Adamswiller, and has a population of just under 400 (in 1900 it was 313 including the 7 people named above). I can't find any other postcards from that time online, if anybody has any I'd be interested to see them.

The station was still standing when I visited in the 1990s, and here is a picture of it that looks more recent. Hoping it does survive still.

STOP PRESS: I've now created a new flickr album for all things family history related.

New series: Every picture tells a story

Friday, March 26, 2021

a city rising from the ashes

#lostcities episode 10: Würzburg

Finally, to the city that left a hole in my heart when I was transplanted to the sticks, but there is a happy ending of sorts in that two of my children went there to study (for reasons unrelated to previous family history), so I have had plenty of opportunities to revisit in the 2010s (see eg this Flickr album or the relevant tag).

Würzburg, located on the river Main upstream of Frankfurt, was comprehensively reduced to rubble in WW II (see this aerial view from 1948), but much of it reconstructed sympathetically, so today you wouldn’t guess that it has arisen from the ashes. When my parents arrived there in October 1961, there were still ruins in every street. After a stay in a nearby village, they managed to rent a couple of rooms in Neubaustraße 8, half way between the eponymous church and the river Main. We had to swap those rooms for the attic in the same building at some point, which was probably illegal but very romantic (at least in my imagination).

The medieval fortifications of Würzburg, today presenting as a green belt, describe a semicircle closed off by the river, and Neubaustraße is just a couple of hundred metres off the bisecting radius that runs from the cathedral to the medieval bridge. Looking across the river, the vista from this street points straight at the Marienberg fortress on the hill opposite the old town. (Conversely, this photo shows the view from the fortress down into Neubaustraße.) I went to nursery in a small side road nearby, I learned to walk in the parks of the baroque palace (Residenz), just beyond the inland end of the Neubaustraße. I may not have appreciated it as a toddler, but the presumed grave of Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170 - ca. 1230) is also in the neighbourhood, in the Lusamgärtchen behind Neubaukirche.

By the end of 1968, we all washed up in the middle of nowhere, at which point my great-grandmother at Bad Nauheim was the last city resident standing among my direct ancestors.

PS: A day after I posted this, Twitter flagged up the birthday of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (27.3.1845), who of course discovered X rays at Würzburg, in a laboratory on the northern side of the old town, where the street name Röntgenring as well a small museum and a memorial sculpture today remind us of the fact. Back in the 1960s, the University's chemistry labs, where I toddled about between open drains carrying flammable solvents (maybe accounts have been exaggerated a bit to scare me), were still located on Röntgenring. Soon after, they moved to the new campus on Hubland, a high plateau just south of the city centre. Right now, I hear chemistry is again planning a move to new buildings.

Würzburg 1960
Source

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935 - 1945
  7. Aachen 1936 - 1940
  8. Idar-Oberstein 1940 - 1962
  9. Bad Nauheim 1945 - 1972
  10. Würzburg 1961 - 1968

Stay tuned, as I still have a bonus episode in reserve.

Monday, March 22, 2021

watch your wastewater

During this pandemic I kept hearing about the great work researchers are doing detecting SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater as an early warning of coming waves and new variants up to two weeks before the relevant patients show up in hospitals. From the politicians, at least in this country, we have warnings only two weeks after the hospitals begin to fill up, and measures are generally taken several weeks too late, making the problem worse.

So I had a look around at what is being done in the wastewater epidemiology of Covid-19, and how in some countries it informs the political measures, while in some others it clearly doesn't, even though the methodology and the data are available. Still not clear why some people don't want to heed the warnings when they arrive well in time to allow them to adapt, but it is kind of reassuring that there are very clear lessons here to be learned for the next outbreak of a zoonotic disease. Reading the warnings from wastewater, we can stop the next pandemic from happening. Might require different political leadership, however, at least in some countries I can think of.

As part of the special treatment for Covid related information, my feature has been available as an open access preprint for the last two weeks, but today it is officially out in the proper format, and still on open access:

Wastewater warnings

Current Biology Volume 31, issue 06, pages R267-R269, March 22, 2021

FREE access to full text and PDF download
This is currently on open access as part of the general Covid-19 info policy from Cell Press. Should that change, it will become open access again one year after publication

Any problems with the link above, try the:

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Samples taken from the raw sewage entering water treatment plants can be used to monitor the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The image shows aeration tanks at a water treatment plant in Upper Providence, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

a not so brief introduction

Once upon a time there was a book called Astrobiology - a brief introduction, which came out in 2006, and then in a second fully revised edition in 2011.

Now it's taken a bit longer, and a lot of things have happened out in space and here on Earth, but later this year we will have a third edition. We've spent the whole month of February checking the page proofs and preparing the index, so the book is now "in press" as far as I'm concerned. While the cover kept the basic layout, it now has a fresh new photo, and the other change you may notice is that the word "brief" has disappeared. Must be something to do with the fact that the book including index now has over 400 pages. Not quite so brief now. (Oh, and I am told the hardback will now also benefit from the lovely cover design. In the first two editions, the hardback was produced as a plain black "library edition", but I hear that policy has been dropped now.)

Further details to follow, I just wanted to share the lovely new cover at this stage:

Update 25.3.: details are now on the publisher's website, including:

Publication Date: 3 Aug 2021
Trim Size: 6" x 9"
Page Count: 416 pages
Illustrations: 37 b/w photos, 72 b/w illus.

Paperback: $34.95
ISBN: 9781421441290

Hardcover: $75.00
ISBN: 9781421441283

E-book: $34.95
ISBN: 9781421441306

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

father and son

some thoughts on

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, mon père
by Jean Renoir
Hachette 1962 / Gallimard 1981
an English translation from 2001 is also available

Back in 2013, the film Renoir was one of the few French movies that still made it to our local independent cinema, and I was lucky to catch it there, and then watched it again when it came out on DVD. It is about the last years in the life of the painter, after the death of his wife, Aline Charigot, in 1915. Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) is stuck in a wheelchair and barely able to move his hands, two of his sons get injured in the war, but he creates some of his most vibrant and life-affirming art.

By the time I started looking at paintings, the impressionists had become mainstream to the point of commercial overload, so I’ve never been a huge fan these works although I don’t mind seeing them every once in a while. The film, however, made me appreciate Renoir a bit more and as a result I picked up a few books about him at various charity shops and antiques fairs, including the memoir by his middle son, the film director Jean Renoir (1894-1979). The idea of the changing of the guard in visual arts, one of the first great film makers writing about one of the last impressionists to remain active in the 20th century, intrigued me so I actually read the book, assisted by the other volumes to look up paintings mentioned and consult timelines.

The biography is based on conversations Jean Renoir had with his father in the last year of his life, as well as with his long-serving model Gabrielle Renard (1878-1959) and other surviving witnesses. As the age gap between father and son is more than half a century, his own recollections only become useful towards the end of the story.

It is organised broadly chronologically, although the author tends to digress on thematic excursions, and covers a staggering range of historical change. From his childhood in the 1840s, Renoir remembered an old man who visited his parents regularly and happily shared memories of how he helped operating the guillotines in the French Revolution. Renoir’s family moved to Paris before it was completely reshaped by Haussmann in the 1850s, he experienced the restored monarchy and as he lived in the Tuileries, he played under the windows of the actual queen. Like some of the other impressionists, he lived and worked in Montmartre when it was still a village with wooden shacks, long before Sacré Coeur was built.

The complete rejection of the impressionists by critics, public and art officialdom in the 1870s is a well-trodden story but always fun to read. Apart from having fun with quoting from the hilarious reviews of the first exhibitions (one of which gave us the word “impressionists” for the artists who had called themselves “les intransigeants” initially), he highlights the occasions when French institutions like the Louvre wouldn’t even take the paintings for free, resulting in many of them winding up in North America. For instance, the painter and collector Gustave Caillebotte died in 1894 leaving his vast collection to the state and installing Renoir to execute his will. Initially the Louvre (as the official repository of the state’s art collection) didn’t want to be bothered with any of it. Three years later, they saw sense and accepted a part of the collection. Not sure if anybody has calculated what the Caillebotte collection would be worth today – I suspect you’d have to be very good in calculating with trillions and such like.

Renoir, who famously identified as a craftsman rather than an artist and considered the word intellectual an insult, comes across as an interestingly complex mixture of old-fashioned and revolutionary, which is part of the force field that keeps this book interesting, even though it isn’t the most organised biography ever written. That and the chance to meet the people you already know from those famous paintings. In another very famous French movie, Amélie, there’s the painter who copies Renoir’s Déjeuner des canotiers (1881) over and over again. Jean Renoir describes the setting and can identify most of the participants, mostly faithful friends of the painter. The woman at the front left, playing with a little dog, is Aline, the author’s mother. When we see these pictures in museums or on countless wall calendars, they are just paintings – but for Jean Renoir and the rest of the family they were life.

Oh, and I'll just have to watch the movie a third time, now I know the family so much better.

Monday, March 08, 2021

save the vaquita

There have been quite a few features about Homo sapiens recently(Covid, conspiracies, pollution and such like), so I was keen to get back to some endangered animals, and a faithful reader from Mexico suggested to look at their local endangered cetacean, the vaquita porpoise. It so happened that the vaquita just had a high quality genome sequence out, which led to the surprising conclusion that the species, although reduced to a population of fewer than 20 individuals, doesn't have any genetic problems. The only thing that has to happen is that the illegal fishing (for other species, but killing vaquitas as they're the same size) needs to stop.

Adding to that, I also looked at other genome and genetic diversity data of other cetacean species, to see how they're coping these days, including humpback whales recovering after a close brush with extinction.

The resulting feature is out now:

Cetaceans balancing on the brink

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 5, 8 March 2021, Pages R215-R218

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The vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) is the most endangered cetacean, but a genome study suggests that it may still recover if the threat of gillnet fishing is removed. (Photo: Paula Olson/NOAA.)

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