Every year busloads of French school children and tourists from around the globe make the day trip north from Paris to visit the clearing at Rothondes where the Armistice was signed in a railroad car at the end of World War I. All along the road, just an hour from Paris, an impressive number of medieval churches, monasteries and graceful châteaux dot the rolling hills of Picardy. A few miles from the famous clearing, the Museum of Franco-American Cooperation celebrates friendship between the two nations. Housed in the 17th-century château of Blérancourt, the museum’s art collection, special exhibitions and extensive documentation trace more than 200 years of Franco-American relations.
The story behind this fine museum is a moving tale of American volunteers in France during the first world war. In 1917 the ruins of the Blérancourt château became the headquarters for CARD (Comité Américain des Régions Dévastées), an American war-relief program. Led by Anne Morgan, daughter of the eminent banker J.P. Morgan, a group of American women volunteers created a hospital, workshops, housing and distribution centers on the château grounds. Classrooms were opened and truck-driven “traveling libraries” served a struggling civilian population on the fringe of the war zone.
Pragmatic and organized, the projects financed by CARD continued long after the war, working through local organizations to rapidly rebuild the war-torn region. It was during this period that Anne Morgan and her friend Anne Murray Dike began their efforts to restore the Blérancourt château. By 1923 the French association Amis du Musée was founded to build a collection for a future museum. Member Anna Murray Vail’s collection of rare books and documents on Franco-American themes became the base for the museum’s library and research center, a rich source for students and scholars interested in Franco-American relations, particularly in the field of art.
The museum opened in a restored wing of the château, commemorating French participation in the American Revolution as well as American aid in France during the Great War. For some years, Blérancourt’s collection grew steadily from generous donations and through the careful purchases of curator André Girodie.
Interest in the on-going project at Blérancourt was at its height when World War II erupted, and the outbreak of war closed the museum. During the late ‘40s the death of the museum’s curator, followed closely by Anne Morgan’s death in 1952, left the program floundering. Modest subsidies from the French government did not allow for renovation of the neglected buildings. For over 30 years the museum was quietly forgotten.
Blérancourt’s dramatic rebirth began six years ago, when the concerted efforts of the newly formed American Friends of Blérancourt and the French Amis du Musée joined forces with museum conservator Pierre Rosenberg to activate the slumbering château.
Véronique Wiesinger, the dynamic new curator, has kept a clear vision of the museum’s original objectives. Last year the exhibition “Le Voyage de Paris” recalled the history of American students in Paris art schools between 1868 and 1918. This year’s show highlights “American Drawings in French National Collections.”
Although the overall view is far from complete, the highly eclectic collection includes some amazing finds: a charming pastel by Mary Cassatt; several fine views of the Château de Bréau by Walter Gay; a watercolor landscape by John Marin; and a rare watercolor of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, by Jefferson Vail done around 1821.
Since 1989 the new Florence Gould Wing has housed the largest public collection of American art in France. This pleasant collection on permanent exhibit clearly attests to the strong artistic presence of American artists in France after 1870. The collection includes a few early 19th-century paintings as well as modern works through 1945.
A separate level in the Gould Pavillion documents the important American humanitarian presence in France during the two world wars. Several years ago a garden of American plants and an arboretum were inaugurated on the château grounds, and there are plans to renovate a space for a permanent exhibition of the 18th-century collections.
Blérancourt Museum of Franco-American Cooperation, 110 kilometers from Paris, by highway A1 from Porte de la Chapelle; turn off at Chevrières toward Soisson and turn left at Trosly-Breuil. Directions to the château indicated after Compiégne.