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French fans flock to Bastille Day at Houston’s Rienzi

July 14, 2018

A small octagonal plate, decorated with curling vines, colorful birds and green serpents with a blue border is one of many pieces displayed in the ballroom of Rienzi, the house in River Oaks that holds a European collection for Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Though the plate may seem unassuming at first glance, Rienzi director Christine Gervais said it is actually one of the only survivors from the Arabesque Service, an enormously complex dinner set commissioned by the French royal family. The set was meant to have hundreds of pieces, but its production was cut short by the French Revolution.

The plate, a witness to the downfall of the luxury that created it, was one of several French artifacts highlighted in Rienzi’s first-ever Bastille Day event Saturday. The French national holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille, a turning point in the French Revolution.

In the daylong program, the museum offered guided tours of the collection in French, craft activities for all ages, live 18th century French music from Colin St. Martin, an Ars Lyrica flutist, and revolution-themed performances from Main Street Theater.

Although Bastille Day is not celebrated widely outside of the French community in Houston, visitors of all ages came to participate in Rienzi’s event, which was supported by the French Consulate in Houston.

David and Ana Franco, a couple from Houston, brought their three young daughters to educate them about Bastille Day. “We’re not French, but we do speak French. We spent significant time in France, especially Paris,” Ana Franco said.

“We just came to enjoy the day and introduce our kids to the French Revolution,” David Franco said.

Rheagan Howe, 7, came to make her own paper tricolor cocarde with her mother Bryane. Like the Francos, they are also from Texas, and they have been to France because Rheagan’s father imports French wine. “Rheagan is really interested in art,” her mother said. “She’s going to a summer camp soon, and we came here for inspiration.”

“We came today because we’ve been in Paris on Bastille Day,” Ginny Camfield said of herself and her husband Bill, a former art history professor at Rice University. Bill Camfield continues to research French art, and Camfields currently have a granddaughter living in France. “I’m a real Francophile, and I like celebrating France,” Ginny Camfield said.

The Bastille Day event was the brainchild of Stephanie Niemeyer, Rienzi’s manager of learning and interpretation, who sought to showcase the museum’s European collection in an accessible way.

“One of the things Christine and I try really hard to do is to make the 18th century seem relevant to a 21st century audience,” Niemeyer said. “And to do that, we’ve tried to think of ways (to) relate these objects in this house to people’s lives.”

Niemeyer, a native Houstonian, is a former teacher who is now in charge of the museum’s education outreach. Her current position still requires her to teach, but instead of ninth and 12th-grade English students, her pupils are now adult volunteers training to become museum docents. Through her work, she hopes to continue the legacy of Carroll and Harris Masterson, the philanthropic art patrons who originally owned the collection and lived in the house.

“(The Mastersons) loved to have people over at their house, loved to show people their objects, so we feel like we’re carrying on that tradition by sharing this house with Houston and the community,” Niemeyer said. “We always want to see people having a good time here, and ultimately walking away a little bit more curious about the past.”

One highlight of the day that attracted many visitors was Main Street Theater’s performance of “The Revolutionists,” a play by Lauren Gunderson that brings together four women characters from the French Revolution era: Marie Antoinette, the queen of France; Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jean Paul Marat; Olympe de Gouges, a female playwright from the 1790s; and Marianne Angelle, a fictional character that grounds the connections between the characters.

“The play is a riff on, ‘What if these four women actually met each other?’” said Shannon Emerick, who plays Olympe de Gouges. “They never did in real life, but what if they did?”

Rienzi formed a partnership with Main Street Theater last October, and in the brainstorming process, Emerick felt that “The Revolutionists” would be particularly well-suited for Bastille Day. At noon, Emerick and her fellow actresses Callina Anderson, Molly Searcy and Bree Welch performed an excerpt of the play that explored the role of women in the revolution, touching on serious social issues such as class divide, slavery, and women’s rights with generous helpings of humor and drama to keep audiences engaged.

“It was very intense,” David Franco said. “I didn’t expect the play to be that dramatic. But they were very good.”

“I liked the play because it was a very good demonstration of women’s rights and women’s struggle throughout time,” Bryane Howe said. “It was a nice reminder that (women’s rights) have been a constant problem for a really long time, and it’s not just (America), it’s everybody.”

This year, Bastille Day happens to fall on the eve of the World Cup finals match the French national team is set to play in. However, at Rienzi, sports took a backseat to art and storytelling.

“I love objects. I love the stories they tell,” Gervais said. “Like this plate,” she said, pointing to the octagonal Arabesque dish. “It’s telling you all of this interesting stuff about the time … there’s a lot going on in just a plate.”

alex.park@chron.com

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