Each year a few American artists enjoy a rare and beautiful experience: the opportunity to live and work at a French chateau for a month. As one of them, Nancy Mitton, puts it, "It's as if you've died and gone to heaven."
In the rolling countryside of Brittany, near the west coast of France, the tiny town of Rochefort-en-Terre sits on a hillside crowned by a picturesque chateau. For most of the 20th century, the Chateau de Rochefort-en-Terre was owned by two American artists with close ties to Baltimore, Alfred Partridge Klots and his son, Trafford Klots.
Today the chateau, owned by the French government, is the home of a residency program that accepts four artists to stay there for the month of June. The program was instituted a decade ago by Trafford Klots' widow, Isabel, and since 1995 has been administered by the Maryland Institute, College of Art.
This week, there is a show and sale at the Institute of 62 works of art to establish an endowment for the program. They include works by Trafford Klots contributed by Isabel Klots, and works by artists who were residents there.
They gave because they remember the experience with great appreciation.
Paul Russotto of New York singles out the light. "It's a powerful place," he says. "The light lasts until 10 o'clock at night, and I would start out early and work until 10o'clock and be very happily exhausted because of all the work I got done."
George Nick, of Concord, Mass., speaks of the town. "The chateau looks right down on the very old and quite beautiful town with its slate-roofed stone buildings," he remembers. "I painted nine paintings that month. It was a very rich experience and quite productive."
Nancy Mitton, of Boston, was fueled by the encouragement. "It was a very inspirational time because of the beauty of the chateau and the village, and the warmth and aesthetic appreciation of the townspeople," she says. "One of the most memorable parts of that painting experience was the love and respect that many artists don't feel in their own neighborhoods."
And Ruth Channing, of Baltimore, who shared a residency with her husband, Raoul Middleman, agrees. "Invariably here, if you say you're an artist, the question is, Can you make a living at it? There, they're thrilled. You're an artist! It's like you were a brain surgeon in this country."
Currently, the program gives the artists work space and living accommodations, but they are responsible for their own travel expenses and board. A sellout of the current show would raise more than $100,000 for the endowment program, which would be used partly to help worthy artists who can't afford to go on their own. It would possibly help provide for an expansion of the program as well, perhaps another group of artists for another month of the summer.
"Another possibility, and a very important component, would be to invite back alumni of the program a few years later," says painter Robert Seyffert, director of the residency program. "It would establish a sense of continuity."
Seyffert himself brings a sense of continuity to Rochefort as a mecca for artists. His uncle, artist Richard Seyffert, was a friend of Trafford Klots and visited Rochefort several times. And Robert Seyffert remembers the younger Klots, who died in 1976, as a charming and magnetic man.
"He was very generous, warm and funny," Seyffert remembers. "He had an incredible capacity for a positive outlook on life, and when he walked into a room, everybody turned around. He was an attractive person."
In that, as in his calling as an artist, Trafford Klots followed in the footsteps of his father. Alfred Klots, born in 1875, was a distinguished portrait painter whose subjects included Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, and the mother of Adlai Stevenson. Klots grew up in Illinois but spent much of his life in France.
In 1904, Alfred married Agnes Boone of Baltimore. The next year, he bought the chateau at Rochefort, which dated to the 12th century and had been largely destroyed after the French Revolution. But there were farm buildings on the property that survived, and these Alfred Klots restored and added to, creating a chateau building in the Renaissance style.
"He was a brilliant architect as well as a brilliant painter," says Isabel Klots, "and he transformed it into a wonderful place for living. He started before the First World War and continued many years." He also established warm relations with the town, instituting a flower contest that made the houses bloom with window boxes and helping the French war effort during World War I.
When he died in 1939, his son Trafford, a much-in-demand portraitist and landscape painter, maintained the chateau and carried on his father's traditions in the community. At the beginning of the Second World War, he organized an American fund for aid to the families of soldiers from Brittany. He married the former Isabel Hulings of Baltimore in 1942, and as an officer with the 1944 Allied liberation forces was the first American to reach Rochefort, thereby liberating the town.
After the war, the Klotses divided their time between Rochefort and Baltimore. After Trafford Klots died in 1976, the French government purchased the chateau as a historic building. Isabel Klots, allowed life tenancy, was approached by the government for an idea of how to use the chateau.
"I said artists," she recalls, "and they said, 'Brilliant, but it must be Americans.' Trafford always brought artists there, and they wanted to continue that way."
At first, Seyffert and Isabel Klots ran the residency program informally, but in the mid-1990s, they approached the Institute (of which Seyffert is a 1975 graduate) to administer the program. "We needed a little more behind us," she says.
A committee of four, including Institute academic dean Ray Allen and Isabel Klots, now selects the artists. "We don't take students or artists who haven't made a certain mark," she says. Last year, there were 28 applicants for the four residencies. They don't need to be landscape painters. "We take whoever we think will profit by the experience," she adds.
But with the chateau and its grounds, the charming old town, the hilly countryside of Brittany all around and the seacoast only a few miles away, there's lots for a landscape painter to paint, as Raoul Middleman knows. "It's like Maryland, with its rolling hills, but a little more moody," he says. "There are dark, melancholy woods, the farmhouses are ancient, and there's a moist, soft light."
Aside from a place to live and work, artists also get a show of their works in the chateau's gallery, which gives them much exposure. The chateau is now open for public tours, and there are artists and artisans in the town. Together, chateau and town have become a tourist attraction.
"As the summer progresses, there are bus load after bus load after bus load," says Seyffert, "and the first thing on the tour is the gallery. I wouldn't be surprised if there were 300 or 400 people on a Saturday in August. The artists get their works seen by thousands of people a summer."
A crucial element of the artists' experience is the presence of Isabel Klots, who not only entertains the artists but also knows the ter- ritory. "Isabel Klots is such a gracious hostess and a great enthusiast of art," says Nancy Mitton.
"Isabel's savvy about France, she can do everything, and she's a great sport," says Middleman, who succinctly sums up the artist's experience at Rochefort:
"There is nothing not to like."
What: Exhibit and sale of works to benefit the Alfred and Trafford Klots Artists' Residency Program
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday (to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday), noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 17
Where: Maryland Institute, College of Art's Meyerhoff Gallery, Fox Building, Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues
Pub Date: 01/10/99