Along the Left Bank of the Seine…

you can now browse into not only two but three amazingly charming and interesting art stores. Across from the Louvre, 3 Quai Voltaire, there has always been -since 1887 anyway- the delightful Sennelier shop.

The Louvre reflected in Sennelier's brush window display
The Louvre reflected in Sennelier’s brush window display

Sennelier is still the most comprehensive of the three stores as it represents not only their world renown brand of watercolours, gouaches, oils, oil and soft pastels, oil sticks and more recently acrylics but also most of my round the world favorites: Golden, Flashe, Gamblin, Nitram, Lascaux, Unison, Schmincke, Blockx, etc. Browsing there is both a flashback experience and a flash-forward one. I’m sure you will resist no more the charm and scent of the unchanged shop – a flavour they strongly cultivate there – than the exquisite feeling you have just put your footsteps into those of the Impressionists or more recent Masters who have gathered around the beautiful wooden drawers and stands to discuss paint consistency or the possibility of turning oil into a drawing implement. I doubt too you will be able to resist these strangely shaped brushes quite unknown to you… even if unclear what to do with them! (Since my brush philosophy is that you can’t have too many, you might just want to try one or two… at least that’s what I’d do for sure.)

Inside Sennelier's shop: the counter with the most precious brushes
Inside Sennelier’s shop: the counter with the most precious brushes
Row upon row of beautiful colours in Sennelier
Row upon row of beautiful colours in Sennelier

If your footsteps carry you upstream, you will eventually arrive opposite Notre Dame to another historical treasure, the Charbonnel store situated 13 quai de Montebello. (My only photograph unfortunately is from the outside as they do not permit shots inside.)

The Charbonnel store in Paris
The Charbonnel store in Paris

This store was opened even earlier, in 1862, by Francois Charbonnel, a creative chemist determined to compete with improved etching and lithography materials the emerging rival: photography! His inks and varnishes impressed and inspired artists to fight back and, for a while anyhow, won over art collectors and industrialists alike. Manet, Degas or Renoir became his clients, while the beautiful “affiches” Toulouse Lautrec designed  were printed with his inks. Not surprisingly, the Charbonnel store is still specialized in etching, linocut and other woodblock inks and tools, with the more recent addition of gilding supplies. They also have an impressive selection of papers, so in a way a rather specialized store, although I’ve been told by the salesman that their etching “inks” were more and more used by artists as a super rich oil paint (they then add their mediums accordingly I presume) and I have to share I witnessed a street artist rushing in, brush in hand –and presumably sitter awaiting- to buy a tube!

Some Charbonnel etching inks
Some Charbonnel etching inks

But halfway between these two venerable landmarks of art materials, 57 quai des Grands Augustins, there is now a very charming new store you should not miss: Charvin (with helpful and knowledgeable Jean Philippe behind the counter).

Inside the Charvin store in Paris
Inside the Charvin store in Paris

Here too they mainly represent themselves, a brand that saw the light of sun on the Côte d’Azur in 1830. Over the next century and a half, it supplied the likes of Cézanne and Bonnard with the vivid colours they needed to depict the strong contrasts of light in the Midi. Then, in 2000, the small company was bought by the present owners, Laurence and Bruno Charvin, a daring couple who decided to revitalize the brand and products sparing no costs on quality. The result is an amazing range of colours (208 shades in their oil range!) which you’ll discover at a glance when entering the shop… the pinks and the greys are to die for and the quality is up to their look!  They have chosen an elegant and somewhat old-fashioned packaging, probably to reassure clients about the longevity, authenticity and quality of their -not yet so well known- products. The shop too, with its dark wooden furnishings and gilded lettering, has been designed to make you feel it’s been there for centuries and… it works!

Charvin's window display
Charvin’s window display

What those three delightful places have in common, is the world of possibles they open to you. Push their doors and the smell of a “good art store” assail your nostrils… a mingle of solvents, varnishes, oils that somehow elate and inspire. It’s a bit hard to know why and perhaps it’s more in my memory box than yours but I always feel when I get my first shot of that scent that somehow I COULD. I could give the hours to my drawing and other creative projects, I could go wild and press on a 200ml tube as if I was not wasting but knowing what I was going to with that beautiful blob of colour, I could buy half the shop and turn this into a lifestyle… I could perhaps, even, one day, become an artist and go for it (she whispers while laughing at the cartoon below) ah well!

I hope the wonderful French cartoonist Sempé will forgive me for using his delightful drawing (inspired by the Sennelier shop)... the caption goes:
I hope the wonderful French cartoonist Sempé will forgive me for using his delightful drawing (inspired by the Sennelier shop)… the caption goes:
” Some Ingres paper, Van Dyck brown, Van Gogh yellow, Rembrandt red, Chardin white,
Ucello black, Veronese green, Piero della Francesca ocre, Delft blue, Velasquez crimson,
Fra Angelico gold, Bellini pink and then go for it baby!”

PS: and I promise you art stores are the only ones in the world that do this to me! (I NEVER think of becoming a fishmonger in a fish shop or a designer in a clothes shop for example).

PPS: and don’t ask me why banal and boring art supply stores don’t smell as nice, I don’t know, but they just don’t. (I went to Brisbane recently for a few days and entered every single art shop in the city and only one passed the smell test… and that was the best one by far!!)

A lovely display of Charvin inks in a
A lovely display of Charvin inks in a “good art store” for sure!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Turiya Bruce says:

    How delightful. I was there with you and could see all the tubes and colours too as well as digitalsmell!
    Great tip about the Charbonnel etching colours. They are delightfully thick and would make great paints with mediums or not. Hadn’t thought of that. More please ESP the Coates willow visit….. Lots of love, Xxxx

  2. I bought a supply of paints at Charvin last year in Paris. On this return journey, couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of the store. So many thanks to you, as I found the name on your blog and can now replenish supplies

  3. Simone Jo Moore says:

    How wonderful to read your article. I have recently visited Charvin for the 3rd time. Bought my first ‘Paris’ easel from there. A good art store is like walking into a ‘lolly shop’ for sweet fanatics. I love their service and willingness to discuss the vagaries for novices and experts alike.

    1. HI Simone, so sorry this is such a late answer to your nice comment… Yes Charvin is a delightful store and, although new, feels likes it’s been there forever and the man I saw there that day was so helpful too!

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