Having fulfilled many of her wildest wishes, Agnès Holzapfel Seugnet
paints fantasy scapes from Paris to Princeton.
Agnès Holzapfel Seugnet is one of those artists who didn't pick up a paintbrush until later in life, but when she did, a world poured forth onto the canvas.
"You are not born an artist, you become one," says the French native, surrounded by fantastical visions in oil on the walls of her Princeton apartment. "It
takes many years to accumulate experiences and emotions, and admiring the work of the masters — you have to study them before you start."
Ms. Seugnet's paintings are in a group exhibition at the Gourgaud Gallery in Cranbury through Dec. 22. She will have solo shows at the Princeton University
League Art Gallery in February, and again at the Gourgaud Gallery March 2 to 30.
Chagall and Monet are among the masters Ms. Seugnet admires, but it is perhaps her strong-willed mother who inspired her most. "She was called the female
Napoleon," Ms. Seugnet says of her mother. "She had so much energy and looked 10 to 15 years younger than she was."
Over Ms. Seugnet's sofa is a painting of what looks like a fairytale castle — it is the family chateau in the south of Lyon, France. One of the Three
Musketeers films was shot on location here. Built as a small castle in the 12th century, it was enlarged and fortified in medieval times. Lisette Holzapfel, a physician and
single mother, bought the chateau in 1974. She had her work cut out for her, restoring the 35-room palace.
"She loved poetry and the theater, going to museums — she had a lot of fantasy, her life was like a story," says her daughter. Ms. Holzapfel wrote poems,
played the piano and drew, and she opened the chateau to the public for concerts, exhibitions and theatrical productions. "I grew up in that artistic environment," says Ms.
The painter so adored her mother, she began writing a book about Ms. Holzapfel in 1993, just after her death: Petit Claude: The Orphan of Auschwitz and His
French Rescuers (Xlibris, 2001, translated to English by Ann Keay Beneduce). Ms. Seugnet relates the story with such drama, a listener can get as caught up in it as if
watching a movie.
Four-year-old "Petit Claude" was rescued from a Nazi prison by a relative of Ms. Seugnet en route to Auschwitz, where both his parents were killed. Ms. and Mr.
Holzapfel took in Petit Claude and raised him as their own to hide him from the Nazis.
"In Praise of my Mother."
They sent him to school and to Boy Scout camps, and secretly fought in the French
When the war ended, Petit Claude was 7, and a grandmother who had survived the Holocaust came to claim him. Ms. Seugnet's parents, who had come to love him as
their own, were heartbroken. "It was a wound that never healed," recounts Ms. Seugnet. Petit Claude was relocated to what has become Israel, but tragically, his grandmother
couldn't afford to keep him and sent him to live on a kibbutz in a foster situation. "Forty people in his family had been killed during the war.
"All our lives, my mother mentioned Petit Claude affectionately, but the contact had been lost," continues Ms. Seugnet, who was one of five siblings. Just
three months before her mother died, a light went off inside Ms. Seugnet: She had to find Petit Claude — who was no longer "petit" but in his 50s. He had changed his name to Uri
Blum, and this made it more difficult to find him, but find him she did just in time to reunite the family while her mother was alive. During the reunion dinner in Paris, she
played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony — Ode to Joy. Ms. Seugnet was so filled with emotion that night, she turned on her computer and wrote and wrote for nine months until
the story unfolded. "He'd told me of so many wondrous memories," she says.
Prior to the book, Ms. Seugnet had only written poetry. After earning a master's degree in German education from the Sorbonne, Ms. Seugnet came to the U.S.
with her backpack and traveled from the Galapagos to Iceland and South America. On two, six-month-long trips, she had taken so many photographs, she established a darkroom in
Paris and subsequently won a Kodak Portrait Award. She took time off to raise her daughter, Sophie, born in 1983, then worked as a translator for Bertelsmann Publishing Co. When
the family moved to Princeton in 1995, she worked teaching French to adults at Inlingua and met Ann Beneduce, an advanced student who was there to practice. Ms. Beneduce asked
for something to read in French, and Ms. Seugnet gave Ms. Beneduce, a writer and publisher, her book on Petit Claude.
Ms. Seugnet describes this as her "dream-come-true in America." Not only did Ms. Beneduce ask to translate the book to English, but she introduced Ms. Seugnet
to Karen McLean Peterson at Highland Studios in Hopewell. Before then, Ms. Seugnet had made charcoal sketches, but at Highland Studios, she learned to paint in watercolor,
pastel and oil.
"Inside, I knew I needed to express myself and that one day I'd start painting," she says, recounting how, in her youth, her mother had an exhibit of the
painter Joël Réal every summer, and she would quietly observe him, "learning by osmosis." She also served as a model for Mr. Réal.
"When I came to this country, I went into culture shock," says Ms. Seugnet. "I was discovering the national parks, and I wanted to express this beauty and my
feelings." In addition to painting, Ms. Seugnet wrote 60 poems and printed them in little booklets.
Ms. Seugnet says she found her style as a painter in 1997, when she painted the four seasons: the D&R Canal in fall, with red and golden maples reflected
in the water; winter in her snow-covered backyard, with pine trees and cardinals; cherry trees blooming at Brook Branch Park in Newark; and for summer, "Jean-Louis, the Thinker
at the Institute for Advanced Study."
"This painting is an homage to my husband, Jean-Louis," she writes. "The man thinking and walking in the back could be Jean-Louis, or my father, or Einstein,
maybe the three of them, three men I admire."
The Thinker at Princeton Institute"
Ms. Seugnet believes it is important to paint in your time, in your place, and so Einstein has become an important figure for her in Princeton. She painted him again in
"My Einstein Galaxy," a print of which hangs in the Einstein Museum at Landau's woolen goods store in Princeton. In the painting, Einstein is playing the violin in the Milky
Way, and in another vignette he rides his bicycle and smokes a pipe.
"He's not wearing socks," says Ms. Seugnet, "just Birkenstocks. I read that he didn't wear socks because he didn't want his scientist wife to have to
darn his socks." (Editor's note: Although the Historical Society of Princeton could not confirm Einstein wore Birkenstocks, there was a reference to the physicist telling a
young boy, "I've reached an age when if somebody tells me to wear socks, I don't have to.") The painting also is an homage to her father, a great admirer of Einstein. "My
grandfather took him to Berlin to attend a conference given by Einstein when my father was only 12 — he didn't understand, but always looked up to him."
"My Einstein Galaxy"
Ms. Seugnet spends a good amount of time on planes, traveling back and forth to France, Mexico or the Caribbean, and packs her
charcoal, pastel, sketch pads, pastel paper and tracing paper to keep the pastels from smudging. She makes a pastel painting on location, then works it up in oil back in her
In 2002, Ms. Seugnet returned to Paris for a year and studied at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where Degas, Delacroix, Ingres, Monet, Renoir and Sisley
received their training. She says the most important thing she learned while there was "to see; to look at nature or a model and look in depth and accurately, to try to look at
the object and not the painting. The eyes focus on what you see and you have to train the hand to paint without looking to make that good connection between the brain and hand.
Beginners don't see nuances — that takes years."
Of course there's so much more. "My mother gave me a rich internal life from which these images come," she says. "A little child has to be silent and
accumulate information before he speaks, and I had to observe the masters before I could even start."
Cranbury Gardens IV, Works from Art in the Park, a group exhibition including paintings by Agnès Holzapfel Seugnet, is on view at the Gourgaud Gallery, Cranbury Town Hall, 1
Schoolhouse Lane, Cranbury, through Dec. 22. Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. noon-3 p.m. For information, call (609) 395 0900, ext. 241. On the Web: www.cranburytownship.org/gourgaud_gallery.html. Recent Oils and Pastels — Giclee Prints and Art
Note Cards, a solo exhibit by Ms. Seugnet, will be on view at the Princeton University League Art Gallery, 171 Broadmead, Princeton, Feb. 10-11 and 17-19; gallery hours
TBA. Agnès Seugnet: Retrospective of 12 American Painting Years will be on view at the Gourgaud Gallery March 2-30. Reception: March 2, 6-8 p.m. Ms. Seugnet on the Web: