AN ART OF AMAZING GRACE

Their lives were subject to the whims of men they didn’t elect. Conditions for women, immigrants and the poor were terrible. No-one agreed about what could be done and some felt that was fine, it was just the way of the world.

Yet they took the one place they enjoyed power – their relationships between one another – and made that into a different world. They filled it with new ideas, science, art and imagination.

This world revolved around la politesse. This meant “politeness”, those small considerations that defined social life. But the set of values at their heart went far beyond manners. It was rooted in courtesy and tolerance.

The Louvre’s show of pastel portraits, In Society, introduces two groups of such people. One is a set of influential artists – and the other is everyone who sat for them.

These sitters are mostly part of the ruling order. Yet, like the artists, many are resisting its power. In the most literal sense, they are outwitting it. Part of their legacy is the Enlightenment.

The show’s realism is startling; it’s like walking into a room filled with living people. Every face exudes relaxation, warmth and laughter. Yet, behind the insouciance, most of them were suffering.

They were coping with terrible teeth, constant bereavement, lack of medical care and marital infidelity.

Yet, very clearly, something made it bearable: their idea that humanity was a shared affair. In this belief, the people in these portraits found not just hope – it gave them a profound belief that progress was possible.

The Louvre works show some of history’s most famous royals who appear eerily, seductively, alive.

Yet the best pieces are the artists’ self-portraits. Partly it’s because these are so totally frank. One artist shows himself as grandly arrogant, another as drunk and already regretting it. Another captures his aging self as he goes blind.

The most famous portrait (and by far the largest) is that of Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour by Maurice de la Tour.

Yet, to make the portrait happen, Pompadour and the King had to pleade and cajole – for years.

When La Tour finally agreed, his conditions were strict. No-one could interrupt him and he must work “at ease”. (This turned out to mean shedding his wig, shoes and garters and popping a casual taffeta cap on his head).

Pleased, the King decided to watch. But, far from flattered, La Tour was furious.

Madame, you promised me your door would stay shut!” he yelled. Grabbing his wardrobe, he stormed back to Paris.

Eventually, of course, the Royal lovers wooed him back. The King was finally allowed to watch La Tour at work.

But as the Royal pair discussed a building project, they were amazed to hear the painter murmuring, “Ships would be more to the point!” The English had recently destroyed most of Louis’ Navy.

At his death, La Tour was wealthy as well as appreciated. With his will, he funded a drawing school – free to its students – and a pair of charities. One of these served the elderly poor, the other needy mothers.

Like his friends and subjects, La Tour knew there were battles to fight. But, like them, he believed in doing it with grace.

• The show is notable for its women artists. They became so prominent that the French Academy panicked – and instigated a quota for female members.

En Societé (In Society) is at the Louvre until 10 September 2018

VIVE LE HUMAN TOUCH

If you love the World Cup, you love watching it in a bar or café with strangers… It’s the best excuse to share a joke and pass some pleasant words.

That’s because, despite its money and parasitic PR, something in the Coupe du Monde can’t be owned or packaged. Fans meet in each other’s restaurants, drink to each other’s players. Some make all it the way to games in other countries.

Through real encounters and real emotion they reach conclusions of their own about differences. Sometimes this show up the virtual, media versions.

But, at best, it can do more.

Our communication “tools” have us positioned as products. They insist that each of us has to be shown off, pimped, primped, “boosted”. They’re always whispering in our ears.

Yet no-one behind their version of modernity cares about individuals, groups or nations.

What they’ve built is now deformed, it’s ugly and bloated. Quietly, in many ways, it disfigures all of us. Despite all the promises and slogans, it’s heartless and divisive. Far from connecting people, it amplifies our worst qualities.

It’s no small thing that Les Bleus gave us a respite. Over four years, they’ve let us share moments bon and mauvais. Share them the way it counts – with other people. The joy that exploded was so huge because it was shared.

Every team, and their Russian hosts, contributed to it. (Certainly Croatia, who literally took our breath away). Liberté Egalité Mbappé, oui oui oui !

But long live the World Cup itself; there’s nothing like it.

Le RATP,  the Paris transport authority, spent the night on their homage: altering the name signs of six big stations. Photos of those © RATP; other photos by Steve Sampson