I knew a lot about the artist Alexandre-Jean Noël, but still had lots of questions. I dragged my suitcase up to the third floor apartment and then headed over to the National Archives, a few blocks away. The Archives’ reading room doesn’t open on Sundays, but I thought I’d check out the building. Turned out, there was a special event going on! An exhibit of documents in the Archives, many of which were documents recorded by French notaries.
Portraits and personal stories about these scribes of the law fascinated me, and I learned that when property traded hands, a court told a debtor to pay, or a person died, a notary made a record of that event for posterity. If you died without a will, a notary would come and place a value on your property.
What delighted me about the day was discovering children working with quill pens. They were attempting to duplicate the elaborate cédules that distinguished each notary’s signature from another. Booksellers hawked volumes that told you how to use the Archives’ complex inventory system, and a young woman trained to restore manuscripts demonstrated the old technique for binding parchment in leather. I had entered another century, and my adventure was about to begin. I had spent two years doing research on this artist, and maybe now, I could finally pin down who he was and how this trip changed the direction of his life.