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French cultural attaché visits Decatur, receives key to city

By Martin Burkey
DAILY Staff Writer · 340-2441

You might think that the most French things in Decatur would be fries and the Roland Garros tournament on ESPN2.

You would be wrong. For more than 40 years, Decatur has been home to the very French Renee Ponchin Barnes.

And on Friday she and city officials hosted Roland Celette, cultural attaché of the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., who got a tour of the town and a key to the city from Mayor Don Kyle.

Barnes comes from three generations of famous French artists.

Her father was Jos-Henri Ponchin. She is the granddaughter of Antoine Ponchin and great-granddaughter of Louis Ponchin.

Together, they represent nearly 100 years of French art by a family that won numerous awards and recognitions. About three years ago, she donated two of their paintings to the French Embassy.

It was the family's cultural connections and donation to the embassy that brought Celette to Decatur to visit Barnes, who lived in France until she was 22.

Louis Ponchin's paintings adorn the walls of churches and cathedrals throughout France. Antoine was a landscape artist and was official artist of the French Army. His paintings also decorated the governor's palace in Hanoi when the country was under French control. Jos-Henri followed in his family's footsteps and was also a noted landscape painter.

The family's paintings are prized exhibits in museums throughout France, England, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The Huntsville Museum of Art presented an exhibit of their art sponsored by Barnes' collection in 1999.

Her sister married a World War II GI and moved to Decatur after the war. During a visit to Decatur, Barnes met Lewis Barnes and married. He died in 1991, but she stays here to remain close to their two sons.

Having grown up in Paris and Marseilles, she allows that Decatur is quite a change.

"I never lived in a small city till I came to Decatur," she said. "We were brought up to see museums, to go to the opera, to concerts. To tell you the truth, I'd rather speak French than English, but I know I have to speak English."

Despite the years, she retains a distinctive French accent. She talks with family in France every week, but she was excited to get a visit from the French diplomat.

"It's a chance to talk French," she said. "I came here when I was 22. I will never lose my accent."

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