Henri Murger – Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1849

H Murger,For five or six years Marcel had worked at the famous painting which (he said) represented the Passage of the Red Sea; and for five or six years, this masterpiece of colour had been obstinately refused by the jury. In fact, by dint of going and returning so many times from the artist's study to the Exhibition, and from the Exhibition to the study, the picture knew the road to the Louvre well enough to have gone thither of itself, if it had been put on wheels. Marcel, who had repainted the canvas ten times over, from top to bottom, attributed to personal hostility on the part of the jury the ostracism which annually repulsed him from the large saloon; nevertheless he was not totally discouraged by the obstinate rejection which greeted him at every Exhibition. He was comfortably established in the persuasion that his picture was, on a somewhat smaller scale, the pendant required by "The Marriage of Cana," that gigantic masterpiece whose astonishing brilliancy the dust of three centuries has not been able to tarnish. Accordingly, every year at the epoch of the Exhibition, Marcel sent his great work to the jury of examiners; only, to deceive them, he would change some details of his picture, and the title of it, without disturbing the general composition.

Thus, it came before the jury once, under the name of "The Passage of the Rubicon," but Pharaoh, badly disguised under the mantle of Ceaser, was recognized and rejected with all the honors due him. Next year, Marcel threw a coat of white over the foreground, to imitate snow, planted a fir tree in one corner, and dressing an Egyptian like a grenadier of the Imperial Guard, christened his picture, "The Passage of the Beresina."

But the jury had wiped its glasses that day, and were not to be duped by this new stratagem. It recognized the pertinacious picture by a thundering big pie-bald horse that was prancing on top of a wave of the Red Sea. The skin of this horse served Marcel for all his experiments in coloring; he used to call it, familiarly, his "synoptic table of fine tones," because it reproduced the most varied combinations of colour, with the different plays of light and shade. Once again, however, the jury could not find black balls enough to refuse "The Passage of Beresina."

"Very well," said Marcel, "I thought so! Next year, I shall send it under the title of 'The Passage of the Panoramas.'"

"They're going to be jolly caught -- caught!"

sang Schaunard to a new air of his own composition; a terrible air, like a gamut of thunder-claps, the accompaniment whereof was a terror to all pianos within hearing.

"How can they refuse it, without all the vermilion of my Red Sea mounting to their cheeks, and covering them with the blush of shame?" ejaculated the artist, as he gazed on his picture. "When I think that there is five hundred francs' worth of color there, and at least a million of genius, without counting my lovely youth, now as bald as my old hat! But they shan't get the better of me! Till my dying day, I will send them my picture. It shall be engraved on their memories."

"The surest way of ever having it engraved," said Colline, in a plaintive tone, and then added to himself, "very neat, that; I shall repeat it in society!"

Marcel continued his imprecations, which Schaunard continued to put to music.

"Ah they won't admit me! The government pays them, lodges them, and gives them decorations, on purpose to refuse me once a year; every first of March! I see their idea! I see it clearly! They want to make me burn my brushes. They hope that when my Red Sea is refused, I will throw myself out of the window of despair. But they little know the heart of man, if they think to take me thus. I will not wait for the opening of the Exhibition. From today, my work shall be a picture of Damocles, eternally suspended over their existence. I will send it once a week to each of them, at his home in the bosom of his family; in the very heart of his private life. It shall trouble their domestic joys; they shall find their roasts burnt, their wines sour, and their wives bitter! They will grow mad rapidly, and go to the Institute in strait-waistcoats. Ha! Ha! The thought consoles me."

Some days later, when Marcel had already forgotten his terrible plans of vengeance against his persecutors, he received a visit from Father Medicis. So the club called a Jew, named Salomon, who at that time was well known to all the vagabond of art and literature, and had continual transactions with them. Father Medicis traded in all sorts of trumpery. He sold complete sets of furniture from twelve francs up to five thousand; he bought everything, and knew how to dispose of it again, at a profit. Proudhon's bank of exchange was nothing in comparison with the system practiced by Medicis, who possessed the genius of traffic to a degree at which the ablest of his religion had never before arrived. His shop was a fairy region where you found anything you wished for. Every product of nature, every creation of art; whatever issued from the bowels of the earth or the head of man, was an object of commerce for him. His business included everything; literally everything that exists; he even trafficked in the ideal. He bought ideas to sell or speculate in them. Known to all literary men and all artists, intimate with the palette and familiar with the desk, he was the very Asmodeus of the arts. He would sell you cigars for a column of your newspaper, slippers for a sonnet, fresh fish for paradoxes; he would talk, for so much an hour, with the people who furnished fashionable gossip to the journals. He would procure you places for the debates in the Chambers, and invitations to parties. He lodged wandering artistlings by the day, week, or month, taking for pay, copies of the pictures in the Louvre. The green room had no mysteries for him. He would get your pieces into the theater, or yourself into the boudoir of an actress. He had a copy of the "Almanac of Twenty Five Thousand Addresses" in his head, and knew the names, residences, and secrets of all celebrities, even those who were not celebrated.

A few pages copied from his waste book, will give a better idea of the universality of his operations than the most copious explanation could.

"March 20, 184--."

"Sold to M. L----, antiquary, the compass which Archimedes used at the siege of Syracuse. 75 fr.
Bought of M. V----, journalist, the entire works, uncut, of M. X----, Member of the Academy. 10 fr.
Sold to the same, a criticism of the complete works of M. X----, of the Academy. 30 fr.
Bought of M. R----, literary man, a critical article on the complete works of M. Y----, of the Academy. 10 fr., plus half a cwt. of charcoal and 4 lbs. of coffee.
Sold to M. Y----, of the Academy, a laudatory review (twelve columns) of his complete works. 250 fr.
Sold to M. G----, a porcelain vase which had belonged to Madame Dubarry. 18 fr.
Bought of little D----, her hair. 15 fr.
Bought of M. B----, a lot of articles on Society, and the last three mistakes in spelling made by the Prefect of the Seine. 6 fr, plus a pair of Naples shoes.
Sold to Mdlle. O----, a flaxen head of hair. 120 fr.
Bought of M. M----, historical painter, a series of humorous designs. 25 fr.
Informed M. Ferdinand the time when Mme. la Baronne de T---- goes to mass, and let him for the day the little room in the Faubourg Montmartre: together 30 fr.
Bought of M. J----, artist, a portrait of M. Isidore as Apollo. 6 fr.
Sold to Mdlle R---- a pair of lobsters and six pair of gloves. 36 fr. Received 3 fr.
For the same, procured a credit of six months with Mme. Z----, dressmaker. (Price not settled.)
Procured for Mme. Z----, dressmaker, the custom of Mdlle. R----. Received for this three yards of velvet, and three yards of lace.
Bought of M. R----, literary man, a claim of 120 fr. against the ---- newspaper. 5 fr., plus 2 lbs. of tobacco.
Sold M. Ferdinand two love letters. 12 fr.
Sold M. Isidore his portrait as Apollo. 30 fr.
Bought of M. M----, a cwt. and a half of his work, entitled 'Submarine Revolutions.' 15 fr.
Lent Mme la Comtesse de G---- a service of Dresden china. 20 fr.
Bought of M. G----, journalist, fifty-two lines in his article of town talk. 100 fr., plus a set of chimney ornaments.
Sold to Messrs. O---- and Co., fifty-two lines in the town talk of the ----. 300 fr., plus two sets of chimney ornaments.
Let to Mdlle. S. G---- a bed and a brougham for the day (nothing). See Mdlle. S. G----'s account in private ledger, folios 26 and 27.
Bought of M. Gustave C--- a treatise on the flax and linen trade. 50 fr., and a rare edition of Josephus.
Sold Mdlle. S. G---- a complete set of new furniture. 5000 fr.
For the same, paid an apothecary's bill. 75 fr.
For the same, paid a milkman's bill. 3 fr. 85 c."

Those quotations show what an extensive range the operations of the Jew Medici covered. It may be added, that although some articles of his commerce were decidedly illicit, he had never got himself into any trouble.

The Jew comprehended, on his entrance, that he had come at a favorable time. In fact, the four friends were at that moment in council, under the auspices of a ferocious appetite, discussing the grave question of meat and drink. It was a Sunday at the end of the month -- sinister day.

The arrival of Medicis was therefore hailed by a joyous chorus, for they knew that he was too saving of his time to spend it in visits of polite ceremony; he presence announced business.

"Good evening, gentlemen!" said the Jew. "How are you all?"

"Colline!" said Rodolphe, who was studying the horizontal line at full length on his bed. "Do the hospitable. Give our guest a chair; a guest is sacred. I salute Abraham in you," added he.

Colline took an arm chair about as soft as iron, and shoved it towards the Jew, saying:

"Suppose, for once, you were Cinna, (you are a great sinner, you know), and take this seat."

"Oh, oh, oh!" shouted the others, looking at the floor to see if it would not open and swallow up the philosopher. Meanwhile the Jew let himself fall into the arm chair, and was just going to cry out at its hardness, when he remembered that it was one which he himself had sold to Colline for a deputy's speech. As the Jew sat down, his pockets re-echoed with a silvery sound; melodious symphony, which threw the four friends into a reverie of delight.

"The accompaniment seems pretty," said Rodolphe aside to Marcel. "Now for the air!"

"Monsieur Marcel," said Medicis, "I have merely come to make your fortune; that is to say, I offer you a superb opportunity of making your entry into the artistic world. Art, you know, is a barren route, of which glory is the oasis."

"Father Medicis," cried Marcel, on the tenter-hooks of impatience, "in the name of your revered patron, St. Fifty-percent, be brief!"

"Here it is," continued Medicis, "a rich amateur, who is collecting a gallery destined to make the tour of Europe, has charged me to procure him a series of remarkable works. I come to offer you admission into this museum -- in a word, to buy your 'Passage of the Red Sea.'"

"Money down?" asked Marcel.

"Specie," replied the Jew, making the orchestra pockets strike up.

"Do you accept this serious offer?" asked Colline.

"Of course I do!" shouted Rodolphe, "don't you see, you wretch, that he is talking of 'tin'? Is there nothing sacred for you, atheist that you are?"

Colline mounted on a table and assumed the attitude of Harpocrates, the God of Silence.

"Push on, Medicis!" said Marcel, exhibiting his picture. "I wish to leave you the honor of fixing the price of this work, which is above all price."

The Jew placed on the table a hundred and fifty francs in new coin.

"Well, what more?" said Marcel, "that's only the prologue."

"Monsieur Marcel," replied the Jew, "you know that my first offer is my last. I shall add nothing. Reflect, a hundred and fifty francs; that is a sum, it is!"

"A very small sum," said the artist. "There is that much worth of cobalt in my Pharaoh's robe. Make it a round sum, at any rate! Square it off; say two hundred!"

"I won't add a sou!" said Medicis. "But I stand dinner for the company, wine to any extent."

"Going, going, going!" shouted Colline, with three blows of his fist on the table, "no one speaks? -- gone!"

"Well it's a bargain!" said Marcel.

"I will send for the picture tomorrow," said the Jew, "and now, gentlemen, to dinner!"

The four friends descended the staircase, singing the chorus of "The Huguenots" -- "A table, a table!"

Medicis treated the Bohemians in a really magnificent way, and gave them their choice of a number of dishes, which until then were completely unknown to them. Henceforward hot lobster ceased to be a myth with Schaunard, who contracted a passion for it that bordered on delirium. The four friends departed from the gorgeous banquet as drunk as a vintage-day. Marcel's intoxication was near having the most deplorable consequences. In passing by his tailor's, at two in the morning, he absolutely wanted to wake up his creditor, and pay him the hundred and fifty francs on account. A ray of reason which flashed across the mind of Colline, stopped the artist on the border of this precipice.

A week after, Marcel discovered in what gallery his picture had been placed. While passing through the Faubourg St. Honore, he stopped in the midst of a group which seemed to regard with curiosity a sign that was being put up over a shop door. The sign was neither more nor less than Marcel's picture, which Medicis had sold to a grocer. Only "the Passage of the Red Sea" had undergone one more alteration, and been given one more new name. It had received the addition of a steamboat and was called "the Harbor of Marseilles." The curious bystanders were bestowing on it a flattering ovation. Marcel returned home in ecstacy at his triumph, muttering to himself, Vox populi, voz Dei.


Henri Murger, 1822-1861. Scènes de la vie de bohème (1847–49). Chapter XV. The Passage of the Red Sea

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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