Jean Rhys – Tea with an Artist, 1927

Pierre Bonnard_Femme Sortant du Bain

  It was obvious that this was not an Anglo-Saxon : he was too gay, too dirty, too unreserved and in his little eyes was such a mellow comprehension of all the sins and the delights of life. He was drinking rapidly one glass of beer after another, smoking a long, curved pipe, and beaming contentedly on the world. The woman with him wore a black coat and skirt; she had her back to us.
I said : ‘Who’s the happy man in the corner? I’ve never seen him before.’
My companion who knew everybody answered : ‘That’s Verhausen. As mad as a hatter.’
‘Madder than most people here?’ I asked.
‘Oh, yes, really dotty. He has got a studio full of pictures that he will never show to anyone.’
I asked: ‘What pictures? His own pictures?’
‘Yes, his own pictures. They’re damn good, they say.’. . . Verhausen had started out by being a Prix de Rome and he had had a big reputation in Holland and Germany, once upon a time. He was a Fleming. But the old fellow now refused to exhibit, and went nearly mad with anger if he were pressed to sell anything.
‘A pose?’
My friend said : ‘Well, I dunno. It’s lasted a long time for a pose.’
He started to laugh.
‘You know Van Hoyt. He knew Verhausen intimately in Antwerp, years ago. It seems he already hid his pictures up then . . . He had evolved the idea that it was sacrilege to sell them. Then he married some young and flighty woman from Brussels, and she would not stand it. She nagged and nagged : she wanted lots of money and so on and so on. He did not listen even. So she gave up arguing and made arrangements with a Jew dealer from Amsterdam when he was not there. It is said that she broke into his studio and passed the pictures out of the window. Five of the best. Van Hoyt said that Verhausen cried like a baby when he knew. He simply sat and sobbed. Perhaps he also beat the lady. In any case she left him soon afterwards and eventually Verhausen turned up, here, in Montparnasse. The woman now with him he had picked up in some awful brothel in Antwerp. She must have been good to him, tor he says now that the Fallen are the only women with souls. They will walk on the necks of all the others in Heaven . . .’ And my friend concluded: ‘A rum old bird. But a bit of a back number, now, of course.’
I said: ‘It’s a perverted form of miserliness, I suppose. I should like to see his pictures, or is that impossible? I like his face.’
My friend said carelessly: ‘It’s possible, I believe. He sometimes shows them to people. It’s only that he will not exhibit and will not sell. I dare say Van Hoyt could fix it up.’

Verhausen’s studio was in the real Latin Quarter which lies to the north of the Montparnasse district and is shabbier and not cosmopolitan yet. It was an ancient, narrow street of uneven houses, a dirty, beautiful street, full of mauve shadows. A policeman stood limply near the house, his expression that of contemplative stupefaction : a yellow dog lay stretched philosophically on the cobblestones of the roadway. The concierge said without interest that Monsieur Verhausen’s studio was on the quatrième à droite. I toiled upwards.
I knocked three times. There was a subdued rustling within . . . A fourth time : as loudly as I could. The door opened a little and Mr Verhausen’s head appeared in the opening. I read suspicion in his eyes and I smiled as disarmingly as I could. I said something about Mr Van Hoyt — his own kind invitation, my great pleasure.
Verhausen continued to scrutinize me through huge spectacles: then he smiled with a sudden irradiation, stood away from the door and bowing deeply, invited me to enter. The room was big, all its walls encumbered on the floor with unframed canvases, all turned with their backs to the wall. It was very much cleaner than I had expected: quite clean and even dustless. On a table was spread a white cloth and there were blue cups and saucers and a plate of gingerbread cut into slices and thickly buttered. Mr Verhausen rubbed his hands and said with a pleased, childlike expression and in astonishingly good English that he had prepared an English tea that was quite ready because he had expected me sooner.
We sat on straight-backed chairs and sipped solemnly.
Mr Verhausen looked exactly as he had looked in the café, his blue eyes behind the spectacles at once naive and wise, his waistcoat spotted with reminiscences of many meals.
But a delightful personality — comfortable and comforting. His long, curved pipes hung in a row on the wall; they made the whole room look Dutchly homely. We discussed Montparnasse with gravity.
He said suddenly: ‘Now you have drunk your second cup of tea you shall see my pictures. Two cups of tea all English must have before they contemplate works of art.’
He had jumped up with a lightness surprising in a bulky man and with similar alacrity drew an easel near a window and proceeded to put pictures on it without any comment. They were successive outbursts of colour: it took me a little time to get used to them. I imagine that they were mostly, but not all, impressionist. But what fascinated me at first was his way of touching the canvases – his loving, careful hands.’
After a time he seemed to forget that I was there and looked at them himself, anxiously and critically, his head on one side, frowning and muttering to himself in Flemish. A landscape pleased me here and there : they were mostly rough and brilliant. But the heads were very minutely painted and . . . Dutch! A woman stepping into a tub of water under a shaft of light had her skin turned to gold.
Then he produced a larger canvas, changed the position of the easel and turned to me with a little grunt. I said slowly: ‘I think that is a great picture. Great art !’
. . . A girl seated on a sofa in a room with many mirrors held a glass of green liqueur. Dark-eyed, heavy-faced, with big, sturdy peasant’s limbs, she was entirely destitute of lightness or grace.
But all the poisonous charm of the life beyond the pale was in her pose, and in her smouldering eyes — all its deadly bitterness and fatigue in her fixed smile.
He received my compliments with pleasure, but with the quite superficial pleasure of the artist who is supremely indifferent to the opinion that other people may have about his work. And, just as I was telling him that the picture reminded me of a portrait of Manet’s, the original came in from outside, carrying a string bag full of green groceries. Mr Verhausen started a little when he saw her and rubbed his hands again — apologetically this time. He said : ‘This, Madame, is my little Marthe. Mademoiselle Marthe Baesen.’
She greeted me with reserve and glanced at the picture on the easel with an inscrutable face. I said to her : ‘I have been admiring Mr Verhausen’s work.’
She said : ‘Yes, Madame?’ with the inflexion of a question and left the room with her string bag.
The old man said to me: ‘Marthe speaks no English and French very badly. She is a true Fleming. Besides, she is not used to visitors.’
There was a feeling of antagonism in the studio now. Mr Verhausen fidgeted and sighed restlessly. I said, rather with hesitation : ‘Mr Verhausen, is it true that you object to exhibiting and to selling your pictures ?’
He looked at me over his spectacles, and the suspicious look, the look of an old Jew when counting his money, came again into his eyes.
‘Object, Madame? I object to nothing. I am an artist. But I do not wish to sell my pictures. And, as I do not wish to sell them, exhibiting is useless. My pictures are precious to me. They are precious, most probably, to no one else.’
He chuckled and added with a glint of malice in his eyes: ‘When I am dead Marthe will try to sell them and not succeed, probably. I am forgotten now. Then she will burn them. She dislikes rubbish, the good Marthe.’
Marthe re-entered the room as he said this. Her face was unpowdered but nearly unwrinkled, her eyes were clear with the shrewd, limited expression of the careful housewife — the look of small horizons and quick, hard judgements. Without the flame his genius had seen in her
and had fixed for ever, she was heavy, placid and uninteresting — at any rate to me.
She said, in bad French : ‘I have bought two artichokes for . . .’ I did not catch how many sous. He looked pleased and greedy.

In the street the yellow dog and the policeman had vanished. The café opposite the door had come alive and its gramophone informed the world that :

Souvent femme varie
Bien fol est qui s’y fie !

It was astonishing how the figure of the girl on the sofa stayed in my mind : it blended with the coming night, the scent of Paris and the hard blare of the gramophone. And I said to myself : ‘Is it possible that all that charm, such as it was, is gone?’
And then I remembered the way in which she had touched his cheek with. her big hands. There was in that movement knowledge, and a certain sureness: as it were the ghost of a time when her business in life had been the consoling of men.

Jean Rhys, 1890-1979.   Tea with an Artist, in, The Left Bank and Other Stories, 1927

 Image: Pierre Bonnard,1867-1947. Femme Sortant Du Bain, c.1925 Oil on canvas, 110 by 94.9 cm

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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