After leaving the town, Louise continued walking for a moment longer, then attracted by certain combinations of colour, she stopped on the very spot where, the previous evening, we had watched the firework display.
The dawn, shining from behind the magnificent trees of the Behuliphruen, produced curious, unexpecred lighting effects.
Talu himself chose a favourable spot for the fascinating test which had been promised, and Louise, opening the bag her brother carried, unpacked a folded object which, once it was opened into its normal position, formed a strictly vertical easel.
A new canvas, stretched tightly over its inner frame, was placed half-way up the easel and held firmly in place by a screw clamp, which Louise lowered to the required level. Next, the young woman, with gret care, took from a box, made to protect it from any contact, a palette, prepared in advance, which fitted exactly into a special metal holder fixed to the right side of the easel. The colours, placed well apart in little heaps, were arranged in a semi-circle with geometrical precision, on the upper part of the thin wooden board, which like the empty canvas, was set up facing the Behuliphruen.
In addition, the bag contained a hinged stand, similar to a camera tripod. Louise picked it up, then lengthened the three extending legs, which she set down on the ground not far from the easel, anxiously adjusting the height and stability of the apparatus.
At that moment, Norbert, obeying the instructions of his sister, took the case, to place it behind the easel, a heavy chest whose glass lid revealled several batteries arranged next to each other.
In the meantime, Louise was slowly unpacking with, with infinite caution, a utensil, doubless very fragile, which looked to us like some thick, solid plate, protected by a metal lid which corresponded exactly with its rectangular shape.
Distinctly recalling the skeleton of a weighing-machine, the top part of the three –legged support consisted of a sort of fork, with two widely diverging prongs, which ended up abruptly in two vertical arms, on which Louise was able to fix one of the long sides of the plate, cautiously assembling it by using two small, deep holes, correctly placed at the point where two grooves at the back, carved out to facilitate the sliding movement of the sides encompassing the lid, projected.
In order to appraise the disposition of the various articles the young woman, screwing up her eyes, stepped back towards the Behuliphruen, in order to judge their relative distances more accurately. From this position she could see on her right the stand, on her left the easel with the chest behind it, and, in the centre, the palette with the paints.
The lid of the rectangular plate, with a ring in the centre by which it could be grasped, was directly exposed to the light of the dawn; from its back, completely unconcealed, sprang a myriad of fine metal wires, giving it the appearance of a head of hair growing too evenly, which seemed to connect every imperceptible area of the surface with a kind of machine charged with a supply of electric energy. The wires were twisted together to form a thick coil, wrapped in insulating material, which ended in a long bar, and this, Louise, returning to her post, bent down to plug into a socket in the side of the box of batteries.
The bag also furnished a strong vertical tube, somewhat in the form of a photographic head-rest, standing firmly on a circular base and fitted at the top with a screw, which turned easily, and could fix an iron rod inside at a convenient height.
Placing the device in front of the easel, Louise pulled the movable rod up out of the tube and tightened the screw, carefully verifying the level reached by its highest point, which was exactly opposite the still untouched canvas.
On this single, steady point, as if it were a game of cup and ball, the young woman planted a large metal sphere, fitted horizontally with a short hinged arm on a pivot extending in the direction of the palette, in whose tip were inserted some ten paint brushes, radiating like the spokes of a wheel lying on its side.
Soon the operator had contrived to establish communication between the sphere and the electric box by means of a double wire.
Before beginning the experiment, Louise, uncorking a little oil can, poured a drop of oil on the hairs of each paint brush. Norbert moved away the bulky suitcase, almost empty now that he had extracted the metal sphere.
Throughout these preparations, the day had been slowly breaking, and dazzling rays of light flashed among the trees in the Behuliphruen, turning it into a many-coloured fairyland.
Louise could not stifle a cry of admiration as she turned to look at the splendid magic garden which seemed to have been illuminated by magic. Judging the moment incomparable and miraculously propitious for the realisation of her plans, the young woman went up to the stand with its threefold ramification and seized by the ring the lid which fitted over the metal plate.
All the onlookers crowded round the easel so as not to offer any impediment to the luminous rays.
Louise was clearly moved when the moment came to undergo the great test. Her musical respiration quickened, increasing the frequency and the power of the monotonous chords continually emitted by the tags of her shoulder-knot. With a quick movement she snatched off the lid, then retreating behind the tripod and the easel, joined us to watch the movements of the mechanism.
Deprived of its shutter, which the young woman still held between her fingers, the plate now stood exposed, revealing a smooth brown, shiny surface. All eyes were fixed eagerly on this mysterious substance, endowed by Louise with strange, photo-mechanical properties. Suddenly, opposite the easel, a slight shudder ran through the automatic arm, which consisted of an ordinary, bright, horizontal blade, bent in the middle; the adjustable angle of the elbow tended to open as wide as possible, owing to powerful spring, whose effect was counteracted by a flexible metal wire, which, emerging from the sphere, was fastened round the furthest tip of the arm and thus regulated the gap; at present the wire was being stretched to allow the angle to become progressively greater.
This first sign of activity caused a slight stir among the restless, uneasy, audience.
The arm slowly extended towards the palette, while the horizontal, rimless wheel, created on the end of it by the star of brushes, was gradually raised to the top of a vertical axle, wound upwards by a cogged ring which was directly connected to the sphere by a highly elastic driving belt.
The two actions combined brought the tip of one of the brushes on to a thick supply of blue paint, in a pile near the top of the palette. The hairs quickly became stained, then, after a short descent, spread the particles they had picked up over a clean section of the surface. A few specks of white, gathered in the same way, were deposited on the place which had been stained blue, and the two shades mixed perfectly by a prolonged stirring, gave a very subdued pale blue.
Slightly shortened by the tautening of the metal wire, the arm swivelled a little and stopped higher up, in front of the left corner of the canvas fixed on the easel. Immediately the brush, impregnated with the delicate shade, automatically drew a narrow, vertical strip of sky down the side of future picture.
A murmur of admiration greeted this first broad brush stroke and Louise, thereafter assured of her success, let out a long sigh of satisfaction, accompanied by a noisy fanfare from her aglets.
The wheel of brushes, coming back to face the palette, suddenly began to turn, driven by a second belt made of the same expandable material, which disappeared inside the the sphere. There was a sharp snap as a stop-catch fixed another brush with new, unblemished hairs firmly in the place of honour. Soon, several primary colours, mixed on another part of the palette, made up a golden yellow pigment full of fire, which was carried to the picture and contained the vertical band already begun.
Turning to look at the Behuliphruen again, it was possible to verify the absolute exactness of this sharp juxtaposition of the two shades which composed a line clearly marked in the sky.
The work proceeded with precision and speed. Now each time the palette was visited, several brushes in turn concocted their various mixtures of colour; returning to the picture, they followed each other in the same order, all laying on the canvas, sometimes in minute quantities, their particular new tint. This process made it possible to achieve the most subtle gradations of tone, and, it by bit, one corner of a landscape, vividly true to life, spread itself before our very eyes.
Without taking her eyes off the mechanism, Louise gave us some useful explanations.
The brown plate alone set the whole process in motion, by means of a system based on the principle of electro-magnetisation. In spite of the absence of any lens, the polished surface, owing to its extreme sensitivity, received enormously powerful light-impressions, which it transmitted by means of the countless wires inserted in the back to activate a whole mechanism contained within the sphere, whose circumference must have measured more than a yard.
As we were able to ascertain with our own eyes, the two vertical arms which terminated the fork at the top of the tripod were made of the same brown substance as that of which the metal plate itself was composed; because they were so perfectly adapted to each other, they formed together a homogeneous block and were now contributing in their special field, to the continued progress of photo-mechanical communications.
According to the disclosures of Louise, the sphere contained a second rectangular plate, fitted with another network of wires, conveying the polychromatic sensations of the first, and, through this a thin metal wheel moved from section to section, while the current it set up drove a complete series of crank arms, pistons and rollers by electricity.
The work advanced progressively from left to right, still in vertical strokes, sketched in rapid succession, from top to bottom. Each time the rimless wheel revolved in front of the palette or in front of the canvas, a sharp click could be heard as the catch fell shut to hold one brush after another steady throughout the duration of its task. This monotonous noise was like a very slow imitation of the whirlygigs at a fair.
The whole surface of the palette was now touched-in or broadly smeared; the most incongruous mixtures of colours were placed side by side, constantly being altered by the fresh addition of one of the primary colours. There was no confusion, in spite of the disconcerting bright medley, and each brush was assigned to a particular category of shades, so that it was confined to a certain, more or less limited speciality.
Soon the whole of the left side of the painting was finished.
Louise followed with delight the movements of the apparatus which had functioned so far without any mishap or error.
This success was never once threatened during the completion of of the landscape, the second half of which was painted with amazing assurance.
A few seconds before the end of the experiment, Louise had once again passed behind the easel and then behind the tripod in order to take her place near the sensitive plate. By this time there only remained in the top right-hand corner of the canvas a narrow white line which was quickly filled in.
After the last stroke of the brush, Louise promptly replaced the obturating cover on the brown plate, stopping the hinged arm by this simple action. Then, free from any anxiety concerning the mechanical process, the young woman was able to examine at leisure the picture which had been executed in such a curious fashion.
The tall trees of the Behuliphruen were faithfully reproduced with their magnificent branches, whose leaves, of a strange colour and shape, were covered with bright reflections. On the ground, large flowers, blue, yellow or scarlet, sparkled among the moss. In the distance, through the trunks and the branches, shone the sky; at the bottom, a first horizontal belt of blood-red faded into a strip of orange just above it, which in turn became lighter, giving birth to a bright golden-yellow; next came a pale blue, almost white, in the heart of which, on the right, shone one last, late star. The finished work, seen as a whole, gave an impression of uncommonly intense colouring and remained strictly true to the original as each person was able to confirm by a quick glance at the actual garden.
With the help of her brother, Louise, unwinding the clamp of the easel, replaced the painting with a block of the same size, consisting of a thick pile of sheets of white paper, placed one on top of the other and joined at the edges; then removing the last paint brush to have been used, she inserted a carefully sharpened pencil into the empty space.
In a few words we were informed of the aim of this ambitious young woman, who now wished to submit for our examination a simple drawing, whose lines would naturally be more precise and more detailed than those of the painting and which required her only to press a certain spring in the top of the sphere to make a slight adjustment to the internal mechanism.
In order to provide a complex and animated subject, fiteen or twenty of the spectators went, at the request of Louise, to arrnage themselves in a group a short distance away. Seeking to produce an effect of life and movement, they posed as passers-by in a busy street; several of them, suggesting by their position that they were walking with rapid strides, bent their heads with a look of deep concentration; others, more relaxed, gossiped together like couples taking a stroll, while two friends exchanged familiar greetings as they passed each other at a distance.
Instructing them, like a photographer, to maintain the utmost immobility, Louise standing near the plate, sharply removed the cover and then made her usual detour, to come and watch the action of the pencil from near at hand.
The mechanism, reset at the same time as it had been adjusted by the action of pressing the spring on the sphere, slowly swung the jointed arm to the left. The pencil began to run up and down the white paper, following the same vertical sections, previously marked out by the paint brushes.
This time, there were no journeys to the palette, no changes of instrument, or mixing of paint to delay the work, which made swift progress. The same landscape appeared in the background, of secondary importance this time, and was blotted out by the figures in the foreground. The gestures, taken from life – the mannerisms, very marked – the silhouettes, strangely amusing – and the faces, blatant likenesses – all had the desired expression, sometimes gloomy, sometimes gay. One person’s body, leaning slightly towards the ground, seemed to be bent by the impetus of walking briskly forward; another’s beaming face denoted pleasant surprise at an unexpected meeting.
The pencil glided lightly over the page, leaving it often and in a few minutes it was covered. Louise, returning to her post at the appropriate moment, replace the shutter over the plate, then beckoned to the models, who came running to admire the new picture, delighted to move around after their prolonged immobility.
In spite of the contrast of the setting, the drawing gave the exact impression of a street of busy traffic. Each one recognised himself without difficulty among the compact group, and the warmest congratulations were lavished on Louise, who was excited and happy.
Norbert set about dismantling all the accessories, to pack them back in the suitcase.
In the meantime, Sirdah conveyed to Louise the complete satisfaction of the Emperor, who had been amazed at the perfect manner in which the young woman had fulfilled all the conditions he had strictly imposed.
Raymond Roussel, 1877-1933 Impressions d’Afrique, 1910 Impressions of Africa: A Novel
Translated by Rayner Heppenstall. Published by Calder & Boyars Ltd, London, 1983
Louise Montalescot’s fantastic painting machine in Impressions d’Afrique introduced the concept of a machine that can paint, and consequently the generation of images through chance, which influenced Duchamp, Picabia, Dali and other Surrealist artists as well as avant-garde writers. Montalescot was ‘Particularly fanatical in her devotion to chemistry, she keenly pursued, during the long night watches, an important discovery long germinating in her mind. The problem was to generate by purely photographic means, a motor force sufficiently precise to guide a pencil or brush with certainty.’ Impressions d’Afrique was published as a novel in 1910. Roussel adapted it for the stage and presented it at the Théâtre Fatima in September 1911. Duchamp, Picabia and Apollinaire attended the play when it reopened in May 1912.
The esprits élémentaire, continued my guide, are not dressed as skilled painters, but as clever physicists. You must judge the manner in which they operate. You know that rays of light, reflected from different bodies, form pictures, and paint the image reflected on all polished surfaces, for example, on the retina of the eye, on water, and on glass.
The esprits élémentaire have sought to fix these fleeting images; they have made a subtle material, very viscous, and very quick to dry and harden, by means of which a picture is formed in the twinkling of an eye. They coat a piece of canvas with this material, and place it in front of the object to capture. The first effect of this cloth is similar to that of a mirror, but by means of its viscous nature the prepared canvas, as is not the case with the mirror, retains a facsimile of the image. The mirror represents images faithfully, but retains none; our canvas reflects them no less faithfully, but retains them all. This impression of the image is instantaneous. The canvas is then removed and deposited in a dark place. An hour later the impression is dry, and you have a picture the more precious in that no art can imitate its truthfulness.
We take in the most pure source, in the body of the light, the colours that painters take from different materials, that the passage of time never fails to alter. The accuracy of the drawing, the truth of the expression, the touches more or less strong, the gradation of shades, the rules of perspective; we abandon all this to nature, which with undeniable certainty, traces on our canvases those images that impose on the eyes, and cast doubt on our sense of reality, and that they are not a species of phantoms who take control of our sight, hearing, touch, and all the senses at once.
The esprit élémentaire then described some physical details; firstly, on the nature of the resinous surface which intercepts and captures the rays; secondly, the difficulties to prepare and use; thirdly, on the play of light and the dry surface; three problems that I pass on to physicists in our time, that I refer to their wisdom.
However, I could not look away from the picture above. A sensitive viewer, who, from the shore, contemplating a sea that a storm turns upside down, could not feel impressions more vivid: than these images equal to the object in reality.
Tiphaigne de la Roche,1722-1774. Giphantie, 1760. Published by Durand, Paris
Giphantia, or A View of What Has Passed, What is Now Passing, and, During the Present Century, What Will Pass, in the World. Published 1760-1761 by Robert Horsfield, London
Giphantie is an early ‘science-fiction’ novel that explores the secret land of Giphantie in the heart of Africa, and a civilisation of isolated superior beings ‘ elemental spirits’. They communicate through a medium that resembles television, and describe a process of making images that predicts the first héliographie photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 and the photo-chemical experiments and discovery of modern-day photography by Louis-Jacques Daguerre in 1839.
And the original French text…
Tiphaigne de la Roche,1722-1774. Giphantie, 1760. Published by Durand, Paris
Chapitre 18. La Tempeste
Les esprits élémentaires, poursuivit le préfet, ne sont pas si habiles peintres qu’adroits physiciens ; tu vas en juger par leur manière d’opérer. Tu sais que les rayons de lumière, réfléchis des différents corps, font tableau, et peignent ces corps sur toutes leurs surfaces polies, sur la rétine de l’œil, par exemple, sur l’eau, sur les glaces. Les esprits élémentaires ont cherché à fixer ces images passagères ; ils ont composé une matière très subtile, très visqueuse et très prompte à se dessécher et à se durcir, au moyen de laquelle un tableau est fait en un clin d’œil. Ils enduisent de cette matière une pièce de la toile, et la présentent aux objets qu’ils veulent peindre. Le premier effet de la toile, est celui du miroir ; on y voit tous les corps voisins et éloignés, dont la lumière peut apporter l’image. Mais, ce qu’une glace ne saurait faire, la toile, au moyen de son enduit visqueux, retient les simulacres. Le miroir vous rend fidèlement les objets, mais n’en garde aucun ; nos toiles ne les rendent pas moins fidèlement, et les gardent tous. Cette impression des images est l’affaire du premier instant où la toile les reçoit : on l’ôte sur le champ, on la place dans un endroit obscur ; une heure après, l’enduit est desséché, et vous avez un tableau d’autant plus précieux, qu’aucun art ne peut en imiter la vérité, et que le temps ne peut en aucune manière l’endommager. Nous prenons dans la source la plus pure, dans le corps de la lumière, les couleurs que les peintres tirent de différents matériaux, que le laps des temps ne manque jamais d’altérer. La précision du dessin, la vérité de l’expression, les touches plus ou moins fortes, la gradation des nuances, les règles de la perspectives ; nous abandonnons tout cela à la nature, qui, avec cette marche sûre qui jamais ne se démentit, trace sur nos toiles des images qui en imposent aux yeux, et font douter à la raison si ce qu’on appelle réalités ne sont pas d’autres espèces de fantômes qui en imposent aux yeux, à l’ouïe, au toucher, à tous les sens à la fois.
L’esprit élémentaire entra ensuite dans quelques détails physiques ; premièrement, sur la nature du corps gluant, qui intercepte et garde les rayons ; secondement, sur les difficultés de le préparer et de l’employer ; troisièmement, sur le jeu de la lumière et de ce corps desséché : trois problèmes que je propose aux physiciens de nos jours, et que j’abandonne à leur sagacité.
Cependant, je ne pouvais détourner les yeux de dessus le tableau. Un spectateur sensible, qui, du rivage, contemple une mer que l’orage bouleverse, ne sent point des impressions plus vives : de telles images valent les choses.
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.
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
. . . . She for her part, looked at him too with a shyness that was not without its appeal, and blushed. The fact is that this charming woman carried her shyness to an extreme that was barely credible; her brother and her husband had been obliged to make a scene in order to induce her to come and see some pictures in the company of a painter she did not know. In a manner of speaking she had made a monster out of this painter, a man of the highest merit and chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Her fancy had pictured a sort of swashbuckler covered with gold chains, wearing a long black beard, and eyeing her constantly from head to foot; talking incessantly and very loud, and, even, telling her the most embarrassing things.
When she saw the arrival of a slim young man with a good figure, dressed in black, wearing his watch attached by a ribbon of the same colour, with an almost imperceptible red ribbon on his coat and a quite ordinary beard, she gripped her husband’s arm, so great was her surprise.
“But that’s not the celebrated painter?” she said to him.
And she was just getting reassured when her brother launched into his brutal account of the word ‘pious’, which presented her devotion in such an unfavourable light. She hardly dared look at the young painter; she dreaded to encounter the most mocking of glances. Reassured, however, by his modest and grave manner, she ended by venturing to raise her eyes. Imagine her joy and amazement when she found in the young painter a serious, almost tender expression. Extreme shyness, when linked with intelligence, leads one to reflect with all the clairvoyance of passion on the slightest detail of things, besides sharpening the wits. This was Valentine’s case. As a result of cholera she had early been left an orphan and had been put in a convent, which she had left only to marry M.Boissaux, who seemed to her as odd as her brother but lacking the gaiety and wit which made the latter such good company when he toned them down and was not wholly absorbed in making himself agreeable. In no time Valentine had indulged in a swarm of reflections on this great painter, who had turned out so different from the one she had figured. Then she was hurt at remembering that he seemed unwilling to paint her portrait. One must realize that to pose for this portrait, to submit for so long to the scrutinizing gaze of a stranger, was for her an appalling ordeal. It had reached so serious a point that she had needed to remind herself of the oath she had sworn at the altar to consider her husband as absolute master of all her important actions, before consenting to this portrait. Her brother had repeated to her two or three times, each time with great exaggeration, the reasons advanced by Féder for preferring the great artist already mentioned.
Valentine was agreeably and deeply surprised when, on reaching a comparison of the two paintings she saw all Féder’s reasons against doing her portrait waver; he could do no less than repeat them, having put them forward only the previous night, in talking to Delangle. With the subtlety natural to a woman of intelligence, however little experience chance had yet provided for her, Valentine noticed that Féder, in comparing his own work with the masterpiece they had come to see, became quite another man. That projecting lower lip was definitely a flaw in her beauty, and Féder felt it keenly; but it did announce a certain possibility of loving with passion to which, somehow or other, he now found himself most susceptible. He was seized with an immoderate desire to paint Valentine’s portrait; to achieve this, it was necessary to address Delangle in a language absolutely opposed to that of the previous night. But Delangle was not the man to restrain his sense of humour. If he detected this variation in Féder’s opinion, he was just the man to shout: “By Jove, sister, let’s do your bright eyes justice; they’ve change the great painter’s mind for him”; and the remark, repeated a score of times in stentorian tones and in every conceivable variation, would have been absolute torture to Féder. He had therefore to let himself be swayed by Delangle’s arguments, and, if he did abandon his verdict of the night before, at least to execute this manoeuvre so far from unknown in our day, with all the skill of a deputy most in command of his words. Above all, he dare not let it be guessed that in fact he set an infinite value on doing this portrait.
Stendhal, 1783-1842 (Marie-Henri Beyle)Féder, ou Le Mari d’argent; 1839; published 1855 . Féder or, the Moneyed Husband
With the sharpening of his desire to withdraw from a hated age, he felt a despotic urge to shun pictures representing humanity striving in little holes or running to and fro in quest of money.
With his growing indifference to contemporary life he had resolved not to introduce into his cell any of the ghosts of distastes or regrets, but had desired to procure subtle and exquisite paintings, steeped in ancient dreams or antique corruptions, far removed from the manner of our present day.
For the delight of his spirit and the joy of his eyes, he had desired a few suggestive creations that cast him into an unknown world, revealing to him the contours of new conjectures, agitating the nervous system by the violent deliriums, complicated nightmares, nonchalant or atrocious chimeræ they induced.
Among these were some executed by an artist whose genius allured and entranced him: Gustave Moreau.
Des Esseintes had acquired his two masterpieces and, at night, used to sink into revery before one of them—a representation of Salomé, conceived in this fashion:
A throne, resembling the high altar of a cathedral, reared itself beneath innumerable vaults leaping from heavy Romanesque pillars, studded with polychromatic bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace that, like a basilica, was at once Mohammedan and Byzantine in design.
In the center of the tabernacle, surmounting an altar approached by semi-circular steps, sat Herod the Tetrarch, a tiara upon his head, his legs pressed closely together, his hands resting upon his knees.
His face was the color of yellow parchment; it was furrowed with wrinkles, ravaged with age. His long beard floated like a white cloud upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe fitting tightly over his breast.
Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes.
In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salomé, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed instrument played by a woman seated on the ground.
Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod. Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls, flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock green.
With a tense concentration, with the fixed gaze of a somnambulist, she beholds neither the trembling Tetrarch, nor her mother, the fierce Herodias who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite, nor the eunuch who sits, sword in hand, at the foot of the throne—a terrible figure, veiled to his eyes, whose breasts droop like gourds under his orange-checkered tunic.
This conception of Salomé, so haunting to artists and poets, had obsessed Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the theological doctors of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of Saint Matthew who, in brief and ingenuous phrases, recounts the beheading of the Baptist! How often had he fallen into revery, as he read these lines:
But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said: Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.
But neither Saint Matthew, nor Saint Mark, nor Saint Luke, nor the other Evangelists had emphasized the maddening charms and depravities of the dancer. She remained vague and hidden, mysterious and swooning in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by vulgar and materialistic minds, accessible only to disordered and volcanic intellects made visionaries by their neuroticism; rebellious to painters of the flesh, to Rubens who disguised her as a butcher’s wife of Flanders; a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined grandeur of this murderess.
In Gustave Moreau‘s work, conceived independently of the Testament themes, Des Esseintes as last saw realized the superhuman and exotic Salomé of his dreams. She was no longer the mere performer who wrests a cry of desire and of passion from an old man by a perverted twisting of her loins; who destroys the energy and breaks the will of a king by trembling breasts and quivering belly. She became, in a sense, the symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold her, all whom she touches.
Thus understood, she was associated with the theogonies of the Far East. She no longer sprang from biblical traditions, could no longer even be assimilated with the living image of Babylon, the royal Prostitute of the Apocalypse, garbed like her in jewels and purple, and painted like her; for she was not hurled by a fatidical power, by a supreme force, into the alluring vileness of debauchery.
The painter, moreover, seems to have wished to affirm his desire of remaining outside the centuries, scorning to designate the origin, nation and epoch, by placing his Salomé in this extraordinary palace with its confused and imposing style, in clothing her with sumptuous and chimerical robes, in crowning her with a fantastic mitre shaped like a Phœnician tower, such as Salammbô bore, and placing in her hand the sceptre of Isis, the tall lotus, sacred flower of Egypt and India.
Des Esseintes sought the sense of this emblem. Had it that phallic significance which the primitive cults of India gave it? Did it enunciate an oblation of virginity to the senile Herod, an exchange of blood, an impure and voluntary wound, offered under the express stipulation of a monstrous sin? Or did it represent the allegory of fecundity, the Hindoo myth of life, an existence held between the hands of woman, distorted and trampled by the palpitant hands of man whom a fit of madness seizes, seduced by a convulsion of the flesh?
Perhaps, too, in arming his enigmatic goddess with the venerated lotus, the painter had dreamed of the dancer, the mortal woman with the polluted Vase, from whom spring all sins and crimes. Perhaps he had recalled the rites of ancient Egypt, the sepulchral ceremonies of the embalming when, after stretching the corpse on a bench of jasper, extracting the brain with curved needles through the chambers of the nose, the chemists and the priests, before gilding the nails and teeth and coating the body with bitumens and essences, inserted the chaste petals of the divine flower in the sexual parts, to purify them.
However this may be, an irresistible fascination emanated from this painting; but the water-colour entitled The Apparition was perhaps even more disturbing.
There, the palace of Herod arose like an Alhambra on slender, iridescent columns with moorish tile, joined with silver beton and gold cement. Arabesques proceeded from lozenges of lapis lazuli, wove their patterns on the cupolas where, on nacreous marquetry, crept rainbow gleams and prismatic flames.
The murder was accomplished. The executioner stood impassive, his hands on the hilt of his long, blood-stained sword.
The severed head of the saint stared lividly on the charger resting on the slabs; the mouth was discolored and open, the neck crimson, and tears fell from the eyes. The face was encircled by an aureole worked in mosaic, which shot rays of light under the porticos and illuminated the horrible ascension of the head, brightening the glassy orbs of the contracted eyes which were fixed with a ghastly stare upon the dancer.
With a gesture of terror, Salomé thrusts from her the horrible vision which transfixes her, motionless, to the ground. Her eyes dilate, her hands clasp her neck in a convulsive clutch.
She is almost nude. In the ardour of the dance, her veils had become loosened. She is garbed only in gold-wrought stuffs and limpid stones; a neck-piece clasps her as a corselet does the body and, like a superb buckle, a marvellous jewel sparkles on the hollow between her breasts. A girdle encircles her hips, concealing the upper part of her thighs, against which beats a gigantic pendant streaming with carbuncles and emeralds.
All the facets of the jewels kindle under the ardent shafts of light escaping from the head of the Baptist. The stones grow warm, outlining the woman’s body with incandescent rays, striking her neck, feet and arms with tongues of fire,—vermilions like coals, violets like jets of gas, blues like flames of alcohol, and whites like star light.
The horrible head blazes, bleeding constantly, clots of sombre purple on the ends of the beard and hair. Visible for Salomé alone, it does not, with its fixed gaze, attract Herodias, musing on her finally consummated revenge, nor the Tetrarch who, bent slightly forward, his hands on his knees, still pants, maddened by the nudity of the woman saturated with animal odors, steeped in balms, exuding incense and myrrh.
Like the old king, Des Esseintes remained dumbfounded, overwhelmed and seized with giddiness, in the presence of this dancer who was less majestic, less haughty but more disquieting than the Salomé of the oil painting.
In this insensate and pitiless image, in this innocent and dangerous idol, the eroticism and terror of mankind were depicted. The tall lotus had disappeared, the goddess had vanished; a frightful nightmare now stifled the woman, dizzied by the whirlwind of the dance, hypnotized and petrified by terror.
It was here that she was indeed Woman, for here she gave rein to her ardent and cruel temperament. She was living, more refined and savage, more execrable and exquisite. She more energetically awakened the dulled senses of man, more surely bewitched and subdued his power of will, with the charm of a tall venereal flower, cultivated in sacrilegious beds, in impious hothouses.
Des Esseintes thought that never before had a water color attained such magnificent colouring; never before had the poverty of colours been able to force jeweled corruscations from paper, gleams like stained glass windows touched by rays of sunlight, splendors of tissue and flesh so fabulous and dazzling. Lost in contemplation, he sought to discover the origins of this great artist and mystic pagan, this visionary who succeeded in removing himself from the world sufficiently to behold, here in Paris, the splendor of these cruel visions and the enchanting sublimation of past ages.
Des Esseintes could not trace the genesis of this artist. Here and there were vague suggestions of Mantegna and of Jacopo de Barbari; here and there were confused hints of Vinci and of the feverish colours of Delacroix. But the influences of such masters remained negligible. The fact was that Gustave Moreau derived from no one else. He remained unique in contemporary art, without ancestors and without possible descendants. He went to ethnographic sources, to the origins of myths, and he compared and elucidated their intricate enigmas. He reunited the legends of the Far East into a whole, the myths which had been altered by the superstitions of other peoples; thus justifying his architectonic fusions, his luxurious and outlandish fabrics, his hieratic and sinister allegories sharpened by the restless perceptions of a pruriently modern neurosis. And he remained saddened, haunted by the symbols of perversities and superhuman loves, of divine stuprations brought to end without abandonment and without hope.
His depressing and erudite productions possessed a strange enchantment, an incantation that stirred one to the depths, just as do certain poems of Baudelaire, caused one to pause disconcerted, amazed, brooding on the spell of an art which leaped beyond the confines of painting, borrowing its most subtle effects from the art of writing, its most marvelous stokes from the art of Limosin, its most exquisite refinements from the art of the lapidary and the engraver. These two pictures of Salomé, for which Des Esseintes‘ admiration was boundless, he had hung on the walls of his study on special panels between the bookshelves, so that they might live under his eyes.
But these were not the only pictures he had acquired to divert his solitude.
Although he had surrendered to his servants the second story of his house, which he himself never used at all, the ground floor had required a number of pictures to fit the walls.
. . . .
The dressing room was tapestried in deep red. On the walls, in ebony frames, hung the prints of Jan Luyken, an old Dutch engraver almost unknown in France.
He possessed of the work of this artist, who was fantastic and melancholy, vehement and wild, the series of his Religious Persecutions, horrible prints depicting all the agonies invented by the madness of religions: prints pregnant with human sufferings, showing bodies roasting on fires, skulls slit open with swords, trepaned with nails and gashed with saws, intestines separated from the abdomen and twisted on spools, finger nails slowly extracted with pincers, eyes gouged, limbs dislocated and deliberately broken, and bones bared of flesh and agonizingly scraped by sheets of metal.
These works filled with abominable imaginings, offensive with their odors of burning, oozing with blood and clamorous with cries of horror and maledictions, gave Des Esseintes, who was held fascinated in this red room, the creeping sensations of goose-flesh.
But in addition to the tremblings they occasioned, beyond the terrible skill of this man, the extraordinary life which animates his characters, one discovered, among his astonishing, swarming throngs—among his mobs of people delineated with a dexterity which recalled Callot, but which had a strength never possessed by that amusing dauber—curious reconstructions of bygone ages. The architecture, costumes and customs during the time of the Maccabeans, of Rome under the Christian persecutions, of Spain under the Inquisition, of France during the Middle Ages, at the time of Saint Bartholomew and the Dragonnades, were studied with a meticulous care and noted with scientific accuracy.
These prints were veritable treasures of learning. One could gaze at them for hours without experiencing any sense of weariness. Profoundly suggestive in reflections, they assisted Des Esseintes in passing many a day when his books failed to charm him.
Luyken‘s life, too, fascinated him, by explaining the hallucination of his work. A fervent Calvinist, a stubborn sectarian, unbalanced by prayers and hymns, he wrote religious poetry which he illustrated, paraphrased the psalms in verse, lost himself in the reading of the Bible from which he emerged haggard and frenzied, his brain haunted by monstrous subjects, his mouth twisted by the maledictions of the Reformation and by its songs of terror and hate.
And he scorned the world, surrendering his wealth to the poor and subsisting on a slice of bread. He ended his life in travelling, with an equally fanatical servant, going where chance led his boat, preaching the Gospel far and wide, endeavoring to forego nourishment, and eventually becoming almost demented and violent.
Other bizarre sketches were hung in the larger, adjoining room, as well as in the corridor, both of which had woodwork of red cedar.
There was Bresdin‘s Comedy of Death in which, in the fantastic landscape bristling with trees, brushwood and tufts of grass resembling phantom, demon forms, teeming with rat-headed, pod-tailed birds, on earth covered with ribs, skulls and bones, gnarled and cracked willows rear their trunks, surmounted by agitated skeletons whose arms beat the air while they intone a song of victory. A Christ speeds across a clouded sky; a hermit in the depths of a cave meditates, holding his head in his hands; one wretch dies, exhausted by long privation and enfeebled by hunger, lying on his back, his legs outstretched in front of a pond.
The Good Samaritan, by the same artist, is a large engraving on stone: an incongruous medley of palms, sorbs and oaks grown together, heedless of seasons and climates, peopled with monkeys and owls, covered with old stumps as misshapen as the roots of the mandrake; then a magical forest, cut in the center near a glade through which a stream can be seen far away, behind a camel and the Samaritan group; then an elfin town appearing on the horizon of an exotic sky dotted with birds and covered with masses of fleecy clouds.
It could be called the design of an uncertain, primitive Durer with an opium-steeped brain. But although he liked the finesse of the detail and the imposing appearance of this print, Des Esseintes had a special weakness for the other frames adorning the room.
They were signed: Odilon Redon.
They enclosed inconceivable apparitions in their rough, gold-striped pear-tree wood. A head of a Merovingian style, resting against a bowl, a bearded man, at once resembling a Buddhist priest and an orator at a public reunion, touching the ball of a gigantic cannon with his fingers; a frightful spider revealing a human face in its body. The charcoal drawings went even farther into dream terrors. Here, an enormous die in which a sad eye winked; there, dry and arid landscapes, dusty plains, shifting ground, volcanic upheavals catching rebellious clouds, stagnant and livid skies. Sometimes the subjects even seemed to have borrowed from the cacodemons of science, reverting to prehistoric times. A monstrous plant on the rocks, queer blocks everywhere, glacial mud, figures whose simian shapes, heavy jaws, beetling eyebrows, retreating foreheads and flat skulls, recalled the ancestral heads of the first quaternary periods, when inarticulate man still devoured fruits and seeds, and was still contemporaneous with the mammoth, the rhinoceros and the big bear. These designs were beyond anything imaginable; they leaped, for the most part, beyond the limits of painting and introduced a fantasy that was unique, the fantasy of a diseased and delirious mind.
And, indeed, certain of these faces, with their monstrous, insane eyes, certain of these swollen, deformed bodies resembling carafes, induced in Des Esseintes recollections of typhoid, memories of feverish nights and of the shocking visions of his infancy which persisted and would not be suppressed.
Seized with an indefinable uneasiness in the presence of these sketches, the same sensation caused by certain Proverbs of Goya which they recalled, or by the reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, whose mirages of hallucination and effects of fear Odilon Redon seemed to have transposed to a different art, he rubbed his eyes and turned to contemplate a radiant figure which, amid these tormenting sketches, arose serene and calm—a figure of Melancholy seated near the disk of a sun, on the rocks, in a dejected and gloomy posture.
The shadows were dispersed as though by an enchantment. A charming sadness, a languid and desolate feeling flowed through him. He meditated long before this work which, with its dashes of paint flecking the thick crayon, spread a brilliance of sea-green and of pale gold among the protracted darkness of the charcoal prints.
In addition to this series of the works of Redon which adorned nearly every panel of the passage, he had hung a disturbing sketch by El Greco in his bedroom. It was a Christ done in strange tints, in a strained design, possessing a wild color and a disordered energy: a picture executed in the painter’s second manner when he had been tormented by the necessity of avoiding imitation of Titian.
This sinister painting, with its wax and sickly green tones, bore an affinity to certain ideas Des Esseintes had with regard to furnishing a room.
According to him, there were but two ways of fitting a bedroom. One could either make it a sense-stimulating alcove, a place for nocturnal delights, or a cell for solitude and repose, a retreat for thought, a sort of oratory.
Joris Karl Huysmans, 1848-1907 À rebours, 1884 Against Nature. Translation: John Howard
Image: Gustave Moreau, Salomé dansant devant Hérode, 1876 Salome Dancing Before Herod. Armand Hammer Collection
‘Could I see your latest canvases? I’d like to very much,’ said Pierre, ‘It’s such a long time since I’ve seen anything of yours. Françoise told me that you’d changed your style.’
‘I’m in the very middle of a transition.’ said Elisabeth, with ironic emphasis. Her pictures! Pigment spread on canvas so as to give the appearance of pictures; she spent her days painting in order to convince herself that she was a painter, but it was still nothing but a lugubrious game.
She took out one of her canvases, put it on the easel, and turned on a blue light. There, that was all part of the ritual! She would show them her fraudulent paintings and they would bestow fraudulent praise on her. They would not know that she knew: this time they were the dupes.
‘Well yes, that’s a radical change!’ said Pierre.
He studied the picture with a look of genuine interest. It was a section of a Spanish arena with a bull’s head in one corner, and rifles and corpses in the middle.
‘That’s not in the least like your first sketch,’ said Françoise.
‘You ought to show that to Pierre too, so that he can see the development.’
Elisabeth took out her ‘Firing Party’.
‘That’s interesting,’ said Pierre, ‘but it’s not as good as the other. I think you’re quite right to avoid any kind of realism in the treatment of such subjects.’
Elisabeth turned searching eyes on him, but he seemed genuinely sincere.
‘As you have seen, this is the line along which I’m now working,’ she said. ‘I’m trying to use the incoherence and freedom of the surrealists, but by giving them direction.’
She took out her ‘Concentration Camp’, ‘Fascist Landscape’, and ‘The Night of the Pogrom’, which Pierre studied approvingly. Elisabeth threw a puzzled look at her pictures. After all, taking all things into consideration, wasn’t it only a public that she lacked to become a real artist? Didn’t every exacting artist regard himself in private as a dauber? The real artist is one whose work is real. In a sense, Claude was not completely wrong when he panted to have his play put on. A work of art only becomes real by becoming known. She chose one of her most recent canvases. ‘The Game of Massacre’. As she was putting it on the easel, she caught a look of dismay which Xavière had directed at Françoise.
‘Don’t you care for the picture?’ she said with a surface smile.
‘I don’t understand anything about it,’ said Xavière apologetically.
Pierre turned to her quickly with an uneasy look, and Elisabeth felt a sudden wave of anger. They must have warned Xavière that this was part of the evening’s entertainment, but she was beginning to grow impatient, for her slightest whim was accounted more important than Elisabeth’s entire fate.
‘What do you say to this?’ she said.
It was a daring and complex painting which called for considerable comment. Pierre glanced at it hastily.
‘I like it very much, too,’ he said.
It was obvious that he only wanted to get it over and done with. Elisabeth took away the canvas.
‘That’s enough for today,’ she said. ‘We musn’t make a martyr of this child.’
Xavière cast a saturnine glance at her, she understood perfectly well that Elisabeth was not blind where she was concerned.
‘You know, if you want to put on a record,’ said Elisabeth to Françoise, ‘you can easily do so. Only take a fine needle, because of the tenant below.
‘Oh, yes!’ said Xavière eagerly.
‘Why don’t you try exhibiting this year?’ said Pierre, lighting his pipe. ‘I’m sure you’d interest a large public.’
‘It’s not the right moment,’ said Elisabeth. ‘In these uncertain times it would be madness to launch a new name.’
Simone de Beauvoir,1908-1986 L’invitée, 1943 She Came to Stay
“Come in, come in,” cried the old man. He was radiant with delight. “My work is perfect. I can show her now with pride. Never shall painter, brushes, colours, light, and canvas produce a rival for ‘Catherine Lescault,’ the beautiful courtesan!”
Porbus and Poussin, burning with eager curiosity, hurried into a vast studio. Everything was in disorder and covered with dust, but they saw a few pictures here and there upon the wall. They stopped first of all in admiration before the life-size figure of a woman partially draped.
“Oh! never mind that,” said Frenhofer; “that is a rough daub that I made, a study, a pose, it is nothing. These are my failures,” he went on, indicating the enchanting compositions upon the walls of the studio.
This scorn for such works of art struck Porbus and Poussin dumb with amazement. They looked round for the picture of which he had spoken, and could not discover it.
“Look here!” said the old man. His hair was disordered, his face aglow with a more than human exaltation, his eyes glittered, he breathed hard like a young lover frenzied by love.
“Aha!” he cried, “you did not expect to see such perfection! You are looking for a picture, and you see a woman before you. There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you can not distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible! It is the form of a living girl that you see before you. Have I not caught the very hues of life, the spirit of the living line that defines the figure? Is there not the effect produced there like that which all natural objects present in the atmosphere about them, or fishes in the water? Do you see how the figure stands out against the background? Does it not seem to you that you pass your hand along the back? But then for seven years I studied and watched how the daylight blends with the objects on which it falls. And the hair, the light pours over it like a flood, does it not?… Ah! she breathed, I am sure that she breathed! Her breast—ah, see! Who would not fall on his knees before her? Her pulses throb. She will rise to her feet. Wait!”
“Do you see anything?” Poussin asked of Porbus.
“No… do you?”
“I see nothing.”
The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns.
“Yes, yes, it is really canvas,” said Frenhofer, who mistook the nature of this minute investigation.
“Look! the canvas is on a stretcher, here is the easel; indeed, here are my colors, my brushes,” and he took up a brush and held it out to them, all unsuspicious of their thought.
“The old lansquenet is laughing at us,” said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. “I can see nothing there but confused masses of colour and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.”
“We are mistaken, look!” said Porbus.
In a corner of the canvas, as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of colour, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living delicate beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town.
“There is a woman beneath,” exclaimed Porbus, calling Poussin’s attention to the coats of paint with which the old artist had overlaid and concealed his work in the quest of perfection.
Both artists turned involuntarily to Frenhofer. They began to have some understanding, vague though it was, of the ecstasy in which he lived.
“He believes it in all good faith,” said Porbus.
“Yes, my friend,” said the old man, rousing himself from his dreams, “it needs faith, faith in art, and you must live for long with your work to produce such a creation. What toil some of those shadows have cost me. Look! there is a faint shadow there upon the cheek beneath the eyes—if you saw that on a human face, it would seem to you that you could never render it with paint. Do you think that that effect has not cost unheard of toil?
“But not only so, dear Porbus. Look closely at my work, and you will understand more clearly what I was saying as to methods of modeling and outline. Look at the high lights on the bosom, and see how by touch on touch, thickly laid on, I have raised the surface so that it catches the light itself and blends it with the lustrous whiteness of the high lights, and how by an opposite process, by flattening the surface of the paint, and leaving no trace of the passage of the brush, I have succeeded in softening the contours of my figures and enveloping them in half-tints until the very idea of drawing, of the means by which the effect is produced, fades away, and the picture has the roundness and relief of nature. Come closer. You will see the manner of working better; at a little distance it can not be seen. There I Just there, it is, I think, very plainly to be seen,” and with the tip of his brush he pointed out a patch of transparent colour to the two painters.
Porbus, laying a hand on the old artist’s shoulder, turned to Poussin with a “Do you know that in him we see a very great painter?”
“He is even more of a poet than a painter,” Poussin answered gravely.
“There,” Porbus continued, as he touched the canvas, “Use the utmost limit of our art on earth.”
“Beyond that point it loses itself in the skies,” said Poussin.
“What joys lie there on this piece of canvas!” exclaimed Porbus.
The old man, deep in his own musings, smiled at the woman he alone beheld, and did not hear.
“But sooner or later he will find out that there is nothing there!” cried Poussin.
“Nothing on my canvas!” said Frenhofer, looking in turn at either painter and at his picture.
“What have you done?” muttered Porbus, turning to Poussin.
The old man clutched the young painter’s arm and said, “Do you see nothing? clodpatel Huguenot! varlet! cullion! What brought you here into my studio?—My good Porbus,” he went on, as he turned to the painter, “are you also making a fool of me? Answer! I am your friend. Tell me, have I ruined my picture after all?”
Porbus hesitated and said nothing, but there was such intolerable anxiety in the old man’s white face that he pointed to the easel.
“Look!” he said.
Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.
“Nothing! nothing! After ten years of work…” He sat down and wept.
“So I am a dotard, a madman, I have neither talent nor power! I am only a rich man, who works for his own pleasure, and makes no progress, I have done nothing after all!”
He looked through his tears at his picture. Suddenly he rose and stood proudly before the two painters.
“By the body and blood of Christ,” he cried with flashing eyes, “you are jealous! You would have me think that my picture is a failure because you want to steal her from me! Ah! I see her, I see her,” he cried “she is marvelously beautiful…”
At that moment Poussin heard the sound of weeping; Gillette was crouching forgotten in a corner. All at once the painter once more became the lover. “What is it, my angel?” he asked her.
“Kill me!” she sobbed. “I must be a vile thing if I love you still, for I despise you…. I admire you, and I hate you! I love you, and I feel that I hate you even now!”
While Gillette’s words sounded in Poussin’s ears, Frenhof er drew a green serge covering over his “Catherine” with the sober deliberation of a jeweler who locks his drawers when he suspects his visitors to be expert thieves. He gave the two painters a profoundly astute glance that expressed to the full his suspicions, and his contempt for them, saw them out of his studio with impetuous haste and in silence, until from the threshold of his house he bade them “Good-by, my young friends!”
That farewell struck a chill of dread into the two painters. Porbus, in anxiety, went again on the morrow to see Frenhofer, and learned that he had died in the night after burning his canvases.
Honoré De Balzac, 1799-1850
Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. 1831 The Unknown Masterpiece, translation by Ellen Marriage (?)
Image: Pabo Picasso, Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. Black ink and wash on paper, laid to card, c.15 x 15 inches
Then the five roamed about in Indian file, with their noses in the air, now separated by a sudden crush, now reunited by another, and ever carried along by the stream. An abomination of Chaine’s, a ‘Christ pardoning the Woman taken in Adultery,’ made them pause; it was a group of dry figures that looked as if cut out of wood, very bony of build, and seemingly painted with mud. But close by they admired a very fine study of a woman, seen from behind, with her head turned sideways. The whole show was a mixture of the best and the worst, all styles were mingled together, the drivellers of the historical school elbowed the young lunatics of realism, the pure simpletons were lumped together with those who bragged about their originality. A dead Jezabel, that seemed to have rotted in the cellars of the School of Arts, was exhibited near a lady in white, the very curious conception of a future great artist [Edouard Manet]; then a huge shepherd looking at the sea, a weak production, faced a little painting of some Spaniards playing at rackets, a dash of light of splendid intensity. Nothing execrable was wanting, neither military scenes full of little leaden soldiers, nor wan antiquity, nor the middle ages, smeared, as it were, with bitumen. But from amidst the incoherent ensemble, and especially from the landscapes, all of which were painted in a sincere, correct key, and also from the portraits, most of which were very interesting in respect to workmanship, there came a good fresh scent of youth, bravery and passion. If there were fewer bad pictures in the official Salon, the average there was assuredly more commonplace and mediocre. Here one found the smell of battle, of cheerful battle, given jauntily at daybreak, when the bugle sounds, and when one marches to meet the enemy with the certainty of beating him before sunset.
Claude, whose spirits had revived amidst that martial odour, grew animated and pugnacious as he listened to the laughter of the public. He looked as defiant, indeed, as if he had heard bullets whizzing past him. Sufficiently discreet at the entrance of the galleries, the laughter became more boisterous, more unrestrained, as they advanced.
In the third room the women ceased concealing their smiles behind their handkerchiefs, while the men openly held their sides the better to ease themselves. It was the contagious hilarity of people who had come to amuse themselves, and who were growing gradually excited, bursting out at a mere trifle, diverted as much by the good things as by the bad. Folks laughed less before Chaine’s Christ than before the back view of the nude woman, who seemed to them very comical indeed.
The ‘Lady in White’ also stupefied people and drew them together; folks nudged each other and went into hysterics almost; there was always a grinning group in front of it. Each canvas thus had its particular kind of success; people hailed each other from a distance
to point out something funny, and witticisms flew from mouth to mouth; to such a degree indeed that, as Claude entered the fourth gallery, lashed into fury by the tempest of laughter that was raging there as well, he all but slapped the face of an old lady whose chuckles exasperated him.
‘What idiots!’ he said, turning towards his friends. ‘One feels inclined to throw a lot of masterpieces at their heads.’
Sandoz had become fiery also, and Fagerolles continued praising the most dreadful daubs, which only tended to increase the laughter, while Gagniere, at sea amid the hubbub, dragged on the delighted Irma, whose skirts somehow wound round the legs of all the men.
But of a sudden Jory stood before them. His fair handsome face absolutely beamed. He cut his way through the crowd, gesticulated, and exulted, as if over a personal victory. And the moment he perceived Claude, he shouted:
‘Here you are at last! I have been looking for you this hour. A success, old fellow, oh! a success – ‘
‘Why, the success of your picture. Come, I must show it you. You’ll see, it’s stunning.’
Claude grew pale. A great joy choked him, while he pretended to receive the news with composure. Bongrand’s words came back to him. He began to believe that he possessed genius.
‘Hallo, how are you?’ continued Jory, shaking hands with the others. And, without more ado, he, Fagerolles and Gagniere surrounded Irma, who smiled on them in a good-natured way.
‘Perhaps you’ll tell us where the picture is,’ said Sandoz, impatiently. ‘Take us to it.’
Jory assumed the lead, followed by the band. They had to fight their way into the last gallery. But Claude, who brought up the rear, still heard the laughter that rose on the air, a swelling clamour, the roll of a tide near its full. And as he finally entered the room, he beheld a vast, swarming, closely packed crowd pressing eagerly in front of his picture. All the laughter arose, spread, and ended there. And it was his picture that was being laughed at.
‘Eh!’ repeated Jory, triumphantly, ‘there’s a success for you.’ Gagniere, intimidated, as ashamed as if he himself had been slapped, muttered: ‘Too much of a success – I should prefer something different.’
‘What a fool you are,’ replied Jory, in a burst of exalted conviction. ‘That’s what I call success. Does it matter a curse if they laugh? We have made our mark; to-morrow every paper will talk about us.’
‘The idiots,’ was all that Sandoz could gasp, choking with grief.
Fagerolles, disinterested and dignified like a family friend following a funeral procession, said nothing. Irma alone remained gay, thinking it all very funny. And, with a caressing gesture, she leant against the shoulder of the derided painter, and whispered softly in his ear:
‘Don’t fret, my boy. It’s all humbug, be merry all the same.’
But Claude did not stir. An icy chill had come over him. For a moment his heart had almost ceased to beat, so cruel had been the disappointment And with his eyes enlarged, attracted and fixed by a resistless force, he looked at his picture. He was surprised, and scarcely recognised it; it certainly was not such as it had seemed to be in his studio. It had grown yellow beneath the livid light of the linen screens; it seemed, moreover, to have become smaller; coarser and more laboured also; and whether it was the effect of the light in which it now hung, or the contrast of the works beside it, at all events he now at the first glance saw all its defects, after having remained blind to them, as it were, for months. With a few strokes of the brush he, in thought, altered the whole of it, deepened the distances, set a badly drawn limb right, and modified a tone. Decidedly, the gentleman in the velveteen jacket was worth nothing at all, he was altogether pasty and badly seated; the only really good bit of work about him was his hand. In the background the two little wrestlers – the fair and the dark one–had remained too sketchy, and lacked substance; they were amusing only to an artist’s eye. But he was pleased with the trees, with the sunny glade; and the nude woman – the woman lying on the grass appeared to him superior to his own powers, as if some one else had painted her, and as if he had never yet beheld her in such resplendency of life.
He turned to Sandoz, and said simply: ‘They do right to laugh; it’s incomplete. Never mind, the woman is all right! Bongrand was not hoaxing me.’
His friend wished to take him away, but he became obstinate, and drew nearer instead. Now that he had judged his work, he listened and looked at the crowd. The explosion continued–culminated in an ascending scale of mad laughter. No sooner had visitors crossed the threshold than he saw their jaws part, their eyes grow small, their entire faces expand; and he heard the tempestuous puffing of the fat men, the rusty grating jeers of the lean ones, amidst all the shrill, flute-like laughter of the women. Opposite him, against the
hand-rails, some young fellows went into contortions, as if somebody had been tickling them. One lady had flung herself on a seat, stifling and trying to regain breath with her handkerchief over her mouth. Rumours of this picture, which was so very, very funny, must have been spreading, for there was a rush from the four corners of the Salon, bands of people arrived, jostling each other, and all eagerness to share the fun. ‘Where is it?’ ‘Over there.’ ‘Oh, what a joke!’ And the witticisms fell thicker than elsewhere. It was especially the subject that caused merriment; people failed to understand it, thought it insane, comical enough to make one ill with laughter. ‘You see the lady feels too hot, while the gentleman has put on his velveteen jacket for fear of catching cold.’ ‘Not at all; she is already blue; the gentleman has pulled her out of a pond, and he is resting at a distance, holding his nose.’ ‘I tell you it’s a young ladies’ school out for a ramble. Look at the two playing at leap-frog.’ ‘Hallo! washing day; the flesh is blue; the trees are blue; he’s dipped his picture in the blueing tub!’
Those who did not laugh flew into a rage: that bluish tinge, that novel rendering of light seemed an insult to them. Some old gentlemen shook their sticks. Was art to be outraged like this? One grave individual went away very wroth, saying to his wife that he did not like practical jokes. But another, a punctilious little man, having looked in the catalogue for the title of the work, in order to tell his daughter, read out the words, ‘Plein Air ‘ whereupon there came a formidable renewal of the clamour, hisses and shouts, and what not else besides. The title sped about; it was repeated, commented on. ‘Plein Air ! ah, yes, the open air, the nude woman in the air, everything in the air, tra la la laire.’ The affair was becoming a scandal. The crowd still increased. People’s faces grew red with congestion in the growing heat. Each had the stupidly gaping mouth of the ignoramus who judges painting, and between them they indulged in all the asinine ideas, all the preposterous reflections, all the stupid spiteful jeers that the sight of an original work can possibly elicit from bourgeois imbecility.
At that moment, as a last blow, Claude beheld Dubuche reappear, dragging the Margaillans along. As soon as he came in front of the picture, the architect, ill at ease, overtaken by cowardly shame, wished to quicken his pace and lead his party further on, pretending that he saw neither the canvas nor his friends. But the contractor had already drawn himself up on his short, squat legs, and was staring at the picture, and asking aloud in his thick hoarse voice:
‘I say, who’s the blockhead that painted this?’
Émile Zola, 1840-1902. L’Oeuvre,1886 [The Masterpiece] translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (1853-1922).
Image: Édouard Manet, 1832-1883. Déjeuner sur l’herbe, c.1863–1868. Oil on canvas, 89.5 x 116.5 cm. The Courtauld Gallery, London
L’Oeuvre is he fourteenth novel in the twenty volume Rougon-Macquart series, and contrasts the Bohemian world which saw the emergence of the Impressionists against the conservative attitudes of the Academy and official Salon. The novel concerns the story of Claude Lantier, partly based on Zola’s friend, Paul Cezanne, a talented painter from the provinces.
The Queen-Dauphin caused pictures in miniature to be drawn of all the beauties of the Court, in order to send them to the Queen her mother. One day, when that of Madam de Cleves was finishing, the Queen-Dauphin came to spend the afternoon with her; the Duke de Nemours did not fail to be there; he let slip no opportunities of seeing Madam de Cleves, yet without appearing to contrive them. She looked so pretty that day, that he would have fell in love with her, though he had not been so before: however he durst not keep his eyes fixed upon her, while she was sitting for her picture, for fear of showing too much the pleasure he took in looking at her.
The Queen-Dauphin asked Monsieur de Cleves for a little picture he had of his wife’s, to compare it with that which was just drawn; everybody gave their judgment of the one and the other; and Madam de Cleves ordered the painter to mend something in the headdress of that which had been just brought in; the painter in obedience to her took the picture out of the case in which it was, and having mended it laid it again on the table.
The Duke de Nemours had long wished to have a picture of Madam de Cleves; when he saw that which Monsieur de Cleves had, he could not resist the temptation of stealing it from a husband, who, he believed, was tenderly loved; and he thought that among so many persons as were in the same room he should be no more liable to suspicion than another.
The Queen-Dauphin was sitting on the bed, and whispering to Madam de Cleves, who was standing before her. Madam de Cleves, through one of the curtains that was but half-drawn, spied the Duke de Nemours with his back to the table, that stood at the bed’s feet, and perceived that without turning his face he took something very dextrously from off the table; she presently guessed it was her picture, and was in such concern about it, that the Queen-Dauphin observed she did not attend to what she said, and asked her aloud what it was she looked at. At those words, the Duke de Nemours turned about, and met full the eyes of Madam de Cleves that were still fixed upon him; he thought it not impossible but she might have seen what he had done.
Madam de Cleves was not a little perplexed; it was reasonable to demand her picture of him; but to demand it publicly was to discover to the whole world the sentiments which the Duke had for her, and to demand it in private would be to engage him to speak of his love; she judged after all it was better to let him keep it, and she was glad to grant him a favour which she could do without his knowing that she granted it. The Duke de Nemours, who observed her perplexity, and partly guessed the cause of it, came up, and told her softly, “If you have seen what I have ventured to do, be so good, Madam, as to let me believe you are ignorant of it; I dare ask no more”; having said this he withdrew, without waiting for her answer.
The Queen-Dauphin went to take a walk, attended with the rest of the ladies; and the Duke de Nemours went home to shut himself up in his closet, not being able to support in public the ecstasy he was in on having a picture of Madam de Cleves; he tasted everything that was sweet in love; he was in love with the finest woman of the Court; he found she loved him against her will, and saw in all her actions that sort of care and embarrassment which love produces in young and innocent hearts.
At night great search was made for the picture; and having found the case it used to be kept in, they never suspected it had been stolen but thought it might have fallen out by chance. The Prince of Cleves was very much concerned for the loss of it; and after having searched for it a great while to no purpose, he told his wife, but with an air that showed he did not think so, that without doubt she had some secret lover, to whom she had given the picture, or who had stole it, and that none but a lover would have been contented with the picture without the case.
Marie de La Fayette,1634-1693 Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne
La Princesse de Clèves,1678
Image: Marie de La Fayette. La Princesse de Clèves,1678. Le Portrait dérobé: Mme de Clèves aperçut M. de Nemours qui prenait quelque chose sur la table.
Artist: Pierre Jean Baptiste Isidore Choquet, 1774-1824; Engraver: Edme Bovinet, 1767-1832. Publisher: Vve Lepetit, 1820. Source: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France
The old Art Institute, which preceded the present impressive structure, was located at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street, and presented an atmosphere of distinction which was not present in most of the structures representing the public taste of the period. It was a large six storey building of brown stone, and contained a number of studios for painters, sculptors, and music teachers, besides the exhibition rooms and the rooms for the classes. There were both day and evening classes, and even at that time a large number of students. The western soul, to a certain extent, was fired by the wonder of art. There was so little of it in the life of the people—the fame of those who could accomplish things in this field and live in a more refined atmosphere was great. To go to Paris! To be a student in any one of the great ateliers of that city! Or of Munich or Rome, to know the character of the artistic treasures of Europe—the life of the Art quarter—that was something. There was what might have been termed a wild desire in the breast of many an untutored boy and girl to get out of the ranks of the commonplace; to assume the character and thehabiliments of the artistic temperament as they were then supposed to be; to have a refined, semi-languorous, semi-indifferent manner; to live in a studio, to have a certain freedom in morals and temperament not accorded to the ordinary person—these were the great things to do and be. Of course, art composition was a part of this. You were supposed ultimately to paint great pictures or do noble sculptures, but in the meanwhile you could and should live the life of the artist. And that was beautiful and wonderful and free.
Eugene had long had some sense of this. He was aware that there were studios in Chicago; that certain men were supposed to be doing good work—he saw it in the papers. There were mentions now and then of exhibitions, mostly free, which the public attended but sparingly. Once there was an exhibition of some of the war pictures of Verestchagin, a great Russian painter who had come West for some purpose. Eugene saw them one Sunday afternoon, and was enthralled by the magnificence of their grasp of the elements of battle; the wonder of color; the truth of character; the dramatic quality; the sense of force and danger and horror and suffering which was somehow around and in and through everything that was shown. This man had virility and insight; stupendous imagination and temperament. Eugene stood and stared, wondering how such things could be done. Ever afterward the name of Verestchagin was like a great call to his imagination; that was the kind of an artist to be if you were going to be one.
Another picture came there once, which appealed to another side of his nature, although primarily the basis of its appeal was artistic. It was a great, warm tinted nude by Bouguereau, a French artist who was startling his day with his daring portrayal of the nude. The types he depicted were not namby-pamby little slim-bodied women with spindling qualities of strength and passion, but great, full-blown women whose voluptuous contour of neck and arms and torso and hip and thigh was enough to set the blood of youth at fever heat. The man obviously understood and had passion, love of form, love of desire, love of beauty. He painted with a sense of the bridal bed in the background; of motherhood and of fat, growing babies, joyously nursed. These women stood up big in their sense of beauty and magnetism, the soft lure of desire in their eyes, their full lips parted, their cheeks flushed with the blood of health. As such they were anathema to the conservative and puritanical in mind, the religious in temperament, thecautious in training or taste. The very bringing of this picture to Chicago as a product for sale was enough to create a furore of objection. Such pictures should not be painted, was the cry of the press; or if painted, not exhibited. Bouguereau was conceived of by many as one of those dastards of art who were endeavoring to corrupt by their talent the morals of the world; there was a cry raised that the thing should be suppressed; and as is always the case in all such outbursts of special class opposition, the interest of the general public was aroused.
Eugene was one of those who noted the discussion. He had never seen a picture by Bouguereau or, indeed, an original nude by any other artist. Being usually at liberty after three o’clock, he was free to visit some of these things, and having found it possible to do his work in good clothes he had come to wear his best suit every day. He was a fairly presentable youth with a solemn mien, and his request to be shown anything in any art store would have aroused no surprise. He looked as though he belonged to the intellectual and artistic classes.
Not being sure of what reception would be accorded one so young—he was now nearing twenty—he nevertheless ventured to stop at the gallery where the Bouguereau was being exhibited and ask to see it. The attendant in charge eyed him curiously, but led him back to a room hung in dark red, and turning on a burst of incandescent bulbs set in the ceiling of a red plush hung cabinet, pulled back the curtain revealing the picture. Eugene had never seen such a figure and face. It was a dream of beauty—his ideal come to life. He studied the face and neck, the soft mass of brown, sensuous hair massed at the back of the head, the flowerlike lips and soft cheeks. He marveled at the suggestion of the breasts and the abdomen, that potentiality of motherhood that is so firing to the male. He could have stood there hours dreaming, luxuriating, but the attendant who had left him alone with it for a few minutes returned.
“What is the price of this?” Eugene asked.
“Ten thousand dollars,” was the reply.
He smiled solemnly. “It’s a wonderful thing,” he said, and turned to go. The attendant put out the light.
This picture, like those of Verestchagin, made a sharp impression on him. Curiously he had no longing to paint anything of this kind. He only rejoiced to look at it. It spoke to him of his present ideal of womanhood—physical beauty, and he longed with all his heart to find a creature like that who would look on him with favor.
There were other exhibitions—one containing a genuine Rembrandt—whichimpressed him, but none like these that had definitely stirred him. His interest in art was becoming eager. He wanted to find out all about it—to do something himself. One day he ventured to call at the Art Institute building and consult the secretary, who explained to him what the charges were. He learned from her, for she was a woman of a practical, clerical turn, that the classes ran from October to May, that he could enter a life or antique class or both, though the antique alone was advisable for the time, and a class in illustration, where costumes of different periods were presented on different models. He found that each class had an instructor of supposed note, whom it was not necessary for him to see. Each class had a monitor and each student was supposed to work faithfully for his own benefit. Eugene did not get to see the class rooms, but he gained a sense of the art of it all, nevertheless, for the halls and offices were decorated in an artistic way, and there were many plaster casts of arms, legs, busts, and thighs and heads. It was as though one stood in an open doorway and looked out upon a new world. The one thing that gratified him was that he could study pen and ink or brush in the illustration class, and that he could also join a sketch class from five to six every afternoon without extra charges if he preferred to devote his evening hours to studying drawing in the life class. He was a little astonished to learn from a printed prospectus given him that the life class meant nude models to work from—both men and women. He was surely approaching a different world now. It seemed necessary and natural enough, and yet there was an aloof atmosphere about it, something that suggested the inner precincts of a shrine, to which only talent was admitted. Was he talented? Wait! He would show the world, even if he was a raw country boy.
The classes which he decided to enter were first a life class which convened Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at seven in one of the study rooms and remained in session until ten o’clock, and second a sketch class which met from five to six every afternoon. Eugene felt that he knew little or nothing about figure and anatomy and had better work at that. Costume and illustration would have to wait, and as for the landscapes, or rather city-scapes, of which he was so fond, he could afford to defer those until he learned something of the fundamentals of art.
Heretofore he had rarely attempted the drawing of a face or figure except in miniature and as details of a larger scene. Now he was confronted with the necessity of sketching in charcoalthe head or body of a living person, and it frightened him a little. He knew that he would be in a class with fifteen or twenty other male students. They would be able to see and comment on what he was doing. Twice a week an instructor would come around and pass upon his work. There were honors for those who did the best work during any one month, he learned from the prospectus, namely: first choice of seats around the model at the beginning of each new pose. The class instructors must be of considerable significance in the American art world, he thought, for they were N. A.’s, and that meant National Academicians. He little knew with what contempt this honor was received in some quarters, or he would not have attached so much significance to it.
One Monday evening in October, armed with the several sheets of paper which he had been told to purchase by his all-informing prospectus, he began his work. He was a little nervous at sight of the brightly lighted halls and class rooms, and the moving crowd of young men and women did not tend to allay his fears. He was struck at once with the quality of gaiety, determination and easy grace which marked the different members of this company. The boys struck him as interesting, virile, in many cases good looking; the girls as graceful, rather dashing and confident. One or two whom he noted were beautiful in a dark way. This was a wonderful world.
The rooms too, were exceptional. They were old enough in use to be almost completely covered, as to the walls, with the accumulation of paint scraped from the palettes. There were no easels or other paraphernalia, but simply chairs and little stools—the former, as Eugene learned, to be turned upside down for easels, the latter for the students to sit on. In the center of the room was a platform, the height of an ordinary table, for the model to pose on, and in one corner a screen which constituted a dressing room. There were no pictures or statuary—just the bare walls—but curiously, in one corner, a piano. Out in the halls and in the general lounging center were pictures of nude figures or parts of figures posed in all sorts of ways which Eugene, in his raw, youthful way, thought suggestive. He secretly rejoiced to look at them but he felt that he must not say anything about what he thought. An art student, he felt sure, must appear to be indifferent to such suggestion—to be above such desire. They were here to work, not to dream of women.
When the time came for the classes to assemble there was a scurrying to and fro, conferring between different students, andthen the men found themselves in one set of rooms and the women in another. Eugene saw a young girl in his room, sitting up near the screen, idly gazing about. She was pretty, of a slightly Irish cast of countenance, with black hair and black eyes. She wore a cap that was an imitation of the Polish national head-dress, and a red cape. Eugene assumed her to be the class model and secretly wondered if he was really to see her in the nude. In a few minutes all the students were gathered, and then there was a stir as there strolled in a rather vigorous and picturesque man of thirty-six or thereabouts, who sauntered to the front of the room and called the class to order. He was clad in a shabby suit of grey tweed and crowned with a little brown hat, shoved rakishly over one ear, which he did not trouble to take off. He wore a soft blue hickory shirt without collar or tie, and looked immensely self-sufficient. He was tall and lean and raw-boned, with a face which was long and narrow; his eyes were large and wide set, his mouth big and firm in its lines; he had big hands and feet, and an almost rolling gait. Eugene assumed instinctively that this was Mr. Temple Boyle, N. A., the class instructor, and he imagined there would be an opening address of some kind. But the instructor merely announced that Mr. William Ray had been appointed monitor and that he hoped that there would be no disorder or wasting of time. There would be regular criticism days by him—Wednesdays and Fridays. He hoped that each pupil would be able to show marked improvement. The class would now begin work. Then he strolled out.
Eugene soon learned from one of the students that this really was Mr. Boyle. The young Irish girl had gone behind the screen. Eugene could see partially, from where he was sitting, that she was disrobing. It shocked him a little, but he kept his courage and his countenance because of the presence of so many others. He turned a chair upside down as he saw the others do, and sat down on a stool. His charcoal was lying in a little box beside him. He straightened his paper on its board and fidgeted, keeping as still as he could. Some of the students were talking. Suddenly he saw the girl divest herself of a thin, gauze shirt, and the next moment she came out, naked and composed, to step upon the platform and stand perfectly erect, her arms by her side, her head thrown back. Eugene tingled and blushed and was almost afraid to look directly at her. Then he took a stick of charcoal and began sketching feebly, attempting to convey something of this personality and this pose to paper. It seemed a wonderful thing for him to bedoing—to be in this room, to see this girl posing so; in short, to be an art student. So this was what it was, a world absolutely different from anything he had ever known. And he was self-called to be a member of it.
Theodore Dreiser, 1871 – 1945 The “Genius”, 1915. Book I. Chapter VI.
Book I. Chapter XVI
The art world of New York is peculiar. It was then and for some time after, broken up into cliques with scarcely any unity. There was a world of sculptors, for instance, in which some thirty or forty sculptors had part—but they knew each other slightly, criticised each other severely and retired for the most part into a background of relatives and friends. There was a painting world, as distinguished from an illustrating world, in which perhaps a thousand alleged artists, perhaps more, took part. Most of these were men and women who had some ability—enough to have their pictures hung at the National Academy of Design exhibition—to sell some pictures, get some decorative work to do, paint some portraits. There were studio buildings scattered about various portions of the city; in Washington Square; in Ninth and Tenth Streets; in odd places, such as Macdougal Alley and occasional cross streets from Washington Square to Fifty-ninth Street, which were filled with painters, illustrators, sculptors and craftsmen in art generally. This painting world had more unity than the world of sculptors and, in a way, included the latter. There were several art clubs—the Salmagundi, the Kit-Kat and the Lotus—and there were a number of exhibitions, ink, water color, oil, with their reception nights where artists could meet and exchange the courtesies and friendship of their world. In addition to this there were little communal groups such as those who resided in the Tenth Street studios; the Twenty-third Street Y. M. C. A.; the Van Dyck studios, and so on. It was possible to find little crowds, now and then, that harmonized well enough for a time and to get into a group, if, to use a colloquialism, one belonged. If you did not, art life in New York might be a very dreary thing and one might go a long time without finding just the particular crowd with which to associate.
Beside the painting world there was the illustrating world, made up of beginners and those who had established themselves firmly in editorial favor. These were not necessarily a part of the painting or sculpture worlds and yet, in spirit, were allied to them, had their clubs also, and their studios were in the various neighborhoods where the painters and sculptors were. The only difference was that in the case of the embryo illustrators they were to be found living three or four in one studio, partlybecause of the saving in expense, but also because of the love of companionship and because they could hearten and correct one another in their work. A number of such interesting groups were in existence when Eugene arrived, but of course he did not know of them.
It takes time for the beginner to get a hearing anywhere. We all have to serve an apprenticeship, whatever field we enter. Eugene had talent and determination, but no experience, no savoir faire, no circle of friends and acquaintances. The whole city was strange and cold, and if he had not immediately fallen desperately in love with it as a spectacle he would have been unconscionably lonely and unhappy. As it was the great fresh squares, such as Washington, Union and Madison; the great streets, such as Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue; the great spectacles, such as the Bowery at night, the East River, the water front, the Battery, all fascinated him with an unchanging glamor.
Theodore Dreiser, 1871 – 1945 The “Genius”, 1915. Book I. Chapter XVI
Book 2. Chapter V
The hope of fame—what hours of speculation, what pulses of enthusiasm, what fevers of effort, are based on that peculiarly subtle illusion! It is yet the lure, the ignis fatuus of almost every breathing heart. In the young particularly it burns with the sweetness and perfume of spring fires. Then most of all does there seem substantial reality in the shadow of fame—those deep, beautiful illusions which tremendous figures throw over the world. Attainable, it seems, must be the peace and plenty and sweet content of fame—that glamour of achievement that never was on sea or land. Fame partakes of the beauty and freshness of the morning. It has in it the odour of the rose, the feel of rich satin, the color of the cheeks of youth. If we could but be famous when we dream of fame, and not when locks are tinged with grey, faces seamed with the lines that speak of past struggles, and eyes wearied with the tensity, the longings and the despairs of years! To bestride the world in the morning of life, to walk amid the plaudits and the huzzahs when love and faith are young; to feel youth and the world’s affection when youth and health are sweet—what dream is that, of pure sunlight and moonlight compounded. A sun-kissed breath of mist in the sky; the reflection of moonlight upon water; the remembrance of dreams to the waking mind—of such is fame in our youth, and never afterward.
By such an illusion was Eugene’s mind possessed. He had no conception of what life would bring him for his efforts. He thought if he could have his pictures hung in a Fifth Avenue gallery much as he had seen Bouguereau’s “Venus” in Chicago, with people coming as he had come on that occasion—it would be of great comfort and satisfaction to him. If he could paint something which would be purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in New York he would then be somewhat of a classic figure, ranking with Corot and Daubigny and Rousseau of the French or with Turner and Watts and Millais of the English, the leading artistic figures of his pantheon. These men seemed to have something which he did not have, he thought, a greater breadth of technique, a finer comprehension of color and character, a feeling for the subtleties at the back of life which somehow showed through what they did. Larger experience, larger vision, larger feeling—these things seemed to be imminentin the great pictures exhibited here, and it made him a little uncertain of himself. Only the criticism in the Evening Sun fortified him against all thought of failure. He was an artist.
He gathered up the various oils he had done—there were some twenty-six all told now, scenes of the rivers, the streets, the night life, and so forth—and went over them carefully, touching up details which in the beginning he had merely sketched or indicated, adding to the force of a spot of color here, modifying a tone or shade there, and finally, after much brooding over the possible result, set forth to find a gallery which would give them place and commercial approval.
Eugene’s feeling was that they were a little raw and sketchy—that they might not have sufficient human appeal, seeing that they dealt with factory architecture at times, scows, tugs, engines, the elevated roads in raw reds, yellows and blacks; but MacHugh, Dula, Smite, Miss Finch, Christina, the Evening Sun, Norma Whitmore, all had praised them, or some of them. Was not the world much more interested in the form and spirit of classic beauty such as that represented by Sir John Millais? Would it not prefer Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel” to any street scene ever painted? He could never be sure. In the very hour of his triumph when the Sun had just praised his picture, there lurked the spectre of possible intrinsic weakness. Did the world wish this sort of thing? Would it ever buy of him? Was he of any real value?
“No, artist heart!” one might have answered, “of no more value than any other worker of existence and no less. The sunlight on the corn, the color of dawn in the maid’s cheek, the moonlight on the water—these are of value and of no value according to the soul to whom is the appeal. Fear not. Of dreams and the beauty of dreams is the world compounded.”
Kellner and Son, purveyors of artistic treasures by both past and present masters, with offices in Fifth Avenue near Twenty-eighth Street, was the one truly significant firm of art-dealers in the city. The pictures in the windows of Kellner and Son, the exhibitions in their very exclusive show rooms, the general approval which their discriminating taste evoked, had attracted the attention of artists and the lay public for fully thirty years. Eugene had followed their shows with interest ever since he had been in New York. He had seen, every now and then, a most astonishing picture of one school or another displayed in their imposing shop window, and had heard artists comment from time to time on other things there with considerable enthusiasm. The first important picture of theimpressionistic school—a heavy spring rain in a grove of silver poplars by Winthrop—had been shown in the window of this firm, fascinating Eugene with its technique. He had encountered here collections of Aubrey Beardsley’s decadent drawings, of Helleu’s silverpoints, of Rodin’s astonishing sculptures and Thaulow’s solid Scandinavian eclecticism. This house appeared to have capable artistic connections all over the world, for the latest art force in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, or Sweden, was quite as likely to find its timely expression here as the more accredited work of England, Germany or France. Kellner and Son were art connoisseurs in the best sense of the word, and although the German founder of the house had died many years before, its management and taste had never deteriorated.
Eugene did not know at this time how very difficult it was to obtain an exhibition under Kellner’s auspices, they being over-crowded with offers of art material and appeals for display from celebrated artists who were quite willing and able to pay for the space and time they occupied. A fixed charge was made, never deviated from except in rare instances where the talent of the artist, his poverty, and the advisability of the exhibition were extreme. Two hundred dollars was considered little enough for the use of one of their show rooms for ten days.
Eugene had no such sum to spare, but one day in January, without any real knowledge as to what the conditions were, he carried four of the reproductions which had been made from time to time in Truth to the office of Mr. Kellner, certain that he had something to show. Miss Whitmore had indicated to him that Eberhard Zang wanted him to come and see him, but he thought if he was going anywhere he would prefer to go to Kellner and Son. He wanted to explain to Mr. Kellner, if there were such a person, that he had many more paintings which he considered even better—more expressive of his growing understanding of American life and of himself and his technique. He went in timidly, albeit with quite an air, for this adventure disturbed him much.
The American manager of Kellner and Son, M. Anatole Charles, was a Frenchman by birth and training, familiar with the spirit and history of French art, and with the drift and tendency of art in various other sections of the world. He had been sent here by the home office in Berlin not only because of his very thorough training in English art ways, and because of his ability to select that type of picture which would attract attention and bring credit and prosperity to the house here and abroad; but also because of his ability to make friends amongthe rich and powerful wherever he was, and to sell one type of important picture after another—having some knack or magnetic capacity for attracting to him those who cared for good art and were willing to pay for it. His specialties, of course, were the canvases of the eminently successful artists in various parts of the world—the living successful. He knew by experience what sold—here, in France, in England, in Germany. He was convinced that there was practically nothing of value in American art as yet—certainly not from the commercial point of view, and very little from the artistic. Beyond a few canvases by Inness, Homer, Sargent, Abbey, Whistler, men who were more foreign, or rather universal, than American in their attitude, he considered that the American art spirit was as yet young and raw and crude. “They do not seem to be grown up as yet over here,” he said to his intimate friends. “They paint little things in a forceful way, but they do not seem as yet to see things as a whole. I miss that sense of the universe in miniature which we find in the canvases of so many of the great Europeans. They are better illustrators than artists over here—why I don’t know.”
M. Anatole Charles spoke English almost more than perfectly. He was an example of your true man of the world—polished, dignified, immaculately dressed, conservative in thought and of few words in expression. Critics and art enthusiasts were constantly running to him with this and that suggestion in regard to this and that artist, but he only lifted his sophisticated eyebrows, curled his superior mustachios, pulled at his highly artistic goatee, and exclaimed: “Ah!” or “So?” He asserted always that he was most anxious to find talent—profitable talent—though on occasion (and he would demonstrate that by an outward wave of his hands and a shrug of his shoulders), the house of Kellner and Son was not averse to doing what it could for art—and that for art’s sake without any thought of profit whatsoever. “Where are your artists?” he would ask. “I look and look. Whistler, Abbey, Inness, Sargent—ah—they are old, where are the new ones?”
“Well, this one”—the critic would probably persist.
“Well, well, I go. I shall look. But I have little hope—very, very little hope.”
He was constantly appearing under such pressure, at this studio and that—examining, criticising. Alas, he selected the work of but few artists for purposes of public exhibition and usually charged them well for it.
It was this man, polished, artistically superb in his way, whomEugene was destined to meet this morning. When he entered the sumptuously furnished office of M. Charles the latter arose. He was seated at a little rosewood desk lighted by a lamp with green silk shade. One glance told him that Eugene was an artist—very likely of ability, more than likely of a sensitive, high-strung nature. He had long since learned that politeness and savoir faire cost nothing. It was the first essential so far as the good will of an artist was concerned. Eugene’s card and message brought by a uniformed attendant had indicated the nature of his business. As he approached, M. Charles’ raised eyebrows indicated that he would be very pleased to know what he could do for Mr. Witla.
“I should like to show you several reproductions of pictures of mine,” began Eugene in his most courageous manner. “I have been working on a number with a view to making a show and I thought that possibly you might be interested in looking at them with a view to displaying them for me. I have twenty-six all told and—”
“Ah! that is a difficult thing to suggest,” replied M. Charles cautiously. “We have a great many exhibitions scheduled now—enough to carry us through two years if we considered nothing more. Obligations to artists with whom we have dealt in the past take up a great deal of our time. Contracts, which our Berlin and Paris branches enter into, sometimes crowd out our local shows entirely. Of course, we are always anxious to make interesting exhibitions if opportunity should permit. You know our charges?”
“No,” said Eugene, surprised that there should be any.
“Two hundred dollars for two weeks. We do not take exhibitions for less than that time.”
Eugene’s countenance fell. He had expected quite a different reception. Nevertheless, since he had brought them, he untied the tape of the portfolio in which the prints were laid.
M. Charles looked at them curiously. He was much impressed with the picture of the East Side Crowd at first, but looking at one of Fifth Avenue in a snow storm, the battered, shabby bus pulled by a team of lean, unkempt, bony horses, he paused, struck by its force. He liked the delineation of swirling, wind-driven snow. The emptiness of this thoroughfare, usually so crowded, the buttoned, huddled, hunched, withdrawn look of those who traveled it, the exceptional details of piles of snow sifted on to window sills and ledges and into doorways and on to the windows of the bus itself, attracted his attention.
“An effective detail,” he said to Eugene, as one critic mightsay to another, pointing to a line of white snow on the window of one side of the bus. Another dash of snow on a man’s hat rim took his eye also. “I can feel the wind,” he added.
M. Charles passed on in silence to the steaming tug coming up the East River in the dark hauling two great freight barges. He was saying to himself that after all Eugene’s art was that of merely seizing upon the obviously dramatic. It wasn’t so much the art of color composition and life analysis as it was stage craft. The man before him had the ability to see the dramatic side of life. Still—
He turned to the last reproduction which was that of Greeley Square in a drizzling rain. Eugene by some mystery of his art had caught the exact texture of seeping water on gray stones in the glare of various electric lights. He had caught the values of various kinds of lights, those in cabs, those in cable cars, those in shop windows, those in the street lamp—relieving by them the black shadows of the crowds and of the sky. The color work here was unmistakably good.
“How large are the originals of these?” he asked thoughtfully.
“Nearly all of them thirty by forty.”
Eugene could not tell by his manner whether he were merely curious or interested.
“All of them done in oil, I fancy.”
“They are not bad, I must say,” he observed cautiously. “A little persistently dramatic but—”
“These reproductions—” began Eugene, hoping by criticising the press work to interest him in the superior quality of the originals.
“Yes, I see,” M. Charles interrupted, knowing full well what was coming. “They are very bad. Still they show well enough what the originals are like. Where is your studio?”
“61 Washington Square.”
“As I say,” went on M. Charles, noting the address on Eugene’s card, “the opportunity for exhibition purposes is very limited and our charge is rather high. We have so many things we would like to exhibit—so many things we must exhibit. It is hard to say when the situation would permit—If you are interested I might come and see them sometime.”
Eugene looked perturbed. Two hundred dollars! Two hundred dollars! Could he afford it? It would mean so much to him. And yet the man was not at all anxious to rent him the show room even at this price.
“I will come,” said M. Charles, seeing his mood, “if you wish. That is what you want me to do. We have to be careful of what we exhibit here. It isn’t as if it were an ordinary show room. I will drop you a card some day when occasion offers, if you wish, and you can let me know whether the time I suggest is all right. I am rather anxious to see these scenes of yours. They are very good of their kind. It may be—one never can tell—an opportunity might offer—a week or ten days, somewhere in between other things.”
Eugene sighed inwardly. So this was how these things were done. It wasn’t very flattering. Still, he must have an exhibition. He could afford two hundred if he had to. An exhibition elsewhere would not be so valuable. He had expected to make a better impression than this.
“I wish you would come,” he said at last meditatively. “I think I should like the space if I can get it. I would like to know what you think.”
M. Charles raised his eyebrows.
“Very well,” he said, “I will communicate with you.”
Eugene went out.
What a poor thing this exhibiting business was, he thought. Here he had been dreaming of an exhibition at Kellners which should be brought about without charge to him because they were tremendously impressed with his work. Now they did not even want his pictures—would charge him two hundred dollars to show them. It was a great come down—very discouraging.
Still he went home thinking it would do him some good. The critics would discuss his work just as they did that of other artists. They would have to see what he could do should it be that at last this thing which he had dreamed of and so deliberately planned had come true. He had thought of an exhibition at Kellner’s as the last joyous thing to be attained in the world of rising art and now it looked as though he was near it. It might actually be coming to pass. This man wanted to see the rest of his work. He was not opposed to looking at them. What a triumph even that was!
Theodore Dreiser, 1871 – 1945 The “Genius”, 1915. Book 2. Chapter V
Image: Everett Shinn, 1876-1953 Strongman, Clown and Dancer