Art In Paris
Written by Erin Byrne
“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” — T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Corbin looked as though he had left his head in the clouds as he stumped down the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. From the Champs des Mars below, I kept my eye on his blond head, bobbing above the others in his fast-growing teenaged body. “You should never have left him up there, Brendan, how will we find him in this mob?” I hissed. We were already late to meet my friend at Musée d’Orsay, where she and I would visit Georges Seurat’s pointillist paintings. By the time we arrived, my lofty aim to turn my son Brendan and his friend Corbin into art aficionados had shrunk to a disappearing dot. “Here.” I scribbled a list, remembering how they’d always loved treasure hunts:
1. Statue of woman’s head, cut off at the neck.
2. Painting of guys playing cards.
3. Statue of girl in tutu with real tulle, hair, ballet slippers.
4. Painting of empty church, blue inside.
5. Find the Louvre across the river (surely they could?).
6. Painting of people dancing outside.
7. Black and white photograph by Degas.
8. Painting of snow.
9. Opéra Garnier model.
10. Big clock.
“Find these in the museum. I’ll meet you here in one hour.” They were getting hungry; that was all the time I’d have.
“What if we can’t find all this stuff?”
“What’s a tutu?”
The artist was obsessed with the weather. In 1885, he was chasing clouds in Étretat, France, engulfed by a surging desire to capture the sea on canvas. One day, he was on the beach at his easel, and as mist rose off cresting waves in droplets of white foam and caught the sunlight, he painted in a fevered froth. When the moment passed, he saw that he had done it: He had caught the sea. But, he noted with despair, he now needed the matching sky, and dusk was falling. He returned the next day and, absorbed, did not hear the increasing thunder of the waves.
I didn’t see a huge wave coming, it threw me against the cliff and I was tossed about in its wake along with all my materials! My immediate thought was that I was done for, as the water dragged me down, but in the end I managed to clamber out on all fours, but Lord, what a state I was in!
Oscar was soaked. His palette had splattered his beard with blue, yellow and green. His painting was torn to shreds by the
sea, that ‘old hag’ . . . He needed identical conditions to appear and remain long enough to complete the painting. If only he could suspend time so that a shadow lingered before skittering off, the light brightened a fraction and held, and the clouds stopped. Oscar cursed, slashed his paintings, and became terrifi ed of light.
I’m very unhappy, really miserable and I haven’t the heart to do anything, the painter in me is dead, a sick mind is all that remains of me . . .
In my quest to interest these two teens in art, I’d left heavy tomes, “Art Through the Ages,” “Treasures of the Louvre” and “Treasures of the Musée d’Orsay” lying on top of Sports Illustrated magazines around the house, but they served as mere paperweights. I wished, just once, someone would pick one up and thumb through it. During our week in Paris, I’d dropped tidbits about the Impressionists. “Cezanne was the grouchiest, kind of like you, Brendan, last night when you were trying to pronounce boeuf bourguignon. He was from a place called Aix.”
“Van Gogh slashed his own ear. Could have been too much absinthe, or epilepsy. No one knows for sure.”
“This statue by Rodin is of a famous writer — Balzac.”
I shared my wisdom: This artist was wealthy, that one went by his middle name for years, another strapped paintbrushes to his arthritic hands. Brendan and Corbin’s eyes became hooded, they puffed out their cheeks, stifling yawns.
Still, I stopped them at Rodin’s statues, smiling at their snickers, pointed out artists’ studios, and planned a trip to Giverny. I knew they’d like that pond.
After our trip to Musée d’Orsay, we had lunch in a café. “What did you like?” I asked, flushed with hope. Perhaps they’d spotted Impression, Sunrise, the painting that had defined the movement.
“Back in the day, the critics didn’t like those works either,” I said, adding, “They rejected them for the big Paris art salon, so the artists got together and had their own and called it ‘Salon des Refusés’.”
“There was this one painting,” Corbin said. “It was of a fence in the snow, and there was something really cool about the air.”
“Yeah,” Brendan said, and I could tell this was the first time they’d discussed this. “That was wild, like I felt the air.”
In the early years, the artist’s obsession had been survival. He and his wife and son had moved from place to place, creditors in pursuit, and often went hungry. He penned a constant stream of letters:
Please, I beg of you, send me a bigger sum tomorrow without fail. I am utterly without hope, and see everything at its blackest and worst.
For a month now I have been unable to paint because I lack colors, but that is not important. Right now it is the sight of my wife’s life in jeopardy that terrifies me . . .
His wife had another baby, their desperation continued, and she died.
We lingered over dessert.
“What else did you see?”
Brendan and Corbin smiled at each other and nodded.
“I was gonna talk to her, but she looked Czechoslovakian.”
“Like Maria Sharapova with green eyes.”
Their goal was to exchange sightings and “bonjours” with girls from as many countries as possible, a bevy of gesturing Italians, willowy French girls, tall Swedish beauties. Perhaps it had been vanity for me to think I could lure them into appreciating art.
The artist’s lasting obsession seemed impossible. His work began to sell, and he married a woman with six children. They lived in the country, where he could finally paint in peace, en plein air, out of doors, with a lasting paint supply. He squinted at red poppies and let their round edges ravish his canvas as they had his eye. In quest of the luminous envelope surrounding the model, he placed one of his stepdaughters at the top of a hill holding a parasol. Every whoosh and wafting breeze appeared in her white dress as clouds spun past. He caught the golden Thames flashing at sunset, gondolas shimmering in Venice, a small red house in Norway.
It’s only now I see what needs to be done and how.
His dream was far-reaching. He’d articulated it once and knew people thought him a bit mad. He was driven, regardless. Then his eyesight began to go.
Six months later, I remembered the single painting that had attracted Corbin and Brendan.
“Yeah, I remember, the painting of the snow, that one that showed the air.”
Corbin drew a picture: a fence with a ladder on the left and a bird on top, a house on the right with trees in front. Brendan’s drawing was identical.
“Yep, the painting of the air.” He caught Corbin’s eye. “But it wasn’t the most beautiful thing we saw that day, was it? Green eyes.”
I blew the dust off my Musée d’Orsay book, finding Sisley and Pissarro, Impressionists who had often painted snowy scenes. I interrupted the boys’ viewing of a college basketball game on TV.
“Is it this one?”
The halftime buzzer rang.
Corbin grabbed the book and Brendan hauled himself out of the recliner to flop onto the couch. Heads together, they lingered on images of ships sailing on greenblue squiggly seas, apples leaning against blue china pitchers, pillowy nudes in patches of sun.
“Here it is!”
The Magpie. A rare painting of snow, completed the year his rejection at the Salon had caused him to conclude, I can no longer claim to cope. I knew the artist had achieved his goal.
I am chasing a dream, I want the unattainable. Other artists paint a bridge, a house, a boat, and that’s the end. They’ve finished. I want to paint the air which surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat: the beauty of the air in which these objects are located, and that is nothing short of impossible. – Claude Oscar Monet
Editor’s Note: Italicized text indicates quotes from the writings of Monet. Closing quote excerpted from “The Impressionist at First Hand” edited by Bernard Denvir. All other quotes excerpted from “MONET by himself” edited by Richard Kendall.