Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 8

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To this I answered that we hadn't bargained for all that, and I was right from a strictly professional point of view, but I wouldn't have lost the five francs for the world, and I daresay she guessed as much, and stuck to her guns. She, as an old materfamilias, knew that people were not born in bust shape; then why should they be thus represented?

_She_ always gave good measure, and if she didn't, her customers would soon keep her up to the mark; so why shouldn't she have her money's worth? I felt that I ought to insist on better terms, if only for the dignity of my profession, but I was no match for the old lady, so I started work on her conditions, only, to save appearances, bargaining for a plentiful supply of _reineclaudes_ during the sittings.

A sort of staircase, that had just missed being a ladder, led up in a straight line to the room that was to serve as a studio. A bed of imposing dimensions took up the greater part of the room; the bedstead of polished mahogany was an old-fas.h.i.+oned structure, that you could see at once had been handed down from one generation of fruiterers to another; similarly suggestive was a queer old roccoco looking-gla.s.s, and a faded portrait of a tomcat sitting on a middle-aged spinster's lap.

"Who are you, young man?" these worthy relics seemed to say; "have _you_ got a pedigree?"

The latest offshoots from the genealogical tree of the Roufflard-Tusserand family had to be enthroned on the bed. I could otherwise not get sufficiently far away from them to overlook my group.

It was desired that their arms should be interlaced with a view to emphasising their sisterly affection, and this gave rise to a new difficulty as to the presentment of one of the hands, which, being in perspective, did not show the full complement of fingers. When Madame Tusserand came to inspect my work, she particularly insisted that no part of the thumb should be concealed. She had noticed such imperfections in other pictures, and had always looked upon them as instances of the artful way in which painters sought to scamp their work. But here I struck. I swore by the holy Raphael that I could and would not alter it, and gave the old lady a lecture on the glorious Madonnas, who, even with incomplete thumbs, had been the means of regenerating the world. She was so pleased with the mention of the Madonna, and more especially with that part of my argument which she did not understand, that she gave in, and so perspective scored a victory.

The two girls, my models, were neat little types of the bourgeois cla.s.s.

I did not think much of them or the type; in fact I thought the generality of Parisian girls plain; but experienced friends told me I knew nothing about it, and taught me that if I wanted to judge of a woman (that unripe fruit, a girl, to be sure was not worth mentioning), I must study not her face or her figure, but her general appearance and one or two essential parts of her toilette. "What is the use of features," they asked, "to a woman who can't dress, or who is _gantee_ and _chaussee_ as if she _revenait de l'autre monde_." Which other world they meant, and how they wear their gloves and shoes there, they didn't explain. "And why should you give undue importance," they wound up, "to beauty where there is the _tournure_ to observe and the _chic_. No, _mon cher_, if you want to form a correct estimate of a woman, study her ankles and her _bottines_."

Whilst I was taking stock of my models, and arriving at the conclusion that they were plain, pert, and precocious, they had evidently lost no time in deciding that I was green, and that it would take a good deal of teaching to give me the more attractive tinges of ripeness. They told me all about the Bouzibon, a familiar name by which they designated their favourite Bal de Barriere. They took it for granted I couldn't dance, but I might come and learn there next Sunday evening. It was a most respectable place, and nothing was ever lost or stolen there. La mere Bouze was a widow; to be sure I had noticed that elegant place in the Faubourg St. Denis, the fried-fish shop; well, that had originally been started by the late Monsieur Bouze years ago.

In return I told them my old yarn about Prince Poniatowski being drowned in the river Pleisse, just at the bottom of our garden in Leipsic; but I let out the point too quickly, and once they knew the Prince was drowned, they did not care for the rest. They behaved very well on the whole, and, as far as I am aware, did not make ugly faces at me when I was looking the other way. I am sure they did not like me though; their fancy men were two _garcons coiffeurs_ in a barber's shop close by, and so I hadn't a fair start.

That was my first experience as a portrait-painter. From that day to this I have truly loved my profession, undeterred by the fact that the course of true love does not always run smooth. At any rate that five-franc piece which Madame Roufflard-Tusserand took from the depths of her ap.r.o.n pocket and handed to me, gave me more satisfaction than many a "Pay to F. Moscheles, Esq.," that has since followed.

I wonder whether my drawing still exists, and, if so, whether it is going down as an heirloom from generation to generation with the bedstead, the looking-gla.s.s, and the middle-aged tomcat lady.




I well remember the first words of French that I mastered, and the sensation I created when I, a very small boy, irrepressibly burst forth with my declaration:

"O Madam, kay voos aite bell!"

This was addressed across the friendly supper table to Madame de R., who with her husband, the well-known portrait-painter, was spending her honeymoon at Boulogne.

To Boulogne we too had gone, as people went then when they wanted a change of air, or as they go now to Africa or the antipodes.

On this occasion our party consisted of my parents, three sisters, myself, and an English nurse, who, from first to last, was unutterably shocked by what she called the outrageous proceedings of the foreigners, and by the fearful language that parrot used, who always gathered a little sympathetic crowd in front of the sh.e.l.l and wooden-spade shop.

My sisters had a French governess of the approved type.

"Maitre Corbeau sur un arbre perche," she recited to me with conventional emphasis and genuine affectation. On such occasions I stood staring at her, surprised at the amount of mouth-twisting and wriggling it took to talk French. Then I tried to do as much, and said:

"Mayter Korbow sure unn ahber per Shay."

"Perrrche," she interposed, and

"Pure Shay," I repeated.

"Mais non, mon pet.i.t cheri, perrrr--che!" and so on, till we got to "apeupres ce langage," the "a pew pray" being, I recollect, a terrible stumbling-block.

I was about eighteen when I met that handsome Madame de R. again in Paris. She reminded me of my early appreciation of her beauty, and was anxious to know whether I was still inclined to express my admiration as warmly as I did formerly.

"To be sure," I said. "Yes. _Mais oui certainement, madame._" But, oh dear! how little female French I must have understood in those days, and how little male French I must have had at my command! for--I must confess--I said no more.

The de R.'s became great people under the Empire: he and she--or perhaps more correctly she and he--got into the inner Court circle, where she soon distinguished herself as a leader of fas.h.i.+on, and he as a very successful painter of life-size fas.h.i.+on-plates in oils. Both his works and her personal charms were graciously smiled upon by the imperial master himself.

Apropos of my French, I may say that I had every opportunity of improving it. I soon entered the Atelier Gleyre, that studio we have heard about in reference to Du Maurier, Whistler, Poynter, and others, who there learnt to draw their first bonshommes, and to spoil their first canvases.

I had made a sort of mental vow to speak nought but the language of the country for the first year of my stay in Paris. In the beginning I found it rather tough work, but a French studio is a good school. I plunged in head foremost, and soon got on swimmingly. From the first I was attracted by the brilliancy of Parisian slang, and by the terseness of French argot (that is, the thieves' language). As for the genuine article, real French, as spoken by real Frenchwomen in real salons on a "_Madame recoit_" day--nothing could exceed my admiration for it. But the Quartier Latin, with its studios and garrets, its _cremeries_ and little restaurants, all bedecked with clever works from the brushes of the _habitues_, was the high school in which I graduated and which in due time turned me out a fair specimen of the cla.s.sical _Rapin_--the art student as Paris alone produces him. In a word, I soon felt quite at home in that delightful haven of unrest we call Bohemia.

And the friends of those days! I made many and lost few. There is one who stands out prominently from amongst the rest, and he is connected in my mind with a thousand and one incidents of my Paris life. His name was Claude; Claude Raoul Dupont.

At our first meeting I felt that I should like to make friends with him.

He was what the Italians call _sympatico_--not quite the same thing as sympathetic; just the sort of man whom little girls would unhesitatingly request to ring the bell they couldn't reach, or boys would call to their a.s.sistance with a "Please, sir, lend us your stick to get down that cap from up there," or "to fetch out that ball from inside them railings;" the sort of man with whom you or I would at once have got into conversation, if we had met him in a railway carriage.

My first acquaintance with him was in that Atelier Gleyre. We were just fellow-students at the beginning, then chums, _bons camarades_, soon friends, and finally we got linked together by the most lasting of ties, that of brotherly love. So it comes that the story of his life is most vividly impressed on my mind. It is uneventful, perhaps, and differs little from any other story that pictures the artist's life, with its hopes and aspirations, its sprinkling of love-making and its glorious consummation of love-finding, but I must attempt to give an outline of it, if but in memory of my friend.

To begin at the beginning, let me sketch our days of good comrades.h.i.+p, and put in a wash of background here and there, and a few touches of local colour in ill.u.s.tration of the life we led.

You could tell at a glance that Claude was a "Rapin," but that was not surprising, for in those days it had not yet become the aim and end of the young artist to conceal his profession and to walk through life incognito, with a well-groomed chimney-pot implanted on the top of his head. So you must fancy Claude with a soft felt hat of a species even now not quite extinct, although, as we all know, superseded by the boiled apple-pudding-shaped dome, ornamented with a gutter, which we have universally adopted, and which we call a pot hat, a bowler, a billyc.o.c.k hat, or as the coachman or groom says, a bridle.

It was quite appropriate that Claude should wear a wide-awake, as being in keeping with an expression that showed him always on the _qui vive_.

He was tall, rather too much so for the breadth of his shoulders, but he moved with great freedom and ease, and as he was mostly on the move, he also mostly showed to advantage.

In the Atelier Gleyre he was the leading spirit. That studio was situated in the Rue de l'Ouest, flanking the Luxembourg Gardens. It was a large, high room with the regulation studio window, and was furnished with one model table on wheels, one iron spitfire of a stove, and a lot of three-legged easels and four-legged stools, not to forget a large screen behind which the models undressed; all things bearing traces of the perilous lives they led, and showing picturesque seams and scars where they were begrimed with the sc.r.a.pings from perennial palettes. The professor very liberally gave his instruction gratis. For the working expenses of the Atelier the students clubbed together, each contributing ten francs per month to the "" At the time I entered, Claude was "Ma.s.sier," that is, a sort of secretary, treasurer, and boss combined.

He occupied that exalted position with much distinction, for he could be alternately serious and absurd, weighty and trivial. Common sense on the one hand; an uncommon amount of nonsense on the other. In fact his character was a curious compound of elements seemingly opposed, but working in harmony together. He was _facile princeps_ as a _blagueur_, that is, he could chaff unmercifully, talk tall, make a fool imagine himself wise, and a wise man feel foolish. It takes a double-distilled Frenchman to make a full-blown _blagueur_, and such a man was Dupont.

We were a lively set, and the jokes that were bandied about, coupled with the most unparliamentary, not to say vituperative language, at first startled me. But the Rapin's bark is worse than his bite. "Il est defendu de chahuter la religion et la famille" was an unwritten law, that excluded those two delicate topics, the family and religion, from the field of word-battle. Another law bade you keep your temper. We might have hurled the most obnoxious of epithets at one another, but when the available catalogue of abuse was exhausted, we would wind up with some good-humoured trump card, like "C'est egal, je suis plus bete que toi," which, freely translated, says, "Never mind, I am the bigger fool of the two."

One of the first things that struck me in the atelier was a large felt hat forming a sort of centre on the ceiling. That was Gobelot's hat. It was there just because some of the boys had taken a dislike to it; in fact it was a priggish hat, and as Gobelot had a twitchy sort of a face that would work well under feelings of surprise and resentment, they thought they would like to watch him, from the first moment when he would miss his hat, to the last when he would discover its whereabouts.

It had got fixed on the ceiling with some difficulty, whilst its owner had fallen asleep by the stove. The model table was placed in the centre of the room, and the ladder held upright upon it by half-a-dozen st.u.r.dy arms; a light-weight clambered to the top and did the nailing. The result proved pre-eminently satisfactory to all except Gobelot, and even he, I think, after the lapse of a few months, got to be rather proud of the excelsiority accorded to his headgear.

This was by no means the first experience he had had of studio life. On his entrance into the Atelier Gleyre, he had set himself to draw the figure of Sinel, one of the leading models of the day, and had betrayed more self-confidence than was compatible with his position as a _nouveau_. He had been working for a couple of days, when Monsieur Gleyre came to visit his students. The bear-garden was suddenly transformed into a grave academy. Respectful silence and order prevailed, as the master pa.s.sed from easel to easel, criticising here and encouraging there, and generally enunciating wise artistic saws for the benefit of the students. When Gobelot's turn came, he paused a while before he expressed an opinion on his work. At last he said kindly but firmly: "Young man, you have come to study with me, and it is my duty to advise you honestly and straight-forwardly. Believe me, devote all your attention to the human foot; learn to draw that correctly,--and then perhaps you may be successful as a bootmaker." Therewith he pa.s.sed on to the neighbour. Shortly afterwards the real Monsieur Gleyre came in, for the whole thing was a plant, and Gobelot was officially introduced as the _nouveau_ by the sham professor.

It is not a sinecure to be the _nouveau_. One is the b.u.t.t of endless jokes, and has to take them meekly; one is at everybody's beck and call, to pick up a brush, or to run for a ha'porth of bread or a penn'orth of fried potatoes. When I was the new boy, I knew resistance was useless, so I served my time cheerfully, swallowing snakes, as the French call it, with apparent relish.

But one day I was caught napping. I had joined in the general conversation, and had so far forgotten myself as to make a joke, and, what was worse, they said, not a bad one. This was adding insult to injury; a storm of indignation broke forth, and the cry of "a l'ech.e.l.le"

("To the ladder") was raised. I should then and there have suffered the penalty of my rashness, had not Dupont interposed. He mounted the rostrum, _i.e._ the model table, and made an eloquent appeal on my behalf. I was an Englishman, he pleaded, and as such I had been reared on raw beef and bran puddings; he would himself now see that I was kept on lighter food (I suppose he meant frogs). Yes, I had presumed to trespa.s.s on the domain of "esprit," the exclusive property of Frenchmen in general, and of the duffers now before him in particular--he would not offend them by calling them gentlemen. My joke, he admitted, was a good one, but then, what could you expect from a benighted foreigner, who did not know the value of a bad one. And so on. However feeble his defence may appear to us as we read it in cold blood, it had the desired effect, and I was saved from my impending fate. But I was not to get off for long. Only a couple of days afterwards, an incident led to my punishment. It was luncheon time and I was studying the greasy paper that my potatoes had been wrapped up in, probably a leaf from some old register, so many tons of which are issued daily by bureaucratic Paris.

I had got to my second course, roast chestnuts done to a T, when I had a sort of secret forewarning that a certain long stick with a hook, one of the studio properties, was stealthily approaching towards the stool I was sitting on. A sudden jerk, and the stool was pulled from beneath me; but being fully prepared, I failed to collapse, and remained as if seated, continuing my meal as if nothing had occurred. Such independence could not be tolerated. Stop, the well-known caricaturist, now formally moved that I be "mis a l'ech.e.l.le," and the resolution was unanimously carried. So the ladder was laid on the floor, and I was bound to it hands and feet; then it and I were hoisted up and placed against the wall. Next Stop proceeded to bare my breast, and to paint thereon a highly coloured picture representing several pigs and their doings. In the meanwhile the poker was being made red-hot in the stove. The occasion must be marked by a scar, I was given to understand, and I can a.s.sure those who have never gone through a similar experience, that a touch from a red-hot poker is very painful, even if the red is only vermilion and the heat imaginary. I was informed that I should have to preserve the pig picture for a fortnight, after which time I should be called up for inspection.

When a _nouveau_ is entered at an atelier, he is expected to pay "la bienvenue," his welcome. Gobelot had preceded me as the new boy, and as we had both been pretty liberal, a sum of about fifty francs was in readiness to be used for some sociable purpose. After some deliberation it was decided to invest our capital in donkeys, to be hired in the Bois de Boulogne. So one fine afternoon we found ourselves in full force, selecting our mounts at Pere Delaborde's well-known stables. His donkeys were always the best fed and best kept, and to us, who had never been to the East, and therefore did not know what a donkey was really like, they seemed quite decent and cheerful specimens of their kind. Here and there, to be sure, there was one who had not become resigned to his fate, and who would stiffen his neck with an emphasis that showed that he would have used strong language, had he been endowed with the power of speech. But on the whole Monsieur Delaborde's donkeys were quite docile and manageable, and accustomed to be ruled by the little shouting savages known as donkey-boys.

There were two horses in the stables, and it was decided that Gobelot and I should mount them and take command of the donkey brigade. The responsibility of leaders.h.i.+p soon, however, devolved on me alone, for Gobelot's horse had, I suppose through long-standing habits of companions.h.i.+p, taken to the ways of its mates; so it kept step with them, and stretched its ears full length, and took all things philosophically. My steed was made of very different metal. He started off at a lively pace, giving me an opportunity of showing off my horsemans.h.i.+p, acquired at the riding-school in Leipsic. I felt pleasantly aware of my superiority over my donkey-mounted friends, especially over Dupont, whose long legs were dangling very near the ground, he having left his stirrups, or they him, and over Gobelot, who was ineffectually trying to break into a canter.

Very suddenly and unexpectedly my horse stopped as if it had divined that I thought it time to inspect my followers. It was my intention to form them into column, and then to execute one or two strategical movements that seemed well adapted to the occasion. As a first step towards this, I wanted to wheel round and face my men, but my steed was evidently in a meditative mood and would not be disturbed. I applied my heels to its flanks, and pulled its head round, till its eye met mine, but its body remained stationary. When it had thought out whatever it may have had on its mind, it started off again as suddenly as it had stopped, before I had had an opportunity of commencing operations. This capricious starting and stopping, over which I had no control, was, I need not say, a source of annoyance to me, and of hilarity to my friends. It was to be more than this presently.

I had got pretty far ahead of the others, when my mount came to one of its dead stops. I contented myself with hoping it would soon have done staring vacantly. Looking round, I noticed some commotion in the distant donkey group, and an opening in its ranks to let a carriage pa.s.s. As it approached, it proved to be a well-appointed phaeton, and I recognised Louis Napoleon, who was driving himself, accompanied by a gentleman and by two servants in green and gold livery. I made every effort to get out of the way, but in vain. The prince took in the situation at a glance and considerately deviated from his course, seeing that I could not keep it clear for him. A smile flitted across his face and enlivened his rigidly waxed moustache, as he turned to his companion and made some remark. I did not catch it, but my horse probably did, and must have taken it as encouraging, for it started off in an uncontrollable fit of loyalty, and whether I liked it or not, I had to ride by the side of the phaeton, acting, for the time being, as equerry to the future emperor.

Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 8

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Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 8 summary

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