Corner of the Sky

Part 21

At mass in the morning, M. Albert approached him. “Zosia tells me you and she wish to go to the Louvre this afternoon.”
It is for work,” Feuilly insisted.
Yes, that is what she says. I think this very good. We will all go to see the important paintings.”
Sophie of course went on her father’s arm, leaving Feuilly to follow behind, feeling like a lackey. It was a long, hot, dusty walk down crowded streets, and he spent the entire time in a resentful sulk. He knew better than to have expected anything else – M. Albert was a nobleman; Sophie was a lady; he was a thief and a murderer – but Sophie had seemed to care more for him than she ought, and it was a hard fall back to earth.
They joined the crowd slowly making its way inside the palace, which was even hotter than the street with the press of bodies. Paintings were hung floor to ceiling in the Salon Carré, the ceilings so high that the art disappeared into murkiness. Marble sculptures on tall pedestals blocked the view of other paintings that had at least been hung at eye level. It was difficult to see anything through the noisy crowd. Feuilly found that if he looked up, he had a better chance of seeing something than if he fought through the mass of shoulders and hats to see what might have been in front of his face.
Sophie looked astonished by it all, and Feuilly feared he looked equally impressed. He, who had thrown mud at the elephant in the Jardin des Plantes! (The monkeys threw things back, he and his now scattered accomplices had quickly learned.) Impressed by a room of oil and canvas. This may not have been the great men of the past, the Michelangelos and Giottos and Rembrandts, but perhaps one or even two might be a great man of the future, and here they all were to be judged and deemed genius or failure. So many paintings, actual full colour paintings, not etchings that could only ever really be a shadow of themselves or prints pretending to be chalk drawings. Oil on canvas, as thick upon the walls as if they were papered in art.
Many of the paintings were very large; a greater number were very small and filled in the irregular gaps between the large ones. There were portraits and landscapes, ships and farmers, ancient heroes and medieval knights. Feuilly did not know where to start looking – the entire world was on the walls around him and all of Paris was crowded in to look at it. Sophie’s eyes were shining with delight – he managed to note that much even as he was overwhelmed by the bounty. Even without Imperial armies tramping across the borders of Europe, Paris was the centre of the world.
Not even thinking of her father, Feuilly took Sophie’s hand and pulled her into the fray, pushing into the crowd moving slowly in circular fashion, trying to see up close everything they might. The great canvases commanded attention first. None of them could afford the catalogue – indeed, it was only by inquiry among the other patrons that they learned there was a catalogue – so they stumbled along in blind adoration of everything without names or titles to attach to anything.
Sophie pointed out a young woman being chastised by a cardinal; Feuilly found a Roman army on the march. Some small pictures of ships in harbour caught his eye, while Sophie was attracted to a genre painting of a young woman with a harp. Their entire purpose for being there was forgotten in the shifting enthusiasms of the moment.
A very large canvas, nearly the largest there, drew Feuilly’s eye. The triangular form of the figures against the eerie plain of the sea and sky stood out from the crowd of other works. He stood staring at it for what felt the longest time. The pale figures, dead and dying, the desperate grasping at nothing by the doomed, reminded him so much of a Michelangelo Last Judgment but with an urgency the etching could not manage.
I can’t believe he’s exhibited that again,” one of the other spectators said to his companion. “Wasn’t once enough?”
This is a slightly different version, I think.”
It’s an attack on the King, different version or no. The Medusa was hard enough to bear the first time.”
The English loved it, so I heard. Paid him a fortune just for exhibiting it.”
The English can have it.”
They moved on, but still Feuilly stared. So this was the famous painting of the wreck of the Medusa. It was even better than any newspaper description – the struggle was so vibrant.
What’s taken your fancy?” Sophie asked. But when he pointed, singling out the black man at the apex of the pyramid, she sniffed, called him morbid, and tried to interest him in a luminous religious painting that had more in common with Giotto than with Michelangelo. Louis XIII giving his crown and scepter to the Virgin was not even well painted, he thought – Louis seemed so flat compared to the dying sailors. But then he remembered his duty – Monsieur would like this one very much, and the style was such that it could be shrunk for a fan with little loss, unlike M. Géricault’s figures. “She seems a bit simpering for the Holy Mother, doesn’t she?” he asked Sophie. She sighed and shook her head.
They pushed through a doorway under a very large equestrian portrait to enter the equally crowded second of the two rooms of the exhibition. Here, Feuilly could not help noticing again the pale forms of death, this time in beautifully curving layers contrasting with Géricault’s pyramid. The collapsed dead and dying, and the old woman staring at God or more Turks, took on sinuous forms.
Do you only like paintings of death?” Sophie asked.
He did not know how to answer. He knew death, better than she knew death, and these paintings were not of death. If they were meant to be of death, then they were jokes, utter failures. But they were not about death at all – the beauty in the forms was, paradoxically, about life. The raft carried many dead men, and several of them did indeed look dead, painted from corpses, but not starving and rotten, yet it also carried survivors. It could be painted because men lived to tell the tale. The same was true for this massacre of Greeks. It could be painted because the Greeks would triumph. There was beauty because there was survival. The writhing of the damned in the Last Judgment was beautiful because it was a celebration of life – the damned had lived without apology, and now they suffered without apology. In hunger, in cold, in pain, we learn our limits, and we know what it is to be alive. But he could never explain the beauty in the harshness of life to a nobleman’s daughter, even one who struggled to earn her living alongside him. He finally said, “You must support the Greeks.”
I do. Everyone does. It is terribly important, what is happening to the Greeks. But to exhibit them cut down – it is sad, and possibly not appropriate.”
It is a rallying cry for support.”
Then it should be in pamphlets, not in an official exhibit of pictures.”
It should be both places.” M. Albert had caught up with them again. “This, the Russians and Prussians would do to us.”
The rich, who would not bother with pamphlets, will see, and perhaps they will understand more than just that Lord Byron was killed. The peoples of Europe must join together to secure freedom for all, and support should not come from English lords looking for adventure but from all governments who wish for secure territory and strong borders. A nation suppressed is a dangerous population.”
You learn well. Let us pray the Turks are learning this lesson, too, and that the tsar may take it to heart.”
All men talk about is politics,” Sophie muttered.
Feuilly apologised to her. “I shall pay less attention to the morbid paintings,” he promised. He had already determined to come back the following week in order to examine them more closely. He was gratified that she took his arm, her father following now, the chaperone to see that they did not turn an art exhibition into a liaison.
It was not that the paintings in this room were less interesting but that the sensation of Sophie on his arm was overwhelming. Feuilly seemed to notice less, even as he talked more. As they moved around the room, pointing out the paintings to each other, her closeness, her touch, seemed to send the rest of the room into another world, so that he and she stood alone, in a way that had never happened to him before. It was a beautiful and terrifying feeling – she would always be a nobleman’s daughter, and the most he would ever be permitted was to escort her to a crowded public exhibition with her father constantly in trail. But she had taken his arm, in choice, without his seeking her favour, and that pleased him.
Until the clouds caught his eye and suddenly even Sophie seemed to disappear. It was the clouds – he did not notice the cart for so long because the clouds, the towering, tumbling, luminous clouds, took all his attention. The clouds, the twisted old leaning trees that had none of the false perfection of the other landscapes, landscapes that were so much smaller than this huge canvas as if they knew they deserved only to be in its shadow. The river, the quaint little mill, at last the cart, the little dog on the bank. It was tangible and sketchy all at once, the brushstrokes not hidden in a perfect glaze as everything else he had seen, yet far more real somehow despite that technical imperfection. He could almost see the way the rough cart would jostle through the ford, the horses stepping from the hard packed dirt of the bank, breaking the shine of the river. As if a memory from long ago had returned, because he never saw horses try to ford the Seine, but he knew how they moved in the change from dirt to river. That past life of mother and grass and sunlight must have had horses and a river, too. He felt he could not stare enough, even as people pushed past him.
It has a medal,” Sophie told him in his reverie. “The judges liked it as much as you seem to.”
A medal?”
See?” She pointed out the little gold medal pinned to the frame. “A top prize.”
It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life.”
It is lovely. The clouds are almost real.”
The boat!” he exclaimed, pointing. “Look at the boat!” Such an unnecessary detail but one that seemed to make of the painting not an object of strict beauty but a record of a real moment in time that happened to be beautiful.
Sophie shook her head and tried to pull him along, though she smiled this time. Feuilly, not ready to go, found himself bumping directly into a dark, well-dressed young man who was nearly a head taller than he, making the embarrassment even worse.
Please forgive me, monsieur,” he tried to apologise.
Not at all. It is so crowded on Sundays.” It was suddenly evident that the young man was only about his own age. “I am glad to see you enjoy this painting so much.”
Is it yours?” Feuilly asked confusedly.
Not at all,” the young man grinned. “I do not even know the artist. But he is a great genius, isn’t he? I find I come back to look at it again and again, ever since the Salon opened.”
He was a very well dressed young gentleman, with a fine voice, and Feuilly felt distinctly out of place – what interest did a young gentleman have in a workman who could not watch where he was going? He did not notice, could not stop, the hand going straight for his hair, the fingers twisting a loose curl in nervousness. Still, not to converse with the young gentleman, since he was so desperate to talk to someone, would have been rude. “Might I ask who the artist is, monsieur?” He cursed himself for not having a proper comment to make.
An Englishman, if you can believe that. A Mr Constable. The future of art seems to be in England. I have it on excellent authority that M. Delacroix repainted the background of his Massacre the day before the Salon opened because Mr Constable’s clouds were an epiphany.”
As they should be. Such dynamism – you can feel them rushing by.”
Art should not be static.”
True art is never static. Michelangelo could not be static if he tried. Even Giotto is a genius because he was the first to not be stuck in place.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far – there are some lovely sculptures still extant in many of the churches of Paris. Have you been to Italy?”
Feuilly reddened. “I have a book.”
I have never been to Italy, either,” the young man admitted. “Perhaps when I finish my medical studies.”
But painting and sculpture are too different to be compared. I prefer the gargoyles at Notre Dame to that.” He pointed at a statue of a collapsing woman, her hair in rigid curls.
Well, who would not? Nanteuil has no sense of the fluidity of marble. To make that comparison is to insult the gargoyles.”
Do you know all the artists?”
Now the medical student flushed slightly. “I memorised the catalogue. The Salon has been open for three weeks, and I have managed to come five times. If it were not for my studies, I would be here more often.”
You are a great scholar.”
No. An enthusiast, only. Like yourself.”
This is only my first time.”
But I see in your face that you will come back. The Salon always has at least one or two paintings that take hold of the men of taste but are usually overlooked by the government. Mr Constable’s first prize is gratifying, though the picture will never be bought into the government collection.”
The government buys the prize winners?”
The government buys what it likes, which is not always the same. It also buys what is popular, so that people have a reason to pay to see the government collection in the months when the Salon is not up. M. Géricault’s friends are trying to sell his Raft of the Medusa to the government, but the government does not want to pay nearly what it is worth. Still, until yesterday’s events, they were not too embarrassed to make the acquisition. We shall see if it goes through under Monsieur.”
It is not to his taste, one would think.”
Not at all. The government did not come out of that scandal well, if I remember rightly.”
Would you say that Monsieur’s taste is more akin to that one that looks like an altarpiece in the other room?”
Altarpiece? Oh, yes, dear lord, what a travesty of the Salon. Yes, I would believe he would adore it. What was Ingres thinking, submitting that? He had a really beautiful Odalisque several years ago, and a Roger and Angelica that I fear I would like much less now than I did then. But that is a real altarpiece, commissioned by a church, which is not at all the sort of thing that should be submitted to the Salon. But I am quite certain Monsieur adores it, and politically, it will turn out to have been an excellent submission. M. Ingres will gain great favour from that painting. Not that religious art should have a place in a government show. But listen to me, descending into politics where it has no place.”
I don’t mind at all. I think we are of the same mind; you have been in a position to have more information.”
I am not so certain of that, but many people in this city are unhappy with the change in government. There is at least that much agreement. And talk of politics is already less desirable than it was two days ago, which in itself should halt the conversation, but more importantly, your girl has left you, undoubtedly from sheer boredom.”
Feuilly restrained himself from articulating the curse that came to his lips. “I must find her. Please forgive me. It was a real pleasure talking to you, monsieur.”
If you like, there are a group of us who meet at the Café Variétés after the doors here close on Sundays. Enthusiasts merely, not artists.”
I do not think I am quite the sort of person you seek to befriend, monsieur.”
What does income matter when discussing the merits of art?”
Despite himself, Feuilly was flattered by the invitation. “I will consider it.”
Please do. It is a pleasure to see someone of my own age with taste.”
When he caught up to Sophie again, she was on her father’s arm. “What did that man want from you?”
Just to talk.”
He’s a gentleman. It isn’t right.”
I’m not a peasant,” he muttered. Perhaps it had not been, strictly speaking, appropriate, but it had been nice. Just as that young lawyer had been nice, until the accusation of forgery. To be treated as a man of intelligence, to be invited, even by mistake, to meet at a café and spend an evening in discussion with other men of intelligence, was flattering. More than flattering – it was a necessity. The Poles did not ask his opinion because he was a student and an outsider. Babet did not ask his opinion because he never asked anyone’s opinion, but he had at least treated Feuilly with the same respect he treated any other specialist. Cartoux acknowledged his talents, gave him charge of this design scheme, but he had seen his work. To be treated by a complete stranger, upon initial meeting, as an intellectual equal was a feeling Feuilly had not had since he had left his old life, since he was no longer the famous young lockpick. He had felt a foot taller when he bid goodbye to the medical student, appropriate or not.
But it was not appropriate. Just as Sophie’s obvious affection for him was not appropriate. Or was it? Had he made himself the family servant? Was that the way in which she sought to calm his moods and take his arm? Because affection for a servant, attachment to a servant, was always conditional on service. Did she care for him the only way Babet had ever cared for him, because he did something of use? It was impossible that she saw him as a suitor if she was willing to walk through the Salon on his arm. And what did the medical student really see? What am I to him? A shabby clerk? A romantic? Would he have dared have such a conversation with a workman? Invite a workman to meet his friends? Impossible. The whole day had been a fraud, from Sophie to the medical student. He had tricked one and been tricked by the other.
But the paintings – they were not frauds. M. Constable was more true than anything Feuilly had yet seen. And he knew he would be back on the following Sunday, just to look, despite the medical student. Constable was truth.
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