CHAPTER I


I arrive in Paris — The house in the Rue de Reuilly — The Thomases and the Messiers — A bit of old Paris — I go to see Yvon and Gérome — A funny incident — I am accepted at the École des Beaux Arts and received as a pupil in Gérome's studio

It is a grand thing to be young and on the right side of twenty, but unfortunately one does not realize it till long afterwards, when it is too late; not that it would make much difference I suppose if one did, for one cannot put old heads on young shoulders — still it is curious how lightly one unconsciously takes life when one is on the threshold of it. When the years stretch away in front of one through a long vista of hope and ambition bathed in the radiant sunshine of youth — why should one worry about disappointments and rough times that may perchance be awaiting one. Vive la vie is the device on the banner of youth — and always will be. I was perhaps no more philosophical in those early days of my career than the average youth, but I was endowed with a strong perception of the romantic side of things, and I can well recollect how delightful were my impressions when I found myself in the train en route for Paris with the prospect of several years of student life before me. Buoyed up with the enthusiasm of my years, the journey appeared to me like the realization of a dream, and I felt like some bold adventurer of old setting forth to make my fortune.

I was, however, leaving London under sad conditions — both my parents having died a short time previously; but some old friends of my father were ready to welcome me, so I found a delightful home waiting me in their midst. I shall never forget those early days, and have often since wondered whether an English family would have received a raw youth, a foreigner — and quite a stranger to them — with such open-hearted and affectionate hospitality and sympathy as was shown me by these kindly French people; had I been of their own kith and kin I could not have found more goodwill. Fortunately for me, I already spoke French rather well, and I had a thorough knowledge of it, as I had spent a couple of years in a school in Brussels — and this therefore helped a good deal to remove the diffidence I should have doubtless felt amongst strangers had I not been able to converse with them, with ease. This, combined with a good constitution, a fine appetite, and a very limited exchequer, constituted the sum total of my available assets. I must not, however, forget to add that I had brought with me a parcel of drawings and sketches and a letter of introduction to Adolphe Yvon, the celebrated painter of military subjects and Professor at the École des Beaux Arts.

My time for the first few days after my arrival in Paris was spent in a luxury which was no doubt ill fitted to prepare me for the rough times when I should be looking after myself on my very slender allowance; still it was indeed very pleasant. My friends were wealthy people. Monsieur Messier, a retired manufacturer of couleurs pour papiers peints, lived with his wife in a beautiful villa at Auteuil in the Pare des Princes, where they entertained with princely hospitality; his son-in-law, Monsieur Isidore Thomas, his successor in the business, managed the factory, which was situated in the Rue de Reuilly, a thoroughfare off the revolutionary Faubourg St Antoine. He and his wife and their little son Alexandre lived at the " Fabrique."

This factory was quite unique in itself, and probably the last of its kind in Paris. It was a relic of the past, when the maitre lived amongst his ouvriers and took a paternal interest in their affairs. Once through the lofty porte-cochère leading from the street one found oneself transplanted as it were into the provinces, so sudden and unexpected was the change. The factory, which was surrounded by high walls, formed a big quadrangle, in the centre of which stood the house of the maitre in the midst of a veritable oasis of fine old trees; around it was a large garden of several acres in extent, in which fruit and vegetables were grown in abundance. It was difficult at first to realize that one was actually in Paris whilst seated at déjeuner or dinner on the lawn.

Monsieur Thomas was a handsome and genial giant of about forty-five years of age, and both he and his wife were the very personification of good-nature and human kindness. Both were gifted with a rare sense of humor which still further helped to make the house in Rue de Reuilly a delightful abode.

But I was in Paris to work hard — not to play, and although I could have prolonged my stay with them indefinitely, I was anxious to make a start. The first thing to be done was to present my letter of introduction to Yvon, as on his verdict depended my admission to the École des Beaux Arts — where I hoped to continue my studies; so off I went one day, accompanied by Monsieur Thomas.

Yvon lived in the Rue de la Tour at Passy — in a big barn of a house particularly bourgeois in appearance. We were received in the atelier by the celebrated painter, a stout, bearded man — of slovenly appearance — his hair and general appearance so unkempt as to give one the impression he had not washed since he got up — yet it was close on midday; this untidiness was, I recollect, still further accentuated by his costume, which merely consisted of a red flannel shirt and a pair of very loose trousers, which looked like dropping down at any moment, as he wore no braces or belt. Altogether he did not impress me, young as I was. He received us in a somewhat pompous manner, which did not go well with his appearance; still, after reading the letter and looking at the work I had brought with me, he told Monsieur Thomas that I might join his afternoon cours de dessin at the École — and then sat down and wrote a letter for me to present to the famous artist Gérome who had one of the three ateliers de peinture at the École.

"If he will take him as his élève he will have nothing further to worry about," he said to Monsieur Thomas. "Let him show him this drawing when you go," picking out one of the roll I had brought with me.

As we took our leave after thanking him for his kindness he seemed to suddenly throw off his reserve of manner, and shaking me cordially by the hand he told me that he expected me to call on him on Sundays whenever I had any special work to show him to ask his advice about. "I expect all my élève s to do this," he added.

It would have been impossible to have started under better auspices, and Monsieur Thomas — the dear old fellow — was if anything even more delighted than I was, and as we returned to Paris he already congratulated me on my future successes. The next step then was to go to see Gérome, who lived in the Boulevard de Clichy. At that time he was at the zenith of his fame, and his name was a household word not only in France but all over the world. Monsieur Thomas was very much impressed at the idea of our calling on such a celebrity — much more in fact that when we went to see Yvon. I remember he got himself up specially for the occasion as though we were going to a wedding — a new tall hat, light grey trousers, lavender kid gloves, a resplendent tie. We arrived at the house, and on his announcing with a certain amount of pride to the concierge that we had a letter of introduction to the maitre we were simply told to go upstairs by ourselves and that we would find him in the studio. There was an entire lack of formality — so up we went.

The house was exquisitely furnished — the staircase was richly carpeted, and the walls were covered with Eastern tapestries and trophies, whilst oriental lamps hung from the ceiling. It was indeed the house of a great painter, and to me, a youngster unused to such artistical splendor, it was like a dream of the Arabian nights. We made our way upstairs in awed silence. There was not a soul about, so we paused at the different landings to furtively glance in at the gorgeous apartments. By the time we reached the top floor Monsieur Thomas, who was a portly man, was puffing audibly; he wasn't accustomed to stair climbing, although it was only the third floor, and as it was a hot day the perspiration was pouring down his face. There was only one door on the top landing so he knocked timidly in case this wasn't the atelier — no reply — he knocked again louder — a voice seemingly from far away called out " Entrez donc." We entered and found ourselves on the threshold of an immense studio; right away in the distance was a grey-haired gentleman of military appearance seated before an easel, palette and brushes in hand, whilst a model in an Eastern costume was posing on a platform in front of him. In between us and where he sat was an immense expanse of polished floor which looked as slippery as ice. We both stood on the edge of it in the doorway, irresolute as to what we ought to do.

"Mais entrez donc, mes amis," called out the artist benevolently, seeing our hesitation.

Monsieur Thomas to my surprise then attempted some impossible feat of balancing his hat, gloves, and umbrella in the corner of the door, whilst fumbling in his pocket for the letter of introduction. Then the inevitable happened, as he was not a born juggler — the hat and umbrella skidded on the polished floor, then fell down, and rolled out into the studio, and in endeavoring to regain them he nearly came to grief himself on the treacherous surface. I had the greatest difficulty in preventing myself from bursting out laughing, so funny did he look. This interlude would have probably continued some time had not Gérome, who had meanwhile taken off his pince-nez and was looking on with an amused air, called out laughingly, "Don't worry about your belongings, they won't hurt on the floor."

Monsieur Thomas pulled himself together, wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead, and we made our way gingerly across the atelier.

"Une lettre de mon ami Yvon à propos de ce jeune homme, voyons ça," said the maitre genially as he opened the letter of introduction. "Well," he continued, turning to Monsieur Thomas after he had read it," what has he brought to show me in the shape of his work"

With much trepidation I undid the drawing from the antique which Yvon had suggested my bringing. It was one which the Royal Academy in London had not considered good enough to admit me as a student in the school of that august institution. I felt that my whole future practically depended on the opinion he passed on it. He put on his glasses and examined it critically — the next few seconds seemed interminable — then he exclaimed, "Mais ça n'est pas mal du tout," and turning to my friend, whom he evidently thought was my guardian, he added, "Je le prendrai chez moi"; then he went over to his bureau and wrote out some instructions as to what I had to do — where to present myself, and so forth. The whole interview had not lasted ten minutes.

Emboldened by his friendliness, I then ventured to produce a water-color drawing I had made up the river, and which I was particularly satisfied with. It was an evening effect — with a harvest moon reflected in the water. Very original and poetical I thought. I remember I called it "The moon is up and yet it is not night." But it wasn't to be all compliments, for he let me down with a run when he said briefly after a glance at it, "C'est un peu plat d'épinards " (It looks rather like a dish of spinach); adding, "You must put aside your paint-box for the present and continue to work from the antique — le dessin c'est l'essentiel avant tout — don't think of decorating the house until the walls are up." Then rising from his seat to signify that that was an end of it, he shook me warmly by the hand saying, "Alors vous voila lancé, mon ami — ayez du courage, travaillez ferme et ça ira." The unaffected simplicity and charm of his manner went to my very heart.

As we came down the stairs I was in so wild a state of excitement that I felt as though walking on air — for was not my career in my own hands henceforth? Accepted by Gérome and Yvon, naught now remained but to get to work and stick at it for all I was worth.

It may be of interest to mention that there was not a penny piece to pay for all these advantages. From this moment I was practically on the same footing as the French students, and could remain at the École as long as I pleased.

Now came the important question of finding lodgings.


 
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