CHAPTER XI

Commission to paint portrait of Monsieur Thomas for the Salon — I make a start — A studio in the Rue de Reuilly — Amusing episode — The portrait finished — "Sending-in" day — "Accepted" — A little dinner to celebrate event — A funny incident — The lady and the lion— The Vernissage at the Salon — Coveted invitations — The eventful day — The scene outside the Palais de l'Industrie — The search for one's picture — The crowd — Smart people — Déjeuner at Ledoyens — The scene in the Sculpture Hall after lunch — A drive in the Bois and a bock at the Cascade

Monsieur Thomas had promised me when I started work at the École that one day when I had got on a bit he would let me paint his portrait for the Salon. I now felt that the time had come when I might remind him of it — and, moreover, this would be my first attempt at exhibiting a picture. There were three months before sending in, but knowing what a busy man he was I felt my only chance of getting it completed in time would be if he would let me commence at once. To my delight he consented, and, good fellow that he was, he told me that he would pay me five hundred francs for it, with an extra five hundred francs if it got hung. I wanted no such incentive, as I intended to try my best to make a success of the portrait; still it would certainly be five hundred francs the more if it got in, and the money would be very useful. I already started, in my mind, laying it out, in furniture principally.

The principal question was where to paint the great work, as I had no studio. This, however, was solved by the kind suggestion that I should do it at the Rue de Reuilly, where there was a good-sized room with the requisite north light. So one day I took a canvas, my easel, and my paint-box over there and made a start. We had decided that half life-size would be better than painting it in unwieldy dimensions, as one had to consider where it could be placed later. It was quite like a return to my early days at the École, when I found myself once more continually in the company of my old friends. Not that I had neglected them, but many things had happened during the two years and a half that had elapsed since I had come to Paris, and we had not seen each other quite so regularly as at first — when Sunday was my jour de famille. The old hearty welcome was still there though; they received me as they would have their own son — and, indeed, I felt as if it were my home I was returning to.

To move out the furniture and abandon the room entirely to me, in order to give me every chance of my doing my best, was the first step; and in a very short time it was fixed up as cozily as if it had been a real studio. The idea that the whole house was being upset to suit me never seemed to occur to these kind-hearted people. Working under such delightful conditions, it is not to be wondered at that I put my best efforts into the portrait, and Monsieur Thomas helped me by sitting as often and as long as he could; in fact, his good-nature was quite remarkable — the recollection even now of one instance in particular still makes me smile. It is sufficiently amusing to be recounted.

In my enthusiastic endeavor to produce a masterpiece I was painstaking to a degree — and one day I evolved, as I thought, the brilliant idea that the high lights in the face could be studied better if some greasy matter was used so as to catch the light. It occurred to me that cold cream would serve this purpose without being unpleasant. My friend, without a second's hesitation, fell in with my views, and actually agreed to cover his face with cold cream for the purpose. I shall never forget the funny appearance he presented when this was done. It was a cold winter's day, yet he looked as though it was the height of summer, and that he was perspiring profusely.

I was getting on splendidly with my work and congratulating myself on this idea, when suddenly came a knock at the door. Monsieur was wanted immediately in his bureau — it was most urgent. Completely forgetting the state of his face Monsieur Thomas dashed out of the room. I learned afterwards that it was an important customer who had called, and the effect on him of seeing Monsieur Thomas arrive in such an extraordinary condition could better be imagined than described. It took some explaining, and then they both laughed heartily — but there was no more cold cream after that; I had to do the high lights as best I could without.

I used to go there several days a week after leaving the École, get there in time for lunch, and have a couple of hours' painting after. So I managed to get the work completed well in time for sending-in day. On the previous evening several friends were invited to dinner especially to see the result of my labor, and of course nothing but compliments passed, as might have been expected — whatever they thought. Still, it was not altogether a bad portrait, and the best work I had yet done. It went in and I passed days of anxious waiting till the glad tidings came that it was accepted. Everyone at the Rue de Reuilly, even to the ouvriers, were delighted, for somehow they all seemed to be interested In my career, whilst up at Montmartre, amongst my artistic friends, we had a little dinner to celebrate the event, and several petites amies came, and we had a jolly evening.

But it was one thing to be accepted; it now remained to be seen how I had been hung — for on that depended the success of the picture. I should know nothing of this till the "Vernissage," that most important of events, from the artist's point of view, of the whole year.

I remember a funny incident that occurred just before sending-in day, when several of us were in a friend's studio. He was a very clever painter of animals, and was exhibiting that year a very important subject, in which a magnificent lion figured prominently. We were all admiring the painting when another artist arrived accompanied by a lady — also to look at the picture. As we all knew each other we began chatting and discussing the work. The artist, I forgot to mention, was out at the time. The lady was immensely interested in the lion especially, and asked a lot of naive questions as to how the painter had managed to get one to sit for him. This somehow started us joking, and she was told very seriously that the lion in question had been brought to the studio, and that there was no difficulty for an animal painter to get wild beasts as models, provided he could afford to pay the exorbitant fees asked by their owners for their services. In fact, large fortunes had been made by the lucky proprietors of giraffes, hippopotami, etc. All this was told with an air of the utmost sincerity, and she evidently believed every word of it — when she suddenly remarked, with a laugh, that she hoped there were no lions about the studio, as she didn't like them unless they were in a cage.

"In a cage," someone reiterated. "Artists don't paint lions in cages; when they want them they are brought to the studios and left to roam about all over the place."

"But it must be very dangerous at times," said the lady.

"Yes, indeed," she was informed; "in fact so much so that that explained why this class of picture fetched such high prices, as several men had been devoured by their models."

A puzzled look came over the face of the demoiselle; then she suddenly seemed to think that we were having a joke at her expense, for she remarked with a laugh that perhaps there were a few lions still about the place.

"Rather," we told her; "he always keeps them in his bedroom; there is one in there now. Go and see for yourself; that's the door."

She hesitated, for all this had been told her most seriously; then probably to show she didn't believe us she went and opened the door and looked into the room. To our utter astonishment we heard something spring forward; there was what sounded like a bloodcurdling roar of a wild beast — and the lady, with a horrified shriek, dropped in a faint on the floor.

We rushed forward and found that the wild beast was a huge boarhound belonging to the artist, which he had chained to the bed before going out, and it was in sheer delight at being visited that it had given the bark, which to our startled ears had sounded like a roar.

The lady soon recovered, and when she learned that the supposed lion was only a dog after all she quickly regained her composure, to our great relief; and she ended by laughing heartily at the extraordinary denouement to our silly badinage — for the shock might easily have had serious results.

The "Vernissage" at the Salon was, in my time, not only the most important day of the year for the artist who was exhibiting, but also for the fashionable world of Paris, as it was looked upon as one of the principal events of the season. Although nominally the day on which the artist was invited to inspect, and, if necessary, varnish his work — and therefore quite a professional affair — it had gradually developed into a big society function. Everybody who fancied himself or herself had to be seen there. In those days invitations for the "Vernissage" were amongst the most coveted and sought after of anything during the Paris season. It followed, therefore, that year by year the crowd of people who had some claim to being invited to be present went on increasing in number till it at last occurred to the powers that it could be made into a paying as well as a fashionable affair, so they charged for admission instead of issuing invitations — and now everyone with a louis to spare can be present at the "Vernissage." It has, therefore, become more a sort of expensive "dress rehearsal" before the ordinary opening day, though it still retains to a certain extent its old prestige. Needless to add, that the actual exhibitors do not pay for the privilege of being present. At the time I am about to describe, the "Vernissage" at the Palais de I'Industrie still retained its original éclat.

My carte entitled me to take a friend, so, of course. Monsieur Thomas accompanied me. He was as keen on going as I was, apart from the fact that his portrait was there — for he was not accustomed to attending society gatherings, the hospitable abode of the Rue de Reuilly being in every respect remote from the Faubourg St Germain or the Pare Monceau. My friends were estimable, simple bourgeois, without any pretensions to social rank.

If I remember rightly the Salon opened at the early hour of nine; anyhow we got there some time before — so as not to miss anything of this eventful day in my career, as I was exhibiting for the first time. It was indeed a motley crowd we saw on our arrival — for we were not the first by a great many. Of course at that matutinal hour only artists and their personal friends were present — the fashionable throng did not arrive till some hours later. Around us was Bohemia in its every aspect, from the well-to-do painter down to the slovenly, ill-dressed, unkempt "rapin," whose principal claim to artistic merit usually consists in the length of his hair, his generally disreputable appearance, and a large paint-box hung on his shoulder. Amongst this singular assemblage was a plentiful sprinkling of the fair sex — mostly pretty young girls, probably bonnes amies or models; no gathering of French artists could be representative otherwise — and these were as outré in appearance as their cavaliers. One could almost fancy one recognized in the crowd our old friends, Mimi Pinson and Musette, whilst surely Rodolphe and Schaunard were also there in the flesh. It was indeed a curious scene, and over all was an air of enthusiasm and gaiety in the bright early morning sunshine, with all around radiant in the warmth of spring. It made an unforgettable impression on me, for I was only twenty-one at the time.

The doors opened at last, and after exchanging my Vernissage for an exhibitor's ticket — (how proud I felt when I signed my name on it) — we made our way upstairs to the galleries. Then began a wearisome search, for the catalogue was not ready, and there did not seem at first any method in the arrangement of the endless rooms. Everyone was rushing about hither and thither, apparently in the same aimless fashion. I felt so pleased at having been hung at all that I did not dare to look for my picture anywhere but in the worst and highest positions — not venturing to hope for anything better, and Monsieur Thomas apparently agreed with me.

All of a sudden he gave an exclamation of surprise and delight — for there was his portrait not only on the line but in the very center of a room also. It could not possibly have been placed in a better position.

Turning to me he gripped me by the arm with his strong hand and said, "Hon cher Julius, je te fais mes sincères compliments, tu as bien merité d'être si bien placé," and I fancied I noticed a tremor in his honest voice. From that moment I remember everything appeared to me as though through a rose-colored mist. It was the happiest day in my life. Then full of kindly feelings towards the world in general, we made a tour of the galleries. By the time we had done this the smart people were beginning to arrive, and the rooms getting crowded; there was a frou-frou of silk and the odor of perfume. On all sides one heard the buzz of voices, friends greeting each other with congratulations. "Mais il est épatant ton tableau, mon vieux," and so forth; the air positively reeked with compliments. Everyone seemed pleased to see everyone else. There was an atmosphere of gaiety such as I had never been in before, I thought — but that was of course because I was on the line, and so happy. And then we went and had another look at my picture and met Monsieur Yvon close by, and he told Monsieur Thomas that it was " étonnant comme resemblance et d'un grand merite."

My First Exhibited Picture
It was now about time to think of déjeuner, also an important affair on this occasion. Monsieur Thomas had read that everyone went to Ledoyens, so there, as he put it, we must go — " il n'y avait pas à hesiter — il f aut être dans le mouvement" — and as our tickets would readmit us after lunch, to Ledoyens we went. Ledoyens has not changed architecturally since those days, but it has had to bear the brunt of competition, and is no longer considered the fashionable place it then was. At the time of which I am writing it was quite the smartest restaurant on the Champs Élysées, and so crowded a l'heure du déjeuner on the Vernissage that it was difficult to find a table as a rule.

Monsieur Thomas was, as I have said, a man of magnificent presence, and somehow always impressed mâitres d'hôtel — so in spite of the crowd and "not a table to be had," we were soon comfortably seated where we could see everyone. "Truite saumonée sauce verte, du canneton aux petits pois des asperges a I'huile, des fraises, avec une bonne bouteille de Graves, ça te va t'il, mon vieux Julius?" he asked after consultation with the obsequious head-waiter. What could one desire better? And whilst doing justice to all these good things, we gazed on the wonderful crowd around us and wondered who they all were, and Monsieur Thomas fancied he recognized such or such a celebrity, and pointed him or her out to me — and probably was wrong; but I didn't know, so it didn't matter, and we both agreed that all the prettiest women in Paris must be there.

After our coffee and a cigarette, we returned to the Salon, where it was then the fashion to spend an hour or so in the Sculpture Hall after lunch to look, not at the statues, but at the famous people present, and the latest fashions as displayed by the smartly dressed women on all sides. It was indeed a wonderful scene to my youthful eyes. When we left at about four o'clock Monsieur Thomas remarked that it was too late for him to return to his bureau, so that we might as well make a day of it whilst we were about it. So he hailed a fiacre and we drove to the Bois and had a bock at the Cascade, where it was delightfully cool after the stuffy atmosphere of the Salon. We then returned to the Rue de Reuilly and dined out in the garden, and he recounted my success and all we had been doing since the morning; and Madame Thomas told me she felt as pleased as if I were her own son.

When I got back to my little room in the Rue de la Rochefoucauld I felt as though I had passed a day in fairyland, and wished it could all happen over again.



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