CHAPTER IV

I am passed for the atelier — My entrée — The Massier — Paying my footing — An impromptu picnic — "Ragging" the nouveau — A duel with paintbrushes — The corvée — A little unpleasantness — A studio procession in the Quartier — Models — The visits of the "Patron" — An amusing incident — Sympathy between the artist and his pupils — Gérome's kindly nature

I HAD been in the antique about three months when I was passed for the atelier, and I well recollect with what feelings of elation I made my way upstairs. Stott did not get in till afterwards, but he looked on himself as a landscape painter, so was not particularly concerned about it — as figure painting with him would be but an accessory to his Art. The three studios of the professors of painting at the École were then situated in a spacious corridor on the first étage — Cabanel's was at the top of the staircase, then came Lehmann's, and lastly Gérome's.

It was about half-past eight in the morning when I somewhat timidly knocked at the big door — there was a terrific noise going on inside which perhaps accounted for my receiving no reply. I knocked again and again; still no reply, so I turned the handle and boldly entered. From what I had been told I expected to see something out of the common, but the scene that confronted me quite took me aback. It was a very large studio lighted by an immense window on one side. Facing this was a platform on which a nude female model was posing; around the platform forty or fifty students, in blouses and every conceivable description of fantastic attire, were working in a big semi-circle — those nearest the model were seated on low stools making drawings, behind them were others painting seated at their easels, the next row were seated on stools somewhat higher, and the outside row was standing. The walls were covered with clever caricatures, and over all was a thick cloud of tobacco smoke.

As I entered, a lusty chorus was in full swing, and for a few seconds my presence was not noticed as I stood irresolute just inside the door; then suddenly someone spotted me and yelled out, in a voice that drowned the chorus, "Un nouveau." In an instant the singing ceased, and then arose the most deafening uproar I have ever heard — it was as though Bedlam had been let loose. Up they all jumped and fairly shrieked at me. For a few moments I could not make out what was said, but it was evidently not of an unfriendly nature, so I smiled and tried to look as pleasant as possible. Then someone approached me, and I explained that I was a nouveau, and he then with a low mock obeisance begged to have the honor of presenting me to the Massier — so I followed him to where a big fellow with a long beard was seated at an easel. All the while the other students were crowding round, keeping up a deafening row, and making all sorts of remarks, mostly uncomplimentary, about my general appearance. I was gravely requested to give in full my name, age, nationality, place of birth, and other details of a more or less intimate character, which the Massier proceeded with great solemnity to enter in a book which he evidently kept for the purpose. This being done, he then put to me a question as to my willingness to comply with certain formalities in connection with my entry to the atelier; these consisted in the "masse" — otherwise in paying my footing, i.e. standing treat to the studio. For this I was quite prepared, as I had been told beforehand what would be expected of me — so I replied that nothing would give me greater pleasure, at which another terrific yell burst forth from the crowd.

"Sacré Anglais, c'est tres-bien cela," they cried. "What would you like to pay for?" I was then asked.

"Everything that is usual," I replied.

" Des saucissons, sardines, du fromage, du fruit, du pain, and du beurre — du vin, du cassis, des cigarettes and des cigars," was decided on ; a rough calculation of how much would be required, and the two last nouveaux were deputed to go out with me to fetch all this in. So out we went together. I felt delighted — it was all so friendly, for I instinctively felt that this ragging was of the most good natured character, and that it only depended on me for the result. Although the Massier had with a feeling of the utmost camaraderie suggested the amount of the various items to be brought in, they all seemed such jolly good fellows that I ventured to augment this considerably, and we returned to the atelier positively laden with provisions.

As may be imagined, the yells that greeted our return were quite different to those that had greeted my arrival. An impromptu picnic, to which the model (without troubling to put on any clothes) and I were also invited, then followed, after which work was about to be resumed, when there were cries for "a speech" from the nouveau; then others called out for a song; then the clamor increased till at last those in favor of a song had it — so I was told to give them something in English. I've got about as much voice as a rusty file, but there was no help for it. I had to do the best I could. I was about to start when there were cries of "On the stove"; so on the stove I had to climb — fortunately it was not alight — then came "Off with your clothes." Without hesitating I laughed and made a movement as though to comply, and started undoing my braces although the model was posing alongside. Then someone exclaimed, "No — no — he's far too ugly for that; it's bad enough to have to look upon him with his clothes on." Then someone else replied, "Yes — quite true — let him get along with his rotten song and then we can go on with our work." So perforce I gave them "Nancy Lee," and oh! the groans and hisses it evoked. I should not have been surprised had they started throwing things at me.

Well, they let me finish somehow, and then called out "Assez," and "Descendez," and " Tout de même il a bon caracture cet Englisch," and other complimentary remarks, after which I was left in peace and strolled round and chatted with some men I already knew. They congratulated me on getting off so easily, as it often happened, they told me, that the nouveau had a very rough time, especially if he showed signs of losing his temper. The great thing was to take all the ragging in good part and to try and realize that what was happening was what had happened to everyone in the atelier when he first joined. I have not a particularly easy temper, but I had evidently hit it off very well, as I was scarcely ever ragged or made fun of after this, and was not long making friends all round.

In A Very Few Minutes...

Every nouveau however, did not get off so easily as I did, and very often they had to go through some thrilling experiences. I remember on one occasion two came to the studio at the same time. It was a nasty morning and not much light for work, so the crowd was in a mischief-making mood, which was aggravated by the two nouveaux being either too poor or mean to pay a decent bienvenue.

"They must fight a duel with paint-brushes," someone called out.

This was immediately agreed to, and the fellows, in spite of their protests, were made to strip to the waist; then two brushes were tied on to two mahlsticks and dipped into Prussian blue and vermilion, and they were ordered to go for each other, which they did willy-nilly. In a very few minutes they were both covered with color, and in a hideous mess. Considering the very slight accommodation for washing in the studio, it may be imagined the state they must have been in when they got home.

There were, however, certain, duties or "corvées" of a more or less irksome nature which every nouveau had to do, whether he liked it or not; these were to "fag " for the anciens, such as fetching cigarettes or tobacco, see there was a supply of savonnoir for washing the brushes — and even to wash the brushes if asked to do so — and to take the towels to the washerwoman and bring back the clean ones every week. These corvées had to be done till there was a fresh "nouveau" — then he in his turn took them on. One might, therefore, have to do them for several months.

It did not take me long to get into the ways of the atelier — and in a very short time I felt quite at home in my new surroundings. The camaraderie that existed was absolutely delightful, and I can only recall one instance of bad feeling or quarrelling the whole time I was there — and that curiously enough concerned me. It happened this way. An American student, who for some reason or other had always picked me out as the butt for any joke or any senseless remark he might think of, was working next to me one morning when he started his usual tactics, to the great amusement of the atelier. I took it good-humoredly as was my wont, as it takes a good deal to rouse me, till at last he got so personally offensive that I could stand it no longer; so putting down my palette I turned to him and said very quietly, as I hate a scene, "I have had enough of your blasted insinuations; come down into the courtyard and we will see who is the better man." I was white with rage, and he could see it.

He remained speechless for a second, and then said in a strained tone of voice, "I don't understand you, Price."

"Well, you come downstairs and you jolly soon will," I replied, looking him straight in the eyes.

To my surprise then, for he was a very big fellow, he burst into a husky sort of laugh and called out to the crowd in French, "Here's Price lost his temper because I have chaffed him, and he wants me to go out and fight him."

"Well, you've got to do that or apologize," I replied at the top of my voice.

"Well, put it right here," he said, offering me his hand," I meant no offence, old man."

Of course this ended the incident and we were always good friends afterwards.

When I joined Gérome's there were many youngsters painting there who have made big names since — as, for instance, Dagnan-Bouveret, Buland, Bompard, Helleu, La Gandara, Harrison, Swan; whilst in the other studios were Solomon J. Solomon, La Thangue and Stanhope Forbes; but the great majority failed to realize their early promise, for one has not heard of them since. A talent d'atelier does not necessarily mean success later, and many after a short struggle gave up Art for commerce. It was a hard-working, enthusiastic crowd, full of animal spirits, and there was never a dull moment at any time — in fact the most pleasant hours of the day were those spent during the morning in the studio. Everyone was known by some nickname, some of these being very funny indeed. I got to be christened Vélocipède IV from the fancied resemblance to the late Prince Imperial I have already mentioned.

Practical jokes were of everyday occurrence, and were often of a character which displayed well the inventive genius of their authors. I remember one in particular, which is well worth recounting. It was a dark, unpleasant sort of morning, when work was scarcely possible; we had been filling in the time with singing, boxing, wrestling, and whatnot, whilst hoping it would clear up and get light again. Suddenly someone suggested a procession through the Quartier; no sooner said than done — the tallest student dressed himself up as a bishop, and with a clean white blouse and paper mitre he looked quite the real thing. The rest of us got ourselves up as choristers — carrying lighted candles stuck in long paper rolls — priests, and other officials. There was even a church beadle in cocked hat. Then we started, down the stairs, through the courtyard, then round it, solemnly entoning an imitation chant; then out through the big gates into the street, to the immense amusement of the passers-by. With slow footsteps we went through the Passage des Beaux Arts into the Rue de Seine, then back by the Rue Jacob and the Rue Bonaparte. It may have been sacrilegious, but the Church was never held in much respect in the atelier, and certainly it was immensely funny as a skit. The most curious part of it, and what struck me most, I remember, was that the guardians of the École, and even the very sergents de ville, all smiled and entered into the joke; we were not interfered with in the least, although the traffic was held up while we passed.

There was a fresh model every week — always the nude, that goes without saying — male and female alternately — and the engaging and selection was generally left in the hands of the Massier, who was the recognized head of the atelier; but the pose was decided on by the majority of the anciens when the model came on the Monday morning. The models presented themselves once a month or so — although on any Monday morning they could show themselves if they were not already known to the atelier; sometimes as many as a dozen would be waiting, and so as not to waste time, they would undress in the corner and come up in batches on to the platform — old, young, male and female, and all completely nude. One got quite accustomed to it. The scene was very curious, and at first put me in mind of a slave market; afterwards one got satiated, as it were, with the nude, and the more especially as the women were seldom of exceptionally prepossessing appearance. The men were mostly Italians, and of course all were professional models and well known in the various studios. If a girl wanted to become a model, and happened to be really pretty and had a good figure, there was no necessity for her to sit at the École — she could easily get all the work she wanted privately; but of this more anon.

Work commenced at an unusually early hour judging from the English standpoint — seven o'clock in the summer and eight in the winter. The séance lasted four hours, and there was a rest for the model of five minutes exactly in every hour.

There was scarcely ever a moment's silence all the time — songs, badinage, and wit without cessation, and hard work notwithstanding. There was no necessity to go out for anything in the shape of paints or materials, as old Chabot of the color shop in the Rue Jacob used to come round of a morning with a case of brushes and colors, and would bring one in canvases or paper. The "Patron's" visits took place on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and as soon as he entered he would salute us smilingly with a "Bon jour, mes amis," to which we all replied, "Bonjour, Monsieur"; then there was dead silence whilst he made his way round the studio from pupil to pupil — sitting down in front of the canvases or drawings, and giving friendly and valuable advice. It was all so delightfully informal, yet withal so thoroughly in keeping with the traditions of the École, that a word of encouragement from the great artist put one on good terms with oneself for the rest of the day, and made one feel life was really worth living. After he had done his round of the studio, an easel would be placed near the wall, and everyone could submit sketches or other work done outside for his criticism. This was the most trying ordeal of all, as his remarks on these efforts, though always good-natured, were not necessarily of a complimentary nature — and often were received with roars of laughter by the crowd of students, at the expense of the unlucky recipient.

I remember one occasion particularly, because I happened to be the victim. I had painted, or to be more correct had attempted to paint a small portrait in the open air of my neighbor in the Rue de Seine — if I remember rightly he was supposed to be a Hungarian nobleman — and he was so pleased with the result that he had it framed regardless of expense, and with his coat of arms on the top. I brought it to the studio to show Gérome and get his opinion on it, as it was my earliest effort of portraiture and I was rather proud of my achievement. It was in its gorgeous frame, which gave it an unduly pretentious appearance, for it was unusual to exhibit one's work in such a pompous style; besides which, the painting itself was hardly worth a frame of any description. It was duly placed on the easel. After looking at it attentively for a few seconds, Gérome remarked with a humorous twinkle in his eye, "J'aime assez le cadre" (I rather like the frame). That was all. The crowd was fairly convulsed with mirth, and I took it down from the easel with rather less assurance than I had placed it there, and feeling very small indeed.

Used To Come Round...


Still it did no harm, this uncomplimentary criticism, as it took the conceit out of one a bit, and after all there was nothing unkind or unnecessarily cutting about it.

I always used to think that it must have been in similar fashion that the great masters of the Middle Ages were en rapport with their pupils, and it was doubtless this fraternal cordiality that in no small degree helped to develop the genius of the old Italian and Dutch schools. It is the delightful touch of human nature, the bond of sympathy between the great artist and the humblest of his pupils, that makes the student life of Paris so attractive, and which apparently cannot exist in prosaic matter-of-fact England.

Gérome was far and away the most popular of all the professors of painting in Paris in those days, and had his atelier been double the size it would have still been overcrowded, so keen was the desire to be accepted as his élève. With those who were earnest, serious workers he was always a sympathetic and encouraging adviser, but gare aux flâneurs — for those he had no use. Beneath the somewhat gruff and uncompromising exterior was a kindly nature that made him be regarded with positive affection by his pupils. The following touching little story will convey some idea of the man as apart from the professor.

A young fellow had been accepted by him as an élève and was passing the usual period of probation in the antique when he showed such exceptional talent that Gérome told him to go up into the atelier forthwith. Shortly after, the maître was paying his weekly visit to the antique, when he found him still working there.

"I thought I told you to go upstairs and work from the life," he said rather sharply — for he liked his pupils to do what he told them to do.

J. L. Gerome
"Yes, Monsieur, I know you did, but ——"

"Well, and why didn't you?"

The youth turned color, looked very confused, then after hesitating a moment tears came into his eyes and he replied, "To tell you the truth, Monsieur — I did not expect to get out of the antique so soon, and my parents are only poor work-people, and they are doing the best they can for me, and I don't like to ask them for the money to pay my masse yet a while. I should not like to go up into the atelier and be different to the others, so I thought I would wait a little longer; and I hope you will forgive me, sir, for not doing what you told me," he added, and the tears were streaming down his face.

Gérome was silent for a few seconds, then in an altered voice he said kindly, and patting the boy on the shoulder, "Mon ami, why did you not tell me this? I expect my élèves to confide in me, since I am interested in their welfare." Then as he turned to go away he asked abruptly, "Where are you living?"

The boy gave his address, wondering what that had to do with it.

The following day a letter reached him; it contained a mandat de poste for one hundred francs, and a few lines from the maître telling him to start work at once in the atelier.

That youth became one of Gérome's most distinguished pupils and made a big name for himself.



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