The Washington Post
Life Studies: Storiesby Susan Vreeland
With her richly textured novels Susan Vreeland has offered pioneering portraits of the artist’s life. Now, in a collection of profound wisdom and beauty, she explores the transcendent power of art through the eyes of ordinary people. Life Studies begins with historic tales that, rather than focusing directly on the great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist… See more details below
With her richly textured novels Susan Vreeland has offered pioneering portraits of the artist’s life. Now, in a collection of profound wisdom and beauty, she explores the transcendent power of art through the eyes of ordinary people. Life Studies begins with historic tales that, rather than focusing directly on the great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters themselves, render those on the periphery—their lovers, servants, and children—as their personal experiences play out against those of Manet, Monet, van Gogh, and others. Vreeland then gives us contemporary stories in which her characters—a teacher, a construction worker, and an orphan for example—encounter art in meaningful, often surprising ways. A fascinating exploration of the lasting strength of art in everyday life, Life Studies is a dazzling addition to Vreeland’s outstanding body of work.
The Washington Post
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.47(w) x 7.35(h) x 0.97(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 - 17 Years
Read an Excerpt
Mimi with a Watering Can
Jérôme did not want to go to his sister’s garden party. He did not want to mix cordially with her motley Montmartre neighbors, did not want to sit on a crumbling stone wall among buzzing insects in her half-wild yard drinking that sharp piccolo from the last scraggly Montmartre vineyard, making trivial conversation with some tinsmith or shoemaker or painter Claire might have invited.
“But this is the second time she’s asked,” Élise said, sipping her coffee in the sunny breakfast room with their four-year-old dancing a paper doll around her bowl of porridge. “She’ll think you despise her.”
He loved his sister, but he would much prefer to stay in his dressing gown all morning reading Baudelaire and Verlaine, his method, though of dubious effect, of resisting self-pity, and to spend the afternoon walking one of Baron Haussmann’s new grand boulevards with Élise and Mimi, which might make him feel expansive. Maybe stopping for lunch at Chez Edgard might help him throw off this malaise of dullness. Then they’d stroll home through the Tuileries, or cross the river to Luxembourg Gardens, and not have to talk to anyone else.
All week at the bank he had to be with people, affecting cordiality to clients and to Monsieur le directeur, when there was no juice of cordiality on his tongue. He saw only gray walls, gray desktop, gray ledger books, gray suits, gray hair. He had stood face to face with the director the day before, not even listening to him, only noticing the sickening grayness of the man’s skin. He’d wanted to scream, to curse the monotony right in front of the man, to leap out the door and never come back.
A disappointment in life had taken hold of him lately, originating nowhere, everywhere, a resentment with no logical reason because he had all a man could want—except the thing he couldn’t identify. This morning the dull power of that irony had shocked him. As he lay in bed, just at the moment of waking, the instant when he became conscious that it was Saturday, which should have made him happy, he couldn’t open his eyes. They were stuck shut. With a shudder of panic, he’d made a conscious effort to lift his lids, but the dryness underneath had sealed them shut, and all he succeeded in doing was raising his eyebrows. He lay disoriented for a long time before he tried again. One eye opened part way, with a soft pop, but he’d had to push up the lid of the other with the pad of his ring finger. An absurd experience. Ridiculous to attach any significance to it. Still, he wanted to erase the fear of its happening again by doing something absorbing, by thinking of something exquisite—by reading poetry.
He finished his coffee and noticed Lise’s hopeful, liquid blue eyes. “All right, we’ll go,” he said, not sure that he could be very sociable.
Mimi jumped down from her chair, and stretched her arms out to her sides, raising one arm while lowering the other. “Can we see the windmills, Papa?”
“Naturellement.” He touched Mimi’s head and felt her blond childhood curls slip between his fingers like silk threads.
Upstairs, in their bedroom easy chair, he had time to read one poem before Élise came in to sit at her vanity and dress her hair and prepare her toilette. In a moment she would talk, and the poetic thought would fly away.
C’est l’Ennui!, he read, l’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire. An involuntary tear. And for what? Because Baudelaire couldn’t recognize present beauty? Because life is too good? Because in a moment the silk of his wife’s dressing gown might slide down to reveal the shape and smoothness of the globe of her breast and he might smell her sweet musk scent? It made no sense.
“Life is good,” his father had affirmed the last time he’d seen him, chuckling before he added, “but better spent if not devoted to making a living.” This from a man who worked all his life at a desk, uncomplaining, until a month before he died. His father’s declaration ought to have alerted him to something important, but instead, this discontent had taken root.
What was he, some immature, spoiled Romantic overcome with pity that life was smaller and meaner and duller than he would have made it if he’d been the Creator? His gloominess disgusted him, that it clung to him like a stale odor, that it lay like a thief in some deep part of him he couldn’t reach, that he couldn’t shake it. If only his father had lived just two months more, he could have asked him if he’d ever felt this way.
Élise came into the bedroom in a swirl of her dressing gown, talking. “I should not have been able to bear it if you had insisted on staying in today.” Her dimple appeared in her left cheek when she scrutinized herself in the glass. “The view from Claire and Paquin’s garden will be gorgeous.” She lit the small spirit lamp on her dressing table to heat her curling irons. “Maybe you can leave your moodiness at home and manage a little gaiety.”
Her words stung. It was only two months ago that his father died. That wasn’t quite fair. Surely she wouldn’t have said that if she knew about his eyes not opening. He wanted to tell her. Today. He wanted her to see it as a thing quite apart from his own doing, as some unwanted heavy-heartedness come upon him, bearing down, filled with portent. She would comfort him, he was certain of that.
She caught his eye in her wall mirror and smiled in a coquettish way. “Do you know what day it is?” she asked, dampening her curling papers in rose water.
Her hands fell to her lap. She turned toward him and waited, her smile devastating him.
“June thirtieth,” he added.
Palm up, she bent her slender index finger toward her.
A look came over her face, not of exasperation, which would have been understandable, but of mystery, a faraway look, her eyes lit by a secret, if only he knew what it was.
“Six years ago today ... at Bougival ...” Her voice trailed off as though blown on a cloud, teasing him.
He heard Mimi fussing with her nursemaid in the hallway. “No, I won’t,” her high voice protested, and there came through the half-open doorway the sound of a dainty tantrum of a stamped foot. “I want to wear my new blue one with the lace. And my blue shoes.”
“It’s much too fine for a day in Montmartre,” the nursemaid said just as Mimi burst into the room and flung herself on Élise’s lap.
He had lost the moment of telling her.
“Why can’t I, Maman?”
Élise looked at the maid. “Let her,” she said, and then turned to Jérôme. “It’s a special day.”
Hands on hips, Mimi brushed past the maid out the door.
“Six years ago today,” Élise said, “was the first time I saw you. The boating party at La Grenouillère. Remember? You were smoking that silly, long porcelain pipe like a Dutchman and were wearing a striped jersey and a straw hat. Monsieur Seurin mistook you to be an expert oarsman and let you take one of the skiffs and we went downriver and got out to walk among the poplar trees and wild poppies and cornflowers, and then you picked a daisy and put it in my hair and said, ‘Adornment for the adorable,’ and you dared to put your hands on my waist, and we slid into each other’s eyes and both of us knew we wouldn’t be strangers any more.”
Mild shame that he hadn’t guessed swept over him and quickly faded. She had already forgiven him, or rather, she had not thought to take offense, enjoying the memory so much. How could he invade her reverie with the mundane absurdity that his eyes had been stuck shut?
“As thin as a pencil,” he said.
“That skiff. If I’d made one wrong move, everything would have been ruined. With the boat and with you. I had all I could do to get you back safely.”
“Because of the skiff?”
He chuckled. “Because of me. Because you were so beautiful.”
The heath separating Montmartre from Paris seemed narrower than the last time they’d visited Claire. New houses with their unsooted red chimney pots were creeping down from the Butte and the city stretched to meet them.
“Jérôme, see how the heath is absolutely covered with mustard blossoms? Mimi, look. It’s like yellow lace.”
Mimi stretched out her arms to gather in the whole heath.
At the base of the Mont, the open-air horse cab lurched sideways on the cobbles of rue des Martyrs, past the shabby used-goods stores with paintings, lamps, and rickety tables and chairs displayed right out in the street. They climbed the Butte on rue Lepic past the plaster quarries and small, perched houses. Like so many rabbit hutches, Jérôme thought, smelling the air. He held Mimi so she could stand up in the carriage and watch for the black windmills along the way. In front of a narrow rooming house, two old women were combing lice from children’s heads clamped between their knees.
“What are they doing, Papa?”
“Playing a game.”
“What kind of a game?”
She drummed on his thigh for an answer, but he had no playful spirit to make something up like he used to. Élise glanced at him as though waiting for him to come up with something. He saw that she realized he couldn’t.
The people living their tawdry lives on the way up the Butte had little to speak of, but they were always singing in the streets or laughing around the hurdy-gurdy. He couldn’t understand it. What did they know that he didn’t? Even among the rag-and-bone men and the flower girls and laundresses with chapped red arms, there was a robustness, an insouciance that quite overcame him. It was absurd, really, to envy them. He spotted four Parisians dressed in affected rustic costumes—peasant shirts and muslin dresses, pretending to be denizens of Montmartre. Their fine shoes and precise haircuts and coiffures gave them away. What were they seeking in those getups?
“Look, Papa. The big windmill is turning.” Mimi slapped his wrist, unable to contain herself, as if the whole world, not just a windmill, were turning and turning for her sake.
The narrow black sails of Le Moulin de la Galette near the top of the Mont and its smaller neighbor turned only to attract attention now. Their use as grinding mills was long past. The Moul’ had become an open-air dance hall. With the buildings and fence repainted in green, the acacia trees and trellises and tables, the globed gas lamps strung tree to tree, it was an unpretentious gathering spot for the working people of Montmartre. Already a few musicians were tuning their instruments and one violinist was playing a melody.
“It’s ‘Amanda,’ the song he’s playing. Isn’t it lovely?” Élise said.
He chuckled wryly. In the song, Amanda tosses away her maidenhood in a dance hall. A mix of sadness and guilt came over him. He hadn’t made love to Élise lately.
A block beyond, at the crest of the hill, he noticed an unsightly new telegraph pole on the plain round tower of the old Church of Saint Pierre. An indignity, he thought sadly, not to let something remain as it had been for seven hundred years. From there, he could see the huge foundation for Sacré-Coeur, a basilica planned to be as magnificent as the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Though it meant little to him, he didn’t particularly like that it would be so monumental. Maybe none of it made any difference. Another seven hundred years would go by in a blink and none of it would matter.
They turned left onto rue Cortot and its worn, uncared-for homes, Claire and Paquin’s among them. Two centuries earlier his sister’s house had been a grand residence of a gentleman vintner. Now it was chopped up into small flats, and the garden in the back was shared by all of the tenants.
The door was ajar, so they stepped inside the dim maroon parlor.
“Claire? Paquin?” Élise called.
Laughter floated up from the garden. They went through the stone kitchen and Jérôme hesitated on the back porch. How would he get through the afternoon? Mimi hopped down and ran past the people at the table to chase a cat under the arbor, and Élise joined the women picnicking on the grass.
“Jérôme!” Claire cried. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. I was afraid you’d chosen some dead book in a stuffy room over this.” She waved her arm toward the garden and the view.
To the right, cream-colored gravel paths wound through banks of flowers planted in front of a tangle of vines and lilacs and wild roses climbing the arbor. To the left, poppies bobbed their heads between the vegetable rows, and sunflowers grew along a shed. Beyond that was the henhouse. Nasturtiums and mustard were taking over the apple and pear orchard which sloped downhill so that over the tops of trees he could see as far as Saint-Denis. The countryside was dotted with smoky factories, but here, high in his sister’s overgrown garden, he felt surprisingly light-headed.
“I thought it might be too breezy up here. For Mimi and Élise, I mean.”
Claire took Jérôme by the elbow and pulled him toward the rustic table spread with too small a cloth. “Our mother had to push him out-of-doors every spring like an old dog,” she said to the guests eating in a blue haze of pipe smoke.
Her saying that made him feel foolish in front of these people he didn’t even know.
Claire patted his cheek. “I’m only teasing, brother. Don’t look so glum.”
She introduced him to the vintner, his toothless, smiling wife, a quadroon who made saddles and smelled of leather and sweat, a young Italian frame maker missing a finger, and a high-booted Cuban painter whose odd- colored trousers were tucked into his boots like a soldier. Merde-of-goose green, those trousers. What did he have to say to such people?
“Auguste Renoir is coming too. The painter. You’ve heard of him? He lives just upstairs.”
Jérôme looked with detachment at the shapes of the women’s hats—an inverted pan, a mountain of flowers, the feathery body of a headless chicken—and watched Mimi pick a dandelion and wave it to release the seeds.
“Jérôme, are you listening to me?” Claire shook his arm. “Why, here he comes now.”
The man was in his thirties, like himself, thin, dressed plainly, with reasonable brown pants, a round felt hat, and with a fringe of beard at his jaw, like his own only not so carefully trimmed. The painter had an air of absent-minded study as he looked across the garden, taking in the women, the lilacs, and Mimi following a bird along a path.
Coming out of the orchard, Paquin set down a basket of pears and swept Mimi up in his arms, lifting her high in the air until she squealed. Jérôme watched his thick fingers with split nails grasping her waist. Paquin kissed her, set her down, and picked up the basket. “A pair of pears, or a game of chess, anyone?”
“Better not today,” Renoir said. “With you, one always leads to another.”
“Afraid of losing again, eh?” the vintner said and began setting up the chessboard opposite the Italian.
“I’ve got something more important to do.” He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “My painting. The Moul’ will be filled in an hour.” Renoir took out a tobacco pouch to roll a cigarette. “I can only stay until Georges comes to help me carry it down the hill. He’s going to pose in a dance position with a seamstress I know. I don’t want to be late.”
Working on Saturday, and he sounded elated about it.
“Seamstress? The Butte is full of seamstresses.” Paquin grinned. “Aren’t you going to tell us who?”
“From the rue Saint-Georges. Aline.” He smiled again, shyly, Jérôme thought.
“Une amoureuse?” Paquin puffed on his pipe, pretending disinterest.
“Not yet.” Renoir looked down at his foot tamping down a patch of grass, the smile diminished but still detectable. He scratched a match on the table edge.
Paquin rolled his eyes at Jérôme as if to say, “Get on with it, man.” He went to fetch them each a tumbler of piccolo.
Mimi sat in a low swing under the chestnut tree. “Make me go, Maman.”
Élise got up from the picnic blanket and pulled Mimi back in the swing seat and let her go, still chatting with the women across the grass. Only snatches of their conversation drifted to him in waves—“an old prune who won’t allow herself to smile” ... “mutton with cumin” ... “crêpe-de- Chine, I’m certain.” How they flew from one topic to another baited him. He watched Lise, tall and graceful, holding up her hand, laughing, saying, “It’s true. I saw it with my own eyes. I’d rather be flogged in public than to wear such a dress.” Her carefree air captivated him. Six years. He couldn’t believe it.
Renoir sat down with the Cuban painter, the framer, and Paquin, and soon was railing against the new façade of the Ministry of Defense decorated with sculpted heads. Claire sighed and went inside, as though she’d heard it all before.
“They look like gorgons made of molded rubber,” Renoir said. “A waste of good quarry marble. What’s wrong with the style of the old kings’ heads of Pont Neuf? Each one is noble and unique. And after two hundred and fifty years, each one still bears the irregularities of expression of its creator. Now, that’s immortality, and that’s art. But there’s no taste in these monster heads.”
Claire brought out a platter of couscous with sweet onions and muscat grapes, and a plate of Brie. “Taste! Here’s something if you want taste. Just the way you like it, Auguste. Not too runny but ripe enough.”
“There’s no more taste these days because no one sees his own work to the finish,” Paquin said. “That’s the trouble nowadays. Everything’s broken up.”
“What do you mean?” Jérôme asked, sitting down and making an effort to join in.
“For thirteen years I’ve made the legs of chairs. Another man makes the backs. Another assembles them, but I never make a whole chair. Where’s the enjoyment in that?”
“At least it’s making something,” Jérôme said. “You see it.” He gestured to an imaginary chair. “There stands the chair. There are the legs supporting it. They serve a purpose. Someone likes it, buys it, sits in it, passes it on to his children.”
By contrast, what did he do? Subtract numbers. Try to guess the bourse. Draw up lending documents. Smile and say no, or smile and say yes, it made little difference to him.
“After a while, a man who can’t enjoy his work loses something—taste or aesthetics or wholeness. That’s what produces ugliness.” Paquin balled up his fist and leaned toward Renoir. “What if you just painted one figure, passed the canvas to another man to do the still life on the table, another man to do the background?”
Renoir waved his hand. “That’s the way they worked for five hundred years on ceiling frescoes and cathedrals.”
“But a man’s more important now.” Paquin brought his fist down onto the table. “And you know it, Auguste.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, sounding tired of the argument. “Producing only part of something is the evil of the century.”
“Because it’s separating the craftsmen from the designers,” Paquin said.
“That’s what I didn’t like about painting porcelain in a workshop. Plate after plate, the same design.” Renoir screwed up his face.
Jérôme recognized the man’s angst in his flash of memory, and it silenced him. No, Renoir couldn’t have loved to work on Saturday in such a factory. As for himself, he was working in a loan factory, just as his father had done.
“I don’t see it that way,” the Italian said. “There’s nothing wrong with the workshop system if the design is well conceived by the master and executed by the planers, carvers, and joiners. Faster production, more frames, more money.”
“Fine,” Paquin smirked. “So long as you are the master. All the others will learn is to copy.” “So? If they have any talent of original conception, they’ll rise to be the masters,” the Italian said.
“But everyone ought to be allowed to create something whole.” Paquin swung his arm toward the back door. “My father designed and made a whole chair, carved every bit of it, and it’s sitting by the fireplace and there’s nothing more important in that house.”
Jérôme sucked in air through his teeth. What did he have from his father? Nothing.
Mimi tapped his arm. “There’s nothing to do.”
And what would he be able to leave Mimi?
He offered her a piece of bread with cheese but she shook her head. “Close your eyes and open your mouth,” he said.
When she did, he put a strawberry between her lips. She squealed and ate it, then opened her mouth for another. Three strawberries later, he stood up and gave her his index finger to hold. “Show me what you found in the vegetable garden.” He made her guess the plants—carrots, onions, leeks, cauliflowers.
“Cauliflowers! Those aren’t flowers! I like real flowers better.” She skipped through the dappled shade of the chestnut tree toward the flower beds in the sunlight. The air around her seemed to vibrate.
Élise was standing on the swing now, statuesque, presiding. Strands of her light brown hair had blown loose from her chignon and trailed down her throat. The other women looked lovely too, with their skirts spread out around their picnic on the grass. The sun coming through the leafy branches made pale yellow patches on their dresses. My God, if he’d stayed inside today, if his eyes were still stuck shut ... He didn’t want to think about it. Was a man to resign life or die bitter because he only had two days of every seven to call his own?
He found a place to sit in the sunlight, and listened to the women across the grass, amused. Apparently two conversations were going on at once. “You refused him? That’s monstrous of you,” one of them said. At the same time, Élise and Claire were trying to determine precisely where in the neighborhood Berlioz had lived when they were growing up. He chuckled. As if the exact house mattered a great deal.
Mimi ran across the yard, arms outstretched, chasing a butter-y. It landed on a lilac bush. “Stand still, Mimi, then creep up slowly so you won’t frighten it.”
She froze until he gestured for her to go ahead, then tiptoed forward, her dimpled hands out to catch it.
“It’s velvet, just like my dress,” she said.
One step too close and it flew away. She followed it, her eyes lit with wonder. “How can it fly, Papa?”
“By moving those big wings and catching the air.”
She flitted away in imitation, elbows tight to her sides, forearms up, hands gently flapping like wings. He wished his father could have seen her right then.
He remembered how his father had liked to reach down and find him, petit Jérôme, skipping beside him when he was Mimi’s age. Just a few months ago, his father had reached down and found her instead, and looked up bewildered. Jérôme knew with a start, the same instant that his father knew—the terrible swiftness of it all, as fast as a wingbeat, the cruelty of its brevity.
The piccolo made him drowsy. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to the heavy scent of lilac, letting the sunlight warm his lids. Was it dangerous to close them? Even brie-y- From the vicinity of the table he heard the yearning in Paquin’s voice. Even the legs of chairs were something. He tried to think of all the shapes a chair leg could take.
“Maman! Papa! Come quick!”
He bolted out of the chair and ran toward her voice, thinking something had happened to her. Everyone laughed. She was standing safe as could be, pointing to thin air.
“Look,” she cried.
“A spider’s web,” Élise said. “Look, Jérôme. How beautiful.”
It was strung from a tree branch to two places on a lilac bush. The sunlight turned the silk iridescent. How that tiny creature could launch himself into the void, spinning a ?lament of thin trust, and catch hold of something, anything, and build his three-pointed kingdom from such a slender thread.
“It’s miraculous,” Élise marveled and explained it to Mimi, pointing to a ?y tangled at the web’s edge near the lilac bush, buzzing in panic.
“Trapped,” Jérôme said.
Élise looked at him and smiled wanly, as though pained, as though understanding something, not about Mimi. About him. It was comforting. He appreciated it and drew a chair next to his for her. Maybe he could tell her about his eyes now. When she sat, he lifted her hand onto his palm. “I’m glad you managed that skiff six years ago,” she said softly.
He smiled and was about to speak when Mimi said again, “There’s nothing to do,” in a tone close to a whine but not quite.
“How would you like to help Claire water the plants?” Élise asked and went to fetch her a small tin watering can.
Mimi’s chest puffed out like a little sergeant when she took it. She tipped the watering can to sprinkle the iris, scooting back her feet so as not to wet her blue boots. She doused the sweet peas twined on strings, the clumps of daisies. He saw her against pinks and green and yellow gold, lavender and deep purple, but no gray. She sprinkled the cascade of wild roses spilling over the sweet alyssum in joy. Water drops moistened the young rosebuds, tight, mauve, as full of promise as Lise’s nipples that first miraculous time he’d seen them.
Mimi came to the pansies bordering the path, and pointed. “Papa. They look like butter-ies. They’re taking a nap.”
She scowled when the water ran out, then ran back to the house to refill her small container. Puckering her mouth with the importance of her task, she carried on.
There was nothing unusual about that watering can—tin turned bluish green, with a sprinkler head on the spout—yet he felt a tenderness toward it out of all proportion to its value. How Mimi’s fingers, like little white minnows, grasped its handle. How she wielded it with an authority beyond her years. It made no difference that the trickle of water drops falling on leaves and petals was a mere decoration and would never nourish the plant deep down in the earth where the roots searched for sustenance. She had a job, a purpose.
If only he were a poet. Or if Baudelaire could see her, and see inside him to his love for her, he wouldn’t have written about l’ennui. He watched her dance through her enchanted world, arms out to catch the ?eeting impossible, her world where sprinklings on petals mattered, and his heart followed her.
Renoir plucked him by the sleeve. “A blue hummingbird bent on visiting every flower, with blue eyes to match. Continually astonished at things, that’s the way to live, don’t you think?” He couldn’t answer.
“She’s exquisite,” Renoir said.
“She’ll stay the way she is today no more than the flowers will.”
“A thought I try not to think.”
“Does she ever stand still?”
He chuckled. “When she wants something her way.”
Renoir puffed on his cigarette. “What would you think if I asked to paint her?”
He saw her then with a frame around her, adorable and full of life, with that silly watering can as ineffective as a thimble of water against a field in drought. A painting would make her immortal, not only the girl immortal, but this day when his three-pointed kingdom was of one accord, in one place. It would be a way to beat back the brevity.
“I’d think you have a fine eye.”
“I only work on my Moulin painting on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays when the place is filled and the atmosphere is right. During the week, I have other ones going. I can’t pay much for her to model, but it’ll put butter on the spinach.”
“Pay me nothing. If you can get her to stand still, you’ve earned the pleasure.” He looked at Mimi. “But I warn you, that might be as hard as making time stand still.”
“That’s what a painter does.” He put out his cigarette in a saucer. “Will she come if you call? So I can make friends with her?”
“Mimi, come here, ma minette.”
She looked at him with incredulity. “I have to water the flowers,” she said in a voice taut with exasperation and responsibility. “I’m not finished.”
An acute joy overcame him. He wanted Mimi, and Mimi’s daughter, and even her daughter, to look at him just that funny, exasperated way. Fifty years of such pleasure. Not a day less.
Renoir chuckled. “Women, even little women, instinctively value the right things. You’re a fortunate man to live with two of them.”
He thought he detected a wistfulness in Renoir’s tone. “I know.”
Renoir approached Mimi and crouched down. “How did you know the 'owers were thirsty'”
“They told me.”
“Will you come back another day to water them again?”
Mimi looked at Jérôme for permission, and then nodded.
Renoir spotted his friend Georges coming into the garden, wearing a bowler hat cocked forward. He returned to Jérôme. “Ask your wife to bring her next week. At her convenience, of course, but the sooner the better,” he said, and went with his friend into the barn. In a few moments they came out carrying an enormous canvas, so large it caught in the breeze like a sail and they had to wrestle with it to hold on to it.
In the foreground of the painting some figures seated at a table appeared to be nearly completed, but the dancing area and the background were still empty canvas. Even so, Jérôme could already see the love the painter had for the crowded Montmartre gaiety. To launch forth on a blank canvas of that size, to trust enough to go forward, brushstroke after brushstroke across the canvas, filling in with color and life, working, yes, but out of the pure, intoxicating compulsion to create a vision he held inside—it was astonishing.
He felt a faint beating inside him, like hummingbird’s wings against his chest. He sat up straighter and slapped the arm of the chair. It’s not too late, he thought. He could learn. Not painting, but something that would be his. That’s what he needed. Nothing grand, just something that would have taste and expression and love. Paquin could teach him woodworking and he could make a dollhouse for Mimi, or a birdhouse for their terrace. Or he could write a poem for Lise about the little skiff of their family floating past La Grenouillère.
Possibilities rose inside him as the small orchestra from Le Moulin de la Galette burst into a lilting melody. Élise beckoned to Mimi, and with hands joined, mother and daughter swung in a circle to the music. He felt a joy that exceeded art, love for two breathing women, one once within the other before they unfolded into two beings, for whom and by whom he would, someday, find himself whole. He could not look at them enough.
Fifty years. If he did nothing more in those years than open his eyes in the morning and go to the bank and be cordial and read Baudelaire, no, maybe not Baudelaire, and see that face of Mimi grow up to have some of Lise in it and some of himself, and not miss a wink, that was the essential thing, not to blink, and if he could make some small thing now and then, for them, for himself, if he did just that, then ...
He couldn’t bring himself to finish his thought. Finishing it might make it dry up and fly away. Instead, he let the music, Lise’s whirling grace, and Mimi’s laughter wash over him. He thought of Renoir and wished him well with his seamstress. He hoped he would take a few minutes from painting to dance with her.
Riding home past the massive foundation of Sacré-Coeur, he imagined how it would tower over the little Church of Saint Pierre. He worried that it would change the village on the Butte. Sometimes the futile mattered a great deal.
“Did you and Claire decide where Berlioz lived?”
“Yes. Right at the corner of our old street, rue Saint-Vincent. Just think of it!” The brightness in her voice sharing this trivia amused him.
He thought of taking Mimi home and coming back with Lise to the Moul’.
“We haven’t danced in a long time.” He pulled out a daisy from his sleeve and threaded it through Élise’s hair above her ear.
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The first two stories are pure artistic paintings in words. Her contemporary stories in the 2nd half of the novel are incredible in their simplicity. 'Crayon 1955' is emotionally tearful. This book is a treasure!
With 'Girl Hyacinth Blue' and 'The Passion of Artemisia' author Susan Vreeland has done much to resurrect the reading public's interest in the lives of great artists. In this intriguing collection of stories her focus is again on art, but rather than relating an artist's life she comes to her subject from a different angle - the secondary characters who were part of the artist's lives and how art can affect ordinary people, both positively and negatively. Fans of van Gogh well know that one of his favorite models was the son of the postman in Arles. This relationship offers Vreeland the opportunity to give readers a view of the young lad's personal life and how he is reacting to the world around him at this stage in his life. We find a gardener employed by Monet emotionally shattered when the artist destroys his Water Lily paintings. The use of the physical and emotional investment of ordinary people in the lives of the great Impressionists and Postimpressionists adds a rich texture to the idea of what art can mean. Film, stage and television actress Karen White reads these stories with lyricism and depth of understanding. Those who heard her on the audio version of Vreeland's 'The Forest Lover' know they're in for another treat. - Gail Cooke