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FROM THE ISLAND OF LA REUNION TO THE FACULTÉ DE DROIT IN PARIS
I was born on the Island of La Reunion. When I refer to my native country, people ask me: "How big is this island of yours? What is its population?" I once read somewhere that La Reunion is smaller than the smallest of the French Departments, that of the Seine excepted; but of the number of its inhabitants I have no idea.
What I do know, on the other hand, is that the first nucleus of the colony consisted for the most part of aristocratic French families, our kings having decreed, by successive Orders in Council, that it was not derogatory to "go colonising." French peasants came too, encouraged by Colbert to settle on the territories newly attached to the Crown. At the time of the Revolution many aristocrats—"ci-devants" whose lives were threatened—sought refuge in the Islands; and there were also Frenchmen of all classes whom the spirit of adventure led to expatriate themselves.
My maternal grandfather was one of these. A native of Northern France, he had dreamed in his early youth of becoming a painter; but having no patrimony, he ended by seeking his fortune in La Reunion, where he married a girl whose parents came from Provence. I remember that among the papers he left, I discovered the draft of a letter addressed to a friend in France, in which he spoke of "the divine Ingres." This epithet "divine," attributed to the painter, made the greater impression on me as I had never before heard it applied to a human being.
As for my father, whose family had never strayed beyond the ancient province of the le de France, he came to La Reunion to enter a notary's office, and ended by purchasing the business. A few years after his arrival in the Island, he married, and by this union he had ten children, of whom I was the eldest.
Surrounded as it was by foreign elements that had found their way little by little into the Island, the white population took the greatest care to maintain its racial integrity and traditions. The children were brought up with the strictest vigilance.
A friend of my aunt's went one day to the Vice-principal of the Lycée, to ask for leave of absence for her son, so that he might go with her into the country next day.
"All right," said the Vice-principal, "but you will have to give him a note for his master, to say he has been ill."
"What! Set my Edouard an example of falsehood!" she cried. "Never! If it comes to that, he must go to school as usual."
The education of the girls was bound by rules of decorum and propriety that would be laughed at to-day, though I have come across the same sort of upbringing among South American girls in Paris; for young Chilians, Uruguayans, Paraguayans have the same teachers that our girls had in the old days of La Reunion—venerable nuns who maintain in their pensionnats the customs and the courtesy of old-time France. I remember my astonishment at seeing a Brazilian girl with her magnificent black hair coiled upon her head.
"What! You haven't cut your hair?"
"You see, if I did, I should be pointed at in the street when I got back to Rio."
Two years later I met the charming foreigner again. This time she had fair hair, cut à la Jeanne d'Arc. And I wouldn't swear that nowadays the girls of La Réunion themselves ...
As far back as my childish recollections go, I see a parrot mounted on its perch. I longed to possess one of its lovely feathers, but I had watched it crushing the hardest seeds in its beak, and knew better than to go near it. Young as I was, however, I had noticed that everything I did was imitated by a little nigger-boy who was allowed to play with us. So I pulled a feather out of the tail of a domestic hen, and then, pointing to the parrot, said to him : "You too take a pretty feather." But he drew back with a grimace: "Ça pas bon." Round the perch, which was set up in the courtyard under a mango tree, a regular little garden had grown up, in which, among other plants, magnificent sunflowers bloomed. One day I was fighting one of my brothers for the possession of this garden, when my aunt, separating us, said: "We'll move the perch somewhere else, and as soon as there's another little garden, you can each have one." I asked my Nannie : "How does the parrot's little garden grow? I never see him digging or sowing seeds." "That creature, he cunning," she replied. But I soon discovered that in shelling his seeds, the parrot scattered some around him. This accounted for the profusion of plants springing up in so delightful a tangle.
At that time I had a veritable passion for flowers. As a reward for good behaviour I was allowed to pick a few from the beds. What joy to make a posy! My favourites were the roses; dahlias pleased me less because of something metallic about them that made them seem less alive. I had not then seen dahlias painted. When, many years later, Renoir gave me the choice of two of his paintings, one of roses, the other of dahlias, I found it difficult to decide.
In our drawing-room there was a cabinet in which, alongside of native curiosities—stuffed bengalis, butterflies in a glass case, shells—the eye was regaled with bouquets of flowers made of raffia dyed in various colours. My Aunt Noémie, who was considered by her friends to have a pretty talent for water-colours, took pride in copying these artificial flowers in her sketch-book.
"The flowers in the garden are much prettier," I ventured to point out to her one day.
"So they are. But raffia flowers never wither," retorted my aunt.
I learnt later that Cézanne's most sumptuous nosegays were painted from paper flowers, for the same reason.
I was for ever tormenting my parents to let me alter things to my own taste in our garden, but they invariably answered: "We'll see.... Some day, when you're bigger...."
Meanwhile I made my Nannie move the parrot and his perch from one bed to the other, from the carnations to the balsams, and thence to the roses; and I was entranced with the variety of effects I obtained in this way. In the arrangement I liked best of all, the bird with his blue-and-yellow plumage made a splash of brilliance in the midst of a group of lilies. I had a little sandy cat, too, and one day I found him lying beside a border of forget-me- nots. I knew nothing in those days of what are termed complementaries, but my eye was delighted with this juxtaposition of colours.
Another day, having picked a bunch of little white flowers, I noticed they were not all of the same shade. Of course I was told that white on white was monotonous; but to me, on the contrary, the mixture appeared ravishing. I happened one day to be telling Renoir of the combinations of colour I had made as a child, and I mentioned the white posy.
"On the contrary," he said, "an effect of white on white looks extremely well. Nothing is more exciting to paint."
One of my childish ambitions had been to become a slave! I had heard grown-up people say that in the old days there were slaves, and that they were for ever running off into the woods.
"So then," I said, "the slaves' Nannies let them run away? "
"The slaves hadn't any Nannies."
How lovely to go into the woods all alone, and not to have a Nanny! But one day, as I was looking at an old print representing a negro at the top of a coconut tree, surrounded by gunmen whose dogs were tearing furiously at the trunk of the tree:
"That's a runaway slave," explained my Nanny. "He's waiting for his master to fire at him."
"Because he hopes to get something broken, and then he won't be able to work any more. He was a lazy fellow, I guess."
This explanation cured me of all temptation to venture alone in the woods, where one ran a risk, it seemed, of meeting with nasty, chestnut-coloured negroes. From that time onwards, when on our walks we passed by a thicket, I used instinctively to squeeze my Nanny's hand a little tighter.
At the age of four I commenced collector. Not that I had any idea of what that meant. I simply had a lively sense of property. As I had been specifically forbidden to touch anything in the house, I fell back on things in the garden, such as no one would dream of disputing with me. I began building up a heap of big pebbles, and I had made a very fine " collection" of them, when one day they all disappeared. Materials had been needed to repair a wall, and my pebbles had been commandeered.
Undaunted, I turned my attention to the bits of broken crockery I found lying about. My favourites were the fragments of blue china. But my relations thinking it unwise to let a child play with sharp-edged objects, my lovely bits of china disappeared in their turn.
It seemed I was fated to have my "collections " taken from me. But nothing hindered me from contemplating the treasures in our native museum—stuffed lions, tigers and birds, shells and a variety of other objects. The live lions and tigers I was shown in France in later years were not more impressive than these.
And in the courtyard of the museum there was a real, live porcupine. For a halfpenny its keeper would let us touch its nose with a stick, and it was a marvel to see its quills rising up. Meanwhile its "showman," with watchful eye, stood ready to check our covetous hands: "Hi, you! Take care not pull out his feathers!"
"Now that you are a big boy," said my father when I was six years old, "you must begin to work seriously with Aunt Noémie."
This was my mother's elder sister. An old maid, she had dedicated herself wholly to the upbringing of her nephews and nieces. My mother, absorbed by the duties of housekeeping, found her an invaluable help. Tante Noémie brought to the care of the children confided to her the anxious solicitude of a hen with her little ones; even in the circular gesture of her arm beneath her cloak one saw the jealous movement of a broody hen gathering her chicks under her wing.
My Aunt Noémie lived in terror of the Evil One. I saw her constantly making the sign of the cross over her breast. "It is to keep a pure heart, my child, so as not to fall a prey to the Devil."And she would read me the Life of the Curé of Ars, in which the Devil, for ever at the Saint's side, was to be seen taking the most diverse forms.
I noticed my aunt, when we went to see my Uncle Buroleau, making little signs of the cross before a picture of a lady in a low-cut dress: a copy of a Virgin by Raphael. This lady did not frighten me at all, and I thought innocently that if that was one of the shapes the Devil appeared in, he wasn't so dreadful as they made out. But one evening I woke up with a start. The candlestick on the night-table had fallen down, and I saw the candle go running across the room.... I screamed. A maidservant rushed in. Trembling, I pointed to the bewitched candle, which had stopped short against the wainscot. She picked it up, and said simply: "The rat, he fool, his hole too little for candle go in."
So it was only a rat running away with the candle, after all. From that moment my terror of the Devil grew less.
The time came for my father to take our education into his own hands.
Though tenderly attached to his family, my father was very hard on himself, and thought it natural to exact a great deal from others. And in his view his children's future could only be assured by their obtaining University degrees. I did not dislike study, but I had little disposition for certain subjects, such as mathematics, geography, drawing. Drawing was my bête noire. I could not so much as produce the little mannikins with which most children cover the margins of their exercise-books.
At meal-times we heard of nothing but the marks we had obtained for our tasks—the places we had got in competition. Even the end of the day did not see us set free. After dinner we had to repeat our lessons, and have our tasks checked, for the next day. My younger brother and I, who were near in age, were coupled together for study. Our father attached the greatest importance to Greek and Latin, and as our exercises were never good enough to please him, we were made to get up before daylight and go over them again. Candle in hand, we went down from the first floor, where we slept, to the ground floor, where my father had his room. We were only moderately appreciative of this solicitude, in fact we considered ourselves much to be pitied. But when Papa was our age. . .
A simple notary's clerk, my father had educated himself, devoting a part of the night to the completion of his studies. By the time he became a notary, he cared for none but books whose titles alone give me cold shivers to this day, such as the Logic of Port-Royal, Descartes' Discours de la Méthode, Malebranche's Recherche de la Vérité. Thrown in upon himself in this way, his mind had acquired a sort of dryness, a touch of puritan asceticism which made itself felt all about him. I used to fancy protestants must be like that. So that, brought up though we were in the Catholic religion, we had not even the benefit of that cheerfulness which it permits to its most scrupulous adherents. I remember my father's indignation when, for my twelfth birthday, my mother, on the faith of a catalogue of books for the young, bought me a copy of Andersen's Fairy-tales.
"Show me that book," said my father to me. And chancing on the tale called "The Emperor's New Clothes": "What's this?" he cried. "Here's something about a naked man!"
But my father's greatest terror was la femme. A theatrical company on tour in the Island gave a performance of Marie ou la Grâce de Dieu at St. Denis, where we lived. My uncle took me to see it, and Papa could not conceal his anxiety at the thought of my witnessing a spectacle where the mere sight of an actress might fill my young head with "evil notions." I was then about fifteen! Our maids, I need hardly add, were chosen for their ugliness. And not only the maids. It had been settled that I was to learn English, so I said one day to my father: "I'm told there's a certain Madame Bocage who has a splendid method of teaching modern languages." This Madame Bocage was an amiable widow in the forties, whose opulent contours offered a lively interest to my young eyes. My father, without answering, shot a severe glance at me. Not long after, he said to me : "I've found a teacher of English whose pronunciation is even better than that of your Madame Bocage." However this may have been, I was soon to discover that Mademoiselle Génier, my destined teacher, had ill-looks and to spare.
Happily the severe discipline to which we were subjected was relaxed during the two months' holiday that we all spent at Le Brûlé. Le Brûlé, 1000 metres above sea-level, meant, to me, a tangle of ferns, hydrangeas, tree-camellias, a network of plants of every sort, such as one sees in the engravings of Bresdin. It meant a river with a thousand windings, forming pools and cascades everywhere. At sunset a blue mist descending from the heights, an impalpable down, which in a few moments spread darkness everywhere, a darkness made of those silvery greys that enchant one in Whistler's canvases.
From the summit of Le Brûlé, when the sky was exceptionally clear, one saw in the far distance another peak, entirely white, the Piton des Neiges. When I was sixteen I obtained my parents' permission to go there on an excursion.
"That's white, if you like !" I exclaimed as we drew near.
"That blue too, m'sieu'," said a negro behind me. Looking more attentively, I saw he was right: the snow had blue reflections in it. How then, with so much blue in it, did it achieve such dazzling whiteness? Many years later, watching a laundress rinsing out fine linen, I asked her: "Why do you put blue in your rinsing water?" "To make my linen nice and white," she replied.
One day I came across an album that had belonged to my grandfather, full of pictures of French officers' uniforms, and I was enraptured at the sight of so many magnificent soldiers. If only one day I could be dressed like one of these!
The naval doctors and apothecaries chiefly excited my admiration. They wore caps trimmed with so much gold that they were indistinguishable from the képis of the generals, and they had besides a marvellous golden sun on the back of their tunics. These two uniforms were so equal in beauty that I was unable to choose between them. Neither of these professions attracted me in the least, I must say, but merely the idea of one day donning their glorious clothes. In the end, after examining them in the minutest detail, I gave my preference to the naval doctor, because of the red velvet backing his gold braid.
The apothecary's velvet was a beautiful green, but the gold did not show up on it with the same brilliance.
From now onwards my cry was: "I want to be a naval doctor!"
"In that case," observed my father, "you would do well to begin by obtaining better marks at the lycée."
Excerpted from Recollections of a Picture Dealer by Ambroise Vollard, Violet M. MacDonald. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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