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Paris September 1858
The mutterings from two men hunched behind their easels had broken the silence in the Great Gallery and hung in the air for an instant before echoing up the walls to the soaring, arched, glass skylights of the Louvre. My sister and I had been immersed in our work, copying the paintings of the Renaissance Masters, before their outburst, which was followed by the approaching tap-tap-tap of a silver-tipped cane on the parquet floor. I'd looked up to see the most revered and reviled artist in Paris swagger the length of the gallery.
"Edma!" I hissed to my sister, "It's Édouard Manet." She slipped me a look out of the corner of her eye and gave the slightest of nods in acknowledgement.
I recognized Manet from our friend Fantin's portrait of him, but he was more handsome in person, with a long, narrow nose and wavy, dark blonde hair and whiskers. With his proud carriage, he needed only a red sash and a white ruff around his neck to resemble the Dutch Captain of the Guard in Rembrandt's Night Watch. He was tall — even taller in his glossy black silk top hat — dressed in well-cut clothes with fine leather gloves and boots and carrying a wooden paint case tucked under his arm. The haunting sea chantey he whistled contrasted with his elegance — and sent shivers up my arms.
"Comment ça va, mon ami?" Manet greeted Fantin, not ten feet away from us, with a vulpine grin, ignoring the malicious murmurs of those around him. Manet and Fantin bantered and joked for a bit, their deep laughter resounding up to the skylights. I had never known anyone to make the earnest Fantin laugh. And then the men turned toward Edma and me, the shift sudden enough for the men to catch me staring. Although he appeared to be no more than ten years older than I, Manet smiled at me as one smiles at a precocious child. True, on his side of that decade divide was a life of independence, even decadence, while on my side I still lived the life of a sheltered jeune fille. But I was not a young girl; I was almost a woman.
My sister, Edma, and I were eighteen and seventeen years old, and we were determined to become Great Artists. Our older sister, Yves, had once shared our ambition, but she'd succumbed to marriage, a fate I planned to evade. On that fresh, breezy morning in September of 1858, when the Louvre, like the rest of Paris, re-opened after closing for the month of August, Edma and I were eager to resume the copying routine we had begun in the spring, mastering the techniques that would enable us to reach our own artistic eminence.
* * *
"Think how glorious it will be to be celebrated, independent artists," I had whispered to Edma that morning as we left our home in Passy on the western edge of Paris, dressed in bonnets and short capes, toting palettes and paints. We traversed two worlds twice-weekly when we left our village of tile-roofed white houses and marched down the Trocadero Hill — rows of trees had replaced the windmills on the rue de Moulins — to catch a horse-drawn tram. Leaving behind open spaces and wide skies as the tram rattled on its tracks, we followed the curve of the Seine past bridges, barges docked at the quais, and solitary fishermen angling for a perch or a pike to take home for dinner.
"Think of how marriageable my accomplished daughters will be," came our mother's voice from behind as we stepped off the tram into the bustle of the Place de la Concorde. Maman escorted us between the golden-tipped Egyptian obelisk and the sea-themed fountain where naiads held fish spouting water into the large, lower stone basin. The upper basin was supported by figures personifying the arts, but we never lingered long enough for me to determine which writhing nude represented painting. I didn't want Maman to suspect my interest in the naked male form. So, eyes straight ahead, I marched on past les palais surrounding the square and rounded the corner on to the rue di Castiglione, where a gilded statue of Jeanne d'Arc sparkled in the morning sun.
We continued past the shops under the arcade along the long rue de Rivoli. First, Gagliani's Bookstore, that narrow shop with dark depths lined floor-to-ceiling in mahogany shelves and filled with tables piled high with still more books. Then we were enveloped in the intoxicating scent from the Chocolat Mexicain Masson — chocolate infused with cinnamon and cayenne — the only advantage to France's rule of Mexico that I could see.
I remembered when, as a child, we would only traverse this street by carriage, for fear of stepping in the sewage that had run down every road in Paris until a few years ago. Edma and I had made a game of scattering sofa cushions on our drawing room floor and jumping from one to the next, pretending that missing a cushion would land us in the sludge of a city street. Now the rue de Rivoli was wide, airy, and clean enough for fashionable people to cross. In fact, at that moment, a fastidiously attired flâneur strolled down the middle of the street. I observed his gray plaid trousers and double-breasted black frock coat with just enough cravat protruding above the top button to require a stick-pin. He was the height of fashion, although his umbrella and dainty shoes struck me as less than manly.
The flâneur stopped to contemplate a pretty flower vendor, a girl my age or perhaps younger. There were no match sellers to be found here in the elegant center of the city, and it was too early in the autumn for the roasted chestnut vendor, so this girl with her arms around a basket of posies and boutonnières had the broad boulevard to herself. The cuffs of her fresh white blouse were frayed, but her copper hair caught the shimmering sunshine, and in the Jardin de Tuileries the leaves of the plane trees behind her flickered in the breeze from green to gold like daubs of paint, creating an appealing portrait.
"A flower, monsieur?" she asked, her deferent tone edged with defiance.
He selected a flower and was sneaking a look down the flower girl's bodice as he positioned the gardenia — Maman had cautioned us that this was the most seductive of scents — on his lapel when we passed him.
"Hold your breath, girls," came Maman's voice, as if my conscience were speaking aloud.
The privilege afforded by position and education elevated a flâneur above a mere voyeur and made his opinions matter. What such an idle man observed as he strolled the city became fodder for café conversations, or perhaps even a perceptive essay in Le Monde. I wondered if this gentleman's keen insight also allowed him to discern the flower girl's uneasiness — she must have felt vulnerable, yet she needed to sell her wares. The nurse who aimed a disapproving glance at the flâneur as she pushed a baby carriage to the Tuileries did not have the same authority as my Maman, who walked close behind us to discourage advances.
Just past the Tuileries, we crossed the street to the arched side entrance to the Palais de Louvre. After signing the artists' roster at the museum, "Berthe Morisot" and "Edma Morisot," we turned left and passed through the pre-Classical Greek gallery, stepping with care in our leather-soled boots up the slippery marble stairs to the statue of the Winged Victory, then through endless, echoing rooms to the hush of the Great Gallery. Young men from the Academy were already positioned in front of the paintings they'd chosen to copy, industriously applying themselves, but we found two available easels in front of the Italian paintings. Edma and I prepared for our copying session as our mother, a discrete but watchful chaperone, found a chair behind a pillar close by. We slipped on our smocks, set up our small canvases, squeezed colors onto our paint-stained palettes, and set to work copying Titian's Woman with a Mirror.
That fine autumn morning, we had no way of knowing that this was the momentous day when we would meet the most renowned artist in Paris, Édouard Manet.
* * *
Henri Fantin-Latour had arrived soon after we did that morning, brandishing a print in the air. He was a young man a few years older than we were, whom we had met months before. Monsieur Guichard, our painting instructor, had introduced us on the first day we'd copied.
"Mesdemoiselles Morisot, behold my latest find," Fantin said. "A print by Utamaro. Now this is realism. A fresh view of everyday life with all unnecessary details stripped away." The Japanese artist had used the fewest lines possible to depict a woman brushing her long hair and had made no attempt to indicate the volume of the model. A black rectangle represented her hair and a white oval, her face. The only color accenting the print was the red of her lips. How strange that the spare woodblock print felt familiar, as if my most private hours in my boudoir were revealed by an artist half a world away.
Fantin and I stood behind Edma, who contined working. I examined the print, but Fantin couldn't take his eyes off my beautiful sister, although, as usual, he didn't speak to her directly.
"This is why we have disavowed l'École des Beaux Arts!" Fantin told the light tendrils trailing down the back of Edma's long neck. "The state school rewards clichÃ©d allegorical paintings and overlooks real life." He waved the Utamaro print at the ornate gilt-framed paintings that surrounded us, immense works peopled with Greek deities and swarming warriors who looked polished rather than painted. Some young men like Fantin were choosing to leave the school — the one Edma and I would have given anything to attend — to find new and original ways to paint.
"What does such nonsense have to do with life today?" Fantin railed.
Edma glanced up from her painting. "If that is how you feel, Monsieur Fantin," she asked in the measured tone she used to ensure that she offended no one, "why do you come to copy the Old Masters?" He blushed and looked away from Edma's hooded blue eyes, timid again after his outburst. "I must make a living. But on my own, I am exploring more immediate effects, as Manet does. Now there is a man who paints simply, as the eye sees."
Édouard Manet had become the idol of the younger artists when he had abandoned Academic style in favor of the hard edges of the great Spanish artists. Although propriety prohibited young women from viewing any of Manet's paintings, I longed to see them.
The intriguing Édouard Manet was gaining fame by breaking the rules for technique and subject matter, while I only got in trouble when I did the same. Edma was a far more meticulous copier than I was. I sometimes left out details like facial features if I felt like colors and shapes were the more compelling parts of the composition.
"Edma, did you know that Fantin has painted a portrait of the great Manet, surrounded by his acolytes?" I asked for Fantin to hear. I so envied his many freedoms that it was a cruel pleasure to tease him and watch him blush.
Fantin hung his head and mumbled. "My homage to the great draftsman."
"Edma?" I repeated. She sighed and leaned closer to her canvas because I was interrupting her concentration, so I stifled my question.
How was it that my sister's painting smock was spotless, while mine resembled a painting itself? And how did her coiffure remain perfect, while my dark curls tumbled down my neck no matter how many pins and ribbons I wove into them? Edma was only a year older than I, but I felt that I would never catch up to her.
I tried to focus on the work before me, as Edma did, but after Manet had arrived and positioned himself next to Fantin, I'd found myself observing him instead as he set to copying Tintoretto's self-portrait. Like Fantin, he too attacked his canvas, but with elegance. His long nose ended in flared nostrils that seemed to signal his intensity. If I hadn't know who he was, would I have suspected that this refined gentleman was the renegade who was taking on the art world with his own two hands? I tried to imagine having that kind of confidence. In truth, my Woman with a Mirror didn't look too bad. What if I got rid of the half-tones and gave the figures harder edges, as Manet was said to do? I outlined my Woman in black, and she became a cartoon. Oof!
Old Monsieur Guichard hobbled into the Great Gallery at that moment to gauge our progress, his shabby shoes squeaking a warning. He turned his pockmarked face so close to my work that I was suffocated by his sour breath when he asked, "How is Woman with a Mirror coming along?"
"Another woman trapped indoors!" I complained. "And notice, monsieur, a man-servant holding her mirror. Absurd! No man is allowed in the cloistered world of the toilette."
"That is beside the point. You are here to study the skin tones. Titian has made her flesh positively luminous ..."
"But the rest of the painting is all murky shadows." When Maman or my sisters were at their toilette, everything seemed full of light. It reflected off the mirrors, the lacquered cosmetic cases, the glittering silver hairbrushes, the crystal bud vases. And it was as soft as their billowing white lace peignoirs, their powder puffs, the rustle of silk, and our whispered gossip. I could conjure up the scent of lavender water even in that cold, marble gallery.
"Surely you are not criticizing one of the Masters," he grumbled. It was not the first time that I had exasperated Monsieur Guichard. He wanted us to study a painting for hours upon hours without forming any opinion about it, yet another in a growing list of prohibitions that I found difficult to obey.
"I think I would like to try painting something different," I retorted, still thinking of my sisters. "Is that a crime?"
"It is a crime, of a sort." It appeared to be costing our teacher great effort to keep his voice low in the hushed gallery, but he couldn't help but throw his hands in the air and demand, "Who are you to think you can improve on Titian?"
Put that way, I sounded proud and vain. But I was an expert in one area, so I shrugged my shoulders and pronounced, "I am a girl who knows more about the private lives of women than any master could."
Monsieur Guichard snorted and turned to Maman. "Madame Morisot, may I have a word with you?" He pulled a chair close to Maman's behind the pillar and lowered his voice, but he was near enough that I could still hear him.
"I've been meaning to talk with you, madame, to warn you ..." Maman folded her newspaper and held it to one side so that no ink would stain the skirt of her aubergine-striped taffeta day gown. "Warn me of what?"
"With characters such as your daughters possess, my teaching will make them painters, not minor amateur talents."
Guichard thought that we were good enough to become professional artists! My pride was tempered by my fear that his warning might lead to Maman putting an end to our painting lessons.
But she only laughed in the manner that charmed men.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?" Guichard sputtered. "In your world, it would be a revolution. I would even say a catastrophe."
"Surely you exaggerate. There are no geniuses in my family, nor my husband's. Painting gives my girls pleasure. They will be the most cultivated of wives and mothers — certainly not a catastrophic outcome, monsieur." She snapped her newspaper open again. Guichard understood that he was excused, and he shuffled out of the gallery, shaking his head.
One moment Fantin was tilted toward his painting, his upturned nose almost touching his canvas and his lank hair hanging over the collar of his ill-fitting suit, but the instant that Monsieur Guichard left the gallery, Fantin stepped forward to introduce Manet to our mother. At thirty-eight, Cornélie Morisot was still a slender, fashionable beauty, with Edma's light hair and seductive eyes, capable of fascinating the stodgiest politician — or the most disreputable roué.
I listened to Manet's deep voice. I couldn't make out his words, but they were followed by Maman's melodic, lilting laughter. "It will be my great pleasure to make your mother's acquaintance," she said. The Manet name was well known in Paris. Édouard Manet's father was a magistrate and a judge, and his mother was the god-daughter of the crown prince of Sweden.
I thought of what Maman would want me to do and willed myself not to turn to witness this polite but profound social transaction. What luck that we were friends with Fantin, who could provide a formal introduction to the most promising artist in Paris! I didn't know to what event this meeting might lead, but I intended to be the belle of that particular ball.
Absorbed in my fantasy of winning Manet's attention, I failed to notice that Fantin had crept up behind me. "Mesdesmoiselles," he said in his most proper diction. "Allow me to introduce Monsieur Édouard Manet." I swung around on my stool, discerning the faint scent of lilacs amid the odor of oil paints around us.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "La Luministe"
Copyright © 2019 Paula Butterfield.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
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