Read The Emperor of Paris Online

Authors: C. S. Richardson

Tags: #Historical

The Emperor of Paris (15 page)

BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
5.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Jacob worked, erased, and reworked a series of creases where the brocade fell away from the mound of a large stomach. Next to him sat another student, the one everyone called the Barbarian.

Your work is good, mi amigo. Though I think you might be trying too hard.

Something isn’t right, Jacob said. I can’t seem to find it.

Perhaps that something is not you. Perhaps it is what you are trying to draw.

Jacob peeked at the Barbarian’s table. The sheet of paper was blank.

What are you waiting for? Jacob said.

Something interesting, mi amigo. The Barbarian put aside his table and approached the model.

In your place, monsieur, the master said. The Barbarian whispered in the model’s ear, then took one of the man’s arms from behind his head and draped it across his eyes.

Monsieur!

The Barbarian thanked the model, returned to his chair and began to draw. Jacob watched as the beginnings of a face quickly emerged. Not a fold or crease of brocade appeared on the paper.

We are supposed to be practising drapery, Jacob said.

That I can see, said the Barbarian.

Jacob introduced himself. You are the first person to ever say my work is good.

It is certainly better than our master’s over there, Jacob. And it is certainly better than mine. The name is Carlos.

I thought you were el Bárbaro, Jacob said.

For the masters I am the Barbarian. For you I am simply Carlos, trying to be an artist like you.

You still haven’t drawn any fabric.

But what you cannot see is more interesting, do you not think? For me what is hidden, like our model’s face, is the swirl of cape to a bull.

A bull?

Or a barbarian, if you will.

Jacob cleared his throat. A portrait, mademoiselle?

Isabeau checked the lock of hair hanging across her cheek. She did not look up.

I don’t think so, monsieur.

I could use the practice, Jacob said.

I am sorry, no. Thank you.

From afar, mademoiselle. I will keep my distance, there, under the trees. I can sketch you as you read. You won’t be disturbed.

Isabeau looked up. Her hair moved from her face to reveal a hint of profile, a glimpse of a scar. No, she said.

Jacob had not eaten in days. He couldn’t waste the midday light touting something that would not sell, but his stomach pushed him on.

It will take so little of your time, mademoiselle.

Isabeau’s face was set in anger, fighting back tears.

Jacob shrugged. And cost you almost nothing.

Isabeau lowered her book to her lap as Jacob turned to leave. She looked at Jacob’s clothes, the rags hanging off his shoulders, the frayed cuffs of his trousers. Again she touched the lock of her hair. After a moment, she wiped her eyes and called after him.

Very well, monsieur. On condition.

Jacob suggested she might lower her chin. Your cheek will hide in the shadow, mademoiselle. I assure you. It is a very alluring pose.

Isabeau shifted in the chair and lowered her head. Her hair fell in a soft curve. Jacob held up his hand.

There. Please hold still.

One eye looked back at him.

He began a simple oval, leaning to one side. Then a midline. And a line for the eyes, one for the mouth, another for the nose. Jacob sharpened her jaw, hollowed the visible cheek. One side of the oval he left blank. He would fill the shadow later.

A fine start, mademoiselle.

Isabeau’s visible eye next. Dark and set deep in the socket: returning the viewer’s stare and glistening.

As he worked Jacob asked if she was enjoying her book.

I am not, Isabeau said. It is trying very hard to explain the Cubists.

Theirs is a different approach, mademoiselle.

Isabeau lifted her face. A difficult one, you mean.

Head down please. Difficult?

Distorted, said Isabeau. Unrecognizable, undisciplined. Like the work of an amateur.

I see, mademoiselle. Should art be recognizable?

It should resemble something.

What does your book think?

Isabeau fanned the pages and stopped at a painting. She showed the page to Jacob. He studied the image and returned to his work. Isabeau read aloud.

Consider
Portrait of Love.
Here the viewer is presented
with an enormous head, we can assume a female’s, bursting with angles, thrusts and textures
.

A fair definition of the movement, mademoiselle. Though perhaps somewhat vague. Does your book mention how the Cubists use their colour?

Isabeau continued reading.
The raw oranges and reds and greens prove an eloquent simile for the ceremonial masks and warrior shields of tribal—

They do love the primitive, Jacob said.

—Africa, rendered as simple planes and geometric shapes, bordered in thick black line, composed to offer an incisive portrait of a three-dimensional object within the confining flatness of paint and canvas
.

Jacob smiled. There it is, mademoiselle. We are meant to see everything at once. The Cubists are known for hiding nothing. Putting on display everything that can be seen, and more importantly, that cannot be seen. Emotional beauty is what they are after, in all its perspectives.

But I see no beauty here, Isabeau said.

The title may offer a clue, Jacob said.

Portrait of Love
?

Jacob stopped drawing. Think of the artist, mademoiselle.

I suppose he has painted his lover.

Why not his passion?

How can we see another’s emotion?

We can imagine it, Jacob said. Picture the artist standing at his easel, consumed by the woman sitting before him. He loses control. He cannot get the colours off his brush fast enough. He paints, you might say, like an amateur. He pays no attention to anatomy, to perspective, to scale. What appears on the canvas is unrecognizable to us. But to him it is what is in his head, in his heart, in his belly.

But wouldn’t his inspiration be her physical beauty? Isabeau said. Why not paint that? Why not render it truthfully, down to the finest detail?

Who is to say he did not, mademoiselle?

No one wants to look at ugliness.

Is it so ugly, so amateurish as you say, or simply a passionate view? Consider a stained glass window, mademoiselle. It is crafted by a man who knows nothing about art. Moreover he has never witnessed a miracle, no angel has ever appeared above his bed, he wouldn’t recognize God if he passed Him on the street. And yet faith fills his heart. That thing he cannot see, that passion, fires his imagination and guides his glass cutter.

And I suppose we look up from our pews and see heaven, Isabeau said.

Or the recognizable, mademoiselle.

——

Jacob brushed away bits of eraser. He moved to turn his sketchbook around and reveal his work. Isabeau raised her hand and looked away. Thank you for the conversation, she said.

She handed him a few coins. Please keep the sketch, monsieur. I know what I look like.

 

The crowd reluctantly begins to melt away.

The poor man will have to sleep in the cellar, someone says.

At least the bakery wasn’t harmed, someone replies. We will still have our breads.

His father did his share of sleeping in the cellar, after the war and all.

The apple doesn’t fall far.

He is a strong one, our man. He’ll be back at the ovens in no time.

The holiday will cheer him up.

It will cheer us all up.

By mid-week the neighbourhood women will be dancing belly to belly, a Savoy swing being the rage of the summer. Their men will toast their bicycle gods and their cabaret lovelies and sing themselves hoarse. Their children will perform handstands and balancing tricks, pull monster faces and roller skate through the dancers.

In the evening the garlands of flags will droop to the street, the light bulbs flickering on to burn themselves out in all the excitement. Below the dripping ruins of the cake-slice there will be more dancing, more dreams of breaking from the peloton in the last fifty metres to win the Tour, more imaginings of tempting hips and firm breasts, each curve and nipple revealed on the stage through soft feathers and small Japanese fans.

The old man with the thick spectacles might find the baker sitting in front of the Boulangerie Notre-Dame, watching the celebrations. They might share a glass of wine, or talk of rebuilding a library. The baker’s foot might unconsciously keep time with the music.

If fortune is kind to this corner of the eighth, such will be their holiday. Bastille Day, 1938.

 

J
acob opened his sketching book.

A man with a meticulous goatee, wearing the overalls of a factory worker from the
banlieue
, captured in mid-stride as he pulls on a leash. His pet—a rabbit fat enough for the pot, ears dragging on the ground, legs digging in—resists at the other end as the pair take a turn under the trees. In the drawing the detail is minuscule: a steady hand at work. One could have plucked individual hairs from the reluctant animal’s tail.

A woman in clumsy makeup leans against a lantern post, playing something on her accordion. A well-dressed
man, arms and legs frozen in a dancer’s pose, bows to drop a coin in the cup at her feet. At a glance one might think his limbs had been dislocated. A closer look reveals a graceful line from shoulder to fingertip, as if he once might have stood in a spotlight, shading his eyes in search of the balconies, the audience calling for one more progression across the stage.

On a bench a girl wears a crown of spring flowers. She sits wrapping bunches of twigs with lengths of ribbon. The baskets around her are filled with lavender. The handwritten sign hanging from her neck suggests
a fragrant bouquet makes a welcoming home
. The curl of the ribbons will need more definition in the final drawing.

A black man, his pomaded grey hair sharply parted, wears the threadbare remains of a tuxedo. He sits in a child’s chair with a plank across his knees, the rough wood painted to resemble piano keys. The drawing has frozen the moment as the fellow raises his long fingers above the board, waiting for the conductor’s baton, ready to flourish a dramatic opening scale through the low notes.

Three Oriental gentlemen in three top hats and three morning suits, with three boutonnières in three lapels, confer near the garden’s ornate entry gates. Two of them wave their walking sticks in opposite directions; the third consults a map. A generous handling of
heavy pencil, together with strokes of eraser, renders the silk hatbands with such realism that the drawing could pass for a photograph.

A boy in short trousers, polished boots and straw hat is perched on the edge of the boat pond. He cradles a sailboat in his arms, the vessel in full sail, as long as he is tall. The mainmast tricolour flutters in an unseen breeze. The boy peeks at the viewer from under his master’s cap. His eyes are sure, his grin proud, his freckles abundant.

A Tuileries groundsman rests against the plinth of a statue lighting his afternoon smoke. His rake leans beside him. Theseus and the Minotaur are an exacting pencil study of straining muscle and certain death. They ignore the groundsman and the cloud of smoke around his head as they grapple on their perch above him.

Jacob Kalb closed his book, the dream taste of a rabbit stew lingering in his mouth. Another week’s work. There were no buyers.

Thick fog settled along the river. Those passing the bookstalls, chins tucked into collars, were hurrying somewhere else.

Somewhere warm and dry, Henri Fournier thought. He shifted on his stool, pulled his father’s coat around his shoulders and looked up and down the quay. He lifted his grandfather’s book from the stall.

Vague and lost, Henri
.

Henri laid the book on the pavement.

Left on the verso. Right on the recto
.

And placed a foot on each page.

Gently, Henri. As weightless as feathers now
.

Henri pushed his sleeves to his elbows, spread his arms, raised his face to the sky and closed his eyes.

He saw himself walking on eggs, curling his toes over the cool white shells. The eggs dissolved into sand. He was at the edge of the sea, the waves eroding the beach under his feet, sinking them into the warm muck. Another wave slipped up the shore and circled his ankles. He heard the rasp of a voice. Excuse me, it said. He looked down to watch the ooze slide away, loosen its grip, ready to release him into the air. The voice coughed.

Excuse me, monsieur.

Henri opened an eye. Dark bloodshot eyes sunk in wrinkled sockets stared back at him.

Yes? Henri said.

My apologies, monsieur.

It came to Henri. You’re the painter, aren’t you? From the bridge.

Jacob extended a quivering hand. The name is Kalb, he said. And yes, the bridge has been home for a while now.

There are worse places, I suppose, Henri said. Can I interest you in something? My stock is a little out of date I’m sorry to say, but I think I could recommend a title or two.

I am somewhat short of funds at the moment, Jacob said. Actually, I thought I might sell you something.

But that is
my
job, Monsieur Kalb. Selling, you see.

And how is business? Jacob said, attempting a smile.

Henri raised an eyebrow. It could be better. And yours? The art goes well, does it?

I mostly do portraits. For people in the Tuileries. I manage a few coins now and then.

Henri thought he could smell something foul. He scanned Jacob’s clothes. I see, he said.

But lately I’ve been doing work for my own pleasure, Jacob said. To break the monotony of all those faces, you understand.

Perfectly, Henri said. He knew a lie when he heard one. He imagined there hadn’t been a face willing to sit in some time.

I was wondering if you might be interested in selling them, Jacob said.

Alas, monsieur, I am not in the art business.

The ladies on your postcards might say otherwise, monsieur—?

Fournier. Booksellers since the dawn of time.

BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
5.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

An Undisturbed Peace by Glickman, Mary;
The Italian Girl by Lucinda Riley
Rus Like Everyone Else by Bette Adriaanse
Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark