The cavernous ceilings and rows of statues in the foyer loomed dauntingly. The woman in charge, a volunteer apparently, from her dress and manner, was packed into layers of silk. Above the dress her flesh was well-fed zinc white warmed with a drop of rose madder. She could have been cut out of a painting in the next room. “And you are?” she asked Paul.
Paul told her his name, the name of his painting and the number that had been assigned to it. She walked along a row of heaped canvases, finally stopped, and indicated to a servant to lift one down and bring it to Paul.
Half a minute passed before he understood: his painting had been refused. His heart stumbled. Should he accept the jury’s appraisal? He’d asked for their judgement and would have gladly accepted a favorable decision. Was he lying to himself? He called up an image of the picture and mentally examined the colors and brush strokes.
“But how could they have rejected it?” he protested, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. “It is exquisite.” He started ripping the brown paper from a corner. The woman’s mouth opened in dismay, as if he’d started unbuttoning his trousers.
“What you say makes no sense,” she said with a little puff of air. “Your painting cannot be exquisite. The salon jury has rejected it. They are the arbiters of beauty. What they accept is beautiful; what they reject is not.”
The woman was just the messenger. There was no point in arguing with her. Outside, snow had started, bright points of lead white; a few street lamps were lit – splashes of cadmium yellow that changed the other colors – ochre granite, ecru cobblestones, yellow white straw, bluish white frost on muddy puddles, shadows like otter pelts, only colder. The trees were limned with frost, delicate strokes of white outlining each twig. Shopkeepers were closing up. Some customers remained, looking in windows, avoiding the urchins with grimy faces and eyes bruise-grey with hunger. A young man sauntered past, fashionably dressed with a girl on his arm, with hair like a splotch of Naples yellow – bright as the street lamps.
Paul touched the man’s arm. “Excuse me, Sir. You look like a man of taste. Would you like to buy a painting?” He ripped the covering from his work. The man pulled away, shook his head, bending protectively around the girl.
Paul tried another, older fellow, big, red-faced and prosperous. Paul mentioned a price, a little higher than he was willing to accept, hoping the man bargain and both would be satisfied with a compromise.
The man laughed, slapped his thigh, and offered one tenth of Paul’s price. “I could put it in the jakes,” he said. “My customers would enjoy pissing on it.”
Paul pulled the paper back over his picture – to protect it from the snow and the sneers. Then he closed his eyes, determined not to be swayed by the powerful businessman’s vision of his work.
After a few more failed attempts to make a sale, Paul gave up, crossed the river and trudged the last couple of miles towards the small apartment he shared with his family. The room smelled like mutton and garlic. Mathilde had the baby on her hip. Her loosely tied hair was a nice warm brown–mummy brown perhaps, if he could afford it–with red hints that echoed the fire and the copper pot. Little Jacques was playing in a corner. Paul’s brother, Etienne, sat at the large wooden table smoking.
Etienne and Mathilde glanced at each other quickly and then back at Paul. There was something between them, he realized. Nothing physical, just a sympathy that pleased and discomfited him at the same time.
“What happened about your painting, Papa?” Jacques asked.
He hesitated, disinclined to tell them about the Salon.
“Oh, Paul,” Mathilde murmured, coming close and pressing against him. She touched the hand that still gripped the painting.
Then she drew back. “They’re just snobs,” she said stoutly. “They don’t like your pictures because they show ordinary working people, not those fat bourgeoisie they like to hang in those stuffy halls.”
He looked at her with gratitude.
“How about the market?” she asked. “Did you try to sell it there? People there aren’t so stuck up?”
He closed his eyes. “They didn’t want it there either.”
She sighed, shook her head and moved back to the stove, ladling out a bowl of soup. Not much meat in it, he noticed.
“Don’t you think…” she said tentatively, glancing in Etienne’s direction. Had they discussed this? “Don’t you think, perhaps, you should consider giving up painting?”
He frowned and bent his head. How was it possible to push on if even she lost faith in him?
“The paints alone…” she was saying, “cost the equivalent of a month’s food. And each canvas costs more than a child’s coat.”
He tensed, tightening his fists.
His anger angered her, giving her the excuse to let out what she’d been holding in check. “You’re no good at this. Can’t you see that?”
“I am,” he asserted with more conviction than he felt. “My painting is beautiful.”
“It’s not,” she said. “Beautiful means what people like, what people will buy. If they don’t want it, it’s not beautiful.”
He shook his head. “Those people are not the arbiters of taste. They’re crass.” He thought of the dapper man with the blonde, and the crimson-faced tavern owner.
Mathilde glanced in Etienne’s direction. He shrugged, reluctant to come between husband and wife. But when her fierce look insisted, he shifted and opened his mouth. “You’re not suggesting that you are the arbiter of taste, are you, Paul?” Etienne asked cautiously. “Because Jacques here —” He gestured vaguely towards Paul’s six year old son, who grinned at the attention.
“No,” Paul said bitterly. “No, I am not the arbiter – any more than Jacques is or the salon judges or the louts in the market are. I could be wrong just as they are wrong.”
He spoke too loudly. A long stunned silence followed his outburst, during which Jacques crept behind Etienne’s chair.
“Then how can you be so sure?” Mathilde asked finally.
Paul looked to his brother for help. “Don’t you see it, Etienne?”
Etienne shrugged. “I’m sorry. I think beauty is a chimera, a hoax. A child’s full belly. That’s worth working and fighting for. But beauty, I don’t see it.”
Paul hit the table with his fist. “You have seen it, Etienne. In the Louvre. The Rembrandts, the Vermeers, Pieter Breughal’s landscapes.” He leaned forward, willing his brother to remember. Etienne’s face moved uncertainly. It was difficult to argue with a Rembrandt. “And here,” Paul added, unveiling his own painting. “I see hints of it here.”
Etienne laughed uncertainly. He must think Paul was joking. “But,” he said cautiously, “Surely the paintings in the Salon are more like Rembrandt than this is?”
Paul shook his head. “Superficially – in the way a dressmaker’s dummy is like a woman. My paintings – I believe, I hope – resemble Rembrandt’s in the way a girl child resembles a woman. Their outward appearance is different, but they share life and feeling and movement.”
His brother shook his head, unconvinced but too gentle to argue.
Little Jacques climbed into Etienne’s lap. “You’ve got to see it, Papa. You’re just not good at it.” Paul glanced sharply at Mathilde. Jacques continued, “You haven’t even filled in all the spaces and the color’s wrong.”
“Out of the mouths of babes,” she muttered.
“His mouth, your words,” Paul said, moving towards the door. “I’m going out for a while.” She didn’t respond. “Come with me, Etienne,” he added.
Etienne disengaged himself from Jacques and followed his older brother. The two walked in silence through the cold streets, Paul trying to think of what to say to convince Etienne. A simple man, he could make only clumsy strokes with words; but when he picked up a paintbrush… then he felt powerful bones and flesh pushing out from his shoulder blades: wings that could beat the air and carry him towards the sun.
They passed a young woman on a street corner with warm brown hair and long narrow curves, her mouth a dash of vermillion. Paul thought of his wife. Apparently his brother did too. “It’s hard on Mathilde,” Etienne murmured. “When I cross you, it’s for her sake.”
Paul nodded and said nothing until they sat opposite each across a wooden table in a tavern, two glasses of burgundy glinting darkly between them.
“You like her, don’t you?” Paul asked.
Etienne blushed. “Who’d you mean?”
“You know who I mean. Mathilde, my wife.”
Etienne blinked and twisted his hands. “I would never…”
“That’s not what I asked.” Paul said firmly. “I asked if you liked her, if you desire her.”
Etienne swallowed. “She’s a fine woman. Of course I admire her.”
Paul was surprised that he felt no resentment at this admission. “If I were gone, would you be a husband to her, do you think?” Etienne shifted uncomfortably. “I mean, if I were to give you my blessing,” Paul added.
“In a moment–if she’d have me,” Etienne answered breathlessly.
“And you’d care for the children?”
“Yes. I love them like my own already.”
Paul remembered how Jacques had scrambled into his uncle’s lap and pressed his face against the dark beard.
They drank and smiled together. Then Etienne slammed down his glass. “You’re not thinking of doing anything crazy, are you?”
Paul shrugged. “Define crazy.”
“Throwing yourself into the Seine?” he asked, gripping Paul’s arm.
Paul laughed and shook his head. “God, no. I’m no suicide.”
“Oh?” Etienne cocked his head. “What then?”
“I love Mathilde and the little ones.” Paul held his wineglass up to the light, watching the iridescent colors cavorting in the candlelight. “But there’s something I love even more.”
Etienne’s eyes narrowed. “Another woman?”
“No…” Paul watched the two old men in the corner, noting the different blacks of their clothes and pipes: green black on the cloak, grey black mixed with silver in their hair, black on their teeth and nails, their cheeks etched with charcoal lines, touched with hints of candlelight. They looked like Rembrandt’s Matthew and the angel. “That chimera you mentioned over dinner.”
Etienne frowned and touched his forehead. “Beauty?” he finally remembered.
“You’re a bloody fool, Paul.”
“I know it exists, Etienne, even if I can’t prove it, and I believe – I hope – I can catch it.”