Delacroix in Love
I woke up in the morning speaking French and found that Pascal had came back, his left ear bent, like a furry maple leaf. I tried to straighten it but he pinched me with his needle teeth. He had been gone for over two weeks. I had plastered everywhere his photo and my number and a promise of a reward but no one ever called.
At first my French was just a few phrases sliced into the English. “Such a beautiful day now that’s Pascal’s back home,” I said over breakfast to my still sleepy wife, « N’est-ce pas? »
“I told you he’d be back,” the wife said.
« Oui, c’est ça. »
“What’s with the frog talk all of a sudden?”
« J’sais pas, » I said with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders.
“It’s annoying. Quit it.”
The odd thing was that I had never studied French or had been to France or any francophone country. I regularly watched French movies at one of the few remaining art theatres in the city but never bothered to join the actor’s voices with the subtitles and thus I learned nothing of how to speak in that sex soaked language where a noun sounds like a flirtation. I liked French but I also enjoyed hearing Italian and Spanish and German but I did not wake up one morning speaking them.
My wife had left me some months ago to live with a man who owned a small but successful taxi fleet that sped though the fancier regions of the Hamptons. I had met him a few times at parties and benefits under summer tents. I liked his red pants and tasseled moccasins and that he said, “If you ever need a cab, use my name with the dispatcher.”
“He just got divorced,” my wife whispered at the punch bowl after he had turned to a woman who called out the man’s name in capitals. “He’s interested in buying one of your paintings. I told him they were great.”
I was happy when she left me and was unhappy when she returned, each feeling cancelling out the other so I was left neither happy nor unhappy but with a strange sense of benign resignation.
Every other Sunday, Delacroix put aside his work, spruced up and went to the gare Montparnasse to meet the woman he loved. The little train from Auvers-sur-Oise always deposited her on time, and he was always there waiting for her on time.
“Your regularity amazes me. If I didn’t know you were such a great artist I would have taken you for an accountant or a bureaucrat.”
“I take this as a great compliment,” he said. “I had always wanted to be a lawyer and arrange wills and divorces. Until my parents forced me to become an artist.”
The lovers often strolled about the Luxembourg garden and lunched nearby, sur la terrace, if the weather allowed. By late afternoon they were at his apartment drinking mint tea, the cup packed with dark mint leaves and thick with sugar, the way it was prepared in Morocco, he told her. They eventually made their way to his lumpy bed, where they lingered until Sunday evening, when she returned home to her unhappy mother. She lived the whole week waiting for her Sunday. They were in love and would marry when he had sufficient income to provide for them both and for another or two should they be so blessed. She was 23; he 44 and she would wait.
Sometimes they spent their Sunday afternoons with his closest friend, Charles Soulier, a surgeon, whom Delacroix had known since university days. The three might take a train as far as St Cloud and, in the ancient park of old oak trees, picnic under the cobalt sky. There, on a carpet of wine bottles and a wicker basket of fruit and chesses and a roasted chicken, Charles lamented that he found medicine boring and his wealthy patients and their phantom ills beyond boring and that he wished he could live as interestingly as did his friend and, like him, go off to Morocco and paint its exotic people still untouched by violent machines and corrupting progress.
She laughed. “Do you think Eugene has an interesting life? Until I met him I thought artists were wild and lived in cafes and brothels, when they were not dabbling with paint.”
“It’s the doctor here who has what you imagine the artist’s life,” Delacroix said. “He carves up people in the morning, sleeps all day and has half the women in Paris charging his bed at night.”
“You call that a life?” the doctor said. “If only one day I could meet a woman as vivid and beautiful as you, Clothide.”
“Search for a woman with whom you can have happiness in your life, ” Clothide advised.
“I would find happiness if you had a twin.”
“I want to write a book on artists and their travels,” I said, my mind filled with Delacroix’s letters—and his journals—which I thought were as moving as his paintings.
“Save your time for painting,” my wife said. “There are hundreds of books like that.”
“I’m sure. But I want to sort out the art that is an elevated travelogue from that which is pure art.”
“Now there’s something, a book that will explain what is pure art.”
“Think of it, before photography artists always went to faraway places to market exotic scenes to people back home—Delacroix’s Morocco paintings, for example.”
“Exotic pornography,” she said. “Half naked slave girls in harems, I’m sure that sold like hot cakes in Delacroix’s time.”
“Why do hot cakes sell so well?”
“It’s just an expression.”
“Sure, but what is a hot cake?”
When I looked up, she was gone. But Pascal had leapt to the table and ate a slice of smoked salmon right off the plate. My wife never would have allowed that, but he knew I was a sucker for all his desires.
“What do you think of my idea, Pascal, I know you were listening?”
He curled himself on the table and let out a fishy yawn. I noticed that in speaking with Pascale I spoke English, his only language.
“All those artists on the move, Pascal. Imagine what a schlep it was for Gauguin to get to Tahiti or Delacroix to Morocco? Makes you wonder. Of course, there are the stay-at-homes, Monet and his garden, Pollack and his paint splattered floor in the Springs. See what I mean, Pascal? They didn’t have to travel an inch from home.”
I heard my wife rumbling upstairs in her bedroom and wondered if she was unpacking or packing to leave again. She appeared minutes later.
“Are you ever going to speak to me in English?” She was in blue shorts and a fetching red halter; her cork soled platform shoes sported blueberries on the straps tied above her ankles. I looked at her for a full long minute. She smiled.
« Peut-être, » I said, in what I thought was a flirty way.
“Your cat peed in my bed while I was gone.”
“He must been claiming it as his after you left,” I wrote in my notebook as she read over my shoulder.
“I invited some people to come over to see your paintings, so please stop fooling around with the French stuff.”
« D’accord. »
The French windows opened to the patio, which stopped at a pool nestled against a wooden fence. Beyond the fence were scrub bushes and trees and a path that lead to the ocean. I could hear the ocean at night and was grateful I was on land. I hated travel by sea; hated it by land or air.
I had named him when he was still in his litter. I knew right away we were made to be friends. And later, when he was just some months old, I was proven right when he started his long sits by the bay window that fronted the open sky. I knew that like me he was a daydreamer and not a voyager. Hence, I named him after the French philosopher who asked God to give him the patience to sit.
“It’s so pretentious to call a cat Pascal,” my wife had said. “It embarrasses me. What’s wrong with Tom, or Tiger, or Jake?”
She addressed him by all of those names. He gave her his yawn of indifference and retreated to me. It was after that that he began his peregrinations. Or maybe he had sat long enough and thought to see a bit of the world before he died. I once got a call from the movie house in Southampton saying that after the last show, when they were cleaning up, they had found Pascal sleeping in the rear with a dead mouse between his teeth. How had he gotten there, a walk of twelve miles from my house?
He once took to the road, my little hitchhiker, and was picked up by a couple on their way to Florida who thought that he was abandoned by summer people. They called me a week after when they discovered his nametag buried under his burr and leaf coated neck. I had to fly to Naples, Florida to bring him home. He was silent the entire 14 hour drive back, even though I spoke to him in the most affectionate way.
I walked to my studio and examined the paintings hung along the walls: Sailboats in a race, their spinnakers billowing; fishing boats in a high sea cast in a silvery, moon thick sky. I sold well at the less known local galleries and as far afield as Martha’s Vineyard and Kent, Connecticut. For a time, I painted the show horses of people who wanted their equine world immortalized. I was always in demand and could have painted horses until I died and I would have died with a plus in my estate. But the sea and its implied adventures, its high romance is what I went for and stayed with, as long as I did not have to board a watery craft.
Over the years I had made friends with famous artists in an area known for famous artists. I was never anxious about their fame or that my work was in radical contrast to theirs. I was pleased with what I did and that was all that mattered to me or all that I let matter. I had been asked many times by my artist friends to show them my work but I was too shy to invite them to my studio until one said, “Nicolas, let your friends see who you are.”
I did. And there was always a little chill after that whenever we met at dinner parties. “Nicolas is trying to drag painting back to the nineteenth century,” I heard one of them had said.
Pascal came in and circled my ankles three times and let out a little cry of hello. I lifted him into my arms and walked him about the studio. He had always been my most appreciative audience.
“Pascal,” I said. “Are you going to leave me again?”
The moment I said that I realized that for him the unknown streets he prowled were his oasis and his desert sands. The females he met in dark alleyways were his mobile harem, for him to choose among day or night. In retrieving him from his wanderings time and time again, what adventures had I deprived him of?
I heard voices and sure enough it was my wife and her guests. The man was wearing green pants and red tasseled moccasins and a plaid shirt open at his suntanned, gray-haired chest; the woman with him had the face of a grilled wallet.
“I need something for my dining room,” he said, after we shook hands and “I don’t want something trendy that anyone can get at Gagosian or Zwirner”
« Oui, je comprend. »
“Is your husband French?” she asked.
“He lived in France a long time,” my wife said, “and sometimes he lapses into the language.”
He stopped before a painting of a schooner at dusk turning in the wind and a white-capped sea. The last rays of the sun gleamed off the stern.
“There is much melancholy here,” he said. “A wistfulness.”
“Merci,” I said, touched.
“You are the schooner at its last light, n’est-ce pas?”
« Justament, » I said. « Vous avez tout compris. »
With my painting under his arm, he took me aside as they were leaving and said, “Your wife still loves you. She just needed a fling.”
Once he was back from Morocco, Delacroix ceased his travels. Many of his very few friends noticed that ever since his return from “the land of the sun,” as he called Morocco, he had grown ever more reclusive. He invented absurd excuses to avoid accepting dinner invitations—my shoes walked off during the night—but the invitations
grew with his increasing fame. He ate alone, one meal a day in the early evening and took to bed at an hour when others were stirring to leave their houses for a party or to a dinner with friends. To a close friend, who had lamented that she longed to see him, Delacroix wrote: “Passion cannot give one lasting well-being. That lies only within oneself. The only real satisfaction I feel is with work.” The friend was surprised by these words as she had only asked Delacroix to dine with her and her husband before the month was out. And she was even more surprised when she read: “When a man has lost love he has lost everything.”
No one knew what had caused the change in him; that secret Delacroix kept to himself.
In his months away in Morocco, the call to prayer from the mosques that reached to the clouds, the steeds and their riders racing between the beach’s edge and the ocean’s spume, the round women and their soft eyes, the gardens of jasmine dizzying the air, all had impregnated him but had not covered the space where Clothide lived.
They had met a week after he returned from Tangiers and took their walk in the Luxembourg Gardens and lunched at their favorite café, went to his apartment and drank mint tea and sank into his lumpy bed. But something had changed. She cried at the train station when he had come to meet her, she had teared up during their garden walk and at lunch, and she wept in bed. At first he had thought that the emotion of seeing him after his long absence had brought on all these tears, and he was flattered at the salty evidence that she loved him so greatly. He, himself, looked at her with moist, adoring eyes.
At breakfast the next morning, more of the same. Until he asked, “My dear, what is the matter?”
“It was not his fault,” she said. “Nor mine. It was that we both missed you so much.”
It was rare to read a letter with such dignity and sadness, I thought, after reading it twice. I read it aloud to Pascal the third time while he was on my lap and he feigned some interest before he went to sleep. It was to Delacroix’s dearest friend, Charles Soulier whom he now addressed in the formal “vous.”
“You treated as a passing moment, without repercussion, what for me completely had filled by heart and soul.” He added, “Fabricate for our friends a reason why we no longer see each other.” I wonder what he wrote or had said to Clothide, whom he never saw again.
He caught colds and many of his letters refer to his long stays in bed. He poured his ailments into his correspondence and, as he grew older, his letters grew ever more warm and feeling full and at points almost confessional, as if their distance allowed him the safety to open his heart. To Georges Sand, he wrote, “Let us love one another, then, with or without fame. It’s not your fame I love, it’s yourself.”
His letters kept him warm and his paintings kept him active but, for all that, he spent the rest of his life in bed, alone.
My wife was by the pool, a drink in hand. She smiled. She raised her glass in a salute of celebration. “I knew he would like your paintings.”
« Oui, il me semble qu’on a le même goût. »
I moved toward the house and then toward the studio and then went toward the garage and then back to the studio where I studied my paintings. I did not hate them and I did not love them but they had left me. They had gone from me along with English, my own language, and with the painting under the arm of my wife’s lover.
What if I left, as had Pascal so many times, without a word or a sign, and took the first plane to anywhere and just lived, whatever that meant. Now that I spoke French, why not live in Paris, where I could sit in a café packed with poets and artists and their models, who forever loved them, even committing suicide after their deaths? I could paint the Seine and Notre Dame with its rosette window; I could paint the Luxembourg garden, I could paint the Paris that I had only known in the movies and in photographs and bring the city to a life that it had never before known. I could take Pascal with me. He could learn French easily and a new universe would open up to him, to us.
I went to get Pascal’s travel box in the attic. It was dusty. As soon as he saw it, he fled under my bed. It was a struggle to extract him but I finally won and urged him into the cage. I put the box on the seat beside me and drove though town to where I had once found him basking under a staircase that led to the beach. He had looked disappointed but let me take him home; he had been at large only two weeks but had already assumed a grizzled, feral look of vast independence. I opened the box; he stalked away, looked about and, on his own volition, slid back into the box.
Then I hit on a new idea. I drove to the East Hampton train station and let him out on the platform. I removed and pocketed his nametag. I picked him up and gave him a hug and a kiss that he managed to avoid. But once again when on the ground, he snuggled up close until the westbound train arrived with great self- importance. Pascal entered and turned about to face me as the train slid shut its doors.