Berthe: 1890

By Juliet C. Bond

The ticking of the hall clock sounds like a sort of staccato laughing. Eugene is late again though he promised me he would be here in time for the evening meal. As usual, the servants hold the dishes in the kitchen, all of us with bellies grumbling as they are not allowed to sup before us. Arnoud’s mouth forms itself into an angry starfish shape. His displeasure is as evident as any wad of garbage stuck to one of his perfect, black shoes. He bends to serve me a third glass of wine.

I wave him away.

“Eat, Arnoud. Tell the servants to go ahead and gobble the meal in its entirety. I’ve lost my appetite and if Monsieur Manet ever remembers his own address, he can ring for you and eat whatever the servants have left behind.” It is a small rebellion and it does little to soothe my irritation. Still, Arnoud looks pleased. The wrinkles in his craggy face relax and he nods as he begins his exit.

“Leave the wine!”

Arnaud pivots, placing the bottle on the table with a soft thunk.

After he goes, I drain my glass of its bloody liquid and twirl the wineglass at its stem. Had Eugene been home two hours, even one hour ago, I would have retained the energy to rush off to my studio for a few precious hours of work. But now I’m properly soused and no good has ever come of me painting inebriated. Though I’ve certainly tried it.

Ah, well, little Julie is fed and put to bed at least. By eight she’d been clamoring for food. She rarely sits with us at meals, though Eugene and I prefer it. Mother said that I indulge her but I replied, “If Julie has any chance at being a painter, I wish her early indulgences to fill up her soul before the art world begins gnawing at it.”

Mother rolled her eyes and sighed as if she’d given up on me. I will not be the kind of mother my own was. It’s true that Mother was the one who engaged a proper artist to tutor Edma and I when we were Julie’s age. But Mother’s goal was to make us into marriageable ladies, not painters. My own child’s talents will be nurtured promptly and with my full attention. She never need marry.

Tonight, Julie and I painted together a while in the nursery, her chubby fingers shooting across the page. Perhaps I am mad but I see an early hatching of talent in her work. The colors she chooses are often shocking when she combines them. They bring to mind Degas’ garish dancers and angry male gaze. Fine, I think, let her be full of rage. She will need the fuel.

Just yesterday that imbecilic Gaugin pinched my waist saying, “You will never be a painter, my dear. But I will let you be my mistress if you beg.” The man’s breath stunk of absinthe and his wandering hands made me gag. This same man left his family for a life of hedonism. I can’t remember a time when I have met him sober. And yet he is taken more seriously by our circle than myself and Mary Cassatt put together.

And I can’t even think of the incident that took place last week. The memory jerks and rolls inside of me like a lone egg in a moving mesh basket. This is why I am relegated to the insides of this house; this is why Eugene wants me at home for dinner.

I pour the remaining dribbles of wine into my glass, listening to the hall clock tick and tock. Thirty minutes go by. I am still at the table and the only evidence of progress in this miserable night is the emptied bottle of claret.

Perhaps Eugene is with another woman, though it wouldn’t matter one whit to me now. Most of the men I’ve known, father included, had mistresses to energize their muse, or to become it. Female painters are not afforded this luxury without consequence. Mary and I hang onto our reputations even as we slip in and out of the lives of these merry and manic male artists. How ironic, given the incident last week and my resulting imprisonment.

Mary is away at present. I haven’t seen her as much since Julie was born. Though I have managed to produce and show at all of the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers exhibitions, (save the year that Julie was born,) my life has taken a decidedly domestic turn since becoming a mother. In some ways, I treasure it.

Julie is a fascinating creature and a patient model for myself and even some of the others; Cassatt, Renoir, and Monet have all painted her. She sits as still as any doll as her features emerge under the unique hands of each talent

I think of the last lovely painting that Mary made of Julie in the grass. I do love Mary’s most recent techniques, the way she is bending light and color first through sketches and then the layer of pastels. Oh Mary, to be set to sea among these men without the anchor of your company; you who know the harsh reality of being a degraded female painter.

Still, the clock ticks.

I make my way to the parlor and take my seat at Eugene’s desk. Perhaps a letter to my friend is the only way to scratch my itch just now. And I need to share the burden of my humiliation with someone.

Dearest Mary,

My arms ache for you! How I wish your mother were hale and hearty and you could be free to live here in France where you truly belong. Without you, I feel friendless.

To think! My favorite friend should turn out to be An American. My father is shuddering in his grave.

Days here are much the same. I’ve grown no more used to the added demands of motherhood than a few months ago when you sat here in my parlor listening to Julie rage on about how much she hates peas. Since then, she has wept over the color of her nightshift (too white,) the lack of milk before bed (we had run out) and the fact that we had forgotten a beloved toy at Pissaro’s and weren’t immediately returning for it that late night.

On the subject of Pissaro, an incident occurred two weeks ago, which I have been too much of a coward to write to you abut until now.

As you know, Eugene and Eduard had arranged an auction of some of our older works. Primarily, they were interested in showing the work outside of the yearly exhibition and, perhaps, raising some monies to help Gauguin rush off to some island. Wouldn’t that be lovely? The man is a beast to any woman within five feet of his hairy visage!

But I don’t write to complain of Gauguin.

It was at this auction where an inebriated man sat grumbling at every offer. A few times, he shouted remarks like, “As if that were art!” when certain pieces were presented for sale. Eduard meant to usher him out but a patron whispered that, although the man was reprehensible, he was an avid art buyer and would likely make a purchase.

The most unfortunate aspect of his outbursts was the fact that I had been seated just in front of him, so close that I could feel his spittle against my neck as he expectorated his nasty comments.

Still, the patron was correct. The horrible little man did in fact bid on two of Sisley’s paintings and one by Forain. He seemed to have settled in after his bids but then my work was presented for sale and the man seemed to go mad. He leapt out of his seat and began screaming about the nature of women artists and the ludicrous belief that any woman could paint.

It was then that I’d had enough. I turned to him and said, “Monsieur, perhaps it would help you to know that the woman artist you disparage is sitting right in front of you.”

Instead of an apology, or at least some sense of embarrassment, the man glared at me with eyes that I swear had turned red with rage. “You are nothing but a whore!” He spat. “You and your kind should be burned at the stake like the witches you are. Women like you, who spread your legs for any artist.” He waved towards Eduard who was frozen in place near the front of the room, “Those poor men can’t see how you whore your way into exhibitions and auctions, but I know!”

Pissaro then climbed over three chairs to reach the man. My hero demanded that the awful man leave but he refused, calling me many more fowl names, some I’d never heard before. Pissaro finally exploded in a shower of fists against the man’s face. This caused the other men in the room to either defend my honor or scream out my shame. I stood in the midst of it, my body shaking and my mind unraveling.

The brawl itself did not last long and the offenders were eventually expelled from the room. The remaining paintings sold at horrible prices. Though many of mine went for the highest bids. I am now unsure of their true worth as I suspect that they were purchased out of pity.

Is it so wrong to be a female and to paint? I want to do my duty now until my death. I would like others not to make that too difficult for me. I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked, for I know I am worth as much as they.

With Sincerest friendship,

Berthe

Placing the pen in its well, I sit back to let the letter dry. It’s a relief to share the story with Mary, release my humiliation, even if only in a letter. Tomorrow I will send this to my friend.

And, if it is here that I must hide out from the world of men, then it is here that I will paint. I will use the subjects around me, Julie, my mother, the nursemaid, even Arnaud if I must. I will paint the life of women behind closed doors; the gentle pull between mother and child, the malaise that settles in around the repetition of sewing a scene or dressing for dinner. For isn’t this life is as important as any man who spends his days in an office, a courtroom or a saloon?

I’ve made a decision.

I climb the stairs to the room I share with my husband, who still isn’t home. I slip off my heavy layers of dress, clean my face, remove my corset and undergarments and finally, slip under the cool of my bed sheets. As my eyes close, the ticking of the hall clock seems to grow even louder.

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Juliet C. Bond is a writer and professor at Columbia College in Chicago, IL.  Her first picture book, Sam’s Sister, was published in 2005.  Last year, she collaborated with Newbery winner Joyce Sidman to publish the stage adaptation of This is Just to Say.  Juliet’s shorter works can be found in The Prairie Wind, Chicken Soup for the Soul and at Storystudio.com and Citymusecountrymuse.com.  Juliet serves as the Welcome Coordinator for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in Illinois.  She teaches courses on writing for children at Storystudio Chicago, and has had the pleasure of working under the tutelage of award winning authors Jane Yolen, Audrey Niffinegger and Jane Hamilton.

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