By Bev Sandell Greenberg
Back at their Montparnasse apartment, the newspaper review of her husband’s first exhibit makes Amelie grind her knuckles into her eyes. They’re sitting across from each other in stiff-backed, mismatched wooden chairs, a stained, threadbare cloth on the table, a tattered, multi-coloured rag rug on the floor.
“What were you thinking, Henri?” she wails, her face red and puffy. “I’ll be the laughing stock of Paris! Everywhere I go, people will point. ‘Look,’ they’ll say, ‘That’s Mme. Matisse, the model for that bizarre painting at the Salon D’Automne — the portrait with the purple, green and yellow face.’
Henri winces in silent agony. “It’s not about you!” he says. Annoyed with Amelie’s snivelling, he rests his eyes on a decorative plate hanging on the wall behind her. Years ago, his mother had painted the plate with a lively forest scene, an antidote against the leaden sky of Bohain where he grew up. Henri finds the plate soothing to look at.
“Do we have to talk about the exhibit now?” he asks, his stomach churning.
Amelie heaves a jagged sigh. “But it’s me in the portrait. And the article talks about its ‘feral quality.’ Shouldn’t I be upset?”
The comment wounds Henri, makes him taste the bile in his throat.
“Look, how do you think I feel? This is about my skill as an artist or lack of it,” he says, his hands flying like birds. “People still want those dark shades — like the old Dutch Masters and their French counterparts. It’s 1905, but people still won’t accept bright colours in paintings.”
“It’s true,” Amelie says, her face looking pinched. “But how can we survive?” I bring in some money from my hats. I model for your paintings, so you don’t have to pay one. But there’s still not enough income to support three children!”
“What should we do?” he asks, removing his spectacles.
But no sooner does he say the words than he regrets them. Amelie might ask him to give up painting altogether. Practicing law could earn him money, but he always hated being a lawyer. He fell in love with painting during a year of recuperation after surgery for appendicitis and never returned to law.
But Amelie doesn’t answer his question. She tries another tactic. “You were hoping to sell at least one painting. How long can we go on like this? There’s only a little food in the pantry. Yet all around us, we have art on our walls by Cézanne and Gauguin. There’s even a bust by Rodin in the hallway.”
“It’s only plaster, not brass,” says Henri, “And not so loud! Rodin’s right next door, working in his atelier.”
“I hope he hears me,” she says, her dark eyes burrowing into him. “Why did you get us into debt to buy those pieces? What did that accomplish?”
“Il va sans dire. It goes without saying. Seeing the creations of these artists allows me to study their techniques and helps me develop my own. Whatever happens, we are not selling these pieces! Do you understand?”
Amelie looks daggers at him, then mumbles something under her breath, too softly for him to hear, as if she knows he won’t ask her to repeat it.
“Do you remember when we got married and I said I loved you, but adored painting more? Well, I have to persevere with it and keep improving!”
She rolls her eyes, then marches out of the room, her shoes clacking sharply on the floor. Henri pours himself a glass of wine and sips it slowly.
Amelie didn’t always behave this way. Her parents’ misfortune made her more anxious. They lost everything after their employer committed fraud and scapegoated them in an ugly trial. News of the case spread throughout France, causing Amelie and her family much embarrassment. It extended to Henri, making him strive not to attract undue attention by dressing like a businessman. As for Amelie, she became less trusting, bracing herself for the worst in every situation.
The stress from that court battle cost Henri two years in time, but now he’s painting again and very proud of his latest work. Not only has it captured his imagination, but he’s convinced that it’s bound to catch on with the public. For that reason alone, he can’t quit now —not when he’s close to a breakthrough. He’ll wait things out for as long as he can and try to make do for his family. If need be, he could always give art lessons. In any case, he mustn’t give up.
* * * * *
The next morning, Matisse wakes up early and enters his studio, a closet-sized room at the back of the apartment. Better to get started right away.
For fifteen minutes, he reads the poetry of Mallarmé to calm his mind before attacking the canvas. To Henri, poetry is like oxygen; the beauty of the words inspires him and heightens his mood as he starts off the day. He feels somewhat diminished by the fight and his insomnia, but vows not to let Amelie’s remarks deter him.
Today he’ll start a new painting of a window sill, seeking to enliven it with the images of plants that he had roughly sketched. Henri has been considering this painting n terms of the interior as well as the exterior and did charcoal drawings of various possibilities two days earlier. At this point, he must decide on the time of day for the scene — a choice that will influence the degree of light and intensity of the colours. He’d also like to introduce a pattern into the painting — maybe a jacquard design on the curtains or some textured markings on the pots. He also needs to consider the angle of the painting; he thinks it should appear off-kilter.
But Henri’s imagination is jumping ahead of him. He hasn’t even mixed the paints yet. Squeezing them out onto the palette always gives him a certain tactile pleasure. Soon he has blended several shades of green, pink and red. Combining the colours reminds him of mixing paints as a child at his father’s hardware store. Even now, inventing new shades excites Henri, feels like magic.
At that point, he dips his brush in the green paint and makes his first stroke on the canvas. The sight of that first dab of colour always fills him with awe. First there is nothing, then a soupçon of something dramatic. Even so, that sense of uncertainty never disappears, no matter how many paintings he has completed.
A few hours later, Henri goes into the kitchen for some paté, no one is home, the children at school, his wife with her customers.
How difficult Amelie can be at times, but what did she expect? He was already an artist when she married him. Still, her hat-making helps pay the bills and she is a good mother to their children. In fact, before he married her, she suggested raising Marguerite, Henri’s four-year-old illegitimate daughter. In that case, he needs to take Amelie’s complaints more seriously and set himself a deadline of sorts. His exhibit is almost over, and if he doesn’t earn any income soon, he may have to take on other jobs, like drawing copies of pieces at the Louvre, though he’d rather not.
* * * * *
Henri and Amelie maintain their mutual silence and the pattern repeats itself. Despite their problems, he rises early every morning, paints till lunch, then till dinner and afterwards, well into the evening. The time goes quickly and he gets an idea for a series of etchings to illustrate Mallarmé’s poetry. Henri is in his studio thinking about how to proceed when Amelie bursts through the door. What now?
She hands him an envelope addressed in a spidery scroll. It’s a bill, no doubt, one to add to the others. He rips open the envelope and finds a single sheet of thick, cream-coloured paper with embossed letters at the top. As soon as he reads the name Gertrude Stein, his pulse starts to quicken.
The letter, signed by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, offers to buy “Woman with a Hat” for 1200 francs.
Henri’s initial optimism drizzles out of him; he was expecting to receive a better price. He shares this news with Amelie. But she doesn’t look downcast; her eyes are gleaming.
“What’s wrong?” says Henri, bewildered by her reaction. “Didn’t you hear the offer?”
“I did,” she says, “but we’re not going to accept it. We’re going to ask for more!”
“What? How can we do that?”
“Look, if we don’t try, he can’t say yes to paying more. On the other hand, he might say no, or buy the piece for his original offer.”
Henri heaves his shoulders. He can’t believe his wife’s gall. Nevertheless. she persuades him to ask for 2400 francs and he sends off the note.
* * * * *
They wait one day, two days. Then a letter arrives the following afternoon before Amelie gets home. Henri happens to be upstairs. His hand trembles slightly when he tears open the envelope.
It contains 2400 francs and a note asking Henri to bring the painting to Gertrude’s apartment at #27, Rue Fleurus. What a breakthrough! He’s heard that she holds an weekly open house there every Saturday. An invitation to this event might well lead to other opportunities, such as introductions to well-known artists, like Picasso. How thrilling it would be to meet him and discuss painting together!
But Henri shouldn’t get ahead of himself. He counts the bills just to be sure, a jolt of adrenalin coursing through his veins. He can scarcely believe what just happened, that their prayers have been answered. Now they can pay their bills and his paintings will start to command better prices.
When Amelie finally comes back, he shares the news. She’s happy enough about the money. She can now buy new clothes for Marguerite as well as some things for Pierre and Jean.
But Amelie doesn’t look as overjoyed as he thought she would. “You put me through a lot with that exhibit,” she says, her voice brittle. “And if not for me, you wouldn’t have gotten a higher price. But do you mention this? Not at all.”
Acid rises in the back of Henri’s throat. He didn’t expect these sharp words. He thought things would be improving between them.
She leaves the room abruptly and Henri decides to go for a walk to the market. He returns soon afterwards with a small parcel wrapped in paper.
Amelie is in the kitchen, cracking eggs. She is facing away from him when he enters the room, his hand behind his back to hide the parcel. He tiptoes up to her and firmly plants a kiss on her shoulder. Just as she turns to face him, he pulls out the parcel like a magician.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” she says, offering him a tentative smile.
“See for yourself!”
She unwraps the paper and finds a bouquet of violets. “Oh, they’re lovely! I haven’t gotten flowers for so long, not since you …”
He can’t resist finishing her sentence. “Not since I brought you violets every day for three weeks when we were first courting.”
“Oh Henri, I’m so touched that you remembered! Thank you,” she says holding out her arms. While they are embracing, Henri happens to glance over Amelie’s shoulder. Behind her lie the flowers on the kitchen table. The bold purple hue grabs his attention.
They should last at least a few days in the apartment. Maybe he’ll use their colour in his new painting of the windowsill. Come to think of it, that shade of purple would add a certain je ne sais quoi amid all the greenery.
Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Canadian fiction writer, poet and critic whose stories have appeared in literary magazines, including Prairie Fire, The Knight Journal, The Nashwaak Review and The Prairie Journal as well as in several anthologies. Her poetry has been published in journals; it has also been circulated on transit buses for the Poetry in Motion program and in an art exhibit entitled “Visual Poetry.” She is currently working on stories that re-imagine pivotal and ordinary moments in the lives of artists.