by Ross Smeltzer
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
The two artists painted together for many months. Gérard’s talents grew under the tutelage of an exacting master and Rousseau felt a contentment that was new to him. He enjoyed trekking with Gérard into the fields and hills. And, after a day of monkish silence and of intense application, he liked to wander into the nearest town with Gérard for a simple supper. The young painter made for good company — for a time.
But as the days succeeded one another, a change seemed to come over Gérard. He became increasingly taciturn and moody. He worked strange hours and, oddly enough, became disinclined to leave Rousseau’s studio. He no longer wanted to paint en plein air and now toiled exclusively in the studio’s filthy loft.
One morning, as he sipped on strong coffee and as Gérard nibbled on some raspberries, Rousseau questioned his student about his new method: “Gérard,” he said, “I am worried about this new seclusion of yours. Though I know you are not neglecting your craft, I think you have strayed. Come outside with me today. The sun has been miraculous these last few mornings. I am working on a study of the nearby pond and am finding the depiction of the light on the little ripples to be a stimulating exercise.”
Rousseau did not consider himself a teacher, nevertheless his tone was one any number of hoary academicians would have been familiar with. Gérard’s jaws clamped down tightly on one another.
“Rousseau, I have adopted a new method — one of my own devising. I’m sure you find your sun-flecked pond very stimulating and I suspect you are depicting it with a care, feeling and a fidelity I could never match.”
Rousseau waited for the blow. Such an obsequious introduction could only be succeeded by a brutal remark.
“But I have thought much — ever since you told me of your meeting with him. I have stayed awake long into the night, with eyes scanning the unsounded sky and the black trees, contemplating the meaning of your encounter. I think I have found it.”
Rousseau was surprised by his pupil’s self-assurance. “Go on,” he said with an affected gravity.
“You chanced upon him by accident. Through consummate skill you arrived at a perfect representation of Nature — you caged it in an image — and like a hunter who leaves rusty traps for foxes but finds himself in the possession of an angry wolf, you were shocked and frightened. Your paints, mixed with the precision of a chemist and applied with absolute delicacy, allowed you to commune with Nature’s spirit. I don’t want to chance upon him; I invite him to me with every movement of my brush.”
Rousseau was more bewildered by this discourse than anything else. Had his student — always a little poetical — become deranged?
“And now Rousseau, having dazed you with my project, I wish to resume it.” Gérard stuffed another berry into his mouth, stood, and walked swiftly up the steps to the studio loft.
Rousseau could not focus on painting that day. The pond and the sun remained beautiful and brilliant, respectively, but the painter felt hurt and sorrowful. As the day’s light faded into a dull grey, he returned to the studio. He intended to speak with his pupil again; he feared for him.
Rousseau found Gérard in the loft, sitting in a chair and facing a large canvas. He was turned away from the loft’s one slender window. The canvas Gérard was gazing at was strange; myriad washes had been applied to it but it contained no identifiable forms; it represented nothing. Rousseau took his pupil’s shoulder and asked, in the most pleasant voice he could muster, “Would you like to come into town, Gérard? I am a little hungry and thought you might be similarly afflicted. We will savor some wine and forget this morning.”
Gérard did not respond. Rousseau grew impatient and shook the young man. This had the intended effect; it seemed to pull Gérard out of some waking dream.
Gérard looked at Rousseau’s hand and then into his eyes, and replied: “It’s curious, Rousseau. I am not very hungry and find wine unappetizing tonight. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“All right,” replied Rousseau. As he turned to walk away, he heard Gérard whisper, “I was very close.”
Rousseau asked Gérard if he would like to dine with him a few more times after this episode. His advances were always rebuffed. Eventually, he stopped pestering the young man. “Recall what you were like when you were youthful and aflame with theory and nonsense,” he would always say to himself. It was a weak tonic for a worried soul.
One morning, instead of trooping outside with canvas and easel, as he was accustomed to doing, Rousseau ascended the steps leading to the loft. He left footprints in the thick dust that covered each step. As he always did, he found Gérard seated and facing his strange canvas. Rousseau had not looked at it in some time.
The canvas was tenanted by geometric shapes — multitudes of sharp triangles and stacked cubes. The sky was swirling with bilious yellow and sickly jade, and the green earth was flecked with orange and gold that made it look as though it was burning. The ragged pines looked like stalactites or jagged daggers. The grass did not sway in the way it did when Rousseau saw it. It looked like some inert fungus or mound of coral. The image was a disquieting one.
Rousseau must have gazed at the painting for a long time. Gérard had turned towards and was staring at the older painter, more with muted curiosity than anything else.
“It’s an intriguing work,” Rousseau murmured, trying to think of something else to say.
“Rousseau, I’m flattered,” Gérard replied, with unconcealed contempt.
Rousseau grasped for something to say, and eventually asked simply, “What is this, Gérard?”
“This is my Landscape, Rousseau. It is a portrait of that spirit you once encountered: the Green Man who dwells in the fields beyond our towns and who will glory in the nullification of our arts, commerce, and industry — all our ephemera. I have nearly brought him forth and called him to me.”
Rousseau replied weakly, “Are you all right, Monsieur Gérard?”
“I know you recoil from this image, Rousseau. I know you think it hideous: an abomination. But that is because you have always been mistaken. You have beheld nature’s bounties and its beauties. None can exceed your skill at appreciation. But in your raptures, you were led astray.
“You did not see beneath your subject’s skin. Like an inept portraitist you ignored its pounding and panting heart. You ignored its caprices, its violence, and its remorseless, heedless nucleus. Like a visitor to a zoo, you saw the caged wolf as a fat and well-groomed object to be passively enjoyed. I, on the other hand, saw him as irreconcilable and implacable.
“By seeing those qualities, I was able to approach him. My admiration, which he has observed from afar, has given me admission to an ancient secret. The image you see before you is my tribute — my altar — to him, as well as his window to me.”
“Gérard, you sound so unwell... Let’s leave this place. Let’s return to Paris. It would be good for you to be among society.”
“Rousseau, you should leave. Return to your pink posies and your maples with garish leaves and your ‘society’.”
“Gérard, please...” the elder painter pleaded.
Gérard turned and stabbed a particularly fine brush into a numinous green: the murky color of swirled absinthe. He began to apply it, adding veiny threads to the dark nooks and crevices. He stared at the canvas without blinking.
Rousseau stood, unwilling to leave but unsure what to do. After a few minutes, Gérard turned from his work. His eyes were wide with fury and he was panting with bursting anger. He bellowed at Rousseau, “Leave me, old man! Leave me! To retreat from his gaze is to embrace slavery.”
Rousseau was taken aback and shuffled away. He tried to paint that afternoon. He stood beside the pond and watched as the wind dragged the brown water to and fro. After a few hours spent in futile toil, he slumped down into the long grass. He felt old and he felt beaten.
He routinely mocked the various venerables who tottered about the salons and rubbed shoulders with bankers, publishers, industrial magnates and merchants, but they, at least, were content in their irrelevance. He needn’t begrudge them for that. They dwelled in Paris, with its wide boulevards and its profusion of cafes, and were sealed off from Nature, but he, even in seclusion, was just as removed from it. He was, as Gérard had correctly asserted, capable of nothing more than appreciation.
A cold wind shook the tops of the nearby trees and the sky began to darken. Nature was assuming a more sullen character. Rousseau sat in the grass for some time, thinking gloomy thoughts. Eventually, he stood and began walking back towards his studio. He would leave this place, and he would take his unwell student with him. He had spent his life in the pursuit of something unreal: a thing of imagination. He would not let Gérard do the same.
He entered the studio and found it quiet. He walked up the steps leading to the loft, noticing as he did so that his steps were blending into those of Gérard; the young painter had departed. Rousseau reached the studio and, as expected, found it untenanted. He saw the canvas in the room’s center. The geometric shapes, which had once been so sharp and cruel, now looked melted and fused; they were no longer distinct from the sky, whose clouds slithered like thin snakes; every part of the canvas — of Gérard’s Landscape — seemed as if it were being pulled into some unseen eddy in its center.
Rousseau approached the canvas. When he was quite close, he felt a mingled awe and revulsion. There, in that maw at the canvas’s center, was a figure. He was indistinct and still and did not speak to Rousseau, as he had done many years before. Rousseau recognized his face.
Rousseau slowly left the studio and approached that oak copse of distant memory. It was not a long way from the studio and he reached it quickly, although he walked a little slowly. He entered the clump of tall trees, brushing aside briars and thorns as he did so.
Twigs broke and leaves cracked beneath his feet. The trees seemed to crouch very low around him and unseen animals darted past, possessed by some adventure. It did not take long for him to locate Gérard. There, surrounded by trees that stooped inquisitively and pawed with spindly fingers, entwined among the barbed shoots of some great greedy briar, lay the young painter. One could have thought him asleep, were it not for the thin stream of blood that stained the collar of his white shirt. He had been reclaimed.
Rousseau quit the country soon after these events. He returned to Paris and became a still-life painter of no inconsiderable renown.
An admiring critic once wrote, “Monsieur Rousseau renders the objects that surround us with a profundity one would not have thought they — mere things — deserved. There is, admittedly, a subtle aridity about his works: the painter’s admirable detachment is not tempered by a vital influence. I contend that the painter’s choice of subject matter is at fault. The eye delights in bright fruit, gay flowers and verdure. Oh, how Rousseau’s arts could be elevated were the artist to mingle the products of human industry and ingenuity with sprigs of greenery and the choicest of Nature’s bounties!”
Copyright © 2013 by Ross Smeltzer