by Ross Smeltzer
part 1 of 2
Théon Rousseau scrutinized the small canvas in his heavy hand. It depicted a golden field and a tumbled sheave of wheat. The wiry trees scattered about the field were well-rendered and the grey sky communicated a subtle melancholy that wasn’t unpleasing. But Rousseau had seen many paintings like the one he was holding. The home of many an oafish bourgeois was graced with a similarly charming scene.
“It’s nice enough,” the older painter said quietly.
The man before him deflated visibly. Rousseau sensed that he had never before been the recipient of such a critique.
“Monsieur Rousseau,” said the younger painter, “this painting was widely praised when exhibited at the Salon de Paris. There were those who said it accurately expressed Nature’s grave temperament.”
“I don’t doubt it, Monsieur Gérard,” replied Rousseau with a chuckle. He returned the work to its creator.
“How, then, can you heap that most savage of pleasantries on it? Surely, it is more than merely ‘pleasant’.”
Rousseau stroked his bushy beard and smiled slightly. He was in the presence of a proud young man. The Académie had done him a disservice by gratifying his hungry ego. Rousseau thrust his big paint-stained hands into the pockets of his wool vest and spoke:
“Monsieur, you are not without talent. You have painted the leaves of maples with delicacy and have painted a swirling sky that, no doubt, accurately represents the sky you saw on the day you painted it. You have done a fine job of capturing a moment. But you haven’t begun to, as you say, ‘express Nature’s temperament.’ You have made an approximation of Nature without locating its essential character.
“Nature is perfectly knowable, Monsieur. It can be represented; you have just failed to do so in this work. There’s no shame in that. I have devoted my life to imprisoning Nature’s qualities in canvas — like a naturalist who seeks to trap a rare beast in a cage — and say, without embarrassment, that I have not accomplished this. I hope to do so before I die and am whisked away from Nature’s company.”
“But that is what I yearn to do!” the younger painter replied. “I, too, recoil from facile prettiness of the kind the Académie admires. When I walk past woods and fields, I perceive a concealed poetry within them; I know they contain an inchoate, distant spirit that man must be made to see. I must be the one to expose it!”
Rousseau was a little taken aback by this speech and by Gérard’s conviction. The young painter’s ego had been undeservedly petted, but it had not, to the credit of that organ, become smug and lazy.
Rousseau looked hard at the young painter. He had heard of Monsieur Gérard before. The young man was renowned for his tenacity and his surly, withdrawn disposition. He had, to his misfortune, failed to make acquaintances beyond the walls of his dormitory.
Presumably, he disdained deferential chit-chat with old men whose inventiveness had been exhausted decades earlier. Rousseau admired this quality but understood its consequences. He knew that, unlike his more sociable peers, Gérard had not groomed a market for himself among the journalists who praised everything displayed at the exhibitions and the accumulators who snatched up everything shown at them. He was rumored to be destitute; his appearance suggested this rumor was not unfounded.
Rousseau smiled kindly and, motioning towards the rickety barn that served as his studio, said “Come inside, my yearning Romantic. Let’s hunt for shy Nature together. Let’s search him out in the tangled briars and the tall trees.”
And that is how Monsieur Gérard became Monsieur Rousseau’s student. Gérard entered Rousseau’s studio — he was the first soul to do so in a very long time.
For some time the two painted together in the woods near Rousseau’s studio, their easels side by side. They spoke little; Rousseau sometimes directed his acolyte and offered advice, but he never patronized the younger painter with lessons or anything else that smacked of academic training. Rousseau regarded Gérard as a colleague: a fellow traveler on the path towards absolute representation. He was sure he was further along this path than his student, but he was not so arrogant to believe that his student was incapable of equaling the distance he had travelled.
One day, as Gérard was painting some ferns, he turned towards Rousseau and asked him a very sensible question:
“How will I know when I have captured Nature in my canvas, Rousseau? How will I distinguish a glimpse into Nature’s soul from some exhibition of sentiment? How will I know when I have trapped our quarry?”
Rousseau put down his brush and stared at the canvas he was working on. He was painting some shattered, misshapen oak covered with green moss; he had done it exquisitely. But he had known, even as he applied the first washes, that this work was another disappointment. Nature would not reside within it.
He sighed quietly before replying: “Gérard, let me tell you a story about a painting I made some time ago. I was painting a copse of oaks.” He motioned to his left and said, “That one, over there, in fact; unremarkable to the eyes of a bourgeois but, to us — to those of us enslaved to that whimsical, sylvan sensibility — there were infinite possibilities within those green leaves. Impossible things veritably sprang from the undergrowth; from ugly, primeval roots leapt visions and apparitions concealed for an eternity.
“The painting was nearly finished. It had taken me much time and toil. I had hardly slept; I had let my beard grow wildly; and I had disregarded every one of my companions. I was glad to be so near the conclusion of my work. I had only to apply a dark green to the deepest nooks between the leaves of the trees.
“I mixed with care and precision: a dash of black, a touch of yellow and a swipe of oxblood, and soon I made a most profound color. I have not been able to make it again.
“I began to apply the paint, carefully at first. I pricked and tickled the canvas, creating shadows and abysses where they had not existed before. My movements grew more cautious; it was as if my hand feared to apply more paint, but I sensed that I had nearly realized my project. I sensed that, in the image I had painted, embryonic Nature was budding and growing. I had only to free it — to release the ‘angel in the marble,’ as Michelangelo is reputed to have said.
“I applied my paint with the utmost care and stopped looking at the scene before me. The reality that existed before my eyes no longer informed my art; I was channeling something that sought escape.
“I painted for hours, Gérard. I can’t remember how many, but my hands and arms became sore. I didn’t think of stopping though. And as fatigue crept up on me, I saw it — him. He was in the trees, though I had never painted him. He resided simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
“A grim figure came from the depths I had rendered so skillfully. It looked as if the branches, briars and mosses in my painting had conspired to create him. He was green — a glittering green, unlike any I had ever seen. He had a beard like moss and long green hair that covered a broad chest and streamed down to his elbows. I saw his face as he neared me. That hard face, with its beard of bracken and cracked leaves, stared into my trembling soul. And as I looked, Gérard, he communed with me.
“I felt sure he would annihilate the wall between me and him, the wall which my every action and thought strengthened and bolstered. I knew he would wrench me away from the towns and the steeples and the markets and he would reclaim me. And as I listened to him, for the briefest and most terrible of moments, I felt the pull of a new and imperious sovereign.
“The trees before me seemed to sing. And I wanted nothing else but to enter them. Gérard, I felt some fear grow within me, some instinctive loathing. I applied brush to pallet, scooped up a blob of blue and stabbed it into my most perfect of paintings. In an instant, I effaced what eyes, hands and imagination had spent countless hours summoning; and in an instant, the being in the trees — the Green Man — was expelled from my work and from within me.
“I discarded that painting, though it was the closest I had come to depicting pure Nature. That was nearly two decades ago. After that, I put aside my work and returned to Paris, and contented myself with depicting dolts in fine clothes, rakes with reptile eyes and girls in rose-colored dresses. I grew bored, and that is why I returned to my trees.”
Rousseau paused for a few moments. He gazed out into the swaying grasses. “Gérard, if you see him — if you catch a glimpse of him in those ferns and briars you have so lovingly crafted — don’t be afraid. I nearly achieved a perfect representation of Nature but was undone by invisible shackles that tripped and bound me.”
Gérard had a mystic, hungering disposition and nodded solemnly. As the two walked back to the studio that evening, Gérard said quietly “I will see him. I must see him.”
Rousseau chuckled. “That’s the spirit,” he said.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Ross Smeltzer