Most of our courses were regimented. At the Sorbonne, a large class of silent foreigners was instructed by a big, garlic-smelling, Madame for whom there was only one culture in the world, and only one country for which she had any regard – La France. Her most lively and endearing moments were when she talked about Proust and the “le petit Madeleine”. Her love of Proust and her dedication to his writing made her seem youthful and even beautiful as she lit up describing that little morsel of cake placed on a spoon and dipped in a cup of tea. Otherwise her love of country was so ardent that it made her seem like a vast indoctrinated mass of flesh. No-one was ever invited to compare their culture to hers, and no-one offered because she looked so unapproachable and forceful. I got the feeling that had she lived during the French revolution she would have been one of the stocking-knitters who sat under the guillotine.
My drawing classes at the Lycee Des Beaux Arts were in the Beaux Arts tradition. In this case the class consisted of a cross section of people from Versailles who sat in silence for an uninterrupted three hours, drawing still items, a bust of Voltaire, a vase, it made no difference – you drew in silence. I had never experienced a silent art class or had to devote so much time to drawing one object, so at first the class was a strain. Eventually I found it to be therapeutic rather in the manner of Yoga. Sculpture classes were slightly more animated for clay demands some movement and we sculpted human forms from memory. But even here classes were held in silence – I deduced that each of us was supposed to be so engrossed in our art that normal conversation was impossible.
The painting which I did in a class in an artist’s atelier was a completely different matter. My first session was in early January when there was snow on the ground. Mademoiselle gave me some sketchy directions how to get there and had written the address down on a scrap of paper. It was snowing gently when I set off so that I had some difficulty finding the right street. When I found it I was surprised that the address marked on my piece of paper led under an old fashioned archway into an ancient courtyard. The buildings rose high on three sides with their gaunt stones and shuttered windows contrasting with the snow lined roof eaves and ground. On the side opposite the archway there was a low building which might have been a stable at one time. There was a stone mounting stand outside it. I stood for some time in this ancient courtyard which bore no signs of having changed in several hundred years. It gave me the impression that I had travelled back in time in a Time Machine.
My directions ended here and so I studied the buildings in an attempt to see some modern life – perhaps someone to give me directions or an indication that I was in the right place. The only light came from a broken window into the stable like building. It gave a warm glow through a paper patch over the cracked portion. I went to the door (a green one as usual) and listened. I could hear happy voices inside. This could not be my class. I gazed around at the other bleak buildings which carried no indication of life. I steeled my nerves and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again, and again there was no response. I was getting desperate and frightened. Then I paused and pulled myself together. Perhaps the hubbub inside prevented anyone from hearing my knocking. I turned the latch and entered.
At first I was almost knocked over by the smell of turpentine and oil and the heavy fumes from a smoking coke fire. Then, as my eyes became accustomed to the haze of smoke I took in the scene before me. It was a high vaulted room, quite probably, as I had guessed a converted stable. Towards the middle was a dais made out of old wooden boxes and draped with a miscellaneous collection of fabrics. On it lounged a heavily made up nude woman. Her dark skin glowed in the gloom. In the far corner from the door was a free-standing pot-bellied coke stove with a chimney rising out of it straight up to the roof. It stood on three legs. Its front door was open so that the glow or hot cinders could be seen inside. Between these two main objects in the room every available space was filled with clutter and debris; stools, easels, people painting, stands of paints, palettes, paint-brushes, bottles of turpentine, clothing and a bowl of rotting fruit.
A young girl wearing a voluminous smock came up to me and gently drew me into the room. She shut the door quickly behind me, explaining as she did so that draughts upset the model. She led me through the obstacles in the room to meet ‘Le Patron”. I was immediately captivated by this unique personage. He stood no more than five feet and supported himself on crutches with which he managed to manipulate himself about the room without disturbing any of the clutter. He greeted me as “mon petit choux” and gave me a friendly kiss before roaring to the room that everyone should take a rest now while room was made for “la petite anglaise” .Room was made and soon I was painting with borrowed canvas, paints and smock.
We worshiped the ‘Patron’. We tried to mother him to prevent him from getting tired; standing, as he did, for hours on his crutches or on one leg as he deftly demonstrated with his free had how to paint a leg or an arm. Once the “Patron” had been near, a flat ordinary painting suddenly took on a stunning new life. We nearly always painted nudes, some black, some white, some olive, and one with bright red hair which was so bright that she seemed to be red all over. The easiest ones to paint were the black ones for their glossy skins shone in the dim light while white skins looked mushy. The models all loved the ‘Patron” and laughed and joked with him as they changed, then they would snatch kisses from him when they left to go home.
I spoke more in my “atelier” sessions than I spoke during the rest of the week and enjoyed them as an antidote to my solitary walks across Versailles and the silent sessions at the Lycee. I never told Mademoiselle, or any of the other girls about what we did, for the whole experience was like stepping through a door into a different world so full of extraordinary things that I had a sneaking suspicion that it might disintegrate. If I had tried to create a world of make-believe for myself I could not have done better. Probably the only make-believe was, although we pretended otherwise, that it soon became very obvious that I was no earthly good at painting and my daubs were the worst in the entire ‘Atelier” I was wasting my time painting but kept at it because I realized that the therapeutic value of these sessions far surpassed their educational impact.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, September