Read The Choiring Of The Trees Online

Authors: Donald Harington

The Choiring Of The Trees (10 page)

I drew. For a dollar the black youth posed for three hours, never seeming to tire. He was extremely muscular, and his taut skin glistened with sweat. I did a front view, a side view, a back view, and an “action” pose of him holding a broom overhead as if it were a sword. The next time I came to Worthen’s I did details of the muscles of the latissimus dorsi, the rectus abdominis, the gluteus maximus. I devoted a whole afternoon, once, to his hands, getting the ligamentum carpi volare just right. I drew him asleep, or pretending to be. I drew him stretching and bending and twisting and throwing. I drew him, or tried to catch him, falling and leaping and running and jumping and kicking. I spent almost forty dollars on the Negro, and once when, accidentally, the loincloth slipped down without his notice or Worthen’s (the old artist had taken to sleeping through these sessions), I drew also what it had concealed, fascinated with the structure, although my face was so hot my eyes watered until I could hardly see.

That one drawing was my undoing. I kept it in my portfolio in my studio at home, along with the hundreds of other sketches of the Negro. Occasionally my father climbed up to my studio, and he was the only other person permitted there. Once when he came up for a visit, I had a group of the drawings spread out on the floor and was reviewing them.

“Jesus Christ, Viridis, who is this nigger?” he asked.

“His name is Tate Coleman, and he is Spotiswode Worthen’s janitor and occasional model.”

“Model? You mean he stands around like this with his clothes off?”

“When he’s asked to.”

“With
you
watching him?”

“That’s how I did these drawings, Daddy.”


You
drew these pictures?” He began to pick them up, one by one, and then to drop them, as if they were contaminated. He took my portfolio and opened it and exclaimed, “How many times did you
do
it?” I had momentarily forgotten about the one improper drawing, or I would have sought to stop my father’s ransacking of my portfolio. By the time I remembered, it was too late. He held the offending sketch at arm’s length and emitted a long whistle with his pursed lips. Then he said, not to me but to himself, “Yep, they’re
long,
all right.” Then he asked me, “Did you have to rub it to get it to be that long?”

“Daddy!” I said.

He ripped the drawing in two. Then he ripped it in four. Then eight, and into tiny fragments. He threw his handfuls of torn paper into the air and they drifted down like snowflakes. “Why don’t you give up this art foolishness and take up a nice hobby? Have you ever thought of riding? Would you like to have a horse?” I shook my head. “I’m getting you a gelding,” he said, and he walked out.

To preserve all of the art I had completed up until that point—several portfolios and a number of canvases—I hid it in the attic. My father removed all the rest of the contents of my studio, locked it, and bought for a high price a chestnut Arabian gelding, which I named Géricault after a famous artist who painted horses, although the groom, servants, and everyone else called him Jericho. Spotiswode Worthen had to go to a hospital. I sneaked away from my riding lesson to visit him there. The old artist was very ill and could scarcely talk. I said I was sorry I’d had to discontinue my lessons with him. I had learned a lot, I said. I was very grateful. It had been a meaningful experience for me. Nothing that I had ever drawn had been as interesting as the body of Tate Coleman.

“That body,” Spotiswode Worthen managed slowly to speak, “was found, with a large rock tied to the neck, in the river, downstream a ways.”

I tried to lose myself in my riding: with all the fervor I had devoted to painting and drawing, I studied and practiced manège, a fancy word for fancy horsemanship. At a time when most women still rode sidesaddle in their long dresses, I raised eyebrows with my jodhpurs and English jumping saddle. I took Géricault for long rides in Pulaski Heights, west of Little Rock; I rode out as far as Pinnacle Mountain, and I rode back so fast and furious that passersby thought I was being pursued. Sometimes mounted policemen did pursue me, to see if I needed assistance or to find out why a woman was wearing pants in the city limits of Little Rock, but they never could catch me or stop me. I jumped ever-higher fences and walls and fallen tree trunks, anything that got in my way. It is a wonder I didn’t break my neck. I took lessons in how to fall, and I had several falls, and more than once I was cut and bruised but never broke anything…except, eventually, one of Géricault’s legs, broken so badly that he had to be shot.

The day after Géricault was shot, in August of 1908, I packed a trunk and took a train for Chicago. I had been gone for several days before my mother or sister or the one brother still at home, Henry, noticed that I was missing, and Cyrilla wrote to tell me how they expressed astonishment that Daddy had not only permitted me to leave but had wired a Chicago bank with funds sufficient to keep me there for a year. Was he mellowing in his middle age? Did he feel guilty for depriving me of my art? He wasn’t simply letting me leave the nest, was he? How would they all do without me? How would Daddy do without me? He was saying he hoped that Cyrilla could learn to take my place, and nobody knew then, yet, just exactly what he meant, but Cyrilla knew, and she asked me in the letter if it was true that she was going to be expected to substitute for me in
that
regard as well. I told her I would not let him do that to her.

Two bronze lions flanked the entrance to the Chicago Art Institute, a huge new building in the popular Italian Renaissance style. I felt when I passed between the lions the same way the ancient Hittites and the Mycenaeans felt at their lion gates—that I was acquiring the animals’ strength and energy, that I could do anything I wanted, that nothing was going to stop me. Thus I was prepared for the shock of the pictures I saw inside the museum. Remember, now, I had never seen art in the original before, except for a few paintings of his own that Spotiswode had shown me. There were no museums in Arkansas. The poor reproductions in black-and-white in the cheap art books I owned or could borrow had not prepared me for encountering the originals. Now I saw why Spotiswode had abhorred the Impressionists: they violated all the rules he had drilled into me. And the modern artists, more recent than the Impressionists, were even more extravagant. I stood a long time before an enormous tapestry-like park scene done all in tiny dots by an artist named Georges Seurat. But even his color was mild compared with that of another Frenchman by the name of Paul Gauguin, who, I was sad to discover, had died five years before. If only I could have studied with him instead of with Spotiswode! I spent a very long time standing in front of the paintings by Gauguin.

Finally I tore myself away from the museum and visited the classrooms and studios. The fall semester had not begun, but the rooms were ready, row upon row of easels like a factory of some sort, and the walls held examples of student work from the previous year. I examined these, finding the drawings and paintings staid and stodgy and amateurish compared with the art I had just seen in the museum. I noticed that each painting or drawing had a date and a circled number: 1, or 2, or 3, and I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that these numbers were the monthly ranking of each student’s work, following the French academic teaching system. Would I ever achieve a No. 1 or even a No. 2? On a bulletin board I found a list of the names and numerical ranking of the student body. Nine hundred and thirty-seven aspiring artists! I noted the name of No. 937, Marybelle Curtis, and reflected that the poor girl must feel terrible. What if I myself became No. 938? No, I was too good, I was too confident, but I did not like the thought of all that competition.

Chicago was such a huge place. I had prepared myself to find it a hundred times bigger than Little Rock, but I had not known it would be so dense, and so dark, and so vertical, and so
flat,
and so windy, and so crowded, and so smoky, and so dark, and so noisy. I had trouble understanding the way people talked, and they seemed totally unable to understand what I was saying and asking. After a particularly exasperating attempt at communicating with a streetcar conductor, I said aloud, “I might as well be in France!”

That casual remark stunned me into long and serious reflection.

Those bold artists whose work was hanging at the Institute, Seurat and Gauguin, had been French. Spotiswode Worthen had told me that all of the great painters of the last hundred years had been French, without exception (only before Fantin-Latour, of course). I had read an article in one of Spotiswode’s art magazines about an American woman with a French name, Miss Mary Cassatt, who was living in Paris, in her sixties, after having studied for years with the Impressionists, especially the one who could draw best, a man named Edgar Degas, now blind and in his seventies. Miss Cassatt was, like me, the daughter of a wealthy American banker. Would she be sympathetic to my story and situation if I could meet her and talk with her? Might she introduce me to Monsieur Degas?

I never enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute. I would never meet Mary Cassatt, let alone Edgar Degas, but I did put my trunk back on the train, after withdrawing all of the money my father had sent to the Chicago bank. I sent my father a telegram, which read:
CHANGED MIND STOP GOING TO PARIS STOP YES GO AHEAD STOP YOU MAY HAVE CYRILLA STOP LOVE VIRIDIS
.

The terrible guilt I should have felt for saying that was obliterated by the excitement of what I was about to do.

In New York I discovered that I would need a passport and would have to wait a few days for it, and I used the opportunity to visit the museums there, where I saw more and more of those Impressionists and the moderns. Some of the paintings had labels reading: acquired through the generosity of miss mary cassatt, and I had a constant fantasy of what the generosity of Miss Mary Cassatt was going to do for my life.

That fantasy sustained me during a horrible ocean crossing. Can you imagine the ocean, Latha? Can you picture water in every direction, with waves of it rising up fifty or sixty feet? The boat I was on, a steamship called the
Lusitania,
the same one that would be sunk by a submarine seven years later during the Great War, was a huge craft of over thirty thousand tons, but even with that great size it was tossed on the waves like a toy. The sea was so rough that the crew themselves became frightened and convinced that we would sink. All the passengers were sick or scared to death or both. I began to believe that death at sea would be my punishment for letting my father have Cyrilla.

But the voyage itself seemed punishment enough, and lasted nearly a week. When Nail escaped the electric chair that first time, I already knew the feeling of survival, of being given another chance. And the elation of survival stayed with me during some of the disappointments that came soon afterward: when I arrived in Paris eager to meet Miss Mary Cassatt, I discovered that the American lady had returned to Philadelphia for an extended visit. I attempted on my own to visit Edgar Degas but was told that he was not receiving visitors.

They call Paris the City of Light, but it struck me from the beginning as the City of Dirt: grimy streets filled with grimy people rushing madly nowhere. If Chicago had intimidated me, Paris left me terrorstruck. You cannot imagine it. From the moment of my arrival in Chicago, I had been uncomfortable walking alone in the city; the feeling had increased in New York, and now, in Paris, it was almost unbearable. Men and women stared at me, or I thought they did, and made remarks among themselves, or I thought they did, understanding a few of their words, having not forgotten my home-tutoring in French. When I heard a man exclaim to his companion, “
Tu as vu ces émeraudes?
” I knew that he was referring only to the color of my eyes, but I was embarrassed.

My first days in Paris I tried to stay off the streets by retreating into the great museums, the Louvre and the Luxembourg, but the splendor of their masterpieces, my first sight of such incredible paintings by Botticelli and Titian and Poussin, gave me the firm conviction that I could never paint anything worthy of the canvas on which it would be painted.

Strange and huge and dirty as Paris was, I would not have remained there if I had not had a chance encounter with another American girl my own age, in October, named Marguerite Thompson, who was from Fresno, California, and was staying with her aunt in Paris. Like myself, Marguerite wanted to study art and intended to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts. She and I discovered we had a common background, having grown up in small American cities with well-to-do fathers who had arranged for private tutors in French, and both of us had made copies of Gibson girls for friends in high school. But Marguerite had never drawn from the nude, not even the female nude, not even herself in private, and when the entrance examination for the École des Beaux-Arts required us to draw from the male nude (loinclothed, of course), Marguerite could scarcely hold her pencil steady and came close to fainting. I passed the examination with no difficulty, but Marguerite was required to enroll at the École de la Grande Chaumière instead, and she and I drifted apart. But not before we had gone together to be introduced by Marguerite’s aunt to an American woman named Miss Gertrude Stein, who lived on rue de Fleurus in a wonderful house with a friend, Miss Alice Toklas. Marguerite’s aunt, Miss Adelaide Harris, herself a painter, had attended Christian Science Sunday school in San Francisco with Miss Stein, and they were old friends. During my brief chat with Miss Stein, who impressed me as the most emancipated woman I had ever met, I learned that she had a low opinion of the École des Beaux-Arts, and I myself was beginning to question how it was any better than the Chicago Art Institute. After a few weeks there, I transferred to the Académie Julian, where I was much happier. I remained there almost three years. Some of my classmates, as obscure then as I was, were destined to become celebrated.

In November I spent an entire Saturday and Sunday at the exhibition of the Salon d’Automne, where I saw for the first time the paintings of a group of yet little-known artists who were called derisively
fauves,
meaning “the wild ones.” I learned at this exhibition the three qualities I wanted my own art to acquire: color, simplicity, and spontaneity. The Sunday I discovered the Fauves I also made the acquaintance of the girl who would become my best friend for the next several years, a French girl two years older than myself but appearing younger, called Coco. She has become recently very famous, but you would not recognize her name. In those years she was as much a nobody as I, although she knew some artists who were already on their way to reputation and money.

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