37 Rue Victor-Massé, Paris, December, 1910
PAULINE’S BARE LIMBS ACHED from the crippling pose. Naked atop a table, she balanced uneasily on one foot while studying the sole of the other. Compounding her agony was a cold, drafty studio and an irascible employer ranting against modern egalitarianism and complaining that failing eyesight had forced him to abandon painting for sculpture. He interrupted his diatribe just long enough to ask, with supreme impoliteness, how many times she arose at night to urinate. Mercifully, he didn’t expect an answer.
It wasn’t as if Pauline hadn’t been cautioned. Edgar Degas was a monster, everyone said; at age seventy-six he was the elderly Terror of Paris, demanding, scornful of women and cruel to his models. Desperate for money, she ignored the warnings, and when Degas dismissed her yesterday afternoon, the pain in her joints was excruciating. She gamely returned for a second session, resumed the difficult pose and braced herself for more abuse. Instead, Degas began humming as he worked, and it seemed today might be a more tolerable ordeal.
“I rode streetcars until late last night,” he announced. “From Place Pigalle to the château of Vincennes. Have you seen it, Pauline?”
Yesterday he’d barely acknowledged her, much less remembered her name.
“I took another car to Place Saint-Augustin and walked home. My only companions were ghosts from my youth.” He prattled on about the past, embarrassing his model again when he confessed to a long-ago dose of syphilis. “Like all young men, I suppose, but, alas, I never had much of a fling.”
Pauline was relieved when he began singing in Italian and was surprised again when he apologized and translated into French. Then he hummed the minuet from Don Giovanni. Ignoring yesterday’s stinging reprimand for looking at him, Pauline dared a surreptitious glance as Degas set aside his sculpting tools and began circling the new work. She quickly averted her eyes as he approached and extended a tremulous hand.
“Dance with me, my dear.”
Eager for a break, even for such lunacy, Pauline slipped to the floor but was not given time to either stretch for relief or don her wrapper before Degas, singing loudly and wordlessly, waltzed her across the studio floor. They made a wildly incongruous spectacle, the naked young woman and the stooped, white-bearded old man in his long sculptor’s smock, laughing and stumbling through the stately steps until Degas grew short of breath. He released her and plopped onto an overstuffed chair, chuckling to himself while Pauline fetched her robe. At length he looked up and smiled.
“I noticed it yesterday when I was positioning you, Pauline. Except for your eyes, you bear a startling resemblance to my dear cousin Estelle. I painted her almost forty years ago. Would you like to see?”
Pauline nodded, more puzzled than ever. “Oui, m’sieur.”
“Come along then.”
Breathing still labored, Degas rose with difficulty to shuffle from the studio. Pauline followed, bare feet leaving prints on the dusty floor, to a large annex overflowing with artworks. This repository for a lifetime of collecting held hundreds of paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by the most celebrated artists of the last century. Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Daumier, Renoir, and Rousseau were among those whose works were shelved to the ceiling, along with his own. Amazingly, Degas maintained a map in his mind and deftly navigated his treasures to the one he sought. He carefully pulled Estelle’s portrait from a rack and turned it toward Pauline.
Pauline was ignorant of art but conceded a resemblance to the woman arranging flowers. “C’est vrai, m’sieur,” she said softly. “I can see myself a little, around the mouth especially.”
“Then my eyes are not totally gone,” Degas proclaimed, more with defiance than triumph. Still, he turned up the gasolier before peering closer at the large canvas. “My poor Estelle. She was almost completely blind then.”
“Mais, how did she arrange flowers?” Pauline ventured.
“By scent and touch. Quite remarkable, n’est-ce pas?”
Pauline waited silently while the old man contemplated his work. Degas squinted and took a final look before sliding the painting back into place. He turned to leave but changed his mind and began sifting through a stack of canvases set well apart from the others.
“I did these in New Orleans,” Degas explained. “Started them there anyway.”
“You’ve been to America?”
“Yes. La Nouvelle-Orléans, to be precise.” He closed his eyes a moment as if weighing the name. “It sounds as strange and exotic now as when I visited back then. That was in seventy-two, not long after the Prussian Siege and Paris Commune.”
“I’ve been told those were terrible times.”
“Indeed. You should be glad you weren’t born then.” He patted a tattered ottoman, coughing and waving a hand when a cloud of dust erupted. “Come here, child. Sit.”
“Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten you’re being paid by the hour. Now sit.”
Pauline was suspicious of more uncharacteristic politeness but did as she was told. Her chilled skin tingled with goosebumps and she drew her robe closer as Degas flipped slowly through a series of canvases of varying size, but all—even Pauline could not doubt—priceless.
“I traveled to New Orleans after the war in hopes of regaining my sanity, and to reacquaint myself with my Creole relatives. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.” He pulled a canvas within an inch of his nose and studied it through thick glasses. “New Orleans was also under siege, you see. Dangerous, corrupt and unpredictable, but in its own way as seductive and irresistible as the most skilled courtesan.”
“I don’t understand, m’sieur.”
“I don’t care if you understand or not,” he grunted. “I just want you to listen.”
Pauline nodded obediently as Degas replaced the painting and faced a row of tall windows. For a long moment he seemed distracted by a cityscape bleached of color and glazed with new fallen snow. The woman was wondering if he had lost his train of thought, but then, abruptly, he continued in a loud voice.
“New Orleans was overwhelming. Like my family there, it was far more than I had bargained for. Time and again I contemplated grabbing a boat home to France, and time and again I found reasons to stay. Despite constant chaos—or perhaps because of it—I finally found inspiration, but not because I was in such a strange and unusually beautiful land. In fact, the light nearly killed my eyes.”
Degas spread his fingers and thrust a hand into an anemic beam of wintry sunlight. He studied a worn terrain of wrinkles, thin blue veins and maroon splotches. “Once I was there, I felt as if I had no control of this hand, as if someone took it and set it free of its tired, old habits. Set me free of tired, old ways.” He scratched the back of his head where wisps of white hair escaped a wool cap. “Now it is I who am tired and old and left wondering if that poor lost artist was really me. I often come here just to look at these signatures and reassure myself that this is truly my work. But that’s not what bewilders me most.”
“No.” Degas glanced out the window but just as quickly looked away when even the day’s thin light troubled his eyes. “I have always wondered if I would have painted in such a manner if I had not gone to New Orleans. I suppose I’ll never know.”
Pauline didn’t know what to say so she remained still as Degas trundled unsteadily to another bin of paintings and appeared to look for one in particular.
“Then it’s true,” he muttered. “She took it.”
“I thought if I kept looking and searched harder, I’d find it this time, but it’s not here. She took it with her. The damned sketchbook is gone, too.”
“Who, Monsieur Degas? Your cousin?”
Degas shoved Estelle’s picture back into place, a loud, rough shock considering his gossamer touch with the others, and whirled on Pauline.
“Sacrebleu, girl! What are you doing in here? Get back in the studio! Have you forgotten we have work to do?”
Pauline scurried back to the table, dropped her robe and shivered, deferring taking up the painful pose until Degas returned. But he remained entombed in his private museum, blinded by dusty motes of memory. He slumped onto the ottoman, closed his eyes and addressed his ghosts.
“She left me…and took the painting instead.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish