THE GALISTEO ESCARPMENT
Neil Bronson woke when the first light started to glow across the horizon and he knew that the coming day would be clear, hot and still, a perfect day for painting outside. The secrets to French weather, particularly to the weather of Vaucluse, were clearer to him in this third month of the painting expedition. If the day started with a small breeze stirring in the branches outside his windows, he knew it would later blow a gale, and only heavy rocks on ropes could hold the easel from flying away down-wind. On the rare morning when it was cloudy at dawn, a thunderstorm could be counted upon to spoil the middle hours of a painting day, drenching the unfinished canvas and the painter alike. This day, however, would offer a long stretch of uninterrupted countryside painting. Neither breeze nor wisp of cloud marred the day’s prospects.
“Sam, wake up,” he said to the man who shared the room.
It was a small upstairs bedroom with wallpaper of faded tuberoses, stacks of canvases with their faces to the wall filled the spaces between the rustic furniture. The two casement windows looked into the top branches of a horse-chestnut tree in the adjoining garden, black birds raucously cavorting there in the early sun.
“Ummm.” Sam rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows. His hair was as dark as Neil’s was light. Both were in the twenties, short men by standards of their peers, but with long backs, good for lifting. If judgment had to be made, it would be that both were from stout, peasant stock, descendants from the cottage rather than the castle.
Neil said, “It’s still and clear. No wind. A perfect day.”
Sam made another wordless noise, acknowledging the day’s attributes.
“I’ll wait for you downstairs.”
He strapped a new, white canvas onto his easel and shouldered the easel pack as he left. Their room was on the second floor of the Metropole Café, one of six rooms rented by the week. The café shared a common wall with garden of the cathedral in Gordes. A group of Gordesiens wearing identical black berets was already in place at the café downstairs, standing over their café noirs at the high bar. Smoke filled the room already replete with the decades of Gauloise aroma.
“What for the painter? The painter who will make Gordes famous,” said the barman, acknowledging the talent of the upstairs resident.
“Café au lait, s’il vous plait,” Neil said.
Despite the bartender’s enthusiasm, acceptance came slowly in a town like Gordes and maybe never completely to these two young Americans on a quest perhaps done better by French sons with talent. How could foreigners know more about art than countrymen? France almost invented Art. The men at the bar nodded amiably to Neil as he sat down at one of the small tables, evidence of a progress, however slight, on the road to approval. The locals had noted the incredible zeal of his day-after-day work and it earned him marks. Zeal was a quality most young Americans lacked, but not this young artist with a new canvas each day.
It was still unthinkable for Neil and Sam to join the group at the bar; they lived according to a strict pecking order, old veterans of the wars at the top going down to a young farmer, a beneficiary of his father’s recent death, at the bottom. There was no room for newcomers unless they made a space themselves.
Neil gave them a friendly nod from his table across the room. Sam joined him in a few minutes and he also gave to the bar crowd the ceremonial signal of a slightly dipped head.
He said to Neil as he sat down, “It’s our very last painting today. Number thirty for each of us. What do you think of that?”
Neil said, “I’m ready to be done with it all. Maybe I’ve managed to paint two or three really good paintings. I should probably do a few more to make up for those experimental ones at the beginning.”
“Absolutely not. The first thirty is what we agreed to, not the thirty most brilliant paintings.”
With their morning coffee finished, the two men walked south on the road out of town. Gordes crowned a hill with tile-roofed stone buildings pushed right to the edge like eager children at cliff-side. For ancient defensive reasons, perhaps the fear of Phoenician pirates on inland sorties or of invading Greek philosophers with destructive new ideas and plans for temples, villages in this part of the Vaucluse were never sited in the valleys, where streams and groves abounded but danger lurked. Instead, the houses, shops, narrow streets, small parks, churches and government offices crowded together behind walls in the safety of a dry summit. Remnants of perimeter walls remained, but no longer the necessary ramparts for a safe life.
It was a steep downhill trip for the first kilometer. The road switched back and forth upon itself and straightened out on the plain below with poplars lining each side. Houses on the edge of town, added during the pacific decades of the Third Republic, were grander with gardens and walled potagers, more land between the houses. At the town limits, the buildings ended abruptly and the fields began in earnest.
Sam and Neil walked another two kilometers past olive groves and rows of lavender and wheat-fields to a flat place before another long descent to the village of Apt, its church dome ten kilometers distant, visible on the horizon. This morning was Sam’s turn to choose the precise spot where they would paint. It would be a hundred feet away from the paved road on a dirt trail between two fields, the green of spring long replaced by crisp ochre grasses and leaves desiccated by a hot summer. The grasses crackled under their steps as they got settled and cicadas already had started their clicking.
Four months ago in London, Sam had the idea for this summer. They would paint thirty paintings in three months, a whole season in the Vaucluse with daily forays into the countryside, easels on their backs . It would be easy to do, Sam said, and a head-start on their careers in the art world now that the Royal Academy was safely behind them. They would find cheap rooms in a village and walk each day to the surrounding fields for whole days of the eternal, Vincentean struggle.
London had offered them the painting techniques of the modern and the politically correct, but not the sound grounding of plein air landscape. They could only discover that on their own. Only after thirty canvases had built up in stacks against the walls of their cheerless room would they quit, arms and noses burned brown. Thirty finished canvases each, that is.
As the actual summer progressed, Neil’s paintings had become more personal, more domestic. He peered with more precision into the foreground, emphasized the parts of the landscape he could touch nearby and reduced the mid-ground and distance to bravura strokes of color, shapes of a single hue. The horizon in his paintings crept higher and higher on the canvas, sometimes cropping out the sky entirely.
On this new day’s motif, he sketched in a study of grasses in the foreground, lightly drawing the distant dome at the top of the picture. The details of whatever lay between these two anchors would take up his entire day. While Neil’s actual canvas size had become smaller, his paintings encompassed a larger scope, the faraway as well as the up-close.
Sam was quick to notice this strength in Neil’s work and for the last weeks he came by for a look at his friend’s easel more often, inspecting his growth with a keen interest. It was a gentle competition, but unrelenting, nonetheless. After the men had worked for an hour, Sam walked over to inspect Neil’s take on their motif. He looked in silence for a long while, then said, “It’s your best.”
“I think so, too.”
“Where did you start?”
“In the middle of the front this time, and then the edges and tops take care of themselves.”
“Easy to say but hard to do. It’s that maddening advice to every young sculptor to take away anything that’s not needed.”
Neil said, “I think I’m beginning to understand that.”
“You must be, because it shows. Look at this. You went right into the heart of the scene, cropping everything else out. I’m impressed.”
Neil wondered if Sam was annoyed at this improvement. Sam had always been the greater talent, and in school it was expected that Sam would produce a superior piece to whatever Neil had done. Sam could fill a large canvas with bold designs quickly, then integrate a filigree of pattern to make it all sing. Younger students lined the studio walls when he started a new piece. This interest by Sam of Neil’s progress was something new in the balance between the two. For now, Neil put that idea on hold and returned to thinking about his own painting.
The temperature by early afternoon was hot. Neil, with a white kerchief around his head, walked over to Sam’s easel to look over his canvas. Sam was a well-practiced artist and his canvas reflected that. Everything about it was academically correct, maybe just more than correct. The distant town of Apt sat stolidly on the horizon, expertly detailed, sunny sides of the buildings jumping out of the en-yellowed haze. The foreground was unfinished, sketchy lines only. Neil knew that his own work had soared above Sam’s and it worried him to form comments that might not disparage his friend’s painting.
“It’s perfect, Sam. The town is beautifully rendered.”
“It’s okay, isn’t it?”
“More than okay. It’s your number thirty. We did it.”
“Give me half an hour more,” Sam said.
Today they had agreed to paint until two, when Carrie Ferrand, the third member of their summer sojourn, planned to pick them up in her auto and drive them to Apt for a late lunch. It would be a celebration lunch for the last of their thirty paintings. Carrie had graduated from the Royal Academy with them and was not to be left behind when they planned their summer, untypically acting as handmaiden to their efforts.
Neil unbolted his painting from the easel and folded the legs together, arranged the brushes and paints in the wooden case and closed it. He carried it all over to the shade of a nearby tree and propped the painting against the pack for viewing. The canvas was clearly his best of the summer, one of those where hand and mind worked together without conflict.
It was six hours since they started off from Gordes, the usual duration of their painting day. Neil worked faster than Sam, and was typically done with his work when Sam needed another hour or so.
Sam had been the meteor of their academy years, earning highest marks in every pursuit and the admiration and envy of his fellow students. He was the one who would invade New York and have the critics at his feet, whimpering for more. The role of supporter and assistant came naturally to Neil; it was the enduring pattern of the relationship between the two men. Sam graciously allowed Neil to adore him, for which with equal grace Neil returned adoration. Offer the cheek, kiss the cheek. So this new twist of Neil’s work being better than Sam’s foretold a disturbing direction, a first blip on the balance of power between them. Beta male becoming alpha male, that was not supposed to happen.
The academy was a school for contemporary art where edgy, at the front-of-the-war, shells-dropping-around-you paintings were all that really mattered. Portrait painting, still-life, landscape or contra-jour compositions had no place there; it was as if they never even existed. Art schools at the time all downplayed the past, encouraging experiment and journeys into unknown lands.
The two men and Carrie spent many hours in the London museums, not always going straight to the modern wing. In secret, traitorous secret, they wondered what they were missing in the academy’s total avoidance of what went before. Carrie was particularly taken with the portrait painters of the past, Sargeant, Whistler, and Velasquez. Both Sam and Neil went again and again to the 19th Century landscapists and the Impressionists, wondering if they could actually paint something as striking as a Monet, a Constable or a Turner. In their final week at the academy at the wine bar in Soho they had taken as their own, Sam suggested they teach themselves plein air painting, and it called for a trip to the South of France before they returned to the States. Thirty paintings would be enough to see if they had the touch. If they failed, they would at least have a nice, late-summer bonfire.
Neither Sam nor Neil had money to spare. Neil’s family could well afford to send him more, but strongly believed they should not. In his undergraduate years, he drove a taxi and waited upon tables to pay the bills. There was a steel barrier between him and the family money, to be breeched only when Neil reached an inexact mature age. Early riches had spoiled other generations of Bronson men, turned them to drink and degradation, so the solution was simple: a very, very small allowance, regularly paid but never enlarged. If Bronsons did not starve in the streets, at least they would not be driving about in cloth-topped cars with adoring girls at their sides.
Sam’s Boston family, eleven strong, could barely afford to pay for heat each winter. What they lacked in comfort was made up for in love, siblings working to support the education of the younger ones. Sam, without rancor and with boundless vigor, worked for everything in undergraduate school, and the academy stepped in to recognize his great promise with full scholarship.
Neil and Sam had already paid for their passages home on an Italian ship, the bottom deck stateroom, right over the propellers. They expected with no questioning that they would fall quickly into work in New York on their return, perhaps waiting tables again or working in art galleries. They would paint at night or any extra time squeezed between work schedules until some gallery took up their cause. That they would be discovered and taken up on high was never doubted
Carrie, the beneficiary from her grandmother of a large trust fund, offered to pay the way for all three of them to their summer idyll in France, but both Neil and Sam felt uncomfortable with that. So the men rented a small room over the Metropole while Carrie had a two-room suite in the Auberge de Gordes on the other side of the cathedral. The three of them met every evening in small cafes and bars, looking at what the men had painted, critiquing each canvas as they had learned in London.
Sam was finally finished with his thirtieth painting.
“Voila. We’ve done it,” he said.
They put together their easel packs and walked over to the road just at two o’clock. Carrie was seldom late.