Saturday, February 5, 2011

Portrait of Georges Clemenceau, Pt. 2

Summarizing thus far:

"In the spring of 1919, it became evident to those interested in American art that if the United States was to have a pictorial record of WWI, it would be necessary to send artists to Europe for that purpose, but to do so as a private contribution without waiting for public action...
The artists chosen for this work were
  • Cecilia Beaux
  • Joseph DeCamp
  • Charles Hopkinson
  • Edmund Tarbell
  • Irving Wiles, and
  • Douglas Volk.
All went to Europe in the early summer of 1919, when the war's confusion still reigned and the more difficult task of making peace was in progress."* Cecilia had - after the period of a year - finally received permission to meet with Georges Clemenceau of France. This is an excerpt from her account of her experience while painting his portrait.

"I was glad that at this meeting I had not been rapt away to the extent of being unaware of what was going on. I could now remember the voice of consciousness, whispering as I sat at the outer arc of the horseshoe: 'You are alone with Georges Clemenceau in his study. You are talking like old acquaintances, across a narrow table. That small hand in a worn, grey glove resting on some sheets of paper covered with black handwriting is the same that defied Germany and hoisted France out of the pit...Take this moment Fate permits you, and be thankful.'

Sargent was the only artist in the world strong enough to wrest an oeuvre from such a meagre opportunity...There was no room in Clemenceau's study for canvas, easel, and paints for the direct attack...and that soft side-light from the window would have been the death of synthesis and simplicity, and indeed, would have veiled, rather than revealed, the force of Clemenceau.

One must remember, too, the destiny of the portrait. I was to be an attempt to give the public of another country some idea of the Frenchman, the Patriot, the Leader, the Denouncer, the Supporter. Clemenceau must be seen in the Tribune Chambers, lighted from far above. Color was of little consequence; the great head and the action alone important. By seeing him as often as he would permit, I might continually refresh my knowledge of forms, correct mistakes of measurement and proportion, and above all get a repeated first-hand view of his positive, yet so intricate, personality.

On my second visit, I took a board with a piece of paper to make notes. I knew I could not draw. He came in, saying, 'Well, I would like to kill you, but our laws do not permit it.' But he took hold of me by both arms, a good-natured shake, not terrifying at all. I climbed over some armchairs and got my back to the light, and Clemenceau got into his chair facing me.

His eyes are clear, dark depths with yellow lights across them, not a sign of age there; and in spite of those gleams, under all, when one sees deep enough, there is disillusion and more of pain than of bitterness. His eyebrows bristle out, grey, with terrific energy.

I did not stay long - that is, I got up to go - and then he began showing me things. He had a great little picture by Daumier, a gift he had just received, and although it was framed, he insisted on holding it out at arm's length, for me to see, and was full of understanding and enthusiasm. He helped me on with my coat, and it was then that he proposed my writing to him when I wished to come again.

When I arrived one morning for an appointment, made as he had proposed, he entered holding up both hands in dismay. 'Alas, I have made three engagements for this hour. Can you come tomorrow?' "Certainly, [I said,] 'but there is no need. I am seeing now what I came for.' And then as he stood ready to be measured and examined, I remarked that it didn't take long to see something when one knows what one wishes to find. He shouted, 'C'est vrai! c'est vrai [It's true, it's true!!' And when I was going out, he said very kindly, 'You do not need to make an appointment. Come any morning at nine-thirty.' And I was gone before the other man arrived.

So day after day the search went on. Bit by bit, changing, refreshing, chiselling, adding new evidence, and above all maintaining obstinately the prime conception.

Clemenceau left Paris rather suddenly, but not before the fibre of my visual receptivity had taken up all it was capable of. I could not make any more discoveries of an important nature, I could only enforce and simplify. I improved the portrait quite a good deal, after I set it up in my New York studio, with greater distance, but anything done away from the magic of the rue Franklin was hard going.

I saw Clemenceau once again in Vichy. His hotel was not far from ours. His doctor made the appointment for me one afternoon. We were led along a dim corridor, down which le President advanced to meet us, holding out both hands, a kind welcome. He led us into a room where he had been writing at a table. We had a joyous visit, and when we were leaving, he put his hand on my shoulder and said a few words to me that I shall always be happy in remembering. He left the next day, and we did not meet again..."

Tomorrow Cecilia paints the last portrait of her commission: Admiral Lord Beatty of England.

* (War Portraits by Eminent Artists in The American Magazine of Art, March 1921) \
** (Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux)

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