Friday, February 4, 2011

Portrait of Georges Clemenceau, Pt. 1

Painting Georges Clemenceau would prove to be one of the most difficult assignments that Cecilia Beaux would ever have. Here are excerpts from her account:

"Arriving in Paris in the spring of 1919, the artist upon whom had been placed the responsibility of producing an interpretation of this personality, in a painted portrait, had long to wait. It was nearly a year afterward that I had my first meeting with him.

But [before this meeting] while I was quietly nibbling at the great subject, there came one of those swift openings into the next 'Square' so enjoyed by Alice. There would be a seat for me [in the front row] in the Loge Diplomatique at the Chamber when Clemenceau was to appear.

When he spoke, I saw that the old man was young. He had had no dealings with age, an enemy who would have to wait. The top-light brought out only the large masses, the superb construction of his head and his rich healthy color. How thankful I was for the simple lighting, and even for the distance! - and I learned that the great should always be seen first, if possible, from a distance, and without contradictory detail, by those who wished to study them. In this way, the big forms and gestures become and remain predominant. I then and there determined that a study from memory of what I saw then, though probably incomplete, would be truer than if I attempted to do him directly from sittings, if I ever got them.

[A year later Cecilia finally was able - through the gracious solicitation of an American colonel - secure an interview with Clemenceau.]

"When the door of Clemenceau's study was closed behind us, the little old man - for he seemed this now - turned on me and shouted, almost savagely, "Vous parlez francais?" "Oui, monsieur," I said; "but you know English so well that, if you please, we will speak English." "Very well," he said, rather gently, and then, turning on me again, "Well, to begin with, we hate each other." "No, Monsieur," I said, "that's only half true." Whereupon he threw up his hands and laughed aloud, and I felt that the assault was over and the breach opened.

I was invited to sit...Clemenceau took his chair, and we at once became quite gay. Strangely enough, I have no recollection of this part of our interview. I suppose because all but my automatic faculties were engaged in seeing. The eyes of my vis-a-vis took my whole attention. The big modelling of the head had been conspicuous from a distance at the Chamber, but the eyes there were only caverns. Now I got their full dynamic power, though the general form of the head, seen so near, became, paradoxically, somewhat diminished. In a moment practical matters surged up.

"What do you want from me?" he said. I replied, "As much as I can have." He said, "I have just come back from Egypt. I have had pneumonia....I will give you a half hour tomorrow and the same on the two following days." "That would be of no use to me," I said, desperately clinging to the exact truth, and then went on to explain, he listening with a sort of curiously amused interest.

"I have seen you in the Chamber, Monsieur," I said. "I watched you for two hours last September. I decided on the composition then, and have not changed my mind. I have already made a sketch and laid in the composition, life-size. I have spent much time examining every bust and photograph of you to be found. I do not count on regular sittings form you which you would not have time for. "It would do me no good to come tomorrow, as I must work tomorrow on what I have seen today."

Clemenceau seemed to approve entirely of this method, not offering any objection to it, and another appointment was made. My mind fully assured that he would be generous, and that I must be short; that he would not endure an instant of boredom in such a cause..."

(to be continued - from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux)

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