A Touch of Red
January 14, 2013 at 12:22am


Draft of an exercise for a writing workshop:


Papa Corot, as the young Camille Pisarro liked to call his mentor, was in a good mood. This was not unusual for the old man with the twinkling eyes who was already famous for his lyrical opalescent forest scenes haunted with peasants, invariably wearing something red and sometimes with nymphs playing nude in the landscape.  Among his many friends he was also known for his kindness and his good humor.  Papa Corot had been happily painting by the side of a stream, singing snippets of operas in his good melodious voice when suddenly he wanted to talk about a subject that he rarely brought up, he wanted to talk about women. 

He put his brushes down, dug up his pipe and loaded it with pungent tobacco and walked behind Camille’s easel, he hummed his approval and asked his young friend to step back from his painting for a few minutes of conversation. He started simply, but in a slow and somewhat circuitous way as was his manner: 

You know Camille, we are fortunate to be able to spend our time painting. My father was a merchant and he wanted me to go into business with him, but I had a passion to become a painter, so after two years of trying my hand at the fabric trade with very poor results I made a bargain with him: If he supported me during two years of my art studies I would make a success at a career as a painter. He could see that my heart was not in business and he agreed, as long as I promised to work hard.

In my training I spent many hours drawing and painting nude figures, first from casts of classic statues and later from life.  My parents were very religious and I had to keep my figure sketches hidden from them, so in order to show that I was working hard I had to get up at dawn and paint in the country side before going to the art academy to learn to paint the figures. Sometimes I would also paint in the afterglow of sunset into the dusk of late evenings.

I did not have any dealings with women; I practically lived the life of a monk. The people I met in the country side were simple peasant folks, very picturesque, but drab and colorless.  The one thing I learned from the fabric trade was the joy of color harmonies and contrasts. My early and late landscapes were missing something to my eye. One morning I saw what I had been missing; a touch of red in a peasant’s sweater, it was the perfect foil. It was there and gone in an instant, but it remained in my memory.

From that time on I made it a point to meet the people that walked those paths, whenever possible I would mention that it was a good idea to wear something red so that one would not run the risk of being confused for a deer by a hunter.  These peasants are no fools and while they are shy, they are very resourceful. They could see my paintings and they knew what I wanted.  A few of them hinted that they would be happy to wear the color, for they recognized the wisdom of my advice, but they were very poor and, alas, the red dye for clothes is so expensive… Ha, these are good people, I was happy to strike a deal.

I made friends with some of the people that frequented the section of the forest I loved best; to them I gave some gifts when my allowance permitted it. Sometimes I would buy a scarf, sometimes an apron or a bandana, nothing very expensive. All I wanted was to see that touch of red in the distance as they went about their day. Some I paid a little extra to hold a pose for me.


Madam Rose was a mysterious young widow that had returned from Paris to live with her elderly parents. For a year I saw her walking the path to the stream to fetch water or to do her washing. She kept her black veil down over her face and, unlike the other people; she never stopped to talk or even wave hello. There was something about her; even in her black dress she was something to see. Her movements and posture were full of grace.


It was early on a beautiful spring day, a day much like today Camille, and that’s what reminded me of this:


That day, when Mother Nature seemed to be drunk with chlorophyll, Madam Rose came directly to my easel and without lifting her veil whispered in a low tone as follows: “Tomorrow I shall go to Paris; if you give me money I shall buy something red.”  I was struck speechless, but not dumb, I reached in my pocket and gave her all I had. Before I recovered my composure she had walked away.  I did not see her again for a week. Every morning I would start my painting with anticipation, despairing as the day went by and she did not show.

I had given up, thinking that I had been made a fool, when suddenly there she was again. Nothing had changed, she was all in black with the veil down, but her movement was slightly different, more sensual somehow. All I know is that it quickened my pulse in a new way.  She did not stop to speak, but did not seem to be trying to avoid me either. This went on for three days, my paintings suddenly seemed different, they had a new vibration, a new energy was charging every brushstroke, they were becoming alive.



On the fourth day I gathered the courage to speak to her for the first time. What came out of my mouth was the last thing I meant to say, it just blurted out: “You lied to me! I don’t care about the money, I’m happy to help you, but you did not have to lie to me.” The words were harsh but my tone was wounded and she quickly placed a hand to my lips and said:  “No! My sweet young painter, no; I would never lie to you.”  That’s what she said: “My sweet young painter.” My mouth was open as I was trying to form words, but all that came out was: “But, but.” And again she put her hand to my mouth and stepped back, then she lifted her veil, pursed her bright red lips in a coquettish reproach and said:  “Paris is famous for lipstick and silk under garments, you may see them anytime you wish.”


The day is warm Camille, and it reminds me of that day long ago. That is the day when I saw the feminine form in the landscape for the first time, that is also when I learned that passion in a painting is a feeling, not a color.


With that, Papa Corot put out his pipe and returned singing to his easel.

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