Burnt Sienna

Friday 23rd March

“Burnt Sienna”, he muttered “Where can I get some burnt sienna?”  He rummaged through his store of pigments but there was no sienna – raw or burnt, to be found at all.  “Damn” he swore, “It is the very colour I need for the cloak, and a touch in the hair would bring it alive.  Madame has such very dull brown hair, going grey over her ears, truth to tell. But she uses henna, and cleverly too, just giving a warm lift to her very dull face.  Too much and she would look foolish.  Especially at her age.”  He had almost finished the portrait.  “It wasn’t so bad”, he thought, walking away from the canvas and squinting, covering one eye and then the other. “Maybe a touch on the serious side, and the skin tone is much paler then her real colouring.”  He had ignored those tiny capillaries beginning to break out at the edges of her nose, which he had made just a touch more aquiline.  And as for wrinkles and crow’s feet – he wasn’t foolish enough to present her as she really was.  “Nobody wants that; why you might as well give them a mirror.  No, a good portrait shows you as you would like to be seen, as you should be seen.  It isn’t really dishonesty, it is simply a different way of seeing.”

And one must never forget, Madame is an Aristocrat, after all.  Even if rumour has it that she was really a miller’s daughter who had married well.  Her husband, Monsieur Le Fevre, was the third son of a Marquis.  But only a third son.  Not even a first or a second, so he was destined for poverty – or what he, as a member of the Bourgeoisie, considered as poverty. He had an honorary position in the Cavalry but could barely afford a horse, let alone the equipage to go with it.  He lived in a large house in the smartest Arrondissement, but it was only rented.  He owed his tailor for the very clothes on his back.  He lived, like most of the Parisienne gentry, constantly in debt, signing promissory notes like confetti.  His father was rich and had a large estate South of Paris near Orleans.  He would inherit something, he supposed, as did his creditors.  But for now, he spent far too much time and energy on being obsequious towards those he presumed to be wealthier than himself.

The latest Paris fashion was to have your wife painted in a Roman Toga with a leopard or some exotic animal sitting at her feet, and so, Monsieur had commissioned Pierre Dalgarde, an artisan artist, (cheap, but proficient) to paint her.  Pierre only had the final coat to the cloak and her hair and the wretched thing would be done.  It had taken him three weeks, it was almost finished.  And now, of all things he had run out of burnt sienna.

He had promised Monsieur he could view the painting tomorrow, and it was already late.  It was getting dark too.  Where on earth would he find some sienna, raw or burnt, at this time of night?  The few pigment suppliers would be closed by now.  He had ochre and a little cochineal; but he knew that would only give him a hideous orange.  He would have to try one of his fellow artists.  He was wary of venturing out into the streets so late, there were rumours flying of unrest, especially in the poorer districts; and Pierre lived on the edge of Saint Antoine, one of the very poorest.  He had been closeted in his studio for almost three weeks, his landlady bringing him meals and wine daily.  She had told him of the riots; but he had barely heard her, intent as he was on finishing the portrait.

He turned a corner and was horrified to see the famous Revellion wallpaper factory ablaze.  A large crowd had gathered and were shouting and cheering as the timbers fell into the conflagration and huge flames leapt ever higher, seeming to dance over the rooftops.  The mob looked ugly and dangerous, and coward that he was, Pierre skulked back to his studio.

Panicking, he grabbed a handful of ochre, some oil and adding just a dash of cochineal he quickly painted the robe.  It looked far too bright and distracted the eye from her face, but it couldn’t be helped; it would simply have to do.  Tired, he ground up some coffee beans and heating them in a small copper saucepan over his single candle, dosed them some brandy and tumbled into bed.

As the next morning broke he was dreading looking again at the portrait.  He saw at once that his worst fears were realised.  The ochre had dried an even more ugly shade of dark yellow.   “Just like Moutarde de Dijon.” He sighed.  This would never do.  Suddenly he had an idea.  He ran downstairs and into the cellar.  There among the broken furniture and dusty barrels he scraped up some dry earth from the floor.  Good old Parisienne dirt, a dark enough brown surely.  Then his eyes saw the rusty hoop of an old wine barrel.  Rust, just the thing.  He added some scrapings to the dusty soil, milling it smooth with his hands.

Upstairs he tentatively touched the ochre.  Yes, it was almost dry but there was a little movement still.  He carefully dabbed the rusty dirt onto the ochre, gently feathering the brush with the most delicate of whispy strokes, careful not to disturb the still wet paint underneath.  It was working. He would have to leave the hair, that would be too difficult.  “Well, her bloody hair was mousy anyway.”

He relaxed, as he finished the last gentle strokes.  “At least the leopard looked alive, his landlady’s cat had sat patiently for him, even if Madame had fidgeted constantly”. He would show it to M. le Fevre later that day.

He waited anxiously for Monsieur to arrive.  He listened for the bells, two, three and then four.  No Monsieur.  At six his landlady brought his supper.  “What is this?” he demanded. “No meat, and these potatoes are miserably small.  And what is this withered leaf pretending to be cabbage? You can’t expect me to eat this.”

“Beggars cannot be choosers, mon ami.  You are three months behind with your rent again.  Besides, there is no meat to be had in all of Sainte Antoine.  Have you not heard, monsieur le Peintre?  They are calling it ‘La Revolution’.  The mob are taking over Paris.  Down with the Aristocrats, down with the Bourgeoisie.  Ha, and about time too, the way they have robbed this country for years.  People can only suffer so much and now they are taking their revenge.  They say the king is hiding in Versailles, and his troops are refusing to obey orders to shoot the rioters.”

“Oh, I expect it will come to nothing.” Pierre sighed,  “These things rarely do.  In a few days order will be restored.  The ringleaders will be beheaded, and their greasy skulls displayed on spikes outside the Hotel de Ville.  It always ends the same.  Mark my words.”

“Ah no.  It is different this time, mon ami.  They are storming the Bastille this very evening and releasing the prisoners.  You wait and see.  Honest French men will no longer be treated like dirt by the Aristocrats.  Things will be different from now on.”

“Well I sincerely hope you are wrong, my dear woman.” He smiled at her.  “If the Aristocracy falls, how will I get any commissions?  How will you then get any rent at all, three months late or not?  But far more importantly, where can I get some burnt sienna?  Tell me, is it safe to go out now?  I really must have some of that pigment, the ochre is beginning to seep through again, even as I look at it.  Monsieur Le Fevre will be furious with me.  If I am not lucky he will have my head on a spike.  You don’t seem to realise how important this is.  My career will be ruined if I don’t get some burnt sienna soon.”

“Good luck with that mon ami.  All the shops are closed – or looted. I would stay indoors if I were you.”  At his door she turned and laughingly said  “Oh, and wear your dirtiest old clothes if you do go out.  It would be a shame for you to be mistaken for one of the rich, and you the poorest painter in all of Sainte Antoine.”

After she left, Pierre looked again at the portrait.  He was still unhappy with it, but then he was always unhappy with his work.  All that talent and still a jobbing portraitist.  But where was M. Le Fevre?  “He said he would be here today to pay me.  I hope he gives me some real money today, not another of those notes.  The moneylenders took one fifth last time.  Ha, maybe this, what are they calling it, “La Revolution” will rid us of those leeches.  But it will come to nothing.  Of that I am sure.  The poor are too stupid to be trusted with anything.  No, the natural order will be restored after a few days.  As soon as food begins to run out they will come crawling back begging for their Lords and Ladies to return.”

Suddenly, there was a banging and clattering and his garret was kicked open.  “I told you” a man with a knitted red cap and wild eyes shouted.  “The Lady was here a few days ago.”  He looked around at Pierre sitting aghast.  He grabbed the full-length portrait off the easel.  “Just look at the smug look on her Bourgeoise face.”  He raised his fist and smashed it through the canvas.  “This is what we think of you, Madame.  Now smile if you still can.”

Pierre leapt up, “You’ve ruined the painting.  Three weeks that took me.  I will never get paid now.  Mon Dieu, what shall I do now?”

“Ha.  Grab him.”  The ringleader shouted.  “We must make an example of those who would flatter the Aristocrats with this merde!!!”

Three men grabbed him, but his landlady stood in front of the painter. “Leave him be.  He is poor, just like us.  Would you grab their servants?  We have no choice.  To survive we must all do what we must.  You have ruined his portrait, that is punishment enough surely.”

And dashing his paints and pigments to the floor they left.  Pierre, crying at his ruined work picked them up, and his hand closed in on a small hessian bag.  “Burnt sienna.  How could I have missed it?”