Monday, October 4, 2010

Balzac's "Pierre Grassou” (1839)

This slight short story is centered on an amusing anecdote. The mediocre painter Pierre Grassou earns his bread, early in his career, by making copies of paintings by the Masters – Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Later, an established portrait painter, he is brought to the private collection of his future father-in-law, an art loving bourgeois who made his fortune in manufacturing bottles. As it turns out, the whole collection, for which its owner has paid a small fortune over the years, is made up of the knock-off paintings that Grassou sold for next to nothing!

Balzac (like Zola) was at home in the contemporary art world, and this is one of several works (La Chat-qui-pelote, La Bourse, and La Vendetta, for example). It is most similar to La Chat-qui-pelote. Like that novellas it involves the marriage and courting of a daughter of the bourgeoisie by an artist. But is in almost every way its opposite.

The hero of Chat-qui-Pelote is portrayed as a handsome genius, at the forefront of his profession. By contrast, Pierre Grassou is generally considered a mediocrity, even by his fellow painters. Finally, he has some success at the Paris Salon with a mediocre, half-disguised copy of a Gerard Dow painted. That image of a condemned man getting his last haircut he has cleverly entitled “The toilette of a Chouan, condemned to death in 1891.” This painting of a Royalist hero about to be executed by the Revolution attracts the eyes of none other than Charles X and the Duke of Orléans, the latter of whom buys the painting. The implication is that the more advanced paintings of the better artists are beyond the king’s understanding. His reputation made.
Commissions follow. Grassou becomes a favorite portraitist of the bourgeoisie and his reputation only grows, as does his frugally managed nest egg.

(A further complication is that Grassou comes from Fougères in Brittany, in the center of Chouan country, and, not coincidentally, the site of Balzac 1826 novel Les Chouans, which got Balzac’s career started, and appealed to the Bourbon court.)

In any case, Grassou, unlike his brother painters (and unlike Balzac), manages his money, marries into the bottle makers’ family and a substantial dowry, and lives a life the opposite of Bohemian. His wife loves him dearly, but is rather plain in appearance. He has the good taste to appreciate his more avant-garde contemporaries, and gradually replaces the fakes in his father-in-law’s collection with their work, supporting them when they need money.

Being an artist in nineteenth century fiction means living a life of debt, mental anguish, alcohol, sex, and alternating feast or famine. The prudent Pierre Grassou is a notable exception.

Ce peintre, bon père et bon époux, ne peut cependant pas ôter de son cœur une fatale pensée : les artistes se moquent de lui, son nom est un terme de mépris dans les ateliers, les feuilletons ne s’occupent pas de ses ouvrages. Mais il travaille toujours, et il se porte à l’Académie où il entrera.
(However, this painter, a good father and a good spouse, could never remove a fatal thought from his heart: other artists make fun of him, his name is a term of scorn in the ateliers, the newspapers do not bother with his work. But he always has work, and he is on the path to the Academy, where he will be admitted.)

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