a short story by Lauren Kindle
“Nature only wants to be loved. She gives herself only to her true lovers.” --Corot
Berthe steadied her easel in the tall grass by the river’s edge. She pressed the thin wooden legs firmly into the earth, and then paused to wipe the sweat from her brow with the hem of her heavy skirt. She pulled a strand of damp hair off her cheek and shook her head as if to clear her mind. It was terribly hot for an April day, and there was hardly any shade along this section of the Oise River. But there was a cool breeze that came now and then, to bring some small relief.
Berthe’s sister Edma, painting a few yards away, gave a little shriek as the wind took the pages of her sketchbook and tossed them into the swiftly flowing water. The girls’ teacher looked up from his own easel farther down the bank and laughed softly to see the two Morisot sisters racing through the grass to salvage Edma’s remaining drawings.
“Ah, it is good to be young,” he said, walking slowly towards them. Old Corot, as his students fondly called him, was tall and strong, with a large build and a craggy, rugged face. He was an old man of sixty years, but still handsome.
“Mademoiselles, you must return to your work,” he said kindly. “You wanted to work out of doors, yes?”
“Oh, yes!” Berthe gasped, trying to catch her breath. Edma was laughing giddily beside her, face flushed.
“And so,” Corot gestured to the landscape. “We have the wind! And even so, we work, we work beside the wind. We do not give up.”
Chastened, Edma gathered up her sketches and returned to her easel. Berthe did the same, holding her brush out in front of her. She took a deep breath and narrowed her eyes to simplify the values of the landscape before her: the river, the trees, the distant hills, and the faraway rooftops of Auvers. She painted the sky a pale cobalt blue, wielding her brush ferociously, stabbing at her canvas in an aggressive manner.
Suddenly, Berthe stiffened; the back of her neck prickled. It was just a feeling of heat in the air behind her, and she knew Corot was very close, although he made no sound. He was so close she could smell him, a pleasant, familiar smell of leather and tobacco. Her heart beat faster as he gently took the paintbrush out of her hand and began to paint as he talked, masterfully laying one block of color beside another on her canvas.
“Non, ma chérie,” he murmured. “You must slow down. Now, first we paint the clouds, and then, see, we bring the sky in around them. And this verte éméraude, she irritates me, she is so harsh. You must subdue her just so.”
Corot deftly mixed the ready-made green with the burnt sienna on Berthe’s palette; his large hands moved confidently, with practiced sureness. The movement caused the translucent, glistening walnut oil to slide across the palette, surrounding the pools of dark green oil paint with a new wetness. Berthe bit her lip.
“When you are twenty, mademoiselle, you are so young,” Corot said as he painted. “You think you are running a race. But when you are old like me, you can savor each moment. You have time, you have all the time you need.”
Berthe clenched her teeth and watched her teacher paint. She didn’t feel like she had all the time she needed. She was impatient, uneasy… There was a pain in her heart, and she felt suddenly heated and constricted; her very clothes confined her. Had her corset always felt this tight? Had it always encircled her ribs so cruelly?
There was something fiercely burning inside of her, something sharp within the softness of her breasts, that womanly weak flesh. It was like a point of steel, the dagger of a murderess, unyielding, ruthless. It was her will, Berthe realized. It was her desire, and she thrilled silently at the newness of her discovery.
I want to be a painter, Berthe told herself, finally understanding. She hungrily licked the back of her teeth, and narrowed her eyes at the landscape before her. A smile played at the corner of her mouth. It was intoxicating, this new will, this splendid realization. She cherished it like a forbidden secret.
I want to be a painter. I want it more than anything…
Later, as they prepared to return home, Old Corot called Berthe over to him. Out of his traveling box he carefully took a painting, wrapped in a blanket.
“Sometimes I loan my students one of my paintings to take home and copy,” he said, handing it to her. “I think this one will have something to teach you. It is a view of Tivoli, in Italy. Take your time with it, mademoiselle. Take your time.”
Berthe slowly unwrapped the painting to reveal a scene: a boy sitting on a garden wall in the slanting afternoon sunlight, and beyond that, a rolling Italian landscape. Speechless, Berthe simply held the painting tightly to her chest and closed her eyes.
That night, Berthe couldn’t sleep. The painting was there, on the desk next to her bed, seeming to glow where the moonlight touched it. She lay in bed and tried to relax, but the knowledge of the painting being so near made her hot and restless. Berthe tossed her blankets off; she felt sweaty in her white nightdress. She got up and paced the room, then turned and looked at the painting.
Standing before Corot’s painting, she felt her body occupy a sacred space, that area where the artist himself had once been. Berthe thought about how Corot must have been standing in front of this very canvas when he was painting it. His body had been in front of it, the way her body was now. In this way, without ever really touching, they could experience a sort of intimacy, an intimacy of soft darkness, on the brink of unfathomable misery.
Berthe shivered and sighed, exhausted. She lay back down in bed and slowly drifted into that dark realm of sleep, where the barriers of life fade into insubstantial shadows.