Gabrielle could feel the letter almost slipping from her cold fingers. It was the one that every soldier’s wife most feared; her beautiful, wonderful Guillaume was dead. And it had been so far away, in that horrible Mexican wilderness! The battle had been last April at somewhere unpronounceable. At least he would have been buried in a proper Catholic country. She must change into mourning as soon as she could bear to let go of the letter. But, just now, it seemed the last link with the man she’d loved since …when?
At supper in the Café Riche on the Boulevard des Italiens, after seeing Rigoletto at the Théâtre Italien, she’d been introduced, by her married sister, Suzanne, to this handsome, young officer who looked so glorious in his uniform. Suzanne whispered that he was unmarried and of very good family. Gabrielle decided, then and there, that he would not remain the former for long.
It had been a wonderful courtship: balls and theatre and suppers. But there had also been quiet walks and talks, carefully chaperoned by her Aunt Matilde, in the lovely Tuileries Garden by Catherine de’ Medici’s Palace on the Right Bank. They had been married just before Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon III, had decided to send French troops to Mexico in 1861. It was all about somebody’s unpaid debts, but soldiers must go where and when they are sent. They had hoped he might leave her with a child coming, but that had not happened. Now she was left with nothing of him at all.
Never one for tears, Gabrielle fought her own battle against them and won. Guillaume would want her to live a full and happy life; he’d said so before he’d gone. At least he’d left his affairs in order and his property would come to her without the interference of trustees. She could comfortably do as she pleased.
Gabrielle now recalled another letter that she’d had last week. It was the first from Harriet, her American friend, since the end of their Civil War in May. The two families had met when Harriet and her parents had come to Paris before that war. They were from Boston and were raising funds for what they called the “underground railway” that was helping Negro slaves to escape from Southern plantations. It had sounded quite thrilling and noble to Gabrielle, something she could now throw herself into to get over her grief at losing Guillaume.
Slowly Gabrielle rose from her chair and carefully she returned the military missive to its envelope and put it into the drawer of her desk. Taking a fresh sheet of writing paper and her pen and ink, she started another letter. “Dearest Harriet …”
About the Author:
Susan Cornford is a retired public servant, living in Perth, Western Australia, with pieces published or forthcoming in 50-Word Stories, Akashic Books, Antipodean Science Fiction, Ghost Parachute, Medusa’s Laugh, Speculative 66, Subtle Fiction, Switchblade, The Fable Online, The Gambler and The Vignette Review. She considers herself an emerging Flash writer.
Susan submitted her story with this note: “I looked through Met Art website till I found “The Letter” by Camille Corot (c. 1865). This was a story just waiting to be told! So, I dug around in the history of the period & this is what I came up with. The names are a tribute to the new Olympic ice dancers.”
Camille Corot is also known as Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875). He was born in Paris at 125 Rue du Bac, and was the middle child of a wealthy family. The family was in the fashion business, his Swiss-born mother a milliner and his father a wig-maker before becoming a businessman, running the millinery shop where Corot’s mother had worked which the Corot family had bought. He started painting late in life, at the age of 26, after a failed apprenticeship as a draper. Luckily for Corot, his parents had invested well and had more than enough money to support his artistic endeavours. Corot started painting under Achille-Etna Michallon who studied landscape painting under Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. Corot made historical and realistic landscapes his focus. The former contains mythological animals, signs and symbols, the latter are depictions and renditions of Northern European sceneries fused with flora and fauna recognisable in the northern hemisphere. According to the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, historical (landscape) paintings were considered better than pure landscape paintings i.e. depictions of flora and fauna as nothing could be learnt from studying painted plants. Corot liked to mix both historical and realistic landscapes together, forming a unique way of painting landscapes. However, he was not the only painter to do so. Claude Lorrain, a French painter before Corot was famous for his hybrid style too. Lorrain had settled in Rome in the seventeenth century and his artworks consisted of a balanced depiction of pure landscape infused with narratives from the Bible and the Classical past (think Greek and Roman myths).
Corot belonged to the Barbizon School of painting where an idealised portrayal of nature was preferred. Barbizon painters took their influence from Italian painters and many travelled to Italy for inspiration and Corot was no exception. In Italy, he was able to capture and depict the light favoured by Italian Renaissance artists. Barbizon is a village near the Fontainebleau Forest where the first generation of French painters worked in favour of idealising their native landscape rather than that of Italianate scenes.
Barbizon painters painted directly from their observation of nature and always in the open-air—en plein air. This way of painting would come to be emulated by the Impressionists.
Camille Corot died in Paris in 1875, a single man, having never married because he swore to devote his life to painting landscapes: “All I really want to do in life … is to paint landscapes. This firm resolve will stop me forming any serious attachments. That is to say, I shall not get married.”—Camille Corot
With this resolve, Corot left behind over 3,000 pieces of artwork but not all were of landscapes. He was also a philanthropist who donated a large part of his wealth (which he made from selling his paintings) to the poor of Paris. He helped support a couple of his artist friends and their families who were not as lucky as he was. Camille Corot is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery.
Susan’s choice by Corot is entitled ‘The Letter’, depicting a seated woman with a letter on her lap. The colour scheme overall is dull, sombre and drab, a result of the overuse of browns and blacks. (In general, Corot’s paintings are generally rendered in such tones; some are almost like sepia photographs.) The red hair accessory gives this painting a hint of cheerfulness, only to be reduced by the expression on the woman’s face: her eyes are downcast and she is pensive. On closer look, the viewer’s eye notices signs of despondency on the sitter’s face enhanced by the linearity of her lips and the shadows around her eyes. Baudelaire defends Corot’s use of pale colours calling him a “harmonist” more than a “colourist”. I find this reading of Corot’s artworks accurate. There is a quality to his paintings which never fails to emote me. ‘The Letter’ is a good example; I really feel the sitter’s sadness and sense that the letter mustn’t have brought good news.
CarpeArte Journal loves Susan’s story, considering it a great example of how art has prompted a response in the writer. Her story ends with the start of a letter, indicating the open-ended reading of Corot’s ‘The Letter’.
Susan’s story pays homage to the new Olympian ice skaters, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.