As the shock of the Duret episode wore off, I managed to resume my work on the "Baigneuses" project and I began several small studies. As routines began to dominate again, I thought about trying the Salon d'Automne this year, where, with my new prestige, I thought, there might be a chance that I could get accepted. In thinking about this, I concluded that with the right subject: one which might make the Hanging Committee hesitant about rejection, they would be lenient. Many ideas occurred to me but the one making the most sense, for the purpose I had in mind, was a portrait of a prominent person in the arts. I believed this would give me credibility by demonstrating that the particular individual selected was supportive of my art. The person I chose, after deliberating for several weeks, was Gustave Geffroy, whom I'd spoken to at Monet's dinner party, a critic who liked my painting, and moreover, someone impressive in appearance. Geffroy was widely respected by academics as well as by the radicals, and he was known throughout the art community as a man of intelligence and sensitivity.
I chose Geffroy for these advantages, but it was my intent, also, to repay the critic for writing good reviews about me, and, in general, staunchly supporting the position of freedom of expression for all artists, no matter what theoretical base was involved. Taking this kind position was not easy for Geffroy because it ran against the grain of popular thinking and annoyed the intellectuals up at the Insitute and invited the wrath of the government officials behind the conservative mentality. At times, when he was at odds with the system, he had been warned by his publisher at Mercure de France, where he was employed at the moment, that he was too pro-radical, too anti-academic, in his reviews, but despite this, and signs from the Academie that persisting in his liberal views could work to his disadvantage, he continued to maintain his contention that creative freedom was a natural right for all artists.
Geffroy was not intimidated by the challenge of posing, responding to my letter outlining my plans, with a degree of enthusiasm which was astonishing to me. "I hasten to accept your flattering offer," he replied, "and I await your decision on the time and location when the project can be undertaken. I have followed your progress and I have admired your accomplishment, and I am excited about the idea of being part of the plans you have made for the future. When we can get together, I am also interested in hearing more of your philosophy of painting, something which could not be pursued very well at Giverny because of the social amenities that had to observed. However, after hearing a few of the remarks you made there, my desire to talk to you under more relaxed circumstances, was already in my mind, when the postman handed me your letter. I found the coincidence to be quite extraordinary, and happily spent most of my breakfast going over its contents, which were most cordially received by me. I eagerly await your response, and will make every effort to accommodate whatever demands you make on my strength and determination in order to succeed in this undertaking."
With these words on my mind, I began the portrait of Geffroy in high spirits; as I had suggested, we worked in his study in Belleville, a northern suburb of Paris. Geffroy was a talkative man, bourgeois in dress and demeanor, warm and expansive in his attitudes, and eager to cooperate on the portrait. I visualized the critic surrounded by the paraphernalia of the writer's profession: papers strewn over his desk, a letter opened for reading, a background of shelved books, a small vase with flowers, and, off to one side, a sculpture by Rodin. I advised him to keep these objects in place, moving them only if it was absolutely necessary, until the completion of the painting. Geffroy obeyed this and subsequent instructions to the letter, anxious to avoid impediments which might make my task more difficult. Monet, prior to my starting the work, had briefed him on the problems of posing, especially posing for me. It was clear from the start that Geffroy was careful, in conversation, and in following instructions, to chart a path where everything ran smoothly.
In the course of our chit-chat, Geffroy mentioned the decline in the reputation of Delacroix, saying: "Just because he saw with different eyes puts him outside the academic philosophy; actually I don't attach much importance to this because I believe his historical place is secure; that no one can take this away from him. These damn cycles of appreciation make very little sense; good art is good art no matter how you look at it; the trouble with the present scene is that the artists who run the Academie are almost totally blind to any form of expression different than their own: a concept that has all sorts of dangerous implications. Beaudelaire, who was unusually sensitive to the artistic variations, said he could not understand why there was such a fuss about style, which he considered incidental to the underlying poetry, that, in his words: 'Style is merely the means to an end: it is not the end itself; nor should any special importance be attached to it.' Delacroix," Geffroy continued, "was far above this kind of prattling about classicism, the antique, etc, doing what he did superbly: saying all he could say through his heart and deepest emotions."
I agreed: "He is a man for all time; his achievement lies beyond the comprehension of the fools who run the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; he belongs with the greatest of French painters!" When Geffroy and I discussed contemporary art we were not always in agreement, but I was careful to maintain a respectful attitude; it went along like this, relatively smoothly,until Geffroy said that teaching methods as practiced by the academicians, in his estimate, were not destructive to the individuality of the students, pointing out that some of the dissidents had been subjected to it without apparent harm. I instantly denied the validity of the statement, losing my composure, throwing my hands up in the air in exasperation. "The teaching," I shouted angrily, "is tied to a rotten and corrupt system; freedom of expression is a myth perpetuated by bigoted theorists who assign the truth only to themselves. I am not prepared," I said to Geffroy, my voice tense with anger, "to use the word unprincipled to describe these people, but as an expert on such matters, you can draw your own conclusion. Let me say to you that the system of art as we know it today, whether you discuss teaching or those who are in it to profit from the monopoly, is on precarious ground. No one, I repeat that, no one, not even the State, can protect a bad idea which has extended beyond its time!" Aroused by my own words, I added: "You will forgive me, Geffroy, if I frankly tell you that critics don't know the first thing about painting and painters: art is not a commodity that can be analyzed for its ups and downs like the stock market."
Geffroy was a good chap, never blinking an eye when I overstepped the bounds of simple courtesy, smiling graciously during my outburst, and nodding his head politely, even when he disagreed with me. He understood the deep feelings behind my actions; the tenuous hold I exercised over my temper. At times, when we engaged in prolonged discussions with clear differences in ideas, I imagined myself back at the Cafe Guerbois again with Zola, Manet, Degas, Duranty, Ballu, and the rest of the crowd who delighted in intellectual debate. The constant abstraction of Geffroy's words, necessary to his trade, were too complex, too incomprehensible for a mind that shut down when it was faced with verbal sophistry which never got around to fundamentals. I had always viewed language as communication, an exchange mutually beneficial to both sides, and not a game played with words. Affectation, exaggeration, pretense, no matter how sincere, merely confused matters, and usually ended in disagreement. For me, words had significance; they had truth; or they did not have these qualities; no amount of window-dressing could change an idea. When I voiced my disgust to Geffroy over the way critics used language to disguise shallow viewpoints, indicating that I believed they were more concerned with affectation than fact, he said he had reached the same conclusion as a young writer trying to make his way in a difficult profession: "I decided, during those early days, that honesty was not the common denominator among those in the writing trade; that most of the successful novelists, critics, and people in the editorial room of newspapers, were partial to the system, and that their reviews demonstrated this fact. My intention--I have tried to maintain this position in my work, is to voice an opinion based solely on my sincere evaluation of each problem as it occurs without allowing personal or establishment influences to enter into it."
When I repeated my disgust over the way critics used language to hide their ineptitude, saying: "I disagree with everything that has been said about me except those which praise my work: and they are damned few, believe me!" Geffroy laughed at this, moving slightly from his position, forcing me to remind him that he must not move until the session was finished. Then, hardly moving his lips, he replied: "I see that revolutionaries are just as dogmatic as reactionaries!" "Maybe," I countered, "it's a necessary fact of survival!" Geffroy's observation, made partly in jest, was essentially true, and I told him. so: "My understanding of painting," I said, "leaves very little for give and take!"
Geffroy, by the time we had gotten to the third session, had adjusted to the rough edges of my character; this had overcome my antipathy to the unacceptable facets of his personality that rubbed me the wrong way; and I think this was true from his side of it as well; the liking I had developed for him as a man was primarily based on his decency and fairness. Moreover, he was not afraid to face unpleasant realities; something his colleagues lacked, for the most part, and he was perfectly willing to face the consequences, as shown by his support of the dissident cause. In the short period I had known him, he had been ready to listen to ideas, even if these ideas ran counter to his deepest feelings. His manner, devoid of the usual affectations, the foppery, the extreme intellectualism of his comrades in the writing trade, disarmed my inherent distrust of bourgeois scribblers.
In Geffroy's presence, I openly discussed controversial subjects: he remained sympathetic to my ideas; and it was clearly evident that he was interested in my opinion. After a posing session was completed, we'd leave Geffroy's house for a small cafe in Belleville, a kilometer or so away, to enjoy a glass of wine, and additional conversation, free of the impediments of posing. I amused the critic when I told him that: "I'll show those bastards at the Academie some real painting! They," I repeated, realizing as I spoke, that Geffroy's friendly presence was encouraging me to boast, "will see what it is all about!" These moments of exhilaration became less and less as work on the portrait of Geffroy continued--a month had passed, almost before I realized it, and no progress had been made. I began to lose confidence in my ability to complete a successful picture, I dreaded the sittings as the frustrations multiplied, and all I could think of was the terrible premonition of failure. Gradually, as nothing developed, I became paralyzed by impossibility of realization, turning my dreams of success at the Salon d'Automne into a nightmare. I understood that going on with a disorganized state of mind was impossible, that I was in a trap of my own making, that it was necessary to escape from the dilemma. Geffroy, sympathetic, and patient, had no idea of the agony which tortured me. He had offered total cooperation, the conditions were ideal, there was no limitation of the time involved. None of these advantages had enabled me to achieve my objectives in the painting, indicating that I was not up to crushing my enemies on their own battlefield--the Salon d'Automne. The idea had stretched far beyond my capacity to deal with it, a silly fantasy, another deflated dream which had gone bad. It was obvious that I was not an artist who functioned like an academician, turning out precise products, delivered on schedule....
These devastating thoughts weighed heavily on me as I struggled, panic stricken, unable to think, terrified with each brushstroke. My only choice was to admit defeat, accept the ignominy of failure, to return to my isolated existence, away from a challenge which tortured me, to try somehow to heal the hurt, to go on to subject matter less controversial. Geffroy, suddenly, was the symbol of everything that was wrong; I hated art, I hated the social system which tortured me, and I hated a failing body that made each day a painful occurrence. In my feverish state, I saw my enemies gloating over another Cezanne defeat. The agony of my position gradually built up to an intolerable point; unable to face the acceptance of the ignominy involved in the disastrous situation, I precipitously left Belleville, returning to the flat on the Rue des Lions Saint-Paul, tears in my eyes, my heart broken by my frustrations, got into bed, and immediately fell into a deep sleep separating me mercifully from thoughts of the Geffroy experience.
The next day, my heart heavy, I posted a letter to Geffroy explaining my actions and apologizing for my inability to complete the portrait: Dear Gustave Geffroy, I wrote, "I trust you will forgive the inconvenience and embarrassment I have caused and that you will be kind enough to allow me the anonymity my position deserves." Remembering my boastful remarks to Geffroy about showing the academics what good painting was all about, I added a postscript as follows: "If I have maligned people in your presence, please consider it as another example of my bad judgement. It is my fate to fumble in ignorance, to be deceived by false pride, and to be encouraged by impossible dreams."
from Pour Moi, Cezanne