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An Atelier Des Dames by Margaret B. Wright


After years of patient endeavor, of hope deferred and heart oftentimes made sick, Paletta found herself at last in Paris. Behind her were years of anxious calculations and shabby economies, a chequered pathway of brilliant ambitions and sombre discouragements. Before her was another vista of several years of art-study in the great capital—a vista arched, she could not but know, by as heavy clouds as had ever darkened her path. Yet she felt, even although she could not see its end, that the forward vista climbed ever upward toward glorious heights, upon which the storms of despair never beat, and where she could more nearly touch upon the divine ideals that ever elude the grasp of even the loftiest of earth's climbers.

And thus she was content. Paletta was yet a little young, it must be said, yet in that blessed youthfulness when the loins are girded with the strength that reduces mountains to molehills and forces the Apollyon of dismay to flee from out every dark valley.

Behold Paletta—twenty-three years of age, with a winy color upon her lips, the faintest perceptible shadow of fading upon the roses of her cheeks, a little anxious wrinkle between her earnest gray eyes, a slight nasal twang in her New England voice, and a fresh flounce upon her old black alpaca dress—the first morning of her experience in an atelier des dames in Paris! She had come down the hill from her dark little room on Montmartre, fancying that the gray December day was crystalline, that the dingy Rue Germain Pillon—with its dirty gamins of both sexes in cropped hair and blouses or white caps and black gowns, its frowsy women slouching in doorways, its succession of odorous cuisines bourgeoises, vile-smelling lavoirs, cheap fruit-shops and plebeian crémeries, its slimy cobblestones, its gutters running not with laughing waters, and sending up scents not of spicy isles ensphered by sun-illumined seas—was a rainbow arch over which she passed with airy tread toward the Krug studio. For had she not at last finished for ever the detestable photograph-coloring which had been a daily crucifixion of all her artistic feelings for years? Had she not at last reached the Enchanted Land for which she had labored and pined for half her life? Had she not clothes enough to last her with patient mendings and persistent remakings for two years? Had she not a thousand dollars at the Crédit Lyonnais? And did not that stately entrance before her lead into a spacious courtyard, and that courtyard open upon the famous Atelier des Dames, where, at the feet of celebrated masters of form and color, she was to learn some of the mysteries of the art to which she had vowed her life?


Within the court, before the handsome building whose story after story of immense north windows showed it to be a collection of artists' studios, she found an interesting tableau vivant. A group of chattering models came laughing across the sunny court. In one corner loomed a huge square object surmounted by the conical crown of a Tyrolean hat. Nothing else was visible except a pair of gaitered feet mixed among the legs of a sketching-easel, making the whole seem some queer phenomenal creature which science had not yet classified or named. Before this phenomenon stood—or rather fidgeted—a beautiful Arabian horse with flashing eyes, and limbs clean cut as if by Doric chisel in marble of Pentelicus. This superb animal was held by two grooms, one at his head, the other holding first one foot, then another, as the order to pose the unwilling model fractionally in the attitude of a prancing, curveting Bucephalus came from the square, five-legged, unnamed creature in the corner.

"Ah!" thought Paletta as she followed her shadow over the sunny pavement, "the famous animal-painter Jacques is behind that great square canvas, I know, for I saw him there yesterday painting a struggling sheep."

The large room was closely packed with easels—so closely, indeed, that an inadvertent motion of hand or foot often sent a wave of excitement through the whole atelier. Heads of every color, from youthful flaxen to venerable gray, were bent over their labors. Hecubas and Helens worked side by side; maulsticks everywhere gave the scene the appearance of a winter-denuded thicket; plaster hands, feet and torsos hung upon the walls; bull-headed Nero swelled upon a shelf beside the mutilated Venus which is a revelation of the glory that merely human beauty can attain without a gleam borrowed from the divine; fat Vitellius seemed to snore open-eyed beside lean and wakeful Julius Cæsar; a mask of Medusa leaned lovingly upon the shoulder of Dante; Apollo Belvedere smiled upon an écorché—in atelier parlance "skun man;" finished and unfinished studies of heads, bodies and detached sections of bodies hung from nails in every possible and impossible place. Upon a slightly elevated platform sat the model in his usual street-costume, with oily hair, parted in the middle, falling in long waves upon his shoulders. A spiky circle rested upon his brow, and upon his face was such a stupendous yet futile effort after an expression of divine sweetness and resignation as caused maulsticks to separate themselves every now and then from the denuded thicket and to wabble vaguely about his mouth or play wildly in his hair, accompanied by the commands, "Posez la bouche!" "Posez les yeux!" or, in good American accents, accompanied with a sniff of wrath, "Call him a good Christ? Umph! He'd pose better as a first-class Cheshire cat."


The model's divine smile broadened suddenly into a very human grin.

"Do you understand English, monsieur?" demanded Miss New Haven suspiciously, remembering the freedom with which the personal merits and defects of the French and Italian models were usually discussed in their presence in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

"A leetle, mademoiselle: I have lived in Londres during two years."

"As artists' model?"

"Oui, mademoiselle. I have made the Jesuses, the St. Johns and the Judases for the great English artists teel I have ennuied myself énormement."


"Because ze artists Anglaise are ze masters vairy difficile, not comme les artists Français. Zey demand zat ze model pose during two hours sans repose, and zey nevvair give of to drink to ze model."

"Did you return to Paris when you ennuied yourself so énormement?" asked a yellow-haired English girl who had painted countless vaporous and ravishing Eurydices and filmy Echoes from broad-waisted, pug-nosed Cockney models, and who always declared that she would recognize a "professional" even among the shining hosts of heaven.

"Non, mademoiselle. I rested at Londres to make la musique."

"The music?"

"Comme ça;" and the Italian made sundry rotary motions of the arm, as if grinding an invisible hand-organ.


"Did you earn more money with the music or as model?" asked Mademoiselle Émilie, the girl-artist from Madrid, with black hair dyed golden, who always swore by Murillo's Virgins, and who did her work dreamily, as if the motions of her hands were timed to the languorous rhythm of some far-off, daintily-touched guitar beneath vine-wreathed balcony and starlit sky.

"In Londres I gained more money as musician. In Angleterre zere is not mooch love of ze Christ, ze St. John and ze Judas. It is not a Catholic country, comme la France, and ze Anglaises aime bettaire ze gods of ze old Greek hommes. In la France zey aime ze true religion, and I gain mooch money, and am in ze Salon many times evairy year, because I am ze best Christ in Paris."

A wail swept up from French, American, English, Swedish, Spanish, Norwegian, Russian and West Indian bosoms.

"We'll embrace the religion and the gods of the old Greek hommes then, or throw ourselves into the profoundest gulfs of infidelity, while we remain in Paris," ejaculated Bostonia in a vigorous stage-aside.

"Have you a wife?" asked Madame Deschamps, a fashionable portrait-painter.

"Oui, madame. Ma femme is Lucreza, whom you know. She has made the nymphs and goddesses for a thousand pictures, but now she is so much fat that the messieurs will have her only for the head, although she still poses for the ensemble in the ateliers des dames."

Here the best Christ in Paris grinned satanically as a polyglot howl went up from among the students.

"That's his tit for the tat of the 'Cheshire cat,'" laughed Madame Lafarge, a French-American Corinne with an all-French moustache.

"We won't have Lucreza again if she is too fat to pose for the nude except in a ladies' studio," snapped the elder Swede.

"Oh, I have forgotten to say zat she has upset ze pail since eight days," chuckled the man.

"Upset the pail?" And twenty pairs of eyes looked full of interrogation-points.

"Giggle! giggle! giggle!" came sputteringly from behind Concordia's easel as she gasped, "Don't you understand? He has improved his English among the Americans in Gérôme's studio, and he means she kicked the bucket eight days ago."

"Quelle langue! quelle langue est la langue Américaine!" sniffed the elder Swede, wiping off a brushful of "turps" in her back hair.

Paletta twisted her head so as to peer through the forest of easels at the last speaker.

"What daubs she must make!" she thought, gazing at spectacled green eyes and hay-colored hair à la Chinoise with her fixed idea that "an artistic nature always wrought a semblance of its own beauty upon its outward form."

"What was the Greek religion?" questioned a girlish voice.

Paletta twisted her neck again. "What lovely ideals must blossom upon her canvases!" she thought as she saw a fair vision of rose-tints, creamy texture and sculptured lines ensphered in a halo of golden hair.

"Who is that poor woman who has so mistaken her vocation?" she asked with compassionate gesture toward the coiffure à la Chinoise.

"That? Oh, that's the celebrated Swedish artist, Miss Thingumbobbia, of whom you have heard, of course. She returns to Stockholm next week to paint the king's portrait. Mon Dieu! but I would give all my hair for the genius of her little finger!" answered pretty Mademoiselle Hubert, scraping her palette viciously, as if it were responsible for her artistic inferiority to the gifted Thingumbobbia.

"O-o-o-h!" gasped Paletta. "But who is the sweet creature with golden hair, who looks infused with fair ideals to her very finger-tips?"


"She? Oh, she's Miss Araminta Shoddy from Michigan Avenue, Chicago, who is finishing her education in Paris. She comes here twice a week for drawing-lessons from the antique, and also in pursuit of general information, I should think, judging from her questions. Only yesterday she said, 'Ladies, who can tell me the costume of the Venus de Melos? I have an idea that it would be stunning for my next fancy-dress ball!'"

"Ladies," cried Miss San Francisco, invisible among the easels, "has Professor Manley given out the subject of our composition for next week?"

"Yes," answered a dozen voices—"'The Flight into Egypt.'"

"Oh, Miss Shoddy, Miss Shoddy, will you pose for my Virgin Mother?" cried another dozen.


"Oh, Mees Shoddy, if you will pose for my Madonna I will pose for yours," echoed the Raphaelesque Thingumbobbia.


Just before noon the forest of easels swayed slightly beneath a breeze of excitement. A masculine step was heard at the door. The model's expression became if not divine, at least superhuman. The ladies ceased their chatter, and plied their brushes and crayons with increased diligence. The morning professor entered, and passed from easel to easel, commending this, criticising that, rebuking something else, making a few touches of the brush upon several canvases, crossing others with a network of charcoal-lines to prove inaccuracy of drawing, distributed très biens and pas mals judiciously, and then with a pleasant "Bon jour, mesdames," passed away, leaving behind him about an equal measure of delight and dismay.


"I hope his bed-clothes will always come up at the foot!" growled Austina, whose canvas looked like a map of a humming-bird's flight done in charcoal.

"Let's all subscribe and buy The Angel a bouquet for Christmas," gushed enthusiastically the British blonde Godsalina, upon whom one of the pas mals had fallen, and who had the true faith of her nation in the efficacy of "tips" for sovereign or beggar.


Then the model stretched his legs, returned to his normal and carnal expression of countenance, and disappeared to return no more till the morrow, leaving the platform vacant awaiting the nude female model who was engaged for the afternoon. The atelier was abandoned to Sophie, the femme de ménage, who stirred the fires, gathered stray brushes from the floor, changed the background drapery for the afternoon model, rearranged the easels into afternoon position, and brought out glasses and plates for the ladies, who lunched in the anteroom. And then a looker-on in a Parisian atelier des dames would readily have understood the words, "He's gone, girls!" even were that looker-on deafer than the deafest old woman who ever mistook a thunder-clap for one of her lord's champion snores. In the anteroom conversation ran during lunch in various channels. Some of the ladies discussed the ever-absorbing topic of the price of living, and boasted of marvellous exploits in the way of economy. Other and fewer students, to whom money was as the dust upon the bust of Pallas over the studio-door, talked of the last "first representations" at the Français, of Croisette's rapidly amplifying figure, of Sarah Bernhardt's unnecessary immodesty in dressing Racine's Andromaque, of the Grant reception at Healy's, of Lefevre's slipperiness of texture, of the lack of the true sentiment of piety in Bouguereau's religious pictures, of the harum-scarum amusements among the Americans at Bonnât's atelier, and the latest gossip of the private studios.


"Want to know where you can buy just h-e-a-venly cheese for a franc a pound?" mumbles young Madame New Jersey with her mouth full of Gruyère.

"Where?" from several excited listeners.

"Over in the Latin Quarter, close by the Rue Jacob Brasserie, where so many American students hold daily symposia."

"I'll go and buy a quarter of a pound this very evening," said Miss Providence energetically.

"I too! I too! et moi aussi!" cried others of the many who lived à la Bohémienne in lofty mansards of maisons meublées, dining at cheap restaurants, breakfasting by aid of spirit-lamps from corners of dressing-tables and lunching on charcuterie in the anteroom of the Krug studio, searching high and low for "cheapness" as for a pearl of great price.

"And pay twelve sous for your omnibus fare!" cried the practical little Illinois maiden, Dixonia.

"Je suis à vous, mesdames," said the favorite model, Alphonse, at the door.

"Alas, sweet Adonis! we have engaged our people for the next three weeks."

"And I am desolé, mesdames, that you have not want of me;" and the graceful Alphonse melted away like a snow-wreath in a south wind.

At one o'clock came the sallow Frenchwoman, with the face of a Gorgon and the figure of a Juno, who posed for the ensemble. She stood against the dark crimson background, outlined pure and white like a marvel of Phidian sculpture upon which the Spirit of Life had slightly breathed. So still, so white, so coldly, purely statuesque she seemed, that one sometimes entirely forgot that she was else than the fair statue born from the block of marble at the command of a divine genius, till the chiselled arms were seen to quiver and the sculptured knees to almost bend. Then a reproachful cry ran through the atelier: "Shame! shame! We have forgotten that she was a woman and not a statue, and have kept her posing two hours without a repose."

"How much do you earn by this wearisome business?" asked Paletta pityingly as the tired model, wrapped in a threadbare waterproof, cowered over the stove during "the repose."

"If I pose for a half day of each week like this in an atelier des dames, I earn twenty-five francs a week, but what I earn by posing for artists in private studios depends much upon chance. Sometimes I am needed only for a leg or arm or bust, or even hand: then I earn less of course, for it makes broken hours. I would demand much more from the ateliers des dames had I a handsome face, but always my ensemble is painted with the head of a prettier model where there is any purpose of using me in a picture."

"Do you become often as fatigued as you are now?" continued Paletta.

"Often more so. I have posed for nearly an hour upon one foot with extended arms in a dance of bacchantes, till I have fainted. Oftentimes I am kept in a running position upon one foot, with the other far behind me, in Atalanta's race; sometimes suspended by cords from the ceiling, with arms and legs in horribly uncomfortable positions, till everything seems to spin before me."

"Do you dislike to pose for male artists?" asked Paletta.

"Dislike? Why should I with so fine a figure as this?" answered the woman, throwing off her cloak to resume her pose. "I'd like it better if I had a handsome face, but I'd like it much worse if I had flabby flesh or buniony feet."

Paletta saw that no question of modesty entered the model's mind, and she went back to her easel to paint the rounded limbs and marble huelessness of fair Dian, chastest of all Olympia's deities, wondering if, after all, what is called modesty does not come as much of habit as of nature—if the veiled face of the Oriental is not as immodest as the unclothedness of the artist's model.

Margaret B. Wright.