The old-time sailing vessels, coming across the Atlantic from New York and South America, were obliged to stop for provisions. The new steamships, as they appeared on the scene and proliferated, took the crossing in an unbroken jump, thereby making obsolete the ship chandlering businesses on the way. One of these businesses, on the Dutch West Indies island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, was owned by the family of Camille Pissarro--around whom Irving Stone has chosen this time to fashion one of his vivid biographical novels. By this convenient twist of fortune, Pissarro, who had his heart set on becoming an artist, Stone tells us, was able to escape the family business and come to Paris to stay. He arrived in town just as the great Paris 1855 Art Exhibition, the first of its kind, opened--a multitude of framed pictures, 5,000 of them, crowding every inch of wall space and rising to the ceiling of the huge exhibition hall.
As Stone fills in the account, young Pissarro marveled at the display. He wandered along the Paris streets, among the different gallery rooms. He saw the work of Corot, Daubigny, Rousseau, Delacroix. "This is where I belong," he said to himself, aspiring and absorbed. "But how do I get there?" The world was new, as it is for all of us somewhere in our beginnings.
It is a constant, recurring riddle, a cliche, how great works of art, when they first come into the world, are vilified. In the well-known story, John Ruskin, Oxford professor, authority on art and architecture, esteemed by Proust (until Proust tired of him), referred to Whistler's work as "a pot of paint (flung) in the public's face." Whistler's "The White Girl" (now in the Washington National Gallery of Art), certainly a decorous and inoffensive-enough painting, was reviled when it was shown in the Salon des Refuses, this "Salon of the Rejected" being the best the Impressionists could do for themselves. Discussing a painting by Edouard Manet, a contemporary critic wrote, "If ever I write a single line in praise of 'Olympia' I authorize you to exhibit me some place with that bit of praise tied around my neck."
Manet was just one of the great names of the times that Pissarro knew and worked with. Among the others, an astonishing array: Renoir, Sisley, Manet, Monet, Seurat, Morisot, Degas, Cezanne. But Pissarro and the rest of them had no idea in those days that they were great. They scrambled forever for funds, for paints, canvases and frames, for a collector or dealer who might sponsor them. Renoir lost out on a sale when a buyer bought a Pissarro picture instead of one of his, on the ground that Pissarro had a large family and needed the money; Julie Vellay, Pissarro's wife, told Renoir, also hard-up and complaining, to go out and get married, raise a family of his own, and then people would feel sorry for him. Monet started tampering at one point with the wife of the group's single active collector and Cezanne objected vigorously that Monet was making it bad for everyone; the collector would hold them all responsible.
It was remarkable how stubbornly the public refused to give the Impressionists their due. Stone takes pains to describe in detail the first meeting between Paul Gaugin and Pissarro and tells how it happened. Gaugin, then a prosperous stockbroker, had gone to an Impressionist exhibition, had laughed along with the rest, then found himself remorseful, unable to sleep. He had come by, he said, to make amends by buying some of the group's paintings.
Of course, Gaugin had his own reasons. He was painting on the sly at that time, slipping off for an evening after work to sketch and study at an artists' academy. The stockbroker painter had trouble with his wife. Something of a shrew, she wanted him to stay clear of art and anything else that might take him away from the brokerage business. Gaugin quieted her by saying of those evenings that he was just seeing his mistress: nothing so immoral as painting!
Stone piles on incident after incident in his 600-page book. He doesn't invent. He willingly forgoes the useful devices of fiction--the suspense that comes from organized plot and drama, the winning fictional characters, the manufactured pleasures and excitements. He is content to put his trust in the everlasting substantiality and surprise of the actual event.
Fifty years ago, when he published the first of his biographical novels, a life of Vincent van Gogh, his innovative, factualizing form captivated the imagination of readers. As a result of Stone's book, half the young married couples of my generation furnished their first apartments in Brooklyn and the Bronx with a print of Van Gogh's Sunflowers.
Since then, in a long, honorable career, he has written two dozen more of his biographical novels and biographies--on Jack London, Darwin, Freud, Michelangelo, and on the lesser-known wives of the prominent. In "Depths of Glory" he continues in the mode he has established for himself, taking for his newest subject the French Impressionist movement.
We learn what Paris looked like, how the people lived, what they ate, even what a housemaid was paid ($8 a month top, $4 to the agency, light provided in the attic room, a year's contract). Stone sometimes teases the reader, deliberately overdoing the detail. Thus we get to know the cost of paints and brushes, the going prices for paintings ($4, $8, $40, $60), the professional jealousies and bickerings, the overheated, all too recognizable intramural arguments.
Stone doesn't romanticize. This is not the gauzy Bohemian life of Montmartre and the Left Bank, although his people lived in those places and in the French countryside too. There are the illnesses here, domestic crises and unhappiness, disappointments, follies, deaths and betrayals, along with the obsession that so marvelously possessed and sustained this group of artists. In the end, we are chastened as we see the Impressionists in the round, their poverty, neglect, humiliation, and human failings set against the glory of their aspiration and their final achievement.