The boning of Elisabeth’s corset seemed to slice into her ribcage as she stood beside her father at the salon hosted by the Renaults in the fashionable area of Paris. On the wall was the painting that the couple bought from him. A young man was studiously reading a book with a chipped vase of bright red and yellow tulips on the table through the popular impressionist lens. Elisabeth remembered how quickly the liquor had consumed her father and she had taken over once the model was gone to make it presentable to the artists’ circle.
“It’s quite a lovely piece!” Monsieur Renault exclaimed to her beaming father. “When I saw it, I absolutely had to add it to my collection.”
Madame Petit lightly put her gloved hand on his arm. “Tell me, Monsieur Steward, my favorite English friend, what was your process in making such a piece? Who’s this lovely young man in the picture?”
“He was a student I encountered at a bar and I looked at him and knew that I just had to paint him! He was willing to model for whatever price I gave him. Students, you know how they struggle at times.” Her father laughed as if there was something hilarious about students being poor. “When I started painting him, it was the same as always.” He then paused, rubbing his chin. “I decided to, you know, use a lot of light in my painting. Yes, that’s what I decided to focus on.”
Elisabeth sighed, but panicked for a moment that the others had heard. However, her father and his admirers were now in a deep conversation about the absinthe in another room. That was a subject he would know more about!
The group began to make their way to the hall, leaving Elisabeth behind, but Madame Petit turned around and said, “Oh, I wanted to ask you, Elisabeth, do you do any art like your father?”
“Yes, I sketch and paint.”
Madame Petit clasped her hands in front of her and smiled. “Well, I would sure love to see your work sometime!”
“Perhaps I’ll show you sometime.” As Elisabeth watched her follow the others, she pursed her lips together. She couldn’t tell her that the painting on the wall was her work that she painted when her father was passed-out from drinking. The truth was that he was a horrible painter and whenever she finished his paintings for him, he would wake up hungover while thinking that the image on the canvas was all done by his hand. But, no one could know the truth. This was how her father was able to support her.
A few days later, Elisabeth sat cross-legged on her bed in the “atelier”, which was really just a cheap, one-room apartment on the third floor of a building in Montmartre that had thin sheets hung up to divide the space into makeshift rooms. At the foot of her simple iron bed that cradled a mattress in which she could feel every metal spring was a bunch of red grapes that she was sketching into her sketchbook. Her father had been out all night and still hadn’t come back home, so only the sound of the graphite scratching against the paper could be heard.
After a few more moments of getting lost amongst the little spheres, her trance was broken when the door opened and her father stumbled in with a giggling woman. “Une autre putain!” Elisabeth muttered under her breath. She had picked up several particular French words and phrases since moving to Paris from England.
Since the sheet separated her from her view of the woman, she could only hear her voice. “Monsieur artist, are you going to paint me or not?” It was high-pitched with the flirty tone that was expected of a woman of her profession.
“I will! Now, go over to the window and pose for me while I get my paints ready.” Elisabeth heard him fumbling around for the tubes and brushes behind the slightly swaying sheet while he continued to give the woman more minor instructions before returning to her sketch and blocking the sounds out. The sharp scent of the oils was one that she was used to, so it only bothered her briefly.
Several grape bunches later, a glass bottle rolled on the wooden floor and clanked against another. She sighed and set her sketchbook on her bed before discretely slipping to the other side of the sheet. Dodging her father’s failing hand that was holding a half-full bottle of liquor and the drops that flung from it, Elisabeth bent down to pick up the empty bottles, merely missing having a purple stripe painted across her face from the paintbrush in his other hand. It was when she stood back up did she see this mysterious “putain”.
She was sitting in the window, her form silhouetted by the sunlight streaming in from the west-facing window. Her olive complexion was paired with dark eyes and hair that was pulled into an elaborate knot at the back of her head and curled around her face, which suggested a Greek or Italian origin but portrayed nothing but pure Parisian elegance. How could Elisabeth’s father afford a woman like her when they barely had any francs left over after paying the landlord? And if she ever doubted her profession, then her tight-fitting corset and skirt that exposed her ankles cleared all of them away.
“Papa, that’s enough.” Elisabeth reached out to yank the brush from his hand and put it in a cup of water next to the palette so that the paint wouldn’t dry and ruin the bristles. He took a long swig before she attempted to force the bottle away from him, as well, which was met with much resistance. Placing her hands on his shoulders, she declared, “Papa, you’ve had a lot to drink. Go sleep it off for a while.”
“Nuh, I dun need nuh sleep!”
Her father pushed her back, but Elisabeth used all her strength to shove harder. “Yes, you do!” Like a dockhand moving a heavy crate, she rammed him onto his bed until he collapsed. “There, doesn’t that bed feel nice?”
“Good. Sleep tight.” It was only seconds until she heard snores escape out of him.
Elisabeth returned to the part of the atelier where the painting and the model were. As she cleaned the brushes and the palette, she noticed the woman’s furrowed brow and pursed lips. “I’m so sorry! He loves liquor more than he loves his art sometimes, I hate to say.”
The model shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not your fault. I was the one who wanted to model for one of the best nouveau artists in Paris.” She cocked her head. “I didn’t see you before. How long have you been here?”
“Since before you and Papa came in. I was on my bed on the other side of that sheet.” Elisabeth pointed to the dividing fabric.
“What is your name?”
“Elisabeth.” She held out her hand, but the woman stood up and crossed her arms, leaving Elisabeth to awkwardly drop it.
“Célestine. J’ai faime. Do you want to go to a café?” Célestine proceeded to put on a more modest dress over her revealing one. I was a number made of red silk trimmed with black braiding that had several layers of fabric gathered at the back of her skirt while the matching jacket she put on top was tight-fitting. She topped off her outfit with a hat decorated with a single raven feather and slipped on black lace gloves, then clasped her hands around a parasol while looking at Elisabeth expectantly with wide eyes.
“Um…” Elisabeth looked down at her own ensemble, which consisted of a grey jacket with a stripped skirt, both made of linen.
“You look fine. I’ll pay.”
“But I already have some grapes and bread left over from yesterday. Please, I’m fine.”
“Grapes and stale bread? No, that will not do. Come with me.”
“Okay…” She was quite hungry herself and wouldn’t mind leaving the atelier for a while. Besides, she didn’t feel like she had a choice with Célestine’s insisting expression. “There’s one on this street that I like.”
Célestine smiled and grabbed her arm. “But I know one that’s better!” She led Elisabeth out, not giving her a chance to make sure that the door was closed and dragged her through the cobbled streets of Montmartre. They passed other cafés where Elisabeth coughed out the cigarette smoke that wafted from the artists sitting at the outside tables. The occasional smell of baguettes was a blissful break from the fragrance of horses and poor quality of life.
Past the growing white dome that was to be the Basilica de Sacre-Coeur, through the Square Louise Michel, and down several more streets was the Théâtre de l'Atelier. It was at this point when Célestine turned left down a side street and led Elisabeth to Le Café Rose. Though it was small, it was filled with well-off men and women of the bourgeois along with those who were of the lower class, most likely working in the theatre.
“Right here.” Célestine pulled Elisabeth to the only empty table that was outside. Finally, Elisabeth had a moment to sit and feel the wind of winter trailing into spring, when all the trees sprouted tiny buds that would soon become colorful flowers.
A waiter quickly appeared next to their table. “Célestine! A vin rouge, as usual?”
“Non. Not this time. Un chocolat chaud et un pain au chocolat, s’il-vous-plaît."
He turned to Elisabeth. “And for you, mademoiselle?”
“Même chose,” Célestine replied for her.
When the waiter left, Elisabeth declared, “That’s a lot of chocolate!”
“I know. You English people are so uptight! And besides, you look so thin. A little fattening up will be good for you.”
“I’m not that thin! Why did you ask me to come with you, anyway?”
Célestine shrugged. “I could tell that you wanted to get out of the… atelier—”
“That’s what Papa calls it.”
“And, to tell the truth, it’s not often that I get the chance to talk with women outside of my profession. That’s my real reason.”
From the next table over, Elisabeth could hear a pair of bourgeois men in a heated argument and turned her head to hear them better. “The new tower will ruin the beauty of Paris!”
The other man retorted, “But Monsieur Eiffel is an excellent architect. The Statue of Liberty was an extraordinary gift to the Americans. However, if it pleases you, there’s talks of tearing the tower down once the Exposition is over.”
Elisabeth turned back to Célestine. “What do you think of Eiffel’s new tower?”
“I don’t know how it will look when it’s finished, so I cannot have any thoughts yet. French are supposed to be opinionated, I know. I’m strange."
The waiter returned with two cups of thick hot chocolate and two warm croissants filled with stripes of melting chocolate. “Merci,” Célestine and Elisabeth said in unison.
Elisabeth took a sip of the velvety liquid that coated her mouth and warmed her insides, then took a bite of the buttery croissant interrupted by the richest chocolate that she had ever tasted. Nothing like this could be found in England!
Célestine set down her cup, licking off the stray droplets on her lips. “So, Elisabeth, tell me your story.” She pronounced Elisabeth’s name “Eee-lizzz-a-bet”.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re an English girl in France. Also, I want to hear another story that doesn’t end up with a woman being paid to share her bed with a man each night.”
“Well, okay.” Elisabeth sighed, mentally debating on how much she should reveal to this beautifully strange woman. “Mama was taken away a few years ago because she saw things that weren’t there and thought that everyone was someone else. One night, she nearly stabbed our neighbor because she thought he was some evil king, I don’t remember who. That was when the police came and dragged her from us. After that, Papa decided that he could make a living as a Parisian artist and gave up his leather goods shop. Now, we’re here with less than we had.”
“But he is becoming a successful artist, no?”
Elisabeth pushed around the remaining crumbs on her plate with her finger. “He is. But the bars and liquor stores are also becoming successful because of him.”
“I could tell.” Célestine rolled her eyes.
Elisabeth thought back to the neighbor her mother tried to assassinate. Living only three houses down from her in their small town in the country, Henry boasted that he was a graduate of the Hudson River School in America, but that was up to speculation, for he also claimed that he often went to London to drink tea with Charles Dickens and that his ornately-carved mantle clock was a gift given to him personally by Queen Victoria. Nevertheless, his walls were filled with stunning portraits and still-lives done by his own hand. When she was a child, he gave her lessons after she begged him to teach her how to paint just as good as him. “I should stop teaching you; I’m afraid that you’ll be better than me!” Henry would say with a smile to a chubby-cheeked, big bow-wearing Elisabeth. Occasionally, her father would join in when he found time away from his leather shop, though he refused to take any of Henry’s critiques to heart unlike Elisabeth, who took in every word that Henry said as if it came out of the mouth of a preacher during a passionate sermon. “The shadows wouldn’t be this way in real life. Think about where the light is coming from.” “Every medium has a different personality. You have to know it in order to master it. Watercolors are delicate, but deceptively complicated. Oils are tough on the outside, but nice once you get to know it. Graphite is a simple, but easily disturbed little fellow.”
“What about you, Célestine?” Elisabeth returned to the present and looked at her new acquaintance across the table.
“There’s not much to tell. The only job that was available to me is my current one. I want to leave and be successful as an artists’ model. No husband.” Célestine seemed to be looking at something far off in the distance before saying, “Elisabeth, do you have any friends?”
“Then we can be friends.”
“O-okay. But we don’t know each other.”
Célestine shrugged. “That doesn’t matter. We can get to know each other. I can tell that I like you already.”
Elisabeth couldn’t figure out Célestine, however she felt that she now had an ally if she should ever come into conflict.
Upon returning home, Elisabeth checked on her father to see if he was still sleeping. He was, laying on his back with his mouth half-open, snoring coming from deep within. She breathed a sigh of relief and turned to the easel. The basic silhouette of Célestine was there, somewhat. A purple blob surrounded by five beige ones sat on a dark brown line with a black square in the background. Elisabeth was used to making her father’s paintings better, but she felt especially appalled that such a crude form was supposed to be the elegant Célestine.
Elisabeth prepared a palette and began her work, having very little trouble remembering the slender shape that was outlined by the sun. Her brush effortlessly glided on the canvas, outlining the curves of Célestine’s torso. The arms and legs were a little trickier since she had to get every willowy limb just right. She also couldn’t quite remember how her fingers were spread out, so she would have to fix that next time. However, she enjoyed the process as she felt herself get lost amongst the rough weave of the canvas and the glistening wet paint, the distinct odor of the oils and mineral spirits making her smile. Elisabeth wished that this could be credited to her and not her father, but he was the one gaining popularity as an artist and bringing in the money they needed to survive. Yet, as he was a terrible painter and a drunk, she had to clean up his work after him while he was in his alcohol-induced slumber.
The next morning, Elisabeth was woken up by her father’s moaning. She got up, filled a glass with water from the pitcher that sat on the rickety, unpolished table, and handed it to him. “Papa, you had three bottles yesterday.”
“Yes. We can’t afford three bottles of liquor a day. If you’d had less, then you wouldn’t feel so bad in the mornings.” However, she knew that if he had less and didn’t pass out in a drunken stupor, she wouldn’t be able to keep on doing what she was doing and her father’s successes would cease.
“We have plenty of money! I sold that painting to Monsieur Renault, remember?”
“And what if it’s going to be a long time before we sell another one? We should always save as much as we can, Papa.”
Her father groaned again as he slowly stood up from his bed and shuffled his way to the easel. Fingers rubbing his stubble on his chin, he creased his brow. “Hmm, I am quite a good painter, aren’t I?”
Elisabeth looked over his shoulder, studying the brushstrokes that she meticulously created the day before. “Yes, you are.”
“Perhaps I should try to get my work into the 1889 Exhibition. Two years should give me plenty of time to create something spectacular.”
“I-I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Papa.”
He darted his head towards her. “And why not? Don’t you want your old Papa to be famous? Provide an extravagant life for the both of us?”
“Of course. It’s just that—well, never mind.” Elisabeth sulked away to find her sketchbook.
A few days passed. Célestine would come to the atelier, where Elisabeth’s father would sloppily attempt to paint her likeness on the canvas until he passed out, then the two girls would go to a café. One day, Célestine took her all the way across the Seine to the 7th arrondissement to see the iron skeleton of the new tower. So far, only the four legs existed with ironworkers bustling around and climbing the metal beams, the sound of hammering and men shouting orders filling the air. “They’re working so hard,” Elisabeth said. “It’s such a shame that it might be taken down.”
Célestine turned to her. “And no matter how hard they work, it will be Eiffel who gets the credit.”
After visiting the construction site, they browsed through the nearby stores. Elisabeth wistfully looked at all the things that she could never afford while trying to ignore the glances from the fashionable ladies. She ran her hand over the silky dresses, cautiously picked up crystal perfume bottles to smell their luxurious fragrances, and watched her simple self stare back at her in the silverware. At one store, Célestine told Elisabeth, “Pick something.”
“Don’t be silly. Every girl should have at least one fine item to make her feel special.”
Not wanting to choose something too expensive, Elisabeth first settled on a pair of kid gloves, but Célestine instead suggested a comb with bronze filigree. “It will last longer than a pair of gloves.” She pulled back Elisabeth’s blond curls and used the comb to keep them in place. “Now, do you feel special?”
“Yes, actually I do.” Elisabeth for a moment forgot where the money came from as she admired the comb that was like a tiny tiara in her hair.
Several more weeks passed by and Elisabeth started being with Célestine during times when she didn’t model for her father. Some days, however, she couldn’t because Célestine would be spending extra time with a customer. Elisabeth would be put off by that, but she no longer cared that her friend’s profession would be heavily looked down upon where she came from.
It was during one of these times when Célestine and Elisabeth were at the café where they ate the first day they met when Célestine asked,“We’re friends, vrai?”
“Yes.” Elisabeth looked at Célestine quizzingly.
“Then come stay with me.”
Célestine laughed. “No! I’ve saved up enough money to afford a decent apartment for a few months. Remember how I said that I wanted to make a living as a model for artists?”
“I’m going to start! It’ll be a better job and I’ll have a better life. I want you to do the same.”
“But I can’t just leave Papa to live with you! He would fail without me.”
“What do you mean?” Célestine creased her brow.
Elisabeth broke into a cold sweat. “Oh, nothing. I just…inspire him. That’s all.”
“Just think about it.”
Two more weeks later in the atelier, Elisabeth’s father was visited by three of his friends to see his progress. “Such a fine model that you have there! Is she as just as good in bed?” one of the men loudly declared.
Another exclaimed, “I’m so proud to be such good friends with an extraordinary artist!” patting her father on the back.
The third laughed. “I say we let the petite putain have a day off and we go to Le Petit Chapeau for a round of drinks!” Célestine glared at him from the window.
The other men shouted at each other in agreement and proceeded to go parading into the hall and down the stairs. Elisabeth watched them from the open door, letting out a sigh of frustration before turning around to go back into the atelier. Flinging the divider sheets aside, she grabbed a paintbrush and slammed it against the canvas as the back of her eyes began to sting. Her father had Célestine all wrong! Every day, he would ruin Elisabeth’s hard work before she improved it again only for the process to be repeated until he signed his name in the bottom right corner.
“Elisabeth! What are you doing?”
She gasped and glanced up. “Célestine! I forgot you were here.”
“I’m always here. Are you okay?” Célestine placed a hand on Elisabeth’s shoulder.
“Yes, I’m completely fine.” She tossed the brush on the palette and went to get a glass of water.
Célestine crossed her arms. “Talk to me. You’re the real artist, c’est vrai?”
Elisabeth didn’t say anything, but instead she leaned against the wall and released the tears that were urging to come out. When she had none left, she finally uttered, “He gets drunk every time! And it’s all my work. My work! And nobody knows, not even Papa. They all think that he’s the master behind it all.” She walked to the table, grabbed a plate, and threw it down before discovering that she had more sobs wanting to escape. “I just want to be my own artist.”
“And you’re a talented one.” Célestine gazed at her portrait, the paint still glistening. “I don’t see how others haven’t realized it yet. I’ve had my suspicions for a while; just putting little things I noticed about you together.” She turned her head to Elisabeth. “Oh, and I get my apartment on Saturday.”
Her corset felt like knight’s armor as Elisabeth stood in the pale Saturday morning light of the Atelier, a small bag of her belongings on the floor next to her feet. Célestine’s portrait was nearly finished, but she no longer needed to model for it. In his bed, Elisabeth’s father stirred, so she held her head high as she waited for him to rise. Once he finally started to shuffle across the space, he paused, squinting and his hand on his forehead. “Elisabeth, what are you doing?”
“Papa, I’m leaving.”
He laughed. “No, you’re not! Just wait, I’ll soon be famous and we’ll be rich. I can give you anything you want.”
“If we were rich, you would by enough liquor to build a mansion out of the bottles! I’m not joking. As of today, I’m no longer living here.”
“And where do you expect you’ll live?”
“That doesn’t matter to you.” Elisabeth hoisted her bag and walked to the door. Before exiting, she stood in the doorframe and briefly turned around. “But it’s better than this atelier. Goodbye, Papa.”