Snatching the painting from him posed little challenge. It sat behind him, perched on an easel, unsecured against theft beneath the dim cone of light from the streetlamp above. With the exception of the city’s ambient hum, George stood in an otherwise silent pocket of the square, a vacuum that required suppressing the sound of approach to avoid detection. Landing gingerly with only the upper arch of his feet hid the quiet shuffle from George’s attention. The most brilliant illumination for several hundred feet shining directly downward as a focused beam, shadows offered no advance warning.
For a week, this perch served as the location he selected to show his latest work, in dire need of the cash he hoped it might fetch. He sold only three paintings in the preceding months, one through a dealer, the other two from the public showcase of the city streets offering exposure to intrigued passers-by. Blended colors ensconced the figure of a soul appearing tortured to the world but content to an astute viewer. Shades of gray and green set the backdrop to her image, her figure a dark blue, her features darker yet. Intricate handiwork on the edges apparent even from a distance, the open forum of the streets beamed its brilliance to anyone whose visual field captured the frame.
The thief could have taken the form of any one of them, possibly one who had stopped, possibly one who feigned interest or possibly one who had taken a passing glance for enough time to admire its quality. With the fall of night and no buyer yet, George remained in place, waiting for someone to come, the hunger of a dinnertime come and gone no deterrent. Returning home without money in hand not an option, absent a sale, George had no reprieve available to free him from the lonely night.
The same incentive to remain and hold out for a higher bidder put him at the risk of lurking thieves. She departed before George could turn around to view the culprit, the only image he could recall the thief’s silhouette with the painting tucked securely underneath an arm, disappearing into the recesses of the alleys across the plaza. Giving chase appeared a futile endeavor given the head start, even dangerous without light or the physical ability to prevail in a struggle. Hours in the sun, followed thereafter by further hours beneath the dim streetlights sapped the energy for a display of despair. She departed, the chance of recovery slim, the effect of returning home without the fruits of a sale the more imminent concern.
With the recession stretching beyond a year, the once bountiful means of support afforded by George’s artistic pursuits quickly waned. Fewer people constituted the market for art, saving their money for necessities of higher priority. The constant threat of theft stifled George’s willingness to display his art publicly, the resort to doing so the night on which George fell prey emerging out of necessary. Paris’ aura as the city of lights faded with austerity, the brilliance of the night lights reduced, even eliminated, in the interest of preserving funds to weather the crisis.
Social services bore a similar hit, the police refraining from responding to crimes of lower significance, saving their resources for only the most vicious of violent assault. Fire services prioritized their availability to the greatest conflagrations, in the process saving water and the fuel required for their trucks. Homes without the means to afford the costly price of heating oil resorted to indoor fires, increasing the demand for the fire brigade at a time when its supply dipped in availability.
Turbulent times and instability beget desperate measures from hungry families, no longer assured of the security of jobs in the factories and stores. Mothers fed their children the bare minimum to stave off the deteriorating effects of nutrient deficiencies. Supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables slowed to the outer arrondissements, redirected to the wealthy city center where only a select few continued to flock.
George’s once thriving trade ceased nearly overnight with the economy’s undoing. Patrons flooded back to George’s atelier to cancel pending orders, undeterred by his pleas to stand by deals already entered, and more desperate appeals to collect for sums expended on works in progress. He sought to adapt like those before him, who faced similar hard times. He thinned his paint, purchased less expensive canvas and reused brushes, the thickening texture of the strokes blending with the thinner consistency of the paint to create less refined images. Completed paintings sat on the shelves.
Bustling street corners, on which George once stood dispensing with his works at a pace he could not maintain, transformed to empty boulevards as shoppers remained home, confined to second reads of worn literature for entertainment. Juliette, long enamored with George’s steady hand, implored him to accept a stable position creating ads for the weekly newspaper that had courted him for some time. She sold her dresses, starting with the least ornate, dedicating the proceeds to cover their expenses at the market.
George did not relent, his passion undying in the midst of his slumping sales, filling the hours devoted to the craft. “What are we going to do?” Juliette refrained to George, on a regular basis, “we are running out of money, and you must find work!” George hesitated in his responses, his placid demeanor stronger than the urge to return her admonitions in kind, “we shall survive, Juliette, there is hope for France, there is hope for us.”
Juliette’s grimace conveyed the extent of dissatisfaction with George’s platitudes. “Hope will not put food on this table – you must put food on this table!” Juliette rarely raised her voice, let alone to George, whom she loved since their first encounter beneath the shade of the fabric market where they met. She stumbled, bags in hand, across his outpost that day, the breathtaking image of a child playing in the ocean his work for sale.
Classical training in the pastoral countryside served as George’s home for several years, long before the turmoil of the city posed an existential threat to his career. “Slowly, slowly” his master beseeched, “you cannot paint with haste, you must let the work be uncovered as you, too, discover it. Each action must assume a deliberate touch.” George discontinued his practice of questioning the meaning of such statements within a year of his apprenticeship, learning to accept his artisan’s quirks rather than elicit a far more complicated answer to his questioning than that originally posed. “You cannot discover the setting without first seeing, envisioning it in full, and translating it, to a medium” served as the refrain with which George gained familiarity and comfort.
Upon first taking note of his own burgeoning talent, George lacked the wisdom to assess his tendency to rush to his output, measuring his success by completion rather than quality. In his late teenaged years, displaying his art for a show outside of Paris, Raul stopped his expedient pace at the sight of George’s displayed painting, a farm rich with livestock presented in the shade of the moon. Drawn to the complex colors, the pinks of the swine, and the whites of the cows, obscured and shaded by the dark of the night, Raul suppressed a gasp of pleasure at the hand of the robust colors blending ably within the nightscape.
On the spot, Raul offered George the last of three positions in his program, located outside of town in a provincial hamlet resembling the scenes depicted in Raul’s own early works. Dissimilar to his classmates, George lacked interest in defying Raul’s vision and approach to contemporary art, his paintings often portraying the simple essence of nature, yet with lighting and mood projecting the sullen tempo of rural evenings far from the bustle and grime of the city.
George aimed principally to refine his skill, discover his niche and produce works viable for sale to patrons, sufficient to support his lifestyle and hobby. A time of profligacy aided George’s ascension upon enrollment with Raul, with demand for paintings strong among the noble and elite, and their taste for art filtering down to those hoping to resemble their ornate lifestyle. George’s father made his own living from ceramic crafts, supporting their family through periods of impending wars and outbreaks of disease. Bowls, vases and pots for plants comprised his specialties, nothing larger than the few liters of water necessary to hold long-stemmed roses and sunflowers.
George lacked the patience required of pottery, instead choosing to visualize the images he created as they took shape, precipitating his tendency to race toward completion. Four years with Raul tempered his mad dashes to completion, slowing the pace of his hands to refine the colors spread through the brushes. George mastered several aspects of his craft, becoming more selective in his choice of brush, his blend of paints, the type of canvas and his workspace.
“You have done it, George, you are letting the painting find you” Raul gushed, as George prepared for his return to Paris, the expiry of his apprentice role approaching. “Please go, and please do all you can to master, do not ever be complacent with your art!” Raul said, bidding him farewell.
George returned to Paris in a time of elite stewardship, and his inventory of paintings diminished accordingly. By the time of his serendipitous encounter with Juliette at the market, George made his home in a two bedroom apartment with the Seine in close view. One bedroom, the larger of the two, served as his studio, the bright sunlight flooding through the expansive window during the morning hours when George preferred to work. A coffee from the stovetop by his side, George painted from the hour of sunrise until the sun reach the peak of the sky, spending the afternoon on the streets and in market stalls peddling finished works.
He endured little difficulty selling at least one painting per day, sometimes within the first hour of display, affording him the long afternoon to meander in search of inspiration for the next work to come. A sketchbook occupied a dedicated space in the bag slung over his shoulder, which he used to start crude drawings of the scenery, forming the baseline for what he eventually translated to paint. Within a span of years, George’s catalog captured the essence of the scenery Paris had on offer, the grand plazas, wide boulevards, sidewalk cafes, floral-lined parks and ornamental architecture.
Surroundings never ceased to inspire a novel backdrop for paintings, the endless tract of striking moments primed in perpetuity for capture in the eternal format etched by a brushstroke. His father, having achieved enough success to obviate concerns of continued survival, fell short of the ubiquity required for standing among the elite. He left George with sufficient means to support himself by painting, but doing so required persistent effort and reliance on continued sales of his works to the public. George could little afford the expense of gifting painting for public display and consumption, lest the need for sustenance compel him to spend his savings.
In furtherance of sales, George made no crying pitch to those taking view of his art, nor did he deign to persuade indecisive potential customers. He allowed them to view, to ask questions, to bask in the moment of his paintings, and then to decide whether the piece on display befit a welcome place in their home. Only then would George accept their money in exchange for relinquishing control over a work on which he poured his greatest efforts to depict a scene as it existed.
Juliette and George transitioned to larger quarters after marriage, positioned strategically above the cafes and bars of Saint Germain where his cohorts often gathered to celebrate the success of another day. At times, they gathered in the company of their respective works, collaborating as to the optimal means of expediting sales. Wine and spirits flowed with abundance among friends, yet George maintained the composure to avoid the scourge of overly indulgent nights compromising his ability to work the following mornings. “Goodnight, all!” his crying melody, George often left at the height of the evenings, before falling over the peak into the spiral from which salvaging the subsequent morning became impossible.
Word of war in other parts of the globe depressed manufacturing, farming and nonessential luxuries for anyone lacking the freedom of infinitely disposable income. Rations, once in seemingly infinite supply, tightened, dispatching the cost of food on an ascending track, pricing those supported by meager finances out of contention. Beggars populated the streets, in which garbage piled high as public services slowed.
In competition for the increasingly scarce supply of food, rats exerted their innate aggression toward the humans in their path, spreading diseases that increased the burden on public health facilities. Factories converted output to fabricating metals and other materials commandeered by the military, increasing the coal burning that spewed a soot-filled charcoal smoke into the air. Looming fears of France’s involvement in the war efforts kept able bodied men on edge of co-option into the service, spilling over their gloom to their wives, mothers and sisters.
Accustomed to the ready ability to sell his paintings, on occasion to the highest bidder among several, the adjustment to a depressed economy took its toll on George and Juliette’s standard of living. Pleasant evenings at the dinner table, situated next to the window to afford a view of the city, sipping wine and with a ready supply of beef, gave way to potatoes and swill. Descending to the once-raucous avenues of convivial nights in Saint Germain yielded to self-cleaning the kitchen and preserving leftover food.
Silence prevailed throughout desolate bars, their patrons having stopped attending, first sacrificing nightly for thrice weekly, eventually remaining away completely. With no patrons, the bars closed, many overnight, the scraps they left behind consumed by the rats who later assumed control of the empty spaces. George continued his habit of painting in the morning, faced with remaining awake in the absence of the robust coffee he could no longer afford. Sales dropped quicker than the increasingly dour mood. Four paintings per week became one, then one per month, to finally none at all.
Without previously needing to refine his sales pitch, George’s ability to do so remained deficient, even off-putting, particularly to those with insufficient funds to purchase food, not least to indulge in the extravagance of décor. Lacking the charisma to sell his own works, George turned to art brokers, whom he avoided in the past, keeping his profit margins higher without the need to pay a commission.
He and Juliette sold their apartment, Juliette scowling at the faces of buyers coming to view it when they could no longer afford the payments. “No questions, just look!” she said to several of them, unconvinced of their need to sell the apartment. “We have no choice!” George would retort, the tensions between them rising among the shift in their lifestyles. Despite the rift or occasional outburst, they remained close, Juliette supportive of George, though perturbed at George’s apparent unwillingness to accept a stable vocation.
She supported selling the apartment in spite of her stated objections to doing so, accepting George’s logic and seeking to do as she could to comfort him through a difficult time. Considering what to do after selling their two bedroom apartment, they considered living with her parents, in the basement below their ground floor apartment in the 1st. As an alternative, Juliette offered her savings to pay the rent of a studio apartment in which a small enclave provided enough space for George to continue to paint. With only enough to cover a year’s rent, George faced continued pressure to maintain their livelihood.
The death of once-bustling markets and streets left George wanting for viewers of his paintings, the lack of eyes on them translating to fewer potential buyers. He explored new parts of the City, trekking to destinations beyond the short perimeter of he and Juliette’s new apartment. Crime spread from the depths of the periphery inward toward the city center, as desperate souls looked to take what they could to feed their families and to survive. Unable to come to terms with the depressed sales of his works, George’s tendency to start prices of his paintings high and work downward continued, the inflated opening quotes signaling a value to criminals intent on maximizing returns from their exploits.