About 1300 words
Manet and Monet: Mastery and Mystery
by James Foley
In Tidewater Virginia in July, 2017, Max Stewart unloaded from his SUV a nine-foot inflatable dinghy, then pumped it up by foot. With him were his cousin Sally Angland and her university friend Simon Grant. “What's this crazy trip about?” Max asked.
“As you know,” Sally said, “I'm publishing my book on Impressionist painters. It highlights Richard Vlass, a university professor and art expert. But oddly in his early career he published nothing significant. Then in 2015, while dating a young woman, Vlass published three important studies of modern art.
“Now here's the mystery. All we knew about Vlass's friend was that she had dark hair and played a violin. Last year she disappeared from Vlass's life. And since then Vlass has published nothing. But recently Simon found a clue.”
Now Max was positioning a fifteen-horsepower outboard motor over his dinghy's transom. As he tightened the clamps of the mounting bracket, he got the fuel tank vent open. Meanwhile, Simon explained:
“Vlass was from this coast: Dunfermline, Virginia. I happened to see a magazine photo of the local chamber orchestra. It included a tall, dark-haired girl violinist, Claire Devereux. I started making phone calls and yes, it seems Claire and Vlass were once a talked-about couple. Since then she's suffered a mental collapse and is living as a tramp in some old waterfront ruins.”
“I desperately need to talk to her before my book's published,” Sally said. “This could enliven my professional life.”
Well, luckily the outboard engine was a sweetheart. She started on the second pull: rrrmmm-brrmmmh, kicking over strong. Sally and Simon came aboard. And as Max turned the throttle, they went wailing away.
“The place where she's camping is a backwater up the river,” Simon explained as they motored at full speed. “Out on a point there's an old house, supposedly built in Washington's and Jefferson's day. The land has been sinking for over a century, and the house was partly submerged during hurricane Jeanne. You can't drive there. The girl gets her supplies by canoe. We're told that she's in deep depression.”
They made the trip quickly. And yes, the huge old house was definitely flooded. Staring at those ruins, Max neglected to idle the engine. He had to jam his foot against the house's brick foundation to stop the rushing dinghy. The shock jolted his whole body. He thought his boot had kicked his brains out.
But they were there. Changing into the bathing-suits they'd brought, they went into the water and then into the house. Sally and Simon found and packed up a lot of handwritten and printed papers. Then on the second floor Max found a dark-haired girl, wearing nothing but an old rug she'd pulled over her alluring body. She seemed unconscious. Was she alive?
Yes. When Max lifted her, limp and beautiful, she stirred. “We can take you to an apartment near Washington, D.C,” Max said. “You can get medical help.”
She made no answer except to whisper something about a canoe. “We can tow that,” Max said.
In the days that followed Claire seemed to recover her physical strength at the complex where she and Max had apartments. Max was enthralled by this mysterious girl. As they walked one evening along a nearby beach,” she said, “Thank you for rescuing me,” hugging Max as they stood by the water. “And for not asking questions.”
“I don't want to inquire,” Max said. “But your life has certainly been amazing.”
She laughed. “My breakdown? It was simple and silly. I liked a guy a lot and I thought I helped him. Then he robbed me and dumped me. I shouldn't have cared. But the whole world flamed like hell and I blanked out.”
Max smiled and said abruptly, “I'm crazy about you, Claire.” And Claire smiled back.
Though Max never questioned Claire, Sally and Simon wanted to know her whole story. “Claire,” Sally said one evening as they all four walked along the shore, “I'm publishing a book, and I want it to feature you and your ideas. But tell me, do you know Richard Vlass?”
Claire turned a whiter shade of pale. But she said nothing.
“Claire,” Sally said,“among the papers you had when we found you there's an art-history article you wrote. Your university published It in 2013, and it includes the words: 'Monet digitized Manet'. One of Richard Vlass's books written in 2015 repeats that sentence exactly. Those three words are the smoking gun. But there are many other parts of your college papers very similar to ideas published by Vlass later.”
Now Claire seemed to hang her head. “I told Rich my ideas about Romanticism, then Realism, then Modernism.”
“That's just what Vlass afterwards wrote his books about,” Simon said. “In one paper you called Romanticism and Realism 'the seesawing R's of human culture: back and forth'. And Vlass repeated those words word for word.”
Claire nodded. “Those two R's oscillate. The Elizabethan-Jacobean age was very Romantic. Then the anti-Romantic cynicism of Restoration Comedy and Neoclassical satire. Then the Romantic early 1800s. Then the Realistic late 1800s.”
“Yes,” Simon said. “And Richard Vlass copied those words in his books, without giving you credit. In fact, he plagiarized your ideas right and left.”
Claire smiled. “He was ambitious. He wanted academic success.”
“You're too forgiving,” Sally said. “You should denounce this thieving scoundrel to the whole world.”
Claire shook her head. “I just wanted to explain Manet. Manet's revolution was to paint modern life, not legends or history. He's been dubbed 'the Father of Modernism'. Zola called his paintings 'luminous and serious' with their 'elegant awkwardness' and 'gentle brutality'.”
“Don't Manet, Monet and Cézanne follow each other? As Realst, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist?” Simon asked.
“Yes. But here's the main mystery of Modernism's mastery. The more realistic the subjects of painting became, the more unrealistic were the paintings. From Realism through Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and beyond, the thing portrayed became more everyday and ordinary. But the way it was portrayed became more stylized and abstract. The realistic everyday subjects didn't matter. There were no more gallant warriors or fascinating maidens. No one painted Tristan or Isolde anymore.”
Where they were strolling at that moment there was nothing but moonlight and the shadows of some trees. Then, beyond the line of trees, there was nothing but the beach and the moon on the water. Possibly enchanted by the scene, Claire became eloquent:
“What mattered now was the act of painting itself. The genius of the painter was sublime. Manet, Monet and Cézanne make our souls heroic.”
Claire leaned against Max and said, “The Modernists transformed everyday trivial details to create great images. They inspire our minds and hearts until we're as intense as Tristan or Isolde. The Romantic drama's not there. Our material life's dull, but we're gallant spirits.”
Now Claire looked out towards the Bay where the waves were rolling in and breaking far out on the long sandbars, curling white in the moonlight. Suddenly, she clung to Max and said, “That simple scene outside. If you kissed me now, Max, that view would become a part of my life forever.”
And now Max did indeed kiss Claire as she said, “That‘s what Cézanne does when we see his paintings. He kisses us. Cézanne's subject is anything—a vase of flowers, a bowl of fruit, a country lane. But when Cézanne gives us that he gives us himself and his genius. We become immortal like him. We’re his exalted, beloved friends.”
“Claire,” Simon said, “I hate to harp on this, but Richard Vlass pilfered all those ideas from you.”
“Yes,” Claire said. “And when he borrowed my ideas and then abandoned me, I had a collapse. It's you wonderful people who've saved me. But let's forget about Rich. We have each other. We have Manet, Monet and Cézanne. We don't need Richard Vlass.”