By: Michael C. Keith
Drawing is the true test of art.
–– J.A.D. Ingres
Year after year, Maurice Lucerne set up his wooden easel on the narrow streets of Paris’s Left Bank and painted caricatures for tourists. It was how he made a living, but he had grown terribly tired of dealing with his customers. They had become boorish and tedious to him. Regardless of their gender, nationality, or age, they all behaved in the same fatuous ways as he began sketching them with his pastels. They would giggle self-consciously or make silly faces before settling down. It was often in those initial moments that Maurice identified what he wanted to highlight on canvas––furrowed brows, hoary lips, bulbous nostrils, dangling jowls, elephantine ears, crooked teeth, puckish grins, imperious scowls. There was always a singular feature that defined his subjects and set his chalk to motion.
What annoyed Maurice most about his profession was having to make his subjects look funny––but always in a cute way. People ultimately wanted to look appealing no matter the nature of the art form. Men and women, and even children, had low tolerance for appearing less than attractive. The world was a vain place, concluded Maurice. Customers didn’t mind being the source of a few chuckles as long as the chuckles were of the kind that kittens chasing a string might inspire.
The sketch artist awoke one morning in a particularly ornery mood and there and then decided he was finished painting pictures that ultimately complimented and pleased. Were not caricatures intended to exaggerate a person’s facial characteristics in order to create a comic or grotesque effect? thought Maurice. Well, no more damn cute. I’ve had it with that. I’ll go for the grotesque from now on. Maybe that will keep me from going out of my head. Let these tourists see themselves as I see them. I’ll capture on paper their true essence. How satisfying that will be.
* * *
Maurice’s first customer of the day was an older woman. She was cajoled into sitting for the artist by what appeared to be her two adult children. After considerable resistance, she agreed to be sketched.
“Well, okay. If it’s so important to you, I suppose I can do it. But these things are intended to make one look silly, and I don’t care to look sillier than I already do,” balked the woman, who gave Maurice a look akin to a warning.
A dark mole on the woman’s lined cheek caught Maurice’s attention immediately. Voila! he mused, fumbling through his pastels for a particular color. He went to work and in twenty-minutes he had finished. The result depicted the mole as many times larger than it actually was. In fact, it dwarfed the size of the woman’s prominent nose, extending the defect to her upper lip.
“Fin,” announced Maurice, displaying the painting to his subject and her entourage.
The woman let out a loud gasp of disapproval.
“What is that? How dare you draw me like that? It is not me! My mole is tiny,” protested the customer.
“This is an outrage!” blurted her son, while his sister appeared dumbfounded by the whole thing.
“It is how I see you as an artist. That will be 10 Euros,” said Maurice, his hand extended.
“I will not pay for this atrocity,” replied the young man.
“If you do not, I shall call the gendarme. You agreed to have me draw the good lady. In fact, you insisted. Pay me or incur the consequences.”
Flustered, the man tossed a bill at Maurice and escorted his women away.
“Do you not want the painting, sir?”
The young man turned and grabbed it from Maurice’s hand.
“Yes, to burn it at the first opportunity!” he growled.
* * *
Less than an hour later, Maurice was hired to render a portrait of an overweight tourist. The man spent several minutes combing the few strands of hair he had left before signaling Maurice that he was ready to be sketched.
Un homme moche, thought Maurice, studying his subject. I will draw you as you truly are, Cochon grand. Maurice gave the man the snout of a hog with a large, half-devoured sausage protruding from his salivating jaws.
“For you, sir,” said Maurice, showing the sketch to his customer.
The rotund man looked mortified as he stared at the caricature. After a moment he spoke.
“You are a very cruel man,” he bellowed.
Again, Maurice demanded his money, threatening to fetch the police if he wasn’t paid.
“You are no artist. You are a fraud . . . a monster!” proclaimed the man, handing Maurice his fee.
“And this is yours, my good man,” said Maurice.
“Oui, I will take this thing to line the bottom of my birdcage,” replied the indignant customer, stomping away with his caricature.
* * *
Maurice had no further customers until late in the day when he was about to return home. Before him stood a woman with a child whose head drooped to one side, indicating a severe affliction.
“Please, monsieur, draw my pretty little girl,” said the woman, imploringly.
Maurice was conflicted. What can I do with this poor soul? He then began to draw the child as her mother gently held the girl’s head to keep it from shaking. Unlike with the other caricatures he had made that day, Maurice took great pains with the sketch, spending the better part of an hour on it. The result was inspiring.
“Madam, I hope this pleases you. It is as she is,” said Maurice, presenting the picture to the woman.
“Thank you, sir. It is wonderful,” replied the woman, holding the drawing close to her daughter’s face. “See, my darling. This is you. This is really you.”
The grateful woman handed Maurice twice the amount of his fee and departed happily.
That night Maurice thought of the handicapped child and how he had been sketching his other clients so cruelly. It is wrong to hurt people when you can make them happy. I will not do it again, he swore to himself, suddenly feeling renewed interest in his vocation.
* * *
As Maurice set up his easel on the Boulevard Saint-Germain the next morning, the young woman with the sick child he had sketched the day before reappeared. Maurice was shocked to see the handicapped girl sitting with her head upright in her wheelchair.
“Dear sir, my daughter was transformed by your drawing. Last night I placed it in front of her while I was in the kitchen preparing supper. When I returned, her head was no longer bent and she was smiling so beautifully. Look at her. It is a miracle. You have done what no doctor could. You have given her such happiness. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Tears of gratitude fell from the woman’s eyes as she went on her way. Impossible. How can this be? Maurice thought, watching the pair as they vanished down the busy boulevard.
No sooner had they left when two figures emerged from the Metro entrance across from Maurice. One had a grotesque mole covering half of her face and the other had a nose like a pig. Seeing his easel, they moved quickly toward him.
“Aidez-moi,” whimpered Maurice, as he began running from his former models.
Michael C. Keith writes stories and teaches college. www.michaelckeith.com