By William Cohen-Kiraly, November 2016
Prompt: The tomb of Gustave Guillaumet by Louis-Ernest Barrias
Paris, France — May 1887
The rain tapped insistently on the skylights of Barrias’ studio. The sky was grey and he had trouble seeing his clay as he made the final clay for his bronze sculpture.
Barrias didn’t know if it was the grey, almost ghostly light or the tears streaming down his own face as he shaped the face he knew so well. It didn’t matter, his hands knew the shape of this beautiful young girl. He had sketched it a hundred times and carved it in clay so many times before building this monument to his friend that he could feel the delicate neck taking shape under his fingers, the beautiful, playful lips that had smiled so easily. Her face was much like her mother’s but her merry, dancing eyes were like her fathers and Barrias couldn’t bring himself to sculpt those eyes so he left them nearly closed much like his own now.
Bou Saada, Algeria — 1882
They were riding camels through the inhospitable deserts of central Algeria. Camels!
Louis-Ernest Barrias, who had lived in Paris all his life, was now riding camels with his friend and former teacher, Gustave Guillaumet, the celebrated orientalist painter. He could barely believe it. How had this laughing man dragged him here with nothing but a promise of paradise? But Barrias followed Guillaumet freely and joyfully, knowing his adventurous friend would teach him things no one else could.
It wasn’t a hard decision for Barrias despite the backlog of commissions he had. He felt himself getting stale and cramped in his studio. Guillaumet, who travelled to Algeria almost every year, said he had just the cure for Barrias blues.
Barrias never ceased to be amazed at both the quantity and the vitality of Guillaumet’s brushes. Maybe he could bring some of that life to his own work again but Guillaumet just laughed at him. “A painting is like a poem,” he said. I can dash one off in a day. You have to struggle with writing a huge novel with model and casting and model and casting for months for each babe you birth. But come with me, and I’ll show you something new to see and create.”
Guillaumet did not get commissions but he sold every painting he put on the market. Now that France had an iron hold on the Maghreb, it had become the height of style to decorate one’s house with romantic images of the orient.
And Guillaumet more than other romantic orientalists rode that wave for almost two decades, often spending as much time in Algeria as he did at home with his wife and kids.
And now, after all these years, Guillaumet had brought his star pupil to visit this land he loved.
Barrias, so far, was not impressed. Yes, he loved the adventure, but life here in Algeria seemed dirty and sweaty and the amenities they shared so far, were not to his liking. Barrias had no trouble with sweating and hard work. He was a creator of gigantic bronze sculptures after all—but he also enjoyed sitting down in a comfortable chair after a warm bath and having a civilized glass of wine after a long day in his workshop.
In Algeria, the heat was unrelenting, the sand was in everything he ate, everything he wore, everything he slept in. They had been traveling for days on the these great, stubborn beasts who seemed to hate Barrias, nothing like the horses he had at home.
But Gustave said they were close and he would love their destination so Barrias kept his sand-flecked lips shut for the time being. Gustave, already usually cheery, seemed to brighten more and more as they approached Bou Saada, the town he said was their destination.
It was the biggest town they had seen for days, full of people and camels and horses and donkeys and bustle and a huge market square. They rode through the center of the town and out again to the south without stopping and Barrias grumbled. “I thought you said Bou Saada was our destination. When do we get off these infernal beasts?”
Guillaumet was almost giddy with laughter. “Do you see that villa ahead, on the hill? That, my friend, is this Frenchman’s personal paradise. Very soon now.”
So Barrias resigned himself to another few kilometers of swaying on the back of this flea-bitten camel and after what seemed like an hour, they road through iron gates and the dessert suddenly turned to lush garden. The house was bigger than anything they had seen since Algiers, and it was a fine house, built in the crazy Algerian style they had seen in the north with the layout of a Roman Villa decorated with the beautiful arches and geometric tile so common in Muslim art.
A young girl, maybe 14, came running from the house shouting “Papa!, Papa!” and Barrias was shocked when he saw Gustave dismount lightly from his high saddle and grab the girl in a bear hug laughing and crying himself.
“Ah, my dear Meryem, what a pleasure to see you again.” He said into her long black hair now covering his face.
Behind her, an elegant woman walked along the path behind the child, almost gliding in her stateliness. “It’s about time you finally got here.” She said, her own smile belying the sharpness of her words.
Without letting go of the the little girl, Guillaumet took this woman into his embrace as well and the small family hugged in contented silence for a few moments. Barrias watched in disbelief and with a touch of horror. He tried to make a graceful dismount from his own beast, but the camel, seemingly in a hurry to be finally rid of its burden, started to stand up before his foot was free and threw him to the ground in a heap.
Gustave must have heard his friends grunt and let go of his women to help Barrias up. “Barrias, my friend, my mentor, I want you to meet Sophia Kermali, my wife here in Algeria, and my beautiful daughter, Meryem Kermali-Guillaumet. Sophia, this is my friend and teacher Louis-Ernest Barrias. I have told you about him before.”
The woman turned her smile on him, her own eyes dancing a bit. “Yes, Cherie,” she said to Barrias, “he has mentioned you a few times.” Her French was flawless.
Barrias sputtered, trying to decide what he should say, finally settling on the neutral and pathetic “It’s a pleasure to meet you”
Guillaumet guffawed and clapped his friend hard on the shoulder. “It’s all right, my friend, she knows about Charlotte and my family in Paris.”
“And does Charlotte know about your family in Bou Saada?”
Guillaumet still smiled but a little more stiffly. “No, well, not exactly” he said. “I don’t think she would approve so easily as my dear Sophia. Let’s get our things off these beasts and I’ll show you around.”
Barrias was not usually shocked by the things other artists did. They drank, they whored, smoked tobacco and Hashhish, slept with women and some even with other men. Though he was far more abstemious in his own life, he was by no means a prude. But this seemed beyond the pale, this felt less like a little sin and more like betrayal.
Barrias liked Charlotte well enough though she was a bit conventional for his tastes. The boy, Henri, was very much like Guillaumet, passionate and irreverent and the girl, little Charlotte was the spitting image of her mother, pretty, dainty, fiercely loyal and fiercely judgemental. She treated her older brother much like Charlotte treated her husband by keeping him on the straight and narrow, or so Barrias had supposed.
Barrias’ first instinct wat to walk away immediately but he didn’t think he could make it back without his friends’ guidance. He laid awake that first night and many others, sometimes so angry at his friend that he wanted to steal away in the darkness and ride back to Algiers, hop on a ship back to France and go tell Charlotte. But they were so deep in Berber country, he wasn’t even sure which direction to go to find French officials to help him back— something he was sure Guillaumet counted on.
So in the morning, each morning, he was still there. As he suspected when they rode in, this was a brothel and Sophia was the madame who seems to have retired from the active part of the business when she met Guillaumet.
And maybe what bothered Barrias even more was that over the weeks he was there, he began to understand what his friend saw in her. She was older than they were by about 10 years but her raven hair showed not a strand of grey, whether by nature or artifice, Barrias did not know. She and Guillamet were passionate lovers and passionate fighters. He saw Guillaumet go into a frenzy of painting he hand never seen in their sedate life in Paris. She was an exceedingly handsome woman. Tall, elegant with deep black eyes, a dark flawless skiing and a full and ever-expressive mouth.
She found Guillaumet people and places to paint and the painter went further and found even more for himself. He wandered freely in this place that most Frenchmen could not go because everyone knew he was Sophia’s husband and she was both respected and feared.
And the passion did spread to Barrias. He too found renewed passion in his work, sketching everything he saw and planning ways to incorporate it into his own work.
He drew many sketches of the lovely Sophia, trying to capture her elegance and fire but he never felt he could do her justice. Somehow all the sketches of Sophia felt too tame.
It was the daughter that captivated him. Not as woman per se. He could see she would grow up to be a beauty like her mother but for now, she was on that cusp between innocence and adulthood that he wanted to capture in his own art. Though he sketched so many of the beautiful faces he found there in Bou Saada, it was Mereyem he kept coming back to.
One day, he caught Guillaumet sitting in sunroom they used for an artist studio, surrounded by the sketches Barrias had made of the girl. Until he saw them laid out like this, Barrias had no idea he had drawn that many.
Guillaumet’s eyes were shining. “I cannot believe how well you capture her. I, I am the great painter but I can’t capture her soul the way you do here” he said, pointing to a quick, simple sketch. “In a few simple lines, you capture her as a woman, a child, a coquette and a deep, dark unknowable sea.”
Barrias shook his head. “You know I tried to hate her, I tried to hate them both because of what you were doing to your real, Christian family.”
“I knew you would try and I knew you could not”
“Well, she knew how to get to me. How can a man resist a girl who loves his artwork and wants to be a sculptor just like me.”
“Yes, well she wants to be a painter like me too. You don’t have girls at home, do you. They can be manipulative little vixens.” Guillaumet said with a smile, and this one is so much more powerful than big Charlotte or little Charlotte or even, God protect us, than her mother.”
“She’s a little girl, you talk like she is a master manipulator.”
“Spoken like a man who has only sons,” said Guillaumet.
“But Gustave, how can you do this to your family?” Barrias asked, “If Charlotte ever found out, it would kill her.”
“I don’t think I could live any other way. I need to be in Paris, I need my family there and I do love them. I love Charlotte very much. She has been a wonderful mother and wonderful companion to me, even in the worst of time. I need to go to Paris to sell my paintings.
“But I have to come here too. When I’m here, when I’m with Sophia and Meryem, I am really alive instead of sleepwalking. I love Sophia, I love Meryem as much as I love Charlotte and the kids but in a completely different way.
“It’s like I’m living two different lives side by side. But if Charlotte never finds out and Sophia is okay with it, who will it hurt?”
It took only two days more for the answer to come. Barrias woke up groggily hearing thunder. Then he woke up some more. There is no thunder in the Saharan dessert.
He threw on his trousers and left the room, finding the house already in panic. There were a few French soldiers who had spent the night and several of the men of Bou Saada, all trying to get their pants on and run out the door. Some of the prostitutes that worked for Sophia also cleared out but several others had no where else to go.
“Who is attacking?” Asked Guilluamet.
“Your bastard French Soldiers.” Sophia spit out.
”Why would they do that.”
“They don’t need a reason. Maybe they think we are hiding rebels, maybe we didn’t pay enough in taxes, maybe somebody just wants some of our land. They don’t need a reason.”
“These are Frenchman, they are not the damn Turks.”
Sophia looked at her husband’s face and laughed. “You beleive this? You are a fool. Do you know how many women your Frenchman have raped? How many men and boys they have killed, how much they have stolen from us? You who come here year after year and you are so blind. I do not believe this.”
Before the the sound of the artillery barrage stopped echoing, it seemed that French soldiers were marching towards their home.
Sophia told her women to run and she grabbed Meryem and told Guillaumet and Barrias that they would be hiding in a priesthole in the basement. It only had room for two so she begged the Frenchman to keep them secret.
It was too late for the other women of the house. They tried running out the back heading away from the city and soldiers but were brought back almost immediately at gunpoint..
One soldier, one of the men who had be there recently as a customer, leveled his pistol at Barrias and Guillaumet and demand to know where the old whore and her daughter were.
Barrias said she had run away last night. But Guillaumet said “Louis, we don’t have to lie. These are Frenchman, they won’t hurt my family. They are French too because of me.!
“Shut up you fool,” said Barrias but Guillaumet waived his hand. “They are our brothers. They are Christians.”
He took the soldiers into the basement and opened the door of the hidden room himself. As he did, Sophia spat in his face and called him a murderer.
Once the mother and daughter were brought up, that’s when the rapes started. For days on end, the French soldiers came into the brothel and raped the all the women of the house over and over. When they couldn’t serve the soldier’s needs, they were run through by sabre and thrown out the window into a pile in the courtyard. Guillaumet tried to get to his wife and daughter but a soldier smashed his face with the butt of his gun rifles then tied both men up where they hear all the screaming. After two days, they brought Meryem’s body out and threw it at their feet shouting at them “If you sleep with these dogs, you get a whore for a daughter. You are no Frenchman,”
The brothel was destroyed as was most of Bou Saada. The men were left alive, Sophia remained alive when the soldiers finally left but she only spat at Guillaumet and left both men tied up when she walked out the door.
Several of the women also survived their ordeal though most did not. One of them finally took pity on the Frenchmen and cut their bonds.
Hungry and shaking, they walked back to Bou Saada to find the newly installed French officials who arranged for their passage back to France.
It took more than two months to arrive back in Paris. Guillaumet was damaged beyond repair. Both his body and his soul were damaged. He sat in his studio, looking at his old paintings, barely talking to his wife and kids or to Barrias.
It was then Barrias did a very stupid thing. He paid a fortune to have someone find Sophia and bring her to Paris. She stayed with a small group of Algerian expatriates in Paris. She wouldn’t even talk to Barrias but Guillaumet went to stand outside her home until she finally let him in. Barrias never learned the full story. Guillaumet stayed with her for two weeks, completely abandoning his family but it couldn’t have been a happy time for either of them. He eventually tried to kill himself with a shotgun and in fact, he did succeed. Only it took him several months of agony for him to die.
Sophia left him on the street after his suicide attempt and amazingly, Charlotte and Henri picked him up and carried him back to their house and nursed him through his long illness. Guillaumet finally died in his own studio amid his own paintings and in the company of Charlotte, Henri and little Charlotte. Barrias visited but Guillaumet had little to say to him, Charlotte even less.
Sophia hanged herself a few weeks after Guillaumet died.
Paris, France — May 1887
So Barrias was the one left to grieve, crying for Meryen, crying for Guillaumet, Crying for Charlotte and crying for France. Yes, the statue of the girl was for the tomb of his friend, but it was also his love song to that little girl who would never have a tomb of her own.
Author’s Note: This story is a work of fiction based on limited knowledge. The events of this story are made of whole cloth based on some short, intriguing historical suggestions on Wikipedia.
Jamie and I visited Montmartre Cemetery which is a beautiful and fascinating necropolis near the Moulin Rouge in Paris. We had only a few hours to look around and both of us were entranced by this beautiful, graceful girl on Guillauret’s tomb. It was created by Louis-Ernest Barrias who was indeed a student of Guillaumet. It is entitled “Young Girl from Bou Saada” and interestingly, Barrias made a bust of the same girl.
In the sculpture, the girl his dropping flower petals onto a medallion with Guillaumet’s face.
On Guillaumet’s Wikipedia page, you can see some samples of his beautiful work. And, according to this page, he did leave his wife for a mistress who was reportedly several years older than he. But that relationship did end in his attempted suicide and his family did take him back and nursed him until he died from peritonitis.
In researching this I did also learn from several sources the utter brutality of the French occupation of Algeria from the original blockade and invasion through the bloody, horrific, torture-filled Algerian war of independence in 1962.