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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Henri Murger (1822–1861)

‘The Passage of the Red Sea’

From “Bohemian Life”

FOR five or six years Marcel had worked at his famous picture, which he said represented The Passage of the Red Sea, and for five or six years this masterpiece of coloring had been persistently rejected by the judges. It had been taken so often to and fro between the artist’s studio and the Musée that if it had been placed on wheels it would have rolled of itself to the Louvre. Marcel, who had altered detail and touched up the canvas a hundred times from top to bottom, ascribed the ostracism which annually banished him from the salons to personal animosity on the part of the members of the council; and at idle moments had composed a little dictionary of his injuries in honor of these Cerberuses of the Institute, illustrated with stingingly ferocious pictures. This work became generally celebrated, was known in all the studios of the Beaux Arts academy, and attained to the popularity which attaches to the immortal complaint of Jean Bélin, painter in ordinary to the Grand Sultan of the Turks. All the students of the brush in Paris had scraps of it stored in their memory.

For a long time Marcel was not discouraged by these irritating refusals met with at each exhibition; he was comfortably convinced in his own opinion that his picture was, in the degree of its smaller proportions, the companion long waited for by The Marriage of Cana, that gigantic masterpiece whose brilliant splendor the dust of three centuries has been unable to dim. Every year, therefore, before the opening of the Salon exhibition, Marcel submitted his picture to the committee. Only, in order to nonplus them and to try and make them trip in their prejudiced exclusion of The Passage of the Red Sea, Marcel, without altering any important part of the general composition, modified some detail of it and changed its title.

Thus one year it appeared before the jury under the name of Crossing the Rubicon, but Pharaoh, poorly disguised under Cæsar’s mantle, was recognized, and repulsed with all due honors.

The following year Marcel threw a coating of white on the surfaces of his canvas to simulate snow, put a fir-tree in the corner, and, clothing an Egyptian in the uniform of the Imperial Guard, christened his picture The Passage of the Beresina.

The jury, having now rubbed their spectacles upon the cuffs of their olive-green coats, were not duped by this fresh device. They perfectly well recognized the obstinate canvas, mainly by a huge brute of a multicolored horse which stood rearing high on his hind legs in the middle of a wave of the Red Sea. The trappings of this animal had afforded Marcel an opportunity for all his skill in coloring, and in his own phrasing he called the picture a synopsis of fine tones, because with its play of light and shade it offered endless combinations of color. But once again, insensible to these details, the jury could not find blackballs enough to refuse The Passage of the Beresina.

“Very good,” said Marcel, “I will wait. Next year I will send it again under the title of The Passage of the Panoramas.”

“They will be trapped, trapped, trapped, trapped!” chanted the musician Schaunard to a new air of his own composition, an air as terrible and deafening as a gamut of thunder-peals, so that it was dreaded by all the neighboring pianos.

“How can they refuse that without all the vermilion of the Red Sea mounting to their faces and covering them with shame?” murmured Marcel, contemplating his picture. “When one thinks, there are a hundred crowns’ worth of color in it, and a million of genius, without reckoning my glorious youth, which has become as worn as my hat over it—a serious work, opening up new horizons to the science of color! But they haven’t had the last of it. To my latest breath I will go on sending that picture! I want to engrave it on their memory.”

“That is the surest manner not to engrave it,” said Gustave Colline, plaintively adding to himself, “That is a good pun, a very good one. I will repeat it at the clubs.”

Marcel continued his objurgations, which Schaunard continued to set to music.

“Ah! they won’t accept me,” said Marcel. “The government pays them, houses them, gives them decorations, with the express object, one might say, of refusing me once a year—the first of March, that is—a canvas in a hundred, mounted in a key-pattern frame. I distinctly see their intention; I see it clearly. They would like me to break my brushes. They hope, perhaps, in refusing my Red Sea that it will drive me to throw myself out of the window in despair. But they are very ignorant of the human heart if they count on snuffing me out in that vulgar fashion. I shall not wait any longer, however, for the Salon season to come round. From this day forward my work shall become a Damocles’s sword perpetually hanging over their heads. Every week I will send it to each of them—to their homes, into the bosom of their families, straight to the heart of their private life. It shall trouble their domestic joys. They shall find their wine like vinegar, their meat scorched, their wives ill-tempered. They will very soon go mad, and be put in strait-waistcoats for the meetings of the Institute. That idea pleases me immensely.”