Friday, May 21, 2010

A simple fact?!--uncovered!

As you can tell if you've been following this blog, writing a historical novel is at least half an effort in fact finding, even if one is not being completely religious to the facts. I certainly want my novel to be as true to the facts as possible, unless those facts start to impinge on something [that I think is] necessary about plot or character. I've done a heck of a lot of fact finding since this project began and I'm still at it. One little piece of information that for the longest time I was unable to uncover was the precise location of the 8th--and last--Impressionist exhibit, held in Paris in 1886. One scene in my novel shows Vincent attending this exhibit and being moved by it. But in trying to write the scene one of the very first things I had to nail down was the where to place it. Where is Vincent when he is observing these pictures? Hard to draw the scene without knowing this, or at least deciding on it. After scanning a number of books and web sites and not finding the location precisely identified, I just decided to make a choice. The exhibit--as portrayed in my book--would be held at a private home rented for the occasion. Why a private home rather than a gallery or museum? Because the Impressionists were historically the "out" group in the Paris art world. They organized exhibits in the first place because the Salon turned down their works. All right, they responded, so we'll set up our own exhibit. That independent spirit would carry them, I figured, right up to the end. I really had no idea if my decision was at all accurate, but I needed to write the scene.

It's only now, as I put the finishing touches on what will be the first publically available draft of Yellow that I've came across my decision again and confronted it. What if a private home was a ludicrous idea, way off base? What if some very informed art historian found the idea laughable and called me out on it? But what to do if I can't find this seemingly simple piece of information? It then occurred to me that I ought to at least find the locations of the earlier and more celebrated Impressionist exhibits, when the group was still holding pretty well together. Where those exhibits were located could and should guide my decision as to where the 8th exhibit might have been held. Don't know why I didn't think of this before. In any case, I seemed to hit pay dirt almost immediately. One very informative article gave me the precise location of every single Impressionist exhibit--except for the last one! Errr. (Why was this so apparently unimporant?) But, it was heartening to learn that except for the 2nd Impressionist exhibit in 1876 (held at the gallery of the famous art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel) the exhibits were held in apartments or studios, not galleries--and never museums. So my instinct was correct. Should I just go ahead with the setting as I'd already determined it? Not so fast, I decided. Better check one more time. And what do you know, there it was. An article on gave me (just a half hour ago) exactly what I'd been needing all along. The 8th exhibit was held on the second floor of the Maison Doree restaurant at the corner of Rue Lafitte and Boulevard des Italiens. Where was this article when I first started researching? Where was it yesterday? I can't tell you. And why a restaurant? I don't know. Did the restaurant simply not serve on its second floor during the month long exhibit? Apparently. (Although the hours of the exhibit were from 10-6. Did they try to do dinner up there, amongst all the artwork?) I suppose it's a sign that the group was dissolving that they couldn't find a more conventional space. After all, this last exhibit is most famous today for two reasons: 1) It's where Seurat unveiled his mammoth and controversial Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte; and 2) almost every leading, well-known Impressionist decided not to exhibit. So those who did get into the exhibit were relative no-names and up-and-comers. They would have to take what space they could get. Conveniently, these were exactly the people Vincent needed to get to know and learn from. (Update: After doing more research I may have to contradict one of my last suppositions. The Maison Doree was quite a well-regarded restaurant at the time, serving an upper crust crowd. Perhaps the exhibit organizers regarded it as a superb location!)

As I head back to my manuscript, with precise and accurate information finally in hand, I am reminded of a lesson I so often drawn from Van Gogh's life and experiences, something writers of historical novels needed to tell themselves again and again and again: Don't quit. For the sake of my scene, I'm glad I didn't.


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