Painted Into a Corner, Episode One

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The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web.

—Pablo Picasso

 

PART ONE

 

Magdeburg, September 1636

 

Sophia crashed through the door of the studio, gasping for breath and holding the newspaper aloft. "Daniel! Daniel!"

Johann Bartel, who was always high-strung, yelped and fell into his easel, knocking a moderately well-composed portrait of Prince Ulrich into Konrad Göttsch's particularly ill-done still-life of a bowl of fruit, and sending both canvases to the floor. Face down, naturally.

Konrad hurled his palette against the wall and swung a fist at Johann's face, missing as the latter ducked and cocked his arm as if to return fire with his own balled fist.

"Enough!" Daniel von Block bellowed.

Both of the boys opened their mouths to speak, but Daniel held up his hand and they silenced instantly.

Daniel glanced at Sophia and saw that she was waiting quietly for him, having seen the result of her exuberance. If it was anything truly urgent, he would have seen it on her face.

"You," Daniel said, pointing to Konrad. "Pick up your things and see whether your painting can be saved. Move down there." He pointed to the other end of the room, closer to where he had his own easel set up. He'd tried to leave himself plenty of space to work, but what could he do? Johann was a menace.

"And you," Daniel said to Johann. "Set your painting back on its easel, and go take a walk. Settle down. We can't have any more of this chaos and destruction." Johann looked as though he wanted to protest, but Daniel pointed to the door. "Go!"

Konrad was already set up again, studying the canvas with a deep scowl and picking specks of dirt off its surface.

Johann, on the other hand, simply kicked his canvas aside and stalked out the door, not even deigning to acknowledge Sophia on his way out.

Daniel sighed deeply, picked up Johann's canvas himself, and propped it back on his easel.

A six-inch diameter area had dirt and a few stray bits of hair stuck to the fresh paint, but the rest looked fine. Better than he'd expected, in fact. More skillful than the boy's previous work. Perhaps, Daniel thought, I'm actually getting through his thick head. But it wasn't that Johann was stupid or unskilled. No. He was temperamental and arrogant, and nowhere near as talented as his family had taught him to believe. That was a greater flaw than Konrad's, which was a simple lack of natural talent. He, at least, could be taught to be useful in a studio. Not painting faces or intricate details, perhaps, but preparing backgrounds and structures. If he were willing, that is.

Daniel barely spared a glance for Melchior and Ursula Jacobsmeyer, who were his star pupils. The siblings had come to him from Bremen, where their parents had been killed in a fire. They arrived with only a small amount of money, but with letters of introduction from their priest, as well as a respectable but not brilliant artist who'd been instructing them, and Rebecca Stearns herself. Apparently, Rebecca had spoken highly of Daniel to their instructor and priest, and wanted to make sure that the two children had gotten off to a good start.

The thought of her trust in him still made him beam with pride. Though she was a busy woman, their two families had become friends after Daniel moved to Magdeburg earlier in the year, painted the king and his family—and found himself unwittingly involved in an assassination attempt against Gustavus Adolphus. He would always be grateful to her for her public support afterwards. Without it, he wasn't sure he could have stayed in Magdeburg, since one of the would-be assassins had been his estranged son. The memory of the incident was still fresh and deeply painful, which made him all the more grateful to have the additional pupils to focus his attention on.

The Jacobsmeyers were highly skilled, quiet, and even-tempered, though they still needed much training. They'd barely glanced up during Johann and Konrad's little spat. Daniel often thanked God that they had come to him. Though they did not yet earn their keep, and couldn't pay what he had a right to expect as a master artist, he knew they would help cement his reputation—both as an artist and as a master.

Peace restored to his studio, Daniel turned and smiled at Sophia, his expression inviting her forward.

Sophia swept forward and clasped his hands in hers, the newspaper now tucked under her arm. "Daniel, I am so sorry—"

"No, no," he said. "You are not to blame for Johann's foolishness. Come, tell me what brings you here in such a flutter to brighten my studio?"

She beamed at him. "Oh, Daniel. It's perfect. Look," she said, sliding her hands out of his and unfolding the newspaper again. "Here, here." She pointed to the article and waited while he read.

His expression changed to one of amazement and then to intense joy. "My Sophia!" He clasped her in his arms and swung her around gently, careful not to disturb the young child that grew inside her. "This is perfection!"

At this, Melchior and Ursula paused at their work and looked up. They had never seen their teacher in such a state.

"Listen to this," Daniel called to his pupils, waving the newspaper in the air.

" 'Arts League Announces Mural Competition,' " Daniel read. " 'A competition will be held to select an artist to paint a large mural in the entry hall of the opera house in Magdeburg. The competition, announced today by the Magdeburg Arts League, will take place in several stages and will include public viewing of the artists' proposals and drawings, followed by a public comment period. According to Director Mary Simpson, the league is seeking a design that will encompass the most critical events of recent history, including, of course, the Ring of Fire, the Battle of Wismar, the creation of the United States of Europe, the introduction of air travel, and so forth, and include representation of major leaders. Beyond these guidelines, Simpson says, the league has no preconceived notions about what the mural will look like.' She adds that the league is open to both up-time and down-time artists and art techniques, or a blend of them."

"And then," Daniel added, "there is an address here to write to for further information or to enter the competition itself. Oh, and here—the deadline for the first stage is in one week! That's so soon." Daniel scowled and looked at the top of the newspaper. "Sophia! This paper is almost two weeks old!"

"Ah, yes," she said. "Well, you see, I—"

Ursula stepped from behind her easel. "Frau von Block has been very busy, as you know, Herr von Block, raising your son and tending to your home." Ursula had become quite close with Sophia in the few weeks that she and her brother had been living in their home. And very protective as well, it would seem.

"Ursula," Melchior said, "you should not criticize—"

"No," Daniel said. "No, Ursula is quite right. I ought to read the blasted newspaper myself, if it's so important. Sophia has more than enough work to do, taking care of all of us." Daniel nodded to Ursula and took Sophia's hand. "Well now, let's focus on what matters. Sophia, my angel, bless you for this news. I'll go immediately to this address and see what I can learn.

"Konrad! Prepare paper. The three of you—and Johann if he deigns to show his face again—write me a list of important people who need to be in the painting, and of objects and events."

"Objects?" Konrad said, pausing in his search for a pen.

"Airplanes, trucks, trains, sewing machines, typewriters . . . what else? There will be a million things. Make a list! Make it long. We will eliminate anything that seems excessive later. Work, work, work!"

And with that, Daniel swept Sophia out the door with him, nearly carrying her. He spun her in a circle again and kissed her cheek. "We will talk more later, my dear. And tonight, we will celebrate!"

"Celebrate! Surely that's premature."

"Surely it is, but I have a project now—the perfect project—and a family that I adore. That is well worth celebrating."

Daniel dashed across the street and toward the market square and city hall, laughing at the thought of his work—his art—filling the grand entry hall of the greatest building constructed since the Ring of Fire. This was it: the masterpiece that would forever elevate the name of Daniel von Block into the ranks of the greatest artists in history. This was the opportunity he'd longed for, struggled for, ever since he had visited Grantville and learned that his name hadn't been deemed worthy of inclusion in their history books. He had studied up-time painting techniques with the determination of a young apprentice, and then moved to Magdeburg where he'd been honored with an opportunity to once again paint the king. It had all gone so well, though it was just the beginning. And now this contest had been announced. Surely, this mural commission was meant to happen. It was meant to be his.

It must be so!

****

Antoine Le Nain did not like German cuisine, but he and his two brothers had not brought enough of their own food with them, and when in Rome . . . He tolerated the graubrot and the milbenkäse that the pretty fräulein had brought to their table. Bread and cheese were reasonably acceptable meals wherever they went, and the beer was tolerable, but he wanted wine, wine! And nowhere in all the world was the wine finer than in Paris. They had only been in Magdeburg a few days and already he missed the Pont Neuf, the Seine, and a luscious cassoulet. Everything tasted better in Paris . . . and with wine.

PIaC-1-lnns"Do not look so unhappy," his brother Louis said, forking down another chunk of overcooked fish. "Remember why we are here."

"We are here to bring fame and fortune to the Le Nain name," said the younger Mathieu, letting his eye wander to the white-and-blue tassels on the waitress's dress. "We are here to make a name for France."

"Take caution, brother," Antoine said, forcing another sip of his extremely bitter beer. "We are Frenchmen in a foreign land—one that is, these days, hostile toward our people. We do not have to pretend to be anything else, but we don't have to strut around like French cockscombs either."

They were here, in Magdeburg, the seat of USE cultural power, to compete in the Ring of Fire mural competition. They were preparing to submit their documentation and proposal sketches within the next few days to meet the deadline, but there was some dispute as to which direction to go with the overall design of the work. Like Louis, Antoine wanted to stick strictly with styles from French painters both up- and down-time. Mathieu agreed with that in principle, but wanted something bolder, more robust and radical. They had spent a few days in Grantville looking over up-time styles, and they each had their favorites.

"Okay," Antoine said, wiping his mouth and pushing away his plate, "the Arts League wants something that represents both up- and down-time artistic techniques. I don't think it's wise to go too radical. We came here to be viable candidates, not to scare them. I say we start with our own unique style, and then flow into Monet, then Cezanne, and then perhaps Jean-Baptiste Greuze to get that 'Benjamin Franklin' style pose for Gustavus Adolphus and Mike Stearns. I think that's about as radical as we ought to go."

Louis nodded. "Yes, I agree. But perhaps we can meet our brother halfway, go so far as blending in the likes of Georges Rouault or even Gustave Courbet. Imagine it," he said, setting the scene with his hands. "Rebecca Abrabanel in a L'Origine du monde pose right next to the Swede."

Louis thought that quite funny, but Antoine was not amused. "Don't be foolish or crude, brother. I'm not against nudity, but let's not insult our hosts. That might get you thrown in prison—and trust me, I would not come and visit."

Louis waved it off. "I'm kidding, Antoine. I'm just trying to shake the truth out of our intransigent Mathieu. What is it you want us to do?"

Mathieu shook his head. "You are looking at it all wrong, brothers. I'm not asking us to go radical. I'm simply asking us to portray the essence of the Ring of Fire. Too many people consider the event a manifestation of our own times, as if we somehow willed the event into being as punishment for sins or as a reflection of our own moral potential: The Ring of Fire forces us to draw upon the brighter angels of our nature, as the Americans might say. You've heard the arguments. But I say that is false. We didn't call up the Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire was forced upon us, and it has absolutely nothing to do with who we are as a people. It was an up-time phenomenon, and there it should remain in concept, and thus only up-time techniques should be used in its portrayal."

"But we are using up-time techniques," Antoine said. "Monet, Cezanne . . . these are future French artists."

"Yes, but not far enough removed from our own time," Mathieu said. "The Romantics, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists. These artistic styles are rather 'old school' to the up-timers, wouldn't you say? I'm not suggesting they don't have value and should be discounted altogether, but we need to go up farther, to the twentieth century—right up to the year of the Ring of Fire, if possible. Something powerful. Neo-Expressionism, perhaps. We could even consider graffiti-style art. Something that would really pop off the wall, and something that would allow the up-timers to recollect their own lost time. Let's 'go big or go home.'"

Antoine shook his head. Another insufferable American expression that Mathieu had picked up. For a man with clear disdain for what the Ring of Fire had brought to Central Europe, his brother nearly worshiped the sayings and slang of the people who came through it.

"I agree with you and Louis on one thing," Mathieu said again, pushing it further, "we should put the Le Nain stamp upon the work. We are known for our portrayal of simple, country life. That should remain, but in the style of the time from which the Ring arrived."

Antoine sighed and took another bite of cheese. A good bottle of wine would solve this problem right away. "Well," he said, "we have almost no more time to consider our full course of action. Of course, the sketches need only show what we can do, and so we can give the judges some options. Our written proposal can be reasonably vague, I'm assuming. I hope so. What would help us make this decision is to know who else is competing. Your idea might be the only one of its kind, or it might be one of many. We just don't know. I wish we did."

A young German sitting at the bar said, "I know of one artist who will compete."

He turned and looked at the Le Nains with red eyes and a sweaty glare on his face.

"To whom am I speaking, sir?" Antoine asked.

The young man shuffled off the stool and came over to the table. Clearly, he had been drinking for some time. He offered his hand. "I am Johann Bartel, and I am, regrettably, a student of Daniel von Block."

The brothers exchanged a look, and Antoine nodded to Mathieu.

Mathieu pulled over another chair. "Sit, sit! Join us, Herr Bartel. We've heard these German artists are miserable to work with in the studio. Tell us your troubles, young man, and how about a beer?"

Johann sat, and they spoke long into the night. Louis set beer after beer in front of the young boy, and all four had a grand discussion indeed.

****

Nearly three hours later, Daniel returned to his studio, moving far more slowly and less steadily than when he'd left. He dropped a folder onto a work table next to the list Konrad had been working on, and he sank into a chair with a resounding "Ooof!" It was only then that he realized the studio was empty. He scowled at the empty room, trying to make his tired and ale-befuddled brain understand where his pupils had flown to, before finally realizing how late it had become. Ursula and Melchior would be upstairs with Sophia, where she and Daniel and Benjamin had moved, once Sophia had become pregnant, so Daniel would always be nearby. Konrad would have gone home to his own family, who lived less than a mile away. As for Johann, Daniel had no idea where he would have gone, but he was glad not to have to deal with him at the moment.

And then, naturally, the studio door swung open, and Johann strode in, looking even more smashed than Daniel.

"You!" Johann said, pointing unsteadily at Daniel. "You are a damn fool, and you treat me like a sshild, and I hate it here!"

"A 'sshild'?" Daniel said.

"You know what I mean, old man. You—you're—it's—" and then Johann lurched forward and vomited on the floor at Daniel's feet, splashing his boots.

Johann gaped at Daniel in horror—and Daniel burst out laughing. "Learn to drink like a man, and I'll treat you like one, boy." Daniel pulled himself out of his chair with a groan and went for a bucket and a mop.

"Here," Daniel said, thrusting them into Johann's hands. "Clean up and sober up, and then get yourself home. Be here promptly at seven in the morning—clean, neat, and respectful—or don't come back at all."

Daniel swayed through the door into the hallway and slowly climbed the stairs to their home. Sophia was not going to be happy with him, or with his boots, but it was worth it. It was worth every bit of it. He had no doubt that he could persuade her to see it his way.

****

Daniel's intent was to enter the apartment over his studio like the conquering hero and regale them with his tale of teasing essential information from the museum project's chief clerk—information that would help ensure his victory. If he was careful, he might avoid anyone noticing that he'd had anything to drink at all.

Alas, his son Benjamin had left a wooden train engine right near the entryway, and he'd been so focused on delivering his news that he didn't notice it until his foot had been swept out from under him and he crashed to the floor.

He gazed in some confusion at the train for a moment before bellowing, "Benjamin!" and struggling unsteadily to his feet.

Benjamin came dashing down the hallway, a worried look on his face, but Sophia stopped him.


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