TIME

EXTRACT FOR
TIME'S FICKLE GLASS

(Charles J. Schneider)


PART I

MORE THAN A FEW DAYS
PRIOR TO ARRIVAL
APRIL 2 – JUNE 1, 1876

CHAPTER ONE

It was the last day of May in 1876 when the letter, marked with Switzerland postage, finally arrived. With a gracious “thank you” to her landlord for accepting the delivery while she was out, Nicole Bruante climbed the three flights of stairs two at a time up to her attic room and ripped open the seal. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she pulled out the single sheet of paper and breathed a sigh of relief when, after unfolding and reading his reply, she learned that the answer was ‘yes’.
Just about two months earlier she had waited patiently in line behind a dozen other patrons at the Montmartre postal station to send off the written plea that she held nervously in her hand. Who would have thought that on that very day and as a direct consequence of mailing her letter, fate would put her into direct contact with the man who could help materialize her request into reality. As she had counted out the correct combination of hard-earned coins and placed them with a metallic jingle into the outstretched palm of the clerk behind the counter, she thought he looked familiar.
“Have we met before?”
He met her gaze with eyes a shade of blue that could easily be called lavender—which is when she immediately knew who he was, because only one person she had ever met had eyes of that color. “Yes, while you posed anonymously for my brother: Gustave Caillebotte.”
She saw him study her name ‘Nicole Bruante’ printed on the return address while stamping the letter with an official posting date: 2 April, 1876. Now she was no longer anonymous…to him; but ‘identity revealed’ in this case was not necessarily a bad thing. René Caillebotte was someone she had actually thought about time and time again over the years since that artistic sitting, so she didn’t mind at all that he now knew her by her given name rather than just an unnamed naked woman.
The only reason she hadn’t recognized him immediately was the closely trimmed beard, and what appeared to be a year or two’s worth of hair-growth tied neatly back in true bohemian fashion at the nape of his neck. “That was about…three years ago?” she offered—knowing exactly how much time had passed since she modelled nude for Gustave in 1873.
He nodded and blushed, looking away as much from embarrassment as from the task of placing her letter in a basket labeled ‘international’, which made her laugh out loud. “I’m really not shy about that sort of posing, you know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be that type of artist’s model.”
He looked back at her directly and smiled. He was the best looking of the three Caillebotte brothers by far, and someone she wouldn’t mind getting to know better since her intuition told her he would probably be good in bed. He seemed to have the same idea. “Can we meet for a drink sometime, Mademoiselle Bruante?”
“Call me Nicole, please,” she corrected him mildly—and that’s how it had all started.
But it had really started, in a sense, during that nude posing in 1873 that had resulted in Gustave Caillebotte’s tastefully-explicit depiction of her naked body, immortalized on canvas when she was 25, that he called Naked Woman Lying on a Couch. This piece had earned her a few months-worth of rent and food shortly after Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet—known as ‘Jean’ to her alone as their private ‘pet’ name, and ‘Gustave’ to the entire rest of the world: her ex-lover and the father of her dear Edmond—had fled to Switzerland to escape his government creditors. Naked Woman Lying on a Couch was the first and as far as she knew the only female nude in Gustave Caillebotte’s growing portfolio of paintings…for a reason. Whether he realized it himself or not, Gustave was gay, and painting her nude was clearly a part of his ongoing cover-up.
She knew from the moment she had stripped off her clothes while he watched, his stare cold and unemotional rather than lustful, that Gustave Caillebotte was not a lady’s man. In every previous circumstance, her ‘big reveal’ was an act that never failed to elicit a flurry of verbal compliments accompanied by a certain hard-to-miss stirring of ‘male-desires-female’ below-belt…but not this time. He had studied her with the analytic eye of a scientist viewing a specimen rather than as a potential courtier, even as he described the overtly seductive pose that he wished her to assume—one which, under normal circumstances, would usually lead to a romantic or often blatantly sexual proposition that she would decide to either deflect or accept, depending on her mood and sentiment. She had just laid herself out on the living room couch in the apartment that he shared with his two younger brothers when René: the middle one, and Martial: the youngest, had barged one closely on the heels of the other through the front door.
Both men (or rather boys, since Martial was barely 20 and René only 22 at the time) stopped dead in their tracks. Gustave had ‘pooh-poohed’ their stuttering apologies with a dismissive wave of a hand, clearly unconcerned with their breach of Nicole’s privacy and intent on mixing his paints, giving both of them ample opportunity to linger and gawk. Nicole had met their awestruck gazes—grey and lavender respectively—with unabashed but good-natured defiance, amused while at the same time thrilled by their lust-filled scrutiny which groped her vulnerable nakedness like fingers. She had to chuckle to herself when her gaze drifted southward to note that sure enough, these Caillebotte brothers were reacting to her suggestive pose in the usual heterosexual fashion.
It took Gustave a few days short of one month to complete Naked Woman Lying on a Couch, which was remarkably speedy artistry at least by Nicole’s standards having been used to Jean’s slow and meticulous style. This was long enough though for Martial to set himself apart from René, in the most unflattering of ways.
Martial was as socially awkward and clumsy as he was physically, sporting a pear-shaped body topped with a head (and mind) that resembled a cinder-block. He was the low-brow and bumbling representative of the sibling triad, with no sense of boundaries or self-insight whatsoever. It took him just a few days of wandering in to the living room as an openly voyeuristic visitor to brag about his photographic talents, sitting eagerly on the edge of an arm chair with his eyes roaming freely over her naked body like he owned her. He chit-chatted with her while Gustave worked, oblivious and maddeningly silent, about an idea for a photographic style that he called the ‘body-scape’ that involved erotic poses quite similar, and different, to the one she was currently executing for Nude Woman Lying on a Couch. His ‘brainstorm’ was to photograph the most intimate parts of a woman’s anatomy, including all of the off-limit regions, in a bold and unapologetic way that would push the boundaries of the art-photograph firmly into the realm of ‘explicit’ but in the name of artistic expression. It was no surprise to Nicole at all when he proceeded to inquire, after mentioning the imagined series only a handful of times, if she would agree to be the starring model.
“No thank you,” she had responded without even a split-second’s hesitation—not because she couldn’t use the money, and not because she was self-conscious about the type of explicit nudity that he had in mind (because God knows she desperately needed the first, and would in all likelihood have secretly enjoyed the second—given the fact that she had been the anonymous model for Courbet’s The Origin of the World depicting exactly the type of unabashed exposure on canvas that Martial had in mind on photographic paper); but because she didn’t want to encourage Martial’s rough-and-ready romantic aspirations, which were as unsubtle as Gustave’s predilection for men rather than women.
While Martial could be likened to a bull-in-a-China-shop, Gustave was akin to the resident cat, rarely heard or seen while roaming the aisles and shelves, harboring a covert agenda that he shared with no one. Gustave gave the appearance of aloof and uncaring simply because he lived in his own little world where those on the outside were as irrelevant as insects buzzing around his head. There was nothing personal or malicious underlying his cold exterior—it was just who he was. While Gustave unknowingly insulted those around him by evading personal interaction entirely, Martial’s brand of insensate disrespect took the form of exact polar opposite, inserting itself inappropriately into conversations and situations in the most intrusive and unsolicited way imaginable. She was happy to finish the job if only to escape those two, but in the process she had sacrificed the promise of something exciting and potentially meaningful with the third.
René was a different breed altogether. In glaring contrast to his brothers, he was dashing, handsome, and courteous. Although traversing the living room was a requirement for entering and exiting the apartment, his interactions with her were usually limited to eyes respectfully averted but for a brief glance and a nervous smile, which went a long way to peaking her interest and winning her heart in advance. She had always viewed him as out of reach though, mainly because she was a family employee of sorts…and a confidential one at that. She was not in the habit of getting involved with business associates although exceptions were occasionally allowed, as with Jean for the most poignant case in point; but at that point in her life, in 1873, her ex-lover’s unexpected departure was still painfully fresh in her mind, which meant that she wasn’t even close to prepared for another relationship that soon anyway. But now, three years into her life of solitude, a fortuitous meeting in of all places the post office had given them a chance to rekindle the spark that had briefly passed between them in that cramped and close-quartered bachelors’ apartment.
She met him for a glass of wine that very night, where the conversation led them first to the recipient, and then to the reason, for her letter-posting that morning. She had to debrief him first on her stormy romance with the hard to understand and even harder to live with Courbet, and to quickly clarify what she knew might appear as a written correspondence between absent husband and pining common-law wife, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“I’m still in touch with Jean only because of our son. He will never return to Paris, and has long since set me aside as a fond but distant memory from his forgotten past. I am over him too.”
“I see,” he said warmly, the hope nearly beaming from his purple-blue eyes.
She had then proceeded to tell him about her financial troubles, but taking caution to minimize the true extent of her desperation out of pride; followed by an explanation of her idea that revolved around the paintings that she had stashed away at Jean’s pointed request when he had fled in the middle of the night, in 1873. No one wanted any of his highly controversial nudes, especially The Origin of the World (a sensational piece for which she had posed when she was only 18, in 1866) but others as well including Woman with a Parrot; Woman with White Stockings; and Sleep: this last one actually being the subject of a relatively recent police report because it depicted two ‘lesbian’ lovers (actually, Nicole and a friend half-playing the part) enjoying a post-coital embrace.
Thirteen paintings, all of them secretly featuring her as the bold and uninhibited nude model, were either propped against the walls of her attic room or hanging, so that she could admire them whenever she pleased. Some of them were well known, while others were never-before-seen such as the nearly-finished but unsigned piece that Jean had been working on the very night he had been forced to flee that he had named Waking Nude Preparing to Rise even prior to its completion—the title penciled in with haste on the paper backing right before he rushed out the back door carrying his speedily-packed travel trunk. This one (his last depiction of her) portrayed her sitting, with legs folded underneath her on rumpled bedclothes leaning on an outstretched arm, with the other raised upward and bent as a ‘cradle’ for her head: turned to one side and slightly obscured in the shadow of early morning—the ‘classic’ pose presented in a way meant to represent a sleepy nude ‘stretch’ at daybreak.
The most notorious one of all and her very favorite: Jean’s self-proclaimed masterpiece called The Origin of the World, shunned by Le Salon as a shocking pornographic atrocity—she had intentionally hung right next to her grandmother’s crucifix on the angled wall at the foot of her bed, which was squeezed into the tiny window-alcove of her attic flat. The pairing of female anatomy with religious icon she viewed as a statement of sorts, her logic being that a woman’s womb deserved just as much recognition as humanity’s divine creator since life sprang from that earthly vessel at God’s fertile command, placing both on equivalent footing. Hanging them side-by-side was actually an act of devotion and reverence rather than sacrilege, so that she could worship both life-giving entities equally, exactly as each so well deserved.
She explained how Jean had his own financial difficulties to deal with, but that she had reached out to him in that letter with the hope that he would honor his paternal responsibility to their son by agreeing to her plan. Edmond—who was now nine but was only six years old when his father left—was Jean’s only minor-aged ‘bastard’ (how she despised that term). The rest of them had already reached or passed the age of consent including his daughter who was now in her early thirties, being estranged from ‘Papa’ at the tender age of three when her mother: Courbet’s mistress at the time, had walked out on him due to her partner’s infidelity, in the late 1840’s. So, if she could only find a willing buyer for the shockingly erotic paintings that Jean had instructed her to hide away and keep safe, then she would give the proceeds once collected to her mother ‘Elle’ (short for Noelle) to use for her dear Edmond. He had by necessity been living under his grandmother’s custody these last few years, since a tiny attic room and a mostly absent nude-model mother who barely had the means to support herself were less than ideal circumstances for raising a little boy. She felt in her heart-of-hearts though that Jean wouldn’t refuse her, because after all their son’s welfare was at stake and her plan would make hundreds of francs available for their mutual cause. That type of money would last for years and years if spent wisely in support of Edmund’s upbringing.
René nodded his head in agreement and understanding, as if it was a predesignated signal for fate to step out unannounced from behind the shadows and join them, quiet and unassuming, at the table. At that exact moment (that she later recognized as one of her life’s true inflection points), René looked across at her as fortune’s spokesman and smiled knowingly. “I do believe I have a buyer for you, Nicole.”


CHAPTER TWO

As it turns out Gustave Caillebotte was a collector. “His first passion is stamps, and his second is paintings—and I don’t mean his own,” René had explained. “All of his free time and disposable income are devoted to these two obsessions, and I’m sure he would jump at the chance to add thirteen notorious Courbet nudes to his already impressive collection of Parisian artwork.”
“Twelve,” she had corrected. “I will keep the unsigned one for Edmond since without a signature it has little monetary worth.” Waking Nude Preparing to Rise was one of her favorite renderings of her naked body, which she would give to her son without sharing the ‘secret’ of the nude model’s identity with anyone other than her mother. Nicole more than anyone, even while she would willingly agree to the most explicit and exhibitionistic of poses in private, had a keen sense of morality and propriety in family and public circles. In fact, she made sure that no one but the artists themselves and her closest confidantes were aware that she was the uninhibited poseur for countless erotic paintings created not only by Courbet but by other well-known Realists and Impressionists as well. Nicole had posed in daring defiance of societal norms—some during but most occurring after her affair with the much-older Jean…for Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and even Jules Joseph Lefebvre: one of Courbet’s most vocal critics in public and as close to an ‘enemy’ as one could get, which necessitated a great deal of secrecy on Nicole’s part when she sat for his piece called Reclining Nude in 1868, when she was 20 years old. That’s why her sittings for Gustave and everyone else had been anonymous, with the intention of separating the private person called Nicole Bruante from the potential public notoriety of her nameless nude-model ‘persona’.
And then there was the sticky business of concealing Edmond’s parentage, which became a more pressing necessity after Jean became a national pariah of sorts related to the fiasco with the Vendome column. Yes, it was common knowledge that Nicole had been Jean’s mistress dating as far back to 1866, when she had first met him at the tender age of 18 answering an erotic modeling ad on a dare; but having his baby was not universally known, by intention. They had decided to keep her pregnancy a closely guarded secret since even in those early days Courbet was a lightning rod of unconventionality and neither of them wanted their child to be subjected to a decidedly negative ‘bias-by-association’. Thus, when their son came into the world (conceived on the very day her posing for The Origin of the World was completed and born just nine months later, in 1867) they quickly whisked him away to stay with her mother, who was recently widowed (God rest her own dear Papa’s soul)—which had been as convenient an arrangement then as it was now. Edmond had no idea who his father was or what his mother did for a living, and Nicole remained determined to keep it that way—at least for now.
Because later…much later, things might change. Future generations might actually appreciate rather than abhor Courbet’s naturalistic view of the female body and uncensored depiction of sexuality which he (and Nicole equally) considered a representation of God himself: a symbol of the cyclical miracle of birth and regeneration that is conceived in masculine devotion to his feminine counterpart materializing in a woman’s womb. Nicole had always shared in Jean’s belief that the prudish concealment of human nudity actually cheapened the divine act of reproduction, whereas the honest depiction of ‘Adam and Eve’ portrayed as nature intended did just the opposite. This is specifically why she loved modelling nude; and proud as she might be of this philosophical statement, the world—and her little boy—were not yet ready for this degree of physical honesty.
But years from now, after both she and Jean were dead and gone, someone would read her ‘confession’ ingeniously concealed between the canvas and the backing paper of Waking Nude Preparing to Rise. This idea came to her suddenly, immediately after René’s brother had confirmed his interest in purchasing her erotic cache but before Jean had given his permission for her to sell the sensuous paintings; so she had penned the letter straight-away, dating it 10 May, 1876. Her hope was that Edmond, or his children, or his grandchildren might find it, folded over twice: a cursory explanation that Nicole Bruante had been the most prolific, ‘no-holds-barred’ nude model of her time; and that the secret paternal contributor to their erotically-inclined blood-line was the infamous artist and political activist: Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, who had to flee Paris and France in 1873 to avoid ridicule and financial ruin. She and Jean’s distant descendants would be able to ‘fill in the blank’ on their family tree, thanks to her clandestine foresight in hiding this message of disclosure in the family painting.
She often thought back on how it had all started. Posing nude began as a lighthearted whim centered on the thrill of exposure and the sense of freedom, independence and rebel-like rejection of societal conventions, but quickly became a serious vocation that instigated the beginning of a seven-year ever-volatile romance and tenuous domestic partnership with the father of Realism. That first sitting which had allowed her to play the only-partially contrived role of lesbian lover with her best friend Céleste had resulted in the highly controversial piece called Sleep, followed quickly on its heels by the even more shocking The Origin of the World. It was immediately after her final session for this latter painting had ended that Edmond had been conceived—on the very same posing-pallet and with Nicole maintaining the exact same open-legged position as she had for months-and-months, even before the last brushstroke on the eye-popping canvas had dried.
A few days after they had met for drinks Nicole saw René again, this time for an early dinner. “To say my brother is interested would be an understatement,” were the first words out of his mouth. He went on to describe Gustave’s collection as heavy on landscapes, cityscapes and domestic scenes, but pitifully sparse on depictions of unclothed models—boasting only a handful of August Renoir bathers and a few obscure nude pieces by Édouard Manet including a watercolor ‘study’ for his much decried Luncheon on the Grass that disgracefully depicted two naked prostitutes picnicking with a group of fully clothed gentleman in the woods.
Nicole giggled when that piece was mentioned. “The girl folded over herself in the background was certainly not a prostitute—at least in real life!”
“How do you know?” René asked with a quizzically raised eyebrow.
“Because the model was me! I was barely sixteen at the time I posed for that painting.”
And so it was that Gustave, it turned out, was prepared to pay an unbelievable 500 francs for the dozen Courbet nudes in Nicole’s possession, which was more than double the amount she had hoped to earn for the set; and after he learned that Nicole was one of the models for Luncheon on the Grass, he also offered a generous ‘finder’s fee’ if she would give him a list of all the other nudes that she had posed for over the past dozen years, to help in his now-obsessive naked-genre acquisition efforts. His very own Naked Woman Lying on a Couch would in this way be joined by as many other pieces as possible, necessary to fill the gap in his collection—with a focus on populating the erotic portion of his growing assemblage of paintings with those pieces featuring Nicole as the model. The discovery of such an unlikely buyer for her cache and for inside-information was fortuitous, but would mean nothing in the end if Jean said ‘no’. This fear was one of the reasons that the following two months would be consumed by sleepless nights; and the other had to do with her night-time pre-occupation with her new and, as she discovered, exceptionally talented lover.
Where Gustave excelled in painting and Martial in photography, René was a burgeoning sculptor. The job in the post office was temporary, just until he could sell some pieces and make a true living out of his passion. Since it seemed clear that he would never ask due to his highly developed sense of propriety, she had decided to offer. “In case you’re interested, I’d be happy to pose for you.”
His initial response was silent hesitation, followed by a quiet observation that explained his reticence. “You turned down Martial, so I just assumed…”
“Well, you assumed wrong,” she interjected in a tone that sounded more irritated than she had intended. “Do you know why I wouldn’t agree to be Martial’s ‘body-scape’ model?” She paused for a moment just for effect, and then continued. “If you thought it was the concept that turned me off, then you’d be wrong again.”
He nodded his immediate comprehension. “Martial can be a bit much. He means well, but just has no sense of boundaries. He’s been like that as long as I can remember, even when we were children.”
So it was settled. René, equipped with stone and chisel just a few short weeks after they had started ‘seeing’ each other, had set himself up in Nicole’s attic apartment rather than in the shared Caillebotte-brother residence at Hauts-de-Seine since limiting her ‘exposure’ to Martial would be best for all involved parties. In any case, the bachelors’ pad was even more crowded nowadays and was no longer the exclusive boys’ club that it had been a few years before.
“Gustave has taken in a young lady of leisure, and he’s preparing to paint her.”
“Pictured in a nude scene?” If so, this would surprise her almost as much as the concept of a live-in prostitute, given her theory about Gustave’s sexual leanings.
“Yes, and on the very same couch where…”
The almost comical pregnant pause meant that René, whose sentence seemed to have permanently trailed off, was at a definite loss for a polite way to say ‘…where you bared it all that first day I barged in to discover every man’s fantasy lying right there in our communal living room, completely and unselfconsciously exposed,’ so she pulled him gently and good-naturedly off his awkward hook. “I think you meant to say: ‘on the very same couch where I was posing when we first made our initial acquaintance’”
“Yes,” he confirmed, the wrinkles of strain on his forehead relaxing the very moment she rushed in to save him from what she considered to be a quite unnecessary sense of morality. It’s not like modeling without a stitch of clothing automatically led to lascivious behavior, because it almost never did. He was still struggling with the dichotomy of Nicole’s professional versus personal lives. “Her name is Anne Marie Hagan,” he added, returning to the original topic of conversation. “Martial actually has quite a thing for her.”
She laughed lightly. “Why am I not surprised!” Now it seemed was the perfect opportunity to fish. “But what about Gustave? Doesn’t he have a ‘thing’ for her too?”
René waved the thought away. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
She knew it! “If you’re going to say he’s gay, don’t bother since I suspected as much.”
His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. “How in the world did you know?”
Now it was her turn to wave his surprise away. “Women in general have an intuition about these things, and my sexual sixth-sense is particularly keen.”
“But he has taken great care to conceal it!”
“I wouldn’t worry. If he’s gone so far as to take in a prostitute as a ‘beard’, I’d say his secret is safe. Plus, unless you’ve posed nude for him as I have, his lack of sexual interest in women really isn’t that obvious.”
“Meaning?”
“Meaning that there is usually a characteristic physical sign that one cannot ignore, whenever I strip and pose for an artist. Don’t you remember your reaction when you stumbled onto that scene in the living room 3 years ago? I certainly do!”
His cheeks were suddenly rosy again. “Was it that noticeable?”
She laughed lightly and took his hand. “It was literally impossible to miss!”; and distinctly flattering to both of them, she added silently to herself.
For the next five weeks she had posed unmoving for him in her very own apartment, her skin itchy from lying exposed on a tattered wool blanket for so long; but her toils were duly rewarded with dinner in one café or another followed by hours of passion each night, both of them falling asleep afterwards on her squeaky cot. He had positioned her in the most intimate of poses with her head turned slightly to the side, and her expression behind closed eyes giving the impression of building ecstasy. Her flowing hair streamed over the edge of her left shoulder, chest and arm—arranged by René at the start of each posing in order to accent the rounded contour of the breast on that side rather than concealing it. Always the consummate gentleman even in his role of erotic artist, he politely asked her to position her arms on either side of her naked bosom with elbows pointing outward: a maneuver that functioned to accentuate their rounded fullness; while, at her own suggestion, her fingers strategically accented the identical ‘pose’ featured in The Origin of the World, which would eventually be indelibly reproduced in marble—being the last ‘third’ of a 4-foot sculpture of her head and torso ending abruptly at her upper thighs. It was the most poignant sitting she had ever experienced because it was shared with a man who knew her intimately that way, and with whom she felt sexually at-ease.
By the time Jean’s affirmative reply arrived, her upper-half had been reproduced from the top of her head to just below her breasts and elbows, with stunning accuracy and what she considered lightning speed, given the unforgiving artistic medium. She marveled at how he had perfectly reproduced the generous swell of her exposed chest in a piece that he told her he would likely name Reclining Nude Pictured in an Intimate Moment.
As a masterpiece in progress and made of inert marble sat motionless on the floor in the corner of her apartment, Nicole realized that she had never felt more content. René Caillebotte was a man with whom she could easily spend the rest of her days, offering her devotion and stability in a world that until now had given her only chaos. Their romance had begun in earnest.


TIME

EXTRACT FOR
TIME'S FICKLE GLASS

(Charles J. Schneider)


PART I

MORE THAN A FEW DAYS
PRIOR TO ARRIVAL
APRIL 2 – JUNE 1, 1876

CHAPTER ONE

It was the last day of May in 1876 when the letter, marked with Switzerland postage, finally arrived. With a gracious “thank you” to her landlord for accepting the delivery while she was out, Nicole Bruante climbed the three flights of stairs two at a time up to her attic room and ripped open the seal. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she pulled out the single sheet of paper and breathed a sigh of relief when, after unfolding and reading his reply, she learned that the answer was ‘yes’.
Just about two months earlier she had waited patiently in line behind a dozen other patrons at the Montmartre postal station to send off the written plea that she held nervously in her hand. Who would have thought that on that very day and as a direct consequence of mailing her letter, fate would put her into direct contact with the man who could help materialize her request into reality. As she had counted out the correct combination of hard-earned coins and placed them with a metallic jingle into the outstretched palm of the clerk behind the counter, she thought he looked familiar.
“Have we met before?”
He met her gaze with eyes a shade of blue that could easily be called lavender—which is when she immediately knew who he was, because only one person she had ever met had eyes of that color. “Yes, while you posed anonymously for my brother: Gustave Caillebotte.”
She saw him study her name ‘Nicole Bruante’ printed on the return address while stamping the letter with an official posting date: 2 April, 1876. Now she was no longer anonymous…to him; but ‘identity revealed’ in this case was not necessarily a bad thing. René Caillebotte was someone she had actually thought about time and time again over the years since that artistic sitting, so she didn’t mind at all that he now knew her by her given name rather than just an unnamed naked woman.
The only reason she hadn’t recognized him immediately was the closely trimmed beard, and what appeared to be a year or two’s worth of hair-growth tied neatly back in true bohemian fashion at the nape of his neck. “That was about…three years ago?” she offered—knowing exactly how much time had passed since she modelled nude for Gustave in 1873.
He nodded and blushed, looking away as much from embarrassment as from the task of placing her letter in a basket labeled ‘international’, which made her laugh out loud. “I’m really not shy about that sort of posing, you know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be that type of artist’s model.”
He looked back at her directly and smiled. He was the best looking of the three Caillebotte brothers by far, and someone she wouldn’t mind getting to know better since her intuition told her he would probably be good in bed. He seemed to have the same idea. “Can we meet for a drink sometime, Mademoiselle Bruante?”
“Call me Nicole, please,” she corrected him mildly—and that’s how it had all started.
But it had really started, in a sense, during that nude posing in 1873 that had resulted in Gustave Caillebotte’s tastefully-explicit depiction of her naked body, immortalized on canvas when she was 25, that he called Naked Woman Lying on a Couch. This piece had earned her a few months-worth of rent and food shortly after Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet—known as ‘Jean’ to her alone as their private ‘pet’ name, and ‘Gustave’ to the entire rest of the world: her ex-lover and the father of her dear Edmond—had fled to Switzerland to escape his government creditors. Naked Woman Lying on a Couch was the first and as far as she knew the only female nude in Gustave Caillebotte’s growing portfolio of paintings…for a reason. Whether he realized it himself or not, Gustave was gay, and painting her nude was clearly a part of his ongoing cover-up.
She knew from the moment she had stripped off her clothes while he watched, his stare cold and unemotional rather than lustful, that Gustave Caillebotte was not a lady’s man. In every previous circumstance, her ‘big reveal’ was an act that never failed to elicit a flurry of verbal compliments accompanied by a certain hard-to-miss stirring of ‘male-desires-female’ below-belt…but not this time. He had studied her with the analytic eye of a scientist viewing a specimen rather than as a potential courtier, even as he described the overtly seductive pose that he wished her to assume—one which, under normal circumstances, would usually lead to a romantic or often blatantly sexual proposition that she would decide to either deflect or accept, depending on her mood and sentiment. She had just laid herself out on the living room couch in the apartment that he shared with his two younger brothers when René: the middle one, and Martial: the youngest, had barged one closely on the heels of the other through the front door.
Both men (or rather boys, since Martial was barely 20 and René only 22 at the time) stopped dead in their tracks. Gustave had ‘pooh-poohed’ their stuttering apologies with a dismissive wave of a hand, clearly unconcerned with their breach of Nicole’s privacy and intent on mixing his paints, giving both of them ample opportunity to linger and gawk. Nicole had met their awestruck gazes—grey and lavender respectively—with unabashed but good-natured defiance, amused while at the same time thrilled by their lust-filled scrutiny which groped her vulnerable nakedness like fingers. She had to chuckle to herself when her gaze drifted southward to note that sure enough, these Caillebotte brothers were reacting to her suggestive pose in the usual heterosexual fashion.
It took Gustave a few days short of one month to complete Naked Woman Lying on a Couch, which was remarkably speedy artistry at least by Nicole’s standards having been used to Jean’s slow and meticulous style. This was long enough though for Martial to set himself apart from René, in the most unflattering of ways.
Martial was as socially awkward and clumsy as he was physically, sporting a pear-shaped body topped with a head (and mind) that resembled a cinder-block. He was the low-brow and bumbling representative of the sibling triad, with no sense of boundaries or self-insight whatsoever. It took him just a few days of wandering in to the living room as an openly voyeuristic visitor to brag about his photographic talents, sitting eagerly on the edge of an arm chair with his eyes roaming freely over her naked body like he owned her. He chit-chatted with her while Gustave worked, oblivious and maddeningly silent, about an idea for a photographic style that he called the ‘body-scape’ that involved erotic poses quite similar, and different, to the one she was currently executing for Nude Woman Lying on a Couch. His ‘brainstorm’ was to photograph the most intimate parts of a woman’s anatomy, including all of the off-limit regions, in a bold and unapologetic way that would push the boundaries of the art-photograph firmly into the realm of ‘explicit’ but in the name of artistic expression. It was no surprise to Nicole at all when he proceeded to inquire, after mentioning the imagined series only a handful of times, if she would agree to be the starring model.
“No thank you,” she had responded without even a split-second’s hesitation—not because she couldn’t use the money, and not because she was self-conscious about the type of explicit nudity that he had in mind (because God knows she desperately needed the first, and would in all likelihood have secretly enjoyed the second—given the fact that she had been the anonymous model for Courbet’s The Origin of the World depicting exactly the type of unabashed exposure on canvas that Martial had in mind on photographic paper); but because she didn’t want to encourage Martial’s rough-and-ready romantic aspirations, which were as unsubtle as Gustave’s predilection for men rather than women.
While Martial could be likened to a bull-in-a-China-shop, Gustave was akin to the resident cat, rarely heard or seen while roaming the aisles and shelves, harboring a covert agenda that he shared with no one. Gustave gave the appearance of aloof and uncaring simply because he lived in his own little world where those on the outside were as irrelevant as insects buzzing around his head. There was nothing personal or malicious underlying his cold exterior—it was just who he was. While Gustave unknowingly insulted those around him by evading personal interaction entirely, Martial’s brand of insensate disrespect took the form of exact polar opposite, inserting itself inappropriately into conversations and situations in the most intrusive and unsolicited way imaginable. She was happy to finish the job if only to escape those two, but in the process she had sacrificed the promise of something exciting and potentially meaningful with the third.
René was a different breed altogether. In glaring contrast to his brothers, he was dashing, handsome, and courteous. Although traversing the living room was a requirement for entering and exiting the apartment, his interactions with her were usually limited to eyes respectfully averted but for a brief glance and a nervous smile, which went a long way to peaking her interest and winning her heart in advance. She had always viewed him as out of reach though, mainly because she was a family employee of sorts…and a confidential one at that. She was not in the habit of getting involved with business associates although exceptions were occasionally allowed, as with Jean for the most poignant case in point; but at that point in her life, in 1873, her ex-lover’s unexpected departure was still painfully fresh in her mind, which meant that she wasn’t even close to prepared for another relationship that soon anyway. But now, three years into her life of solitude, a fortuitous meeting in of all places the post office had given them a chance to rekindle the spark that had briefly passed between them in that cramped and close-quartered bachelors’ apartment.
She met him for a glass of wine that very night, where the conversation led them first to the recipient, and then to the reason, for her letter-posting that morning. She had to debrief him first on her stormy romance with the hard to understand and even harder to live with Courbet, and to quickly clarify what she knew might appear as a written correspondence between absent husband and pining common-law wife, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“I’m still in touch with Jean only because of our son. He will never return to Paris, and has long since set me aside as a fond but distant memory from his forgotten past. I am over him too.”
“I see,” he said warmly, the hope nearly beaming from his purple-blue eyes.
She had then proceeded to tell him about her financial troubles, but taking caution to minimize the true extent of her desperation out of pride; followed by an explanation of her idea that revolved around the paintings that she had stashed away at Jean’s pointed request when he had fled in the middle of the night, in 1873. No one wanted any of his highly controversial nudes, especially The Origin of the World (a sensational piece for which she had posed when she was only 18, in 1866) but others as well including Woman with a Parrot; Woman with White Stockings; and Sleep: this last one actually being the subject of a relatively recent police report because it depicted two ‘lesbian’ lovers (actually, Nicole and a friend half-playing the part) enjoying a post-coital embrace.
Thirteen paintings, all of them secretly featuring her as the bold and uninhibited nude model, were either propped against the walls of her attic room or hanging, so that she could admire them whenever she pleased. Some of them were well known, while others were never-before-seen such as the nearly-finished but unsigned piece that Jean had been working on the very night he had been forced to flee that he had named Waking Nude Preparing to Rise even prior to its completion—the title penciled in with haste on the paper backing right before he rushed out the back door carrying his speedily-packed travel trunk. This one (his last depiction of her) portrayed her sitting, with legs folded underneath her on rumpled bedclothes leaning on an outstretched arm, with the other raised upward and bent as a ‘cradle’ for her head: turned to one side and slightly obscured in the shadow of early morning—the ‘classic’ pose presented in a way meant to represent a sleepy nude ‘stretch’ at daybreak.
The most notorious one of all and her very favorite: Jean’s self-proclaimed masterpiece called The Origin of the World, shunned by Le Salon as a shocking pornographic atrocity—she had intentionally hung right next to her grandmother’s crucifix on the angled wall at the foot of her bed, which was squeezed into the tiny window-alcove of her attic flat. The pairing of female anatomy with religious icon she viewed as a statement of sorts, her logic being that a woman’s womb deserved just as much recognition as humanity’s divine creator since life sprang from that earthly vessel at God’s fertile command, placing both on equivalent footing. Hanging them side-by-side was actually an act of devotion and reverence rather than sacrilege, so that she could worship both life-giving entities equally, exactly as each so well deserved.
She explained how Jean had his own financial difficulties to deal with, but that she had reached out to him in that letter with the hope that he would honor his paternal responsibility to their son by agreeing to her plan. Edmond—who was now nine but was only six years old when his father left—was Jean’s only minor-aged ‘bastard’ (how she despised that term). The rest of them had already reached or passed the age of consent including his daughter who was now in her early thirties, being estranged from ‘Papa’ at the tender age of three when her mother: Courbet’s mistress at the time, had walked out on him due to her partner’s infidelity, in the late 1840’s. So, if she could only find a willing buyer for the shockingly erotic paintings that Jean had instructed her to hide away and keep safe, then she would give the proceeds once collected to her mother ‘Elle’ (short for Noelle) to use for her dear Edmond. He had by necessity been living under his grandmother’s custody these last few years, since a tiny attic room and a mostly absent nude-model mother who barely had the means to support herself were less than ideal circumstances for raising a little boy. She felt in her heart-of-hearts though that Jean wouldn’t refuse her, because after all their son’s welfare was at stake and her plan would make hundreds of francs available for their mutual cause. That type of money would last for years and years if spent wisely in support of Edmund’s upbringing.
René nodded his head in agreement and understanding, as if it was a predesignated signal for fate to step out unannounced from behind the shadows and join them, quiet and unassuming, at the table. At that exact moment (that she later recognized as one of her life’s true inflection points), René looked across at her as fortune’s spokesman and smiled knowingly. “I do believe I have a buyer for you, Nicole.”


CHAPTER TWO

As it turns out Gustave Caillebotte was a collector. “His first passion is stamps, and his second is paintings—and I don’t mean his own,” René had explained. “All of his free time and disposable income are devoted to these two obsessions, and I’m sure he would jump at the chance to add thirteen notorious Courbet nudes to his already impressive collection of Parisian artwork.”
“Twelve,” she had corrected. “I will keep the unsigned one for Edmond since without a signature it has little monetary worth.” Waking Nude Preparing to Rise was one of her favorite renderings of her naked body, which she would give to her son without sharing the ‘secret’ of the nude model’s identity with anyone other than her mother. Nicole more than anyone, even while she would willingly agree to the most explicit and exhibitionistic of poses in private, had a keen sense of morality and propriety in family and public circles. In fact, she made sure that no one but the artists themselves and her closest confidantes were aware that she was the uninhibited poseur for countless erotic paintings created not only by Courbet but by other well-known Realists and Impressionists as well. Nicole had posed in daring defiance of societal norms—some during but most occurring after her affair with the much-older Jean…for Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and even Jules Joseph Lefebvre: one of Courbet’s most vocal critics in public and as close to an ‘enemy’ as one could get, which necessitated a great deal of secrecy on Nicole’s part when she sat for his piece called Reclining Nude in 1868, when she was 20 years old. That’s why her sittings for Gustave and everyone else had been anonymous, with the intention of separating the private person called Nicole Bruante from the potential public notoriety of her nameless nude-model ‘persona’.
And then there was the sticky business of concealing Edmond’s parentage, which became a more pressing necessity after Jean became a national pariah of sorts related to the fiasco with the Vendome column. Yes, it was common knowledge that Nicole had been Jean’s mistress dating as far back to 1866, when she had first met him at the tender age of 18 answering an erotic modeling ad on a dare; but having his baby was not universally known, by intention. They had decided to keep her pregnancy a closely guarded secret since even in those early days Courbet was a lightning rod of unconventionality and neither of them wanted their child to be subjected to a decidedly negative ‘bias-by-association’. Thus, when their son came into the world (conceived on the very day her posing for The Origin of the World was completed and born just nine months later, in 1867) they quickly whisked him away to stay with her mother, who was recently widowed (God rest her own dear Papa’s soul)—which had been as convenient an arrangement then as it was now. Edmond had no idea who his father was or what his mother did for a living, and Nicole remained determined to keep it that way—at least for now.
Because later…much later, things might change. Future generations might actually appreciate rather than abhor Courbet’s naturalistic view of the female body and uncensored depiction of sexuality which he (and Nicole equally) considered a representation of God himself: a symbol of the cyclical miracle of birth and regeneration that is conceived in masculine devotion to his feminine counterpart materializing in a woman’s womb. Nicole had always shared in Jean’s belief that the prudish concealment of human nudity actually cheapened the divine act of reproduction, whereas the honest depiction of ‘Adam and Eve’ portrayed as nature intended did just the opposite. This is specifically why she loved modelling nude; and proud as she might be of this philosophical statement, the world—and her little boy—were not yet ready for this degree of physical honesty.
But years from now, after both she and Jean were dead and gone, someone would read her ‘confession’ ingeniously concealed between the canvas and the backing paper of Waking Nude Preparing to Rise. This idea came to her suddenly, immediately after René’s brother had confirmed his interest in purchasing her erotic cache but before Jean had given his permission for her to sell the sensuous paintings; so she had penned the letter straight-away, dating it 10 May, 1876. Her hope was that Edmond, or his children, or his grandchildren might find it, folded over twice: a cursory explanation that Nicole Bruante had been the most prolific, ‘no-holds-barred’ nude model of her time; and that the secret paternal contributor to their erotically-inclined blood-line was the infamous artist and political activist: Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, who had to flee Paris and France in 1873 to avoid ridicule and financial ruin. She and Jean’s distant descendants would be able to ‘fill in the blank’ on their family tree, thanks to her clandestine foresight in hiding this message of disclosure in the family painting.
She often thought back on how it had all started. Posing nude began as a lighthearted whim centered on the thrill of exposure and the sense of freedom, independence and rebel-like rejection of societal conventions, but quickly became a serious vocation that instigated the beginning of a seven-year ever-volatile romance and tenuous domestic partnership with the father of Realism. That first sitting which had allowed her to play the only-partially contrived role of lesbian lover with her best friend Céleste had resulted in the highly controversial piece called Sleep, followed quickly on its heels by the even more shocking The Origin of the World. It was immediately after her final session for this latter painting had ended that Edmond had been conceived—on the very same posing-pallet and with Nicole maintaining the exact same open-legged position as she had for months-and-months, even before the last brushstroke on the eye-popping canvas had dried.
A few days after they had met for drinks Nicole saw René again, this time for an early dinner. “To say my brother is interested would be an understatement,” were the first words out of his mouth. He went on to describe Gustave’s collection as heavy on landscapes, cityscapes and domestic scenes, but pitifully sparse on depictions of unclothed models—boasting only a handful of August Renoir bathers and a few obscure nude pieces by Édouard Manet including a watercolor ‘study’ for his much decried Luncheon on the Grass that disgracefully depicted two naked prostitutes picnicking with a group of fully clothed gentleman in the woods.
Nicole giggled when that piece was mentioned. “The girl folded over herself in the background was certainly not a prostitute—at least in real life!”
“How do you know?” René asked with a quizzically raised eyebrow.
“Because the model was me! I was barely sixteen at the time I posed for that painting.”
And so it was that Gustave, it turned out, was prepared to pay an unbelievable 500 francs for the dozen Courbet nudes in Nicole’s possession, which was more than double the amount she had hoped to earn for the set; and after he learned that Nicole was one of the models for Luncheon on the Grass, he also offered a generous ‘finder’s fee’ if she would give him a list of all the other nudes that she had posed for over the past dozen years, to help in his now-obsessive naked-genre acquisition efforts. His very own Naked Woman Lying on a Couch would in this way be joined by as many other pieces as possible, necessary to fill the gap in his collection—with a focus on populating the erotic portion of his growing assemblage of paintings with those pieces featuring Nicole as the model. The discovery of such an unlikely buyer for her cache and for inside-information was fortuitous, but would mean nothing in the end if Jean said ‘no’. This fear was one of the reasons that the following two months would be consumed by sleepless nights; and the other had to do with her night-time pre-occupation with her new and, as she discovered, exceptionally talented lover.
Where Gustave excelled in painting and Martial in photography, René was a burgeoning sculptor. The job in the post office was temporary, just until he could sell some pieces and make a true living out of his passion. Since it seemed clear that he would never ask due to his highly developed sense of propriety, she had decided to offer. “In case you’re interested, I’d be happy to pose for you.”
His initial response was silent hesitation, followed by a quiet observation that explained his reticence. “You turned down Martial, so I just assumed…”
“Well, you assumed wrong,” she interjected in a tone that sounded more irritated than she had intended. “Do you know why I wouldn’t agree to be Martial’s ‘body-scape’ model?” She paused for a moment just for effect, and then continued. “If you thought it was the concept that turned me off, then you’d be wrong again.”
He nodded his immediate comprehension. “Martial can be a bit much. He means well, but just has no sense of boundaries. He’s been like that as long as I can remember, even when we were children.”
So it was settled. René, equipped with stone and chisel just a few short weeks after they had started ‘seeing’ each other, had set himself up in Nicole’s attic apartment rather than in the shared Caillebotte-brother residence at Hauts-de-Seine since limiting her ‘exposure’ to Martial would be best for all involved parties. In any case, the bachelors’ pad was even more crowded nowadays and was no longer the exclusive boys’ club that it had been a few years before.
“Gustave has taken in a young lady of leisure, and he’s preparing to paint her.”
“Pictured in a nude scene?” If so, this would surprise her almost as much as the concept of a live-in prostitute, given her theory about Gustave’s sexual leanings.
“Yes, and on the very same couch where…”
The almost comical pregnant pause meant that René, whose sentence seemed to have permanently trailed off, was at a definite loss for a polite way to say ‘…where you bared it all that first day I barged in to discover every man’s fantasy lying right there in our communal living room, completely and unselfconsciously exposed,’ so she pulled him gently and good-naturedly off his awkward hook. “I think you meant to say: ‘on the very same couch where I was posing when we first made our initial acquaintance’”
“Yes,” he confirmed, the wrinkles of strain on his forehead relaxing the very moment she rushed in to save him from what she considered to be a quite unnecessary sense of morality. It’s not like modeling without a stitch of clothing automatically led to lascivious behavior, because it almost never did. He was still struggling with the dichotomy of Nicole’s professional versus personal lives. “Her name is Anne Marie Hagan,” he added, returning to the original topic of conversation. “Martial actually has quite a thing for her.”
She laughed lightly. “Why am I not surprised!” Now it seemed was the perfect opportunity to fish. “But what about Gustave? Doesn’t he have a ‘thing’ for her too?”
René waved the thought away. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
She knew it! “If you’re going to say he’s gay, don’t bother since I suspected as much.”
His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. “How in the world did you know?”
Now it was her turn to wave his surprise away. “Women in general have an intuition about these things, and my sexual sixth-sense is particularly keen.”
“But he has taken great care to conceal it!”
“I wouldn’t worry. If he’s gone so far as to take in a prostitute as a ‘beard’, I’d say his secret is safe. Plus, unless you’ve posed nude for him as I have, his lack of sexual interest in women really isn’t that obvious.”
“Meaning?”
“Meaning that there is usually a characteristic physical sign that one cannot ignore, whenever I strip and pose for an artist. Don’t you remember your reaction when you stumbled onto that scene in the living room 3 years ago? I certainly do!”
His cheeks were suddenly rosy again. “Was it that noticeable?”
She laughed lightly and took his hand. “It was literally impossible to miss!”; and distinctly flattering to both of them, she added silently to herself.
For the next five weeks she had posed unmoving for him in her very own apartment, her skin itchy from lying exposed on a tattered wool blanket for so long; but her toils were duly rewarded with dinner in one café or another followed by hours of passion each night, both of them falling asleep afterwards on her squeaky cot. He had positioned her in the most intimate of poses with her head turned slightly to the side, and her expression behind closed eyes giving the impression of building ecstasy. Her flowing hair streamed over the edge of her left shoulder, chest and arm—arranged by René at the start of each posing in order to accent the rounded contour of the breast on that side rather than concealing it. Always the consummate gentleman even in his role of erotic artist, he politely asked her to position her arms on either side of her naked bosom with elbows pointing outward: a maneuver that functioned to accentuate their rounded fullness; while, at her own suggestion, her fingers strategically accented the identical ‘pose’ featured in The Origin of the World, which would eventually be indelibly reproduced in marble—being the last ‘third’ of a 4-foot sculpture of her head and torso ending abruptly at her upper thighs. It was the most poignant sitting she had ever experienced because it was shared with a man who knew her intimately that way, and with whom she felt sexually at-ease.
By the time Jean’s affirmative reply arrived, her upper-half had been reproduced from the top of her head to just below her breasts and elbows, with stunning accuracy and what she considered lightning speed, given the unforgiving artistic medium. She marveled at how he had perfectly reproduced the generous swell of her exposed chest in a piece that he told her he would likely name Reclining Nude Pictured in an Intimate Moment.
As a masterpiece in progress and made of inert marble sat motionless on the floor in the corner of her apartment, Nicole realized that she had never felt more content. René Caillebotte was a man with whom she could easily spend the rest of her days, offering her devotion and stability in a world that until now had given her only chaos. Their romance had begun in earnest.


EXTRACT FOR
TIME'S FICKLE GLASS

(Charles J. Schneider)


PART I

MORE THAN A FEW DAYS
PRIOR TO ARRIVAL
APRIL 2 – JUNE 1, 1876

CHAPTER ONE

It was the last day of May in 1876 when the letter, marked with Switzerland postage, finally arrived. With a gracious “thank you” to her landlord for accepting the delivery while she was out, Nicole Bruante climbed the three flights of stairs two at a time up to her attic room and ripped open the seal. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she pulled out the single sheet of paper and breathed a sigh of relief when, after unfolding and reading his reply, she learned that the answer was ‘yes’.
Just about two months earlier she had waited patiently in line behind a dozen other patrons at the Montmartre postal station to send off the written plea that she held nervously in her hand. Who would have thought that on that very day and as a direct consequence of mailing her letter, fate would put her into direct contact with the man who could help materialize her request into reality. As she had counted out the correct combination of hard-earned coins and placed them with a metallic jingle into the outstretched palm of the clerk behind the counter, she thought he looked familiar.
“Have we met before?”
He met her gaze with eyes a shade of blue that could easily be called lavender—which is when she immediately knew who he was, because only one person she had ever met had eyes of that color. “Yes, while you posed anonymously for my brother: Gustave Caillebotte.”
She saw him study her name ‘Nicole Bruante’ printed on the return address while stamping the letter with an official posting date: 2 April, 1876. Now she was no longer anonymous…to him; but ‘identity revealed’ in this case was not necessarily a bad thing. René Caillebotte was someone she had actually thought about time and time again over the years since that artistic sitting, so she didn’t mind at all that he now knew her by her given name rather than just an unnamed naked woman.
The only reason she hadn’t recognized him immediately was the closely trimmed beard, and what appeared to be a year or two’s worth of hair-growth tied neatly back in true bohemian fashion at the nape of his neck. “That was about…three years ago?” she offered—knowing exactly how much time had passed since she modelled nude for Gustave in 1873.
He nodded and blushed, looking away as much from embarrassment as from the task of placing her letter in a basket labeled ‘international’, which made her laugh out loud. “I’m really not shy about that sort of posing, you know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be that type of artist’s model.”
He looked back at her directly and smiled. He was the best looking of the three Caillebotte brothers by far, and someone she wouldn’t mind getting to know better since her intuition told her he would probably be good in bed. He seemed to have the same idea. “Can we meet for a drink sometime, Mademoiselle Bruante?”
“Call me Nicole, please,” she corrected him mildly—and that’s how it had all started.
But it had really started, in a sense, during that nude posing in 1873 that had resulted in Gustave Caillebotte’s tastefully-explicit depiction of her naked body, immortalized on canvas when she was 25, that he called Naked Woman Lying on a Couch. This piece had earned her a few months-worth of rent and food shortly after Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet—known as ‘Jean’ to her alone as their private ‘pet’ name, and ‘Gustave’ to the entire rest of the world: her ex-lover and the father of her dear Edmond—had fled to Switzerland to escape his government creditors. Naked Woman Lying on a Couch was the first and as far as she knew the only female nude in Gustave Caillebotte’s growing portfolio of paintings…for a reason. Whether he realized it himself or not, Gustave was gay, and painting her nude was clearly a part of his ongoing cover-up.
She knew from the moment she had stripped off her clothes while he watched, his stare cold and unemotional rather than lustful, that Gustave Caillebotte was not a lady’s man. In every previous circumstance, her ‘big reveal’ was an act that never failed to elicit a flurry of verbal compliments accompanied by a certain hard-to-miss stirring of ‘male-desires-female’ below-belt…but not this time. He had studied her with the analytic eye of a scientist viewing a specimen rather than as a potential courtier, even as he described the overtly seductive pose that he wished her to assume—one which, under normal circumstances, would usually lead to a romantic or often blatantly sexual proposition that she would decide to either deflect or accept, depending on her mood and sentiment. She had just laid herself out on the living room couch in the apartment that he shared with his two younger brothers when René: the middle one, and Martial: the youngest, had barged one closely on the heels of the other through the front door.
Both men (or rather boys, since Martial was barely 20 and René only 22 at the time) stopped dead in their tracks. Gustave had ‘pooh-poohed’ their stuttering apologies with a dismissive wave of a hand, clearly unconcerned with their breach of Nicole’s privacy and intent on mixing his paints, giving both of them ample opportunity to linger and gawk. Nicole had met their awestruck gazes—grey and lavender respectively—with unabashed but good-natured defiance, amused while at the same time thrilled by their lust-filled scrutiny which groped her vulnerable nakedness like fingers. She had to chuckle to herself when her gaze drifted southward to note that sure enough, these Caillebotte brothers were reacting to her suggestive pose in the usual heterosexual fashion.
It took Gustave a few days short of one month to complete Naked Woman Lying on a Couch, which was remarkably speedy artistry at least by Nicole’s standards having been used to Jean’s slow and meticulous style. This was long enough though for Martial to set himself apart from René, in the most unflattering of ways.
Martial was as socially awkward and clumsy as he was physically, sporting a pear-shaped body topped with a head (and mind) that resembled a cinder-block. He was the low-brow and bumbling representative of the sibling triad, with no sense of boundaries or self-insight whatsoever. It took him just a few days of wandering in to the living room as an openly voyeuristic visitor to brag about his photographic talents, sitting eagerly on the edge of an arm chair with his eyes roaming freely over her naked body like he owned her. He chit-chatted with her while Gustave worked, oblivious and maddeningly silent, about an idea for a photographic style that he called the ‘body-scape’ that involved erotic poses quite similar, and different, to the one she was currently executing for Nude Woman Lying on a Couch. His ‘brainstorm’ was to photograph the most intimate parts of a woman’s anatomy, including all of the off-limit regions, in a bold and unapologetic way that would push the boundaries of the art-photograph firmly into the realm of ‘explicit’ but in the name of artistic expression. It was no surprise to Nicole at all when he proceeded to inquire, after mentioning the imagined series only a handful of times, if she would agree to be the starring model.
“No thank you,” she had responded without even a split-second’s hesitation—not because she couldn’t use the money, and not because she was self-conscious about the type of explicit nudity that he had in mind (because God knows she desperately needed the first, and would in all likelihood have secretly enjoyed the second—given the fact that she had been the anonymous model for Courbet’s The Origin of the World depicting exactly the type of unabashed exposure on canvas that Martial had in mind on photographic paper); but because she didn’t want to encourage Martial’s rough-and-ready romantic aspirations, which were as unsubtle as Gustave’s predilection for men rather than women.
While Martial could be likened to a bull-in-a-China-shop, Gustave was akin to the resident cat, rarely heard or seen while roaming the aisles and shelves, harboring a covert agenda that he shared with no one. Gustave gave the appearance of aloof and uncaring simply because he lived in his own little world where those on the outside were as irrelevant as insects buzzing around his head. There was nothing personal or malicious underlying his cold exterior—it was just who he was. While Gustave unknowingly insulted those around him by evading personal interaction entirely, Martial’s brand of insensate disrespect took the form of exact polar opposite, inserting itself inappropriately into conversations and situations in the most intrusive and unsolicited way imaginable. She was happy to finish the job if only to escape those two, but in the process she had sacrificed the promise of something exciting and potentially meaningful with the third.
René was a different breed altogether. In glaring contrast to his brothers, he was dashing, handsome, and courteous. Although traversing the living room was a requirement for entering and exiting the apartment, his interactions with her were usually limited to eyes respectfully averted but for a brief glance and a nervous smile, which went a long way to peaking her interest and winning her heart in advance. She had always viewed him as out of reach though, mainly because she was a family employee of sorts…and a confidential one at that. She was not in the habit of getting involved with business associates although exceptions were occasionally allowed, as with Jean for the most poignant case in point; but at that point in her life, in 1873, her ex-lover’s unexpected departure was still painfully fresh in her mind, which meant that she wasn’t even close to prepared for another relationship that soon anyway. But now, three years into her life of solitude, a fortuitous meeting in of all places the post office had given them a chance to rekindle the spark that had briefly passed between them in that cramped and close-quartered bachelors’ apartment.
She met him for a glass of wine that very night, where the conversation led them first to the recipient, and then to the reason, for her letter-posting that morning. She had to debrief him first on her stormy romance with the hard to understand and even harder to live with Courbet, and to quickly clarify what she knew might appear as a written correspondence between absent husband and pining common-law wife, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“I’m still in touch with Jean only because of our son. He will never return to Paris, and has long since set me aside as a fond but distant memory from his forgotten past. I am over him too.”
“I see,” he said warmly, the hope nearly beaming from his purple-blue eyes.
She had then proceeded to tell him about her financial troubles, but taking caution to minimize the true extent of her desperation out of pride; followed by an explanation of her idea that revolved around the paintings that she had stashed away at Jean’s pointed request when he had fled in the middle of the night, in 1873. No one wanted any of his highly controversial nudes, especially The Origin of the World (a sensational piece for which she had posed when she was only 18, in 1866) but others as well including Woman with a Parrot; Woman with White Stockings; and Sleep: this last one actually being the subject of a relatively recent police report because it depicted two ‘lesbian’ lovers (actually, Nicole and a friend half-playing the part) enjoying a post-coital embrace.
Thirteen paintings, all of them secretly featuring her as the bold and uninhibited nude model, were either propped against the walls of her attic room or hanging, so that she could admire them whenever she pleased. Some of them were well known, while others were never-before-seen such as the nearly-finished but unsigned piece that Jean had been working on the very night he had been forced to flee that he had named Waking Nude Preparing to Rise even prior to its completion—the title penciled in with haste on the paper backing right before he rushed out the back door carrying his speedily-packed travel trunk. This one (his last depiction of her) portrayed her sitting, with legs folded underneath her on rumpled bedclothes leaning on an outstretched arm, with the other raised upward and bent as a ‘cradle’ for her head: turned to one side and slightly obscured in the shadow of early morning—the ‘classic’ pose presented in a way meant to represent a sleepy nude ‘stretch’ at daybreak.
The most notorious one of all and her very favorite: Jean’s self-proclaimed masterpiece called The Origin of the World, shunned by Le Salon as a shocking pornographic atrocity—she had intentionally hung right next to her grandmother’s crucifix on the angled wall at the foot of her bed, which was squeezed into the tiny window-alcove of her attic flat. The pairing of female anatomy with religious icon she viewed as a statement of sorts, her logic being that a woman’s womb deserved just as much recognition as humanity’s divine creator since life sprang from that earthly vessel at God’s fertile command, placing both on equivalent footing. Hanging them side-by-side was actually an act of devotion and reverence rather than sacrilege, so that she could worship both life-giving entities equally, exactly as each so well deserved.
She explained how Jean had his own financial difficulties to deal with, but that she had reached out to him in that letter with the hope that he would honor his paternal responsibility to their son by agreeing to her plan. Edmond—who was now nine but was only six years old when his father left—was Jean’s only minor-aged ‘bastard’ (how she despised that term). The rest of them had already reached or passed the age of consent including his daughter who was now in her early thirties, being estranged from ‘Papa’ at the tender age of three when her mother: Courbet’s mistress at the time, had walked out on him due to her partner’s infidelity, in the late 1840’s. So, if she could only find a willing buyer for the shockingly erotic paintings that Jean had instructed her to hide away and keep safe, then she would give the proceeds once collected to her mother ‘Elle’ (short for Noelle) to use for her dear Edmond. He had by necessity been living under his grandmother’s custody these last few years, since a tiny attic room and a mostly absent nude-model mother who barely had the means to support herself were less than ideal circumstances for raising a little boy. She felt in her heart-of-hearts though that Jean wouldn’t refuse her, because after all their son’s welfare was at stake and her plan would make hundreds of francs available for their mutual cause. That type of money would last for years and years if spent wisely in support of Edmund’s upbringing.
René nodded his head in agreement and understanding, as if it was a predesignated signal for fate to step out unannounced from behind the shadows and join them, quiet and unassuming, at the table. At that exact moment (that she later recognized as one of her life’s true inflection points), René looked across at her as fortune’s spokesman and smiled knowingly. “I do believe I have a buyer for you, Nicole.”


CHAPTER TWO

As it turns out Gustave Caillebotte was a collector. “His first passion is stamps, and his second is paintings—and I don’t mean his own,” René had explained. “All of his free time and disposable income are devoted to these two obsessions, and I’m sure he would jump at the chance to add thirteen notorious Courbet nudes to his already impressive collection of Parisian artwork.”
“Twelve,” she had corrected. “I will keep the unsigned one for Edmond since without a signature it has little monetary worth.” Waking Nude Preparing to Rise was one of her favorite renderings of her naked body, which she would give to her son without sharing the ‘secret’ of the nude model’s identity with anyone other than her mother. Nicole more than anyone, even while she would willingly agree to the most explicit and exhibitionistic of poses in private, had a keen sense of morality and propriety in family and public circles. In fact, she made sure that no one but the artists themselves and her closest confidantes were aware that she was the uninhibited poseur for countless erotic paintings created not only by Courbet but by other well-known Realists and Impressionists as well. Nicole had posed in daring defiance of societal norms—some during but most occurring after her affair with the much-older Jean…for Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and even Jules Joseph Lefebvre: one of Courbet’s most vocal critics in public and as close to an ‘enemy’ as one could get, which necessitated a great deal of secrecy on Nicole’s part when she sat for his piece called Reclining Nude in 1868, when she was 20 years old. That’s why her sittings for Gustave and everyone else had been anonymous, with the intention of separating the private person called Nicole Bruante from the potential public notoriety of her nameless nude-model ‘persona’.
And then there was the sticky business of concealing Edmond’s parentage, which became a more pressing necessity after Jean became a national pariah of sorts related to the fiasco with the Vendome column. Yes, it was common knowledge that Nicole had been Jean’s mistress dating as far back to 1866, when she had first met him at the tender age of 18 answering an erotic modeling ad on a dare; but having his baby was not universally known, by intention. They had decided to keep her pregnancy a closely guarded secret since even in those early days Courbet was a lightning rod of unconventionality and neither of them wanted their child to be subjected to a decidedly negative ‘bias-by-association’. Thus, when their son came into the world (conceived on the very day her posing for The Origin of the World was completed and born just nine months later, in 1867) they quickly whisked him away to stay with her mother, who was recently widowed (God rest her own dear Papa’s soul)—which had been as convenient an arrangement then as it was now. Edmond had no idea who his father was or what his mother did for a living, and Nicole remained determined to keep it that way—at least for now.
Because later…much later, things might change. Future generations might actually appreciate rather than abhor Courbet’s naturalistic view of the female body and uncensored depiction of sexuality which he (and Nicole equally) considered a representation of God himself: a symbol of the cyclical miracle of birth and regeneration that is conceived in masculine devotion to his feminine counterpart materializing in a woman’s womb. Nicole had always shared in Jean’s belief that the prudish concealment of human nudity actually cheapened the divine act of reproduction, whereas the honest depiction of ‘Adam and Eve’ portrayed as nature intended did just the opposite. This is specifically why she loved modelling nude; and proud as she might be of this philosophical statement, the world—and her little boy—were not yet ready for this degree of physical honesty.
But years from now, after both she and Jean were dead and gone, someone would read her ‘confession’ ingeniously concealed between the canvas and the backing paper of Waking Nude Preparing to Rise. This idea came to her suddenly, immediately after René’s brother had confirmed his interest in purchasing her erotic cache but before Jean had given his permission for her to sell the sensuous paintings; so she had penned the letter straight-away, dating it 10 May, 1876. Her hope was that Edmond, or his children, or his grandchildren might find it, folded over twice: a cursory explanation that Nicole Bruante had been the most prolific, ‘no-holds-barred’ nude model of her time; and that the secret paternal contributor to their erotically-inclined blood-line was the infamous artist and political activist: Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, who had to flee Paris and France in 1873 to avoid ridicule and financial ruin. She and Jean’s distant descendants would be able to ‘fill in the blank’ on their family tree, thanks to her clandestine foresight in hiding this message of disclosure in the family painting.
She often thought back on how it had all started. Posing nude began as a lighthearted whim centered on the thrill of exposure and the sense of freedom, independence and rebel-like rejection of societal conventions, but quickly became a serious vocation that instigated the beginning of a seven-year ever-volatile romance and tenuous domestic partnership with the father of Realism. That first sitting which had allowed her to play the only-partially contrived role of lesbian lover with her best friend Céleste had resulted in the highly controversial piece called Sleep, followed quickly on its heels by the even more shocking The Origin of the World. It was immediately after her final session for this latter painting had ended that Edmond had been conceived—on the very same posing-pallet and with Nicole maintaining the exact same open-legged position as she had for months-and-months, even before the last brushstroke on the eye-popping canvas had dried.
A few days after they had met for drinks Nicole saw René again, this time for an early dinner. “To say my brother is interested would be an understatement,” were the first words out of his mouth. He went on to describe Gustave’s collection as heavy on landscapes, cityscapes and domestic scenes, but pitifully sparse on depictions of unclothed models—boasting only a handful of August Renoir bathers and a few obscure nude pieces by Édouard Manet including a watercolor ‘study’ for his much decried Luncheon on the Grass that disgracefully depicted two naked prostitutes picnicking with a group of fully clothed gentleman in the woods.
Nicole giggled when that piece was mentioned. “The girl folded over herself in the background was certainly not a prostitute—at least in real life!”
“How do you know?” René asked with a quizzically raised eyebrow.
“Because the model was me! I was barely sixteen at the time I posed for that painting.”
And so it was that Gustave, it turned out, was prepared to pay an unbelievable 500 francs for the dozen Courbet nudes in Nicole’s possession, which was more than double the amount she had hoped to earn for the set; and after he learned that Nicole was one of the models for Luncheon on the Grass, he also offered a generous ‘finder’s fee’ if she would give him a list of all the other nudes that she had posed for over the past dozen years, to help in his now-obsessive naked-genre acquisition efforts. His very own Naked Woman Lying on a Couch would in this way be joined by as many other pieces as possible, necessary to fill the gap in his collection—with a focus on populating the erotic portion of his growing assemblage of paintings with those pieces featuring Nicole as the model. The discovery of such an unlikely buyer for her cache and for inside-information was fortuitous, but would mean nothing in the end if Jean said ‘no’. This fear was one of the reasons that the following two months would be consumed by sleepless nights; and the other had to do with her night-time pre-occupation with her new and, as she discovered, exceptionally talented lover.
Where Gustave excelled in painting and Martial in photography, René was a burgeoning sculptor. The job in the post office was temporary, just until he could sell some pieces and make a true living out of his passion. Since it seemed clear that he would never ask due to his highly developed sense of propriety, she had decided to offer. “In case you’re interested, I’d be happy to pose for you.”
His initial response was silent hesitation, followed by a quiet observation that explained his reticence. “You turned down Martial, so I just assumed…”
“Well, you assumed wrong,” she interjected in a tone that sounded more irritated than she had intended. “Do you know why I wouldn’t agree to be Martial’s ‘body-scape’ model?” She paused for a moment just for effect, and then continued. “If you thought it was the concept that turned me off, then you’d be wrong again.”
He nodded his immediate comprehension. “Martial can be a bit much. He means well, but just has no sense of boundaries. He’s been like that as long as I can remember, even when we were children.”
So it was settled. René, equipped with stone and chisel just a few short weeks after they had started ‘seeing’ each other, had set himself up in Nicole’s attic apartment rather than in the shared Caillebotte-brother residence at Hauts-de-Seine since limiting her ‘exposure’ to Martial would be best for all involved parties. In any case, the bachelors’ pad was even more crowded nowadays and was no longer the exclusive boys’ club that it had been a few years before.
“Gustave has taken in a young lady of leisure, and he’s preparing to paint her.”
“Pictured in a nude scene?” If so, this would surprise her almost as much as the concept of a live-in prostitute, given her theory about Gustave’s sexual leanings.
“Yes, and on the very same couch where…”
The almost comical pregnant pause meant that René, whose sentence seemed to have permanently trailed off, was at a definite loss for a polite way to say ‘…where you bared it all that first day I barged in to discover every man’s fantasy lying right there in our communal living room, completely and unselfconsciously exposed,’ so she pulled him gently and good-naturedly off his awkward hook. “I think you meant to say: ‘on the very same couch where I was posing when we first made our initial acquaintance’”
“Yes,” he confirmed, the wrinkles of strain on his forehead relaxing the very moment she rushed in to save him from what she considered to be a quite unnecessary sense of morality. It’s not like modeling without a stitch of clothing automatically led to lascivious behavior, because it almost never did. He was still struggling with the dichotomy of Nicole’s professional versus personal lives. “Her name is Anne Marie Hagan,” he added, returning to the original topic of conversation. “Martial actually has quite a thing for her.”
She laughed lightly. “Why am I not surprised!” Now it seemed was the perfect opportunity to fish. “But what about Gustave? Doesn’t he have a ‘thing’ for her too?”
René waved the thought away. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
She knew it! “If you’re going to say he’s gay, don’t bother since I suspected as much.”
His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. “How in the world did you know?”
Now it was her turn to wave his surprise away. “Women in general have an intuition about these things, and my sexual sixth-sense is particularly keen.”
“But he has taken great care to conceal it!”
“I wouldn’t worry. If he’s gone so far as to take in a prostitute as a ‘beard’, I’d say his secret is safe. Plus, unless you’ve posed nude for him as I have, his lack of sexual interest in women really isn’t that obvious.”
“Meaning?”
“Meaning that there is usually a characteristic physical sign that one cannot ignore, whenever I strip and pose for an artist. Don’t you remember your reaction when you stumbled onto that scene in the living room 3 years ago? I certainly do!”
His cheeks were suddenly rosy again. “Was it that noticeable?”
She laughed lightly and took his hand. “It was literally impossible to miss!”; and distinctly flattering to both of them, she added silently to herself.
For the next five weeks she had posed unmoving for him in her very own apartment, her skin itchy from lying exposed on a tattered wool blanket for so long; but her toils were duly rewarded with dinner in one café or another followed by hours of passion each night, both of them falling asleep afterwards on her squeaky cot. He had positioned her in the most intimate of poses with her head turned slightly to the side, and her expression behind closed eyes giving the impression of building ecstasy. Her flowing hair streamed over the edge of her left shoulder, chest and arm—arranged by René at the start of each posing in order to accent the rounded contour of the breast on that side rather than concealing it. Always the consummate gentleman even in his role of erotic artist, he politely asked her to position her arms on either side of her naked bosom with elbows pointing outward: a maneuver that functioned to accentuate their rounded fullness; while, at her own suggestion, her fingers strategically accented the identical ‘pose’ featured in The Origin of the World, which would eventually be indelibly reproduced in marble—being the last ‘third’ of a 4-foot sculpture of her head and torso ending abruptly at her upper thighs. It was the most poignant sitting she had ever experienced because it was shared with a man who knew her intimately that way, and with whom she felt sexually at-ease.
By the time Jean’s affirmative reply arrived, her upper-half had been reproduced from the top of her head to just below her breasts and elbows, with stunning accuracy and what she considered lightning speed, given the unforgiving artistic medium. She marveled at how he had perfectly reproduced the generous swell of her exposed chest in a piece that he told her he would likely name Reclining Nude Pictured in an Intimate Moment.
As a masterpiece in progress and made of inert marble sat motionless on the floor in the corner of her apartment, Nicole realized that she had never felt more content. René Caillebotte was a man with whom she could easily spend the rest of her days, offering her devotion and stability in a world that until now had given her only chaos. Their romance had begun in earnest.