Papa, at Poissy you lived in one of the old houses of Monet, and you painted there. Could you tell me some of the things you learned painting in that atmosphere, some of your impressions?
Well, frankly, I didn’t know that it was a house where Monet had lived for a long time, much, much later on. It was my grandfather’s house, and we went there as a rule in the summer, and as a young child, of course, what I enjoyed was the space, which was more than we had in our Paris apartment. We had what we called le pré, which was a large, uncultivated piece of land, vaguely grass in it but not a lawn, and we loved to play in there, my sister, myself, and friends, little friends. And besides the lawn there was, of course, the Seine, which was running right under the property. And on the Seine, there we had ourselves a little boat, and we could go fishing. The Seine was there, and the little fishermen were there, and there was the bridge of La Reine Blanche, which is the mother of St. Louis there, with some little constructions on it. And much later on, of course, I learned that Monet had lived there from in the early 1880s, and I recognized certainly in quite a number of his pictures the same places from the same point of view where I did my first watercolors. At the time I didn’t have much idea of Monet. I had an idea of the Impressionists through a very beautiful picture by Boudin,1 which is pre-Impressionist, older than Monet, and one of my uncles had that picture of a beach and people on the beach. It was a large picture, and as a little child I was astonished that anybody would be called boudin, of course, which is sausage, and I thought it was very little artistic as a name. But looking at the picture, which was full of sunlight, one of the most beautiful Boudins I have seen, I got, of course, an idea, though I didn’t have the label for it, of the painting of plein air, of sunlight, and Impressionism.
But in Poissy, probably by looking at the same scenes, I started doing landscapes. That is long ago. I may have been fourteen years old, I think, when I did a little album of landscapes that were all related to reflections in the water. And by looking and trying to copy nature, I realized that those reflections were made of dissimilar colors. Some would reflect the sky, some would reflect the trees, and so on. And I tried in those little watercolors to do things as I had seen them on the Seine, by our Villa St. Louis, which was the name of my grandfather’s summer house. And they are certainly the closest things to Impressionism I have ever done, simply by looking at the same scenes that Monet had seen and, of course, painted in a masterly way in the 1880s. There was a quality, I would say, to the place and to the plein air which was so different from Paris and certainly resulted in my appreciating nature and natural forms. I did also some pictures of flowers at the time. My mother, for example, had done some bouquets of flowers in vases, which was about the only way you could get at flowers in Paris, through a florist. But to see the flowers, even field flowers, growing up and connected, tied up to the ground and so on, was a new experience for me because I was really a city boy, a Paris boy. And somewhere I have, for example, studies of poppies in liberty, if we could say, in freedom, just as they were growing out of the ground. I remember that I was so excited with those things that my mother was worried because I painted in the full sunlight, and she was trying to make me go inside because I would get sunstroke, and of course, I stayed until I had finished my work.
I am rather pleased that I kept those early watercolors—they are connected with nature—because, of course, much later on, faced with a perhaps more tropical nature—in Fiji, for example, the rain forests, the hala trees, in Hawai‘i also, of course, palm trees and date palms and halas also, banyans—I could start again looking at nature from where I had left when I was in my teens still and, of course, with a certain added experience and knowledge.
How about the paintings you did on the roof that we have?
Well, that was a series of skies which I did in Paris, and they are probably around the same time when I was fourteen or fifteen. Those Paris apartments—we lived on a fifth floor in the Chaussée d’Antin—had very little, of course, of nature in them, but over the roofs and over the chimneys and the chimney pots, there was the sky. And I remember that I had—I must have been fourteen years old or thirteen years old at the time—I had the idea of doing a series of skies from the same point of view, that is, with the skyline of the roofs always the same and just following the different moments of the day and weather effects, and so on. I remember one day I wanted to do a sunrise, and so I went very early. I had to do it from the window of my parents’ bedroom. I went very early, and when they awoke, they found that I was doing that watercolor of the sunrise, and of course, they were rather astonished at the sight.
Were you aware of Monet’s work along similar lines at that time?
No, really not at all. As I say, I had a wonderful contact with a masterpiece by Boudin, who is one of the great Impressionists, and I think that was sufficient to suggest to me something that my visits to the Louvre wouldn’t have given me, that idea of plein air and sunshine. And the fact that this has not become my main interest, nevertheless it was an important thing to know that it could be done. Around the same time, in fact I think a little before, there was a gift to the Louvre of the Camondo Collection,2 which made a great stir. And as soon as the thing was exhibited in the Louvre, it was exhibited on the top floor, in the attic rooms of the Louvre, which are very low ceilinged, because the Louvre people were a little ashamed somehow of exhibiting those things. There was a beautiful collection of Impressionists and even Post-Impressionists. I saw in the Camondo Collection my first Van Gogh picture, and my parents had mentioned that the man was quite mad, and of course, I saw the madness in the picture, but also the impact of something that I hadn’t so much noticed in the Impressionists because it’s another thing, but that romantic quality of the impasto which is put on the canvas with bravura, like somebody somehow with a sword, with a fleuret in a duel, something like that, and I did feel that thing in there. I thought it was beautiful. I was not intrigued by it because my own approach to art, then and now, I think, has always been orderly and trying to efface rather than to underline the excitement of painting. I saw there, and I remember very well the things I saw, my first Monets, and Pissarros. And at the entrance of the Camondo Collection—he had left in his will a note by which his collection of Japanese prints was to be shown together with his Impressionist pictures. In the days when he collected, in the early days of Impressionism, people took the Japanese prints as a sort of a justification of the colors of the Impressionists. So I saw there some very beautiful Utamaros, which intrigued me very much indeed, perhaps more, even, than Monet and Van Gogh. Then there was another collection of Impressionists that I saw when I was a little boy, and that was the famous Legs Caillebotte. Caillebotte had left his pictures to the Louvre, and he had a fantastic collection. He was a friend of Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and so on, and the Louvre had refused the legs, and then through the political go-between of Georges Clémenceau, who was a friend of Monet, the Louvre had accepted, I think, perhaps twenty pictures out of sixty, something like that. They were not shown in the Louvre; they were shown in what was the museum of modern art, the Luxembourg, rather badly placed in a little side gallery. But there I did see my first Renoir, for example, which was a nude with some sun spots somehow on the flesh. And it astonished me very much to see that flesh that was spotted with blues to signify shadows and yellow to signify sunlight. I didn’t think it was too successful from that point of view. It was intriguing. I saw there my first Cézannes, and they were somehow more mysterious for me than the Monet. And it was the beginning of a digging into that problem of Cézanne which for my generation was so important. So I had a knowledge of Impressionism, and I had a knowledge of what the Impressionists saw in nature, especially through that looking at the skies and the reflections in the water, but I don’t think that none of that became one of essentials, anyhow, of my art making.
What was your first impression of Cézanne? Did you have any formulated thoughts?
Well, what I saw was, I would say, a casual Cézanne. It’s a little road, and there was a wall on one side and a few trees. It’s not a Cézanne that I would choose nowadays as the most important, but it wasn’t the fault of Caillebotte because all his great Cézannes, including The Bathers, had been refused by the museum. But I was very intrigued by a way that Cézanne had had to represent that white wall, working it out with the palette knife, and with a sort of a really mason’s attitude of troweling the paint on that particular wall. It looked exactly, I would say, like a wall. Not so much visually, perhaps, as in the textures, and that, again, interested me very much, and perhaps some of the troweling of the paint that I found in Cézanne then, and also in some of Courbet’s pictures, is something that remained with me—and the relation—it sounds like a pun, but it isn’t—of the wall of Cézanne and murals, probably something that oriented me towards mural painting, that is, painting on a wall.
Can you tell me about the books you illustrated when you were young? The one for Odette and then the poetry book I have, and I believe there’s one that’s missing.
Well, it was at the time fashionable, I would say, to have people take books of poems and illustrate them. I don’t know where or how I knew that, and saw probably exhibited some of those poor books who had been ornamented with vignettes of a very light effect that didn’t spoil the page, I would say, or even the type, and I decided to do the same; that’s all. And then there was an Albert Samain,3 for example, which I thought was very poetical. I was doing myself some verses that were very poetical at the time, and I thought he was a wonderful poetical poet, so I decided to match his poetry with my watercolors. I don’t think it was terribly successful, but I learned, of course, that if I worked too much on the page, I spoiled the effect, and I learned a certain lightness of touch by which the paper shone, so to speak, the white of the paper shone through the film of watercolor. And—in retrospect, of course, I imagine retrospect; I didn’t know at the time anything about fresco—I realized that perhaps that decision to let the white of the page speak for itself was something that helped me later on in taking a decision to let the white of the lime in the fresco painting speak for itself, that is, a certain humility in front of the material on which I paint, be it of paper or mortar.
How about the little book you did for Tante Odette, the one with the mice?
Well, I am sorry to say I don’t remember the book with the mice, but I did quite a number of little things at the time. I know that I was hipped on airplanes, or what we called airplanes at the time. And as I told you once, I did some friezes for a sort of a cupboard, which was my own private mystery room. It was a cupboard that was very low. It was in my own room, and I worked in there making a little sort of apartment. It wasn’t a doll’s house because it was big enough so I could put at least half of myself in it. It was more like a dog house, I would say. But I did ornate it with friezes which I made and small pictures and whatnot, and I kept it closed, and I didn’t like anybody to look in there. I suppose all children have those little corners where they can feel master of the situation. So maybe the mice were some of those odd jobs that I was doing at the time and because I liked my sister, I probably gave her some of those things.
How about your mother’s trip to Italy when she came back with some reproductions of paintings. Did that have any influence on you?
Well, again I don’t have a sharp memory of things. I just know that she went with my sister, and I was a little jealous that my sister would go and I would stay. And it was, I think, a musical group. My mother and perhaps at the time my sister were part of that choir who was to sing. I think the master musician was Vincent d’Indy,4 and they were invited to go and sing somewhere in Italy. And of course, my mother and sister went there, and they obviously stayed in Parma, which was the place where there were some rather beautiful pictures—Correggio was one of the people that was represented in Parma—and they brought back color reproductions.
Well, at the time there were not so many color reproductions, and she brought in some reproductions in full color, which seems to me a marvelous affair. And of course, I had seen and I was seeing some originals of the Italian Renaissance in the Louvre, but the idea of all those beautiful things in Italy impressed me very much. And I think fifty years later or so, or a little more than fifty years later, I was happy when I went to Italy to see those beautiful things. Much as I like Italian art, I do not feel a tremendous affinity for what is called in general Italian art with the sensuousness of the color and a certain baroque quality in the drawing. But certain of the minds of the Italian artists, a man like Paolo Uccello for example, Piero della Francesca, and of course, the earlier great fresco painters, men like Giotto, are very much at the core of what I know about art.
Tell me at last about your wet nurse.
Well, it was a very natural thing at the time for the ladies to bring in a peasant woman to give the breast to the child, and that happened to me. The woman was from Poissy, incidentally, so that later on as I grew up, I would visit with her. I knew the family. When her own child grew up, we went to the… were invited to the festivities for the First Communion, and I even went and stayed with her when I was perhaps fifteen or sixteen for some days at her little house and yard. So that there was a sort of continuous friendship that remained between us. I think that I cannot remember my thoughts as an infant, if I had any thoughts, but she was a woman of great poise and good sense and probably, I suppose, the proper type of the women that I painted later on, be they Mexican Indians or perhaps Hawaiian gourd players and so on. That is, she was close to the earth, close to the soil, certainly more than the people who were more at ease in a salon at the time. There was especially something terrifically artificial in the women of a certain, well, economic status or class, and they were so heavily dressed and corseted and perfumed and so on that I think I enjoyed the good earth smell of my wet nurse, which I do remember, indeed, as a contrast to the more exquisite perfumes that the ladies would drench themselves in.
But it’s interesting. I don’t think you have many mothers in your Mexican period with children. Most of them are wet nurses or servants.
Well, no. I think that what you call “wet nurses” are mothers nursing their children. For example, my Indian women nursing her child is, of course, Luz nursing Concha. Conchita, of course, now I think is a grandmother already, and I have known five generations of the family of Luz, but there was no wet nurse in the sense that the hired woman would give the breast to nobody in my paintings. I think it’s just all in the family.
How about Mr. Boniface?5
Mr. Boniface is more or less the same thing. It’s simply the relation of the child and the mother, and the child so drains the mother of her life strength. That was the subject of that thing, and he is, however, the child of his mother, even though he kills her, so to speak.
Was it about your wet nurse that you had that dream of waking up in the night and going and pounding on her door?
And where did you find that?
You told me.
Well, no, it wasn’t at all my wet nurse. It was our cook. She was a wonderful authoritarian woman, and she had a mustache. She came from Bordeaux, I think. And yah, it was a dream that was very vivid indeed. I suppose I was just plumbing the mysteries of womanhood, and I had few women around—my mother, my sister—but they were out of the dream, and that cook made a very good patsy, so to speak, for my desires. But I remember that I ran after her and ran after her, and eventually, I am afraid, there was something or other, some obstacle, probably the obstacle was ignorance, and nothing happened, and I awoke in a sweat.
You spoke once about drawing her and having sort of a sensual feeling about her. Was she the person, more, say, than your wet nurse for whom you felt such a thing?
No, sir, I’m afraid we’ll have to leave my wet nurse out of this, and you get mixed up on your dates, because my discovery of painting in pure color without drawing—which you are referring to—happened when I was, I think, six years old or so, and it was another cook, the cook in Poissy. Of course, I loved to go to the kitchen, and knowing the pots and pans, and smell things, and see the preparations for meals or—yearly wonderful thing—the making of jams, which were done in great big copper pans. And the cook would go to market in Poissy with a basket, very much the way the Mexican cooks go to market with their baskets. And my first color painting without preparatory drawing that gave me that new sensuous approach to art was of the cook and her basket. But that one was our cook in Poissy.
Tell me about your cook in…the earlier one.
Well, I did. And as long as there was no ending to the dream, I cannot say more.
It interested me what you said about this Boniface theme because it is a little like your interpretation of Mary Cassatt’s mothers and children. Did you know Mary Cassatt at all before you developed your own theme, or is that completely independent?
No, but it’s a theme that you find, of course, often. I think I met it for the first time in sonnets by one of the fashionable poets of the time. God knows who he was. He wasn’t terribly good, but he had invented in his sonnet that lamentation, looking at the children in their cradles and saying that…the last verse, which I don’t remember as verse, nevertheless said that the children in their cradles pushed the grownups into their tomb, which was, of course, a very dramatic thing, and maybe that image has remained for me through life. It’s quite possible.
You mention in your poems a young cousin who apparently made advances to you when you were beginning adolescence. Do you remember anything about her?
I’m afraid, sir, you are all wrong. You’ve been reading Freud or something. No cousin of mine ever made any advance to me.
Well, they were very nice little things, and they had cute little dimples. And we had very nice games. We were told when we were little—jeu de mains, jeu de vilain—that is, to play with your hands on somebody isn’t the nicest sort of game. So we never played with our hands. But I remember we had a little cart with a little donkey in the country, and we would go together and I would—my cousin has a little bunch of pink organdies, something, seated by me, and I was very proud to drive the donkey. I felt I was really a very useful person in her life. But it never went further than that.
Who was it?
One of my cousins.
But you seem to sort of think back on her in some of your poems as, not necessarily a physical possibility, but an emotional possibility.
Well, I mean, you have to do your best with the women in your life, and the women in my life at the time were mostly those little cousins. And when we grew up—French people are rather strict from that point of view—we didn’t see each other with the same freedom. So, you better read some other thing than Freud. There must be some gentler explanations for my having looked at women when I was a little boy.
It’s interesting that you’re very interested in landscapes as you begin painting, and then you go through a long period where you hardly do any landscapes—very much people, builders—and then here in Hawai‘i, you seem to have come back very strongly to landscape.
Well, I think it’s just a quota of people against nature that were in the different places where we were. In Paris, of course, the only nature we saw was in the park: the Tuileries, the Champs-Élysées, the Parc Monceau. But that was never nature in the sense that they were gardens of the seventeenth century still and very well laid, and nothing was left to accident. In Poissy, as I say, there was the Seine, the wonderful river running through, and the large trees, and the flowers were sort of growing directly out of the ground, which astonished me as a little town boy. And after that I went through so many things where it was all people, where people were involved. The First World War, of course—nature was annihilated. Those trenches and those landscapes were absolutely barren, and the question of life and death came into the fore. And in Mexico the social upheavals were so tremendous, and I was mixed up in those…atmosphere at least, or sometimes the actual acts of revolution, so that I couldn’t very well enjoy nature then. So it is, and I think you need a certain amount of relaxation to try and see things from nature’s point of view rather than from man’s point of view. And that is what happened to me in Hawai‘i, what happened to me in Fiji. I take very seriously my models when I do landscapes. That is, I look at the tree, and I have the same respect for the tree that I would have for a person that would pose for me. I try to see things from the tree’s point of view. So I’ve never been able, really, to use nature as a pretext for color, even as a pretext for lights and darks. I cannot make a difference between studying from the model—that is, a man or a woman—or studying from a tree or a flower.
It’s interesting what you said about Mexico because I’ve always wondered why you hadn’t put man into nature there. But is there another reason, too, that in fact architecture—that is human architecture, buildings, social goings-on—are easier and apter subjects for fresco painting than, say, pure nature, though of course, you have done, for instance, the fresco here in the house in pure nature.6
No, I really think that I did live at least the first part of my life in extremely tense conditions, starting with the war and going on with the Revolution. I went to Mexico when the Revolution was very much going on. I had friends that were shot down and murdered and whatnot, and those things are tragic. Maybe they would be better expressed in a sort of a Greek drama sort of things. Maybe words should be the medium. But as long as I was a painter, those things had to imbue themselves, embed themselves in my pictures. And I couldn’t look at the relaxed nature, shall we say, because people were so different. And I could not do what Van Gogh did, which seems to me rather impertinent as far as nature goes, that is, look at nature and find there his own mood. He looked at fields, for example—some of his last pictures with the black ravens over the fields—you feel the storm and whatnot, you feel that the fields are going to commit suicide. I have always remained different, or an observer, if you want, trying to be objective in a sense rather than subjective when I do landscape.
(Louis-)Eugène Boudin, 1824–1898.
Count Isaac de Camondo (1851–1911) gave his collection to the Louvre in 1908. The collection included nineteen paintings by Degas, fourteen by Monet, nine by Manet, and eight by Sisley, along with many other works of the late nineteenth century and earlier periods.
Albert Samain (1858–1900) was a French Symbolist poet and writer whose poetry is variously described as musical, melancholy, mournful, and morbid.
Vincent d’Indy (1851–1931) was a classical composer and well-known teacher. In 1894, he co-founded La Schola Cantorum, a private music school, in Paris.
The Yellow Robe, 1933, lithograph, 8.25 × 6 in., Morse number 135. The inscription is by Paul Claudel.