The Marriage of Opposites

Page 113


“Everyone says he’s a madman,” she said of the painter on the beach.
“Do they? Why is that?”
“Just look at him! He stands out there in the wind! If he doesn’t watch out a wave will carry him away. Maybe he needs to be tied to the wharf with rope.”
Camille was instantly interested. A few days later, when he spied the painter in the same spot, he left his office on the dock, curious to see what this gentleman was up to. The painter was only a few years older than he, Danish, with sharp features, already balding but with a boyish appearance. He was quite approachable and not in the least disturbed at having been interrupted.
“I know no one here, so to meet a fellow artist, well, I couldn’t be more grateful.”
They shook hands, and the young man introduced himself as Fritz Melbye, an artist from Copenhagen, who had been born in Elsinore in 1826. He specialized in seascapes, and though he was only four years older, he had vast experience compared to Camille, and had been to art school in Denmark. He was from a family of marine painters, the youngest of three brothers, and had set off to the West Indies to make his fortune and his name. He was fearless and friendly in a way Camille would never be, willing to go anywhere and do anything for a view of a watery vision that resonated inside his soul. They went to a tavern and Camille introduced Melbye to guava berry rum, which he declared a delight. Melbye, for his part, introduced Camille to cigars, which set him into a coughing fit. He felt embarrassed, inexperienced, a boy living with his family, doing their bidding when this fellow Melbye, at the age of twenty-four, was on his own entirely, a grown man living on his instincts and desires.
“You make your living with your art?” Camille asked, intrigued. Melbye could hold his rum well, and the painting he was working on, a view of the harbor at St. Thomas, was impressive.
“I live as well as I can, and paint as well as God allows.”
His older brothers were better known, he confided; Vilhelm, had been the first to approach seascapes, and Anton was a respected teacher and painter in Paris. Fritz himself was lighthearted, a ladies’ man, interested in seeing the world and experiencing all that he could.
“Death stalks us.” He shrugged and called for another rum. “So why not live as we wish? I’d like to paint every ocean and every major sea before I’m thirty. If I do that, then afterward I can drop into hell for all I care, for I’ll have completed my goal.”
Camille laughed. He had never enjoyed another man’s company so thoroughly. “So that’s that? The devil can have you?”
“I’d prefer to be showing in Paris, but if I go to the devil, so be it.”
They began to meet nearly every day, and took to working side by side. Camille showed his companion the Sky Tower, from which they could view nearly every bit of the shoreline. He brought him to the synagogue, made of stone and molasses and sand, then on to the inlet were vegetables were unloaded from sailboats and African laborers took carts and baskets into the marketplace. Melbye sketched at all of these places, images that he would later use in his paintings. What was familiar to Camille was exotic to the Dane, and intriguing beyond belief. Fritz wore a white suit and a white linen shirt, but he wished to leave his more refined ways behind. He’d grown a beard and he liked to go barefoot, even though Camille warned him about burrs and the local stinging bees, which nested not in trees but in the ground. Fritz spoke French and English with a clipped Danish accent. As it turned out he, too, had come from a bourgeois family; in his case, they were involved in finance. But his older brothers had fought the battle of art versus commerce with their father, and by the time Fritz was twenty his father had already accepted the fact that none of his sons would carry on the family business. “When it came to me, he gave up.” Fritz grinned.
It was a pleasure to be in Fritz’s company and to hear about the art world of Paris, and his brothers’ experiences, and Fritz’s own plans. He was wildly cheerful, so friendly local people took to calling him l’Ami Rouge, the red friend, for although his blond hair was balding, his beard was a pale red. He clearly had a desire to do as the locals did and be considered a friend among them—washing his laundry himself, learning to make maubie and drinking it with every meal. For breakfast he had sea moss, a concoction made of boiled seaweed mixed with milk and spices. He dined on plain salt fish even on Sunday, something no person with any pride would do. He meant to go to South America and back to Europe and then on to New York. While in St. Thomas he had rented a shed from a farmer in the Savan, the living area newly created for freed slaves. There were a few Jewish families there as well, but Melbye was the only Christian European to reside in the Savan, and his neighbors thought him a bit mad, for he stayed up till all hours, painting in the alleyway outside his shack, asking women and children to pose for him in exchange for a sketch of themselves or a bit of what little money he had. Once a robber broke in, thinking he was a rich man, but there was nothing to steal but paint and unwashed laundry. When Melbye protested, he was felled by a blow. The two men fought, but somehow Fritz won the thief over, and he wound up helping his victim off the floor. The robber was Maurice, son of his neighbor, Mr. Alek, and he and his neighbors soon enough had mugs of rum together, forgetting the episode entirely.