Delacroix Never Won a Prize

I keep eight or so quotations on a corner of my desk, written on slips of paper and held together by a paper clip, reaching for them when I’m low or lost or ashamed of myself.

Here’s one. Jean Renoir writing about his famous father. The impassioned serenity of the final period, ‘a question of being alert and not getting nervous’. He approached with less fear, having discovered that the hunter’s buckshot was love continually renewed.

Renoir, My Father rescued me one lonely winter’s night in 2010 when I was stranded in London, Ontario. I had given a reading in the afternoon, then been taken to a hotel, deposited there, and I had nothing to do until my train left the next morning. I knew a part of London, since my parents had lived there for many years, so I felt doubly alone or doubly strange. I decided to go for a walk and soon found myself on a typically long, cold, wind-blown street with nothing at all of interest until I came upon a used bookstore and fell into its arms. I poked about for an hour, reasonably happy, but finding nothing I wanted to buy, then instantly joyous when I saw Renoir, My Father on one of the shelves. I knew it; I had borrowed it from the library years ago and loved it and always wanted a copy of my own. For that night and the following day on the train, it made my life worth living.

I wasn’t even a great fan of Renoir’s paintings – they were too blurry, too marshmallowy for me. But I loved reading about his progress from boyhood to great old age, his discoveries and decided opinions in the notebook he kept. The two I remember best: An artist must eat sparingly and give up a normal way of life, and Delacroix never won a prize. The second is especially useful to remember.

A few weeks ago I happened to see one of Renoir’s last paintings and looked at it for a long time, disarmed, finally appreciating the loose, breathing brushwork that brought forth the full body of the young woman and her incredible skin.

As for the hunter’s buckshot being love continually renewed, I understand that better too, reminded of something my husband said to me many years ago. “If you could only enjoy the people you write about,” he said, “instead of forever criticizing them. No matter how flawed, if you would only enjoy them!” Love continually renewed is the weapon that brings your characters close, or brings you close to them. You have them in your sights and your sights aren’t narrow. It has nothing to do with letting them off easy. It’s something else entirely.

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