Preface to The First Story of Littlelot

The First Story of Littlelot on AmazonThe First Story of Littlelot is an Arthurian legend with knights and damsels and other action figures.

In his game of make-believe, a boy must make a choice—break his oath to the king or break the heart of the woman who gave him the most meaningful gift.

 

Preface

The valiant knight in shining armor rides a resplendent steed on dangerous adventures. He surmounts overwhelming obstacles, rights terrible wrongs, and rescues the damsel in distress…

That’s what I want to be when I grow up!

Alas, I was born centuries too late. As were you, Young Reader, if such might be your own grown-up ambition. Left to us in our times are stories of those chivalric heroes, models that we may yet apply to our modern lives.

The quintessential tale of noble knights is that of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table as told by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur. Reputedly a knight himself, Malory compiled his fifteenth-century rendering from various sources, among them, the Vulgate Cycle, the Prose Tristan, and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. Each of which drew on earlier works, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and a collection of stories by the French troubadour Chrétien de Troyes. In turn, Malory’s work has inspired a profusion of novels, narrative poetry, films, and other forms, collectively known as “Arthurian legend.”

The First Story of Littlelot recounts the adventure of the most renowned of all the Round Table knights, Lancelot, and his rescue of Gwenevere, drawn from Book VII of Le Morte d’Arthur. My own retelling differs from Malory’s in length as well as in certain details.

Stephen Wendell
December 14, 2016
Paris, France

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Littlelot

An Arthurian legend with knights and damsels and other action figures

In his game of make-believe, a boy must make a choice—break his oath to the king or break the heart of the woman who gave him the most meaningful gift.

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The Making of a Fresco

“As far as Artimus knew, his would be the first attempt to actually recreate the cartoon as an authentic fresco. This was no small undertaking, nor was it a temporary commitment. A fresco was created by covering a large surface, usually a wall, in fresh plaster. The pigments would then be applied directly to the wall while the plaster was wet. Done improperly, the work could mildew if the mix was too wet, or reject the pigment and flake if it was too dry. Worse, the colors might shift as the plaster dried.”

—James A. Owen, The Barbizon Diaries

One of my first questions when contemplating any possible truth behind the legend of The Millet Fresco is this: Who among the assembled artists had the skill to make a fresco?

In The Dictionary of Art (Vol 11, Grove 1996), Jane Turner corroborates Owen’s description of the process. Turner also says that the artist generally employed a team of workmen:

“Fresco painting was technically demanding and was usually carried out on a large scale, so the painter had to be accurate in drawing up his composition and capable of organizing a team of skilled hands, from the masons to the assistant painters who were assigned the less important parts of the work.” (p. 760)

The description seems the antithesis of the lone landscape painter in a straw hat, easel strapped over a shoulder, box of paints in hand, ambling along a country road to a favorite meadow with a pleasant view.

Dictionnaire de l'art  de la curiosité et du bibelot 1883Not that it wouldn’t have been possible for any of the Barbizon painters to attempt such a work. They were all trained artists. Only I had hoped to find one of them had particular experience in fresco painting—or at least a mentor who did, so as to make a convenient target for further study. Cursory research into the lives of the principle characters mentioned in the legend reveals no obvious connection to any fresco painters.

The easiest way to avoid the question is to assume that when they spoke of a fresco the Barbizon painters referred to any kind of mural, no matter the technique.

The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (Alain Rey, 1992) summarizes the origin of the French word and its evolution. In French, the term peinture à fresque [pronounced fresk] was borrowed in 1550 from the Italian dipingere a fresco, literally: painting freshly.

(In English the awkward literal translation painting freshly is replaced by painting in fresco. This is not the same as alfresco, also from Italian, which is used for dining as well as painting outdoors.)

By 1669, the French word fresque was used alone to indicate a mural painted with pigment on fresh plaster. Then, as soon as the end of the next decade (1680), though technically incorrect, fresque as any large wall painting came into general usage.

Furthermore, writing in the 1880s—thus contemporary to our would-be fresco painters—French architect Ernest Bosc describes the pigment on fresh plaster method. However, Bosc then goes on to say, “By extension, we use this term for wall paintings using encaustic (beeswax and resin) or wax, oil paint or by stereochromy.” (Dictionnaire de l'art. Firmin-Didot 1883. Translation mine)

So it’s within the realm of possibility that the Barbizon painters planned to make a mural using techniques more familiar to them.

However, in The Barbizon Diaries as well as in my discussions with the author, James Owen insists that, according to the legend told to him by his Uncle Clair, the work was to be a real fresco, pigment on fresh plaster. Supposedly, its difficulty is the reason Millet had refused earlier requests to undertake such an endeavor.

Therefore, in my research, I’ll keep an open mind and allow both possibilities: a pigment-on-fresh-plaster fresco as well as any other large wall painting.

As a side note, I find it as ironic as it is appropriate that these Realist painters, rebels against Neoclassicism, would choose to produce a monumental work in a classical medium.

Hemicycle d'honneur by Paul Delaroche

Hemicycle d’honneur by Paul Delaroche, 1837-41

This fresco à la cire (wax) covers a hemi-circular wall approximately 15 feet high, 80 feet wide at l’École des baux arts in Parisour next stop on A Pilgrimage to Barbizon.

___
Sources:

The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 11. Jane Turner, editor. New York: Grove, 1996.

Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (Historical Dictionary of the French Language). Alain Rey, editor. Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1992.

Dictionnaire de l'art, de la curiosité et du bibelot (Dictionary of Art, Curiosity, and Ornament). Ernest Bosc, editor. Paris: Librairie de Firmin-Didot et Cie., 1883.

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Magic!

My mom told me I had to clean my room because toys were scattered all over the floor. It’s a lot of fun taking toys out of the toy box to play with them, but putting them back in is a chore.

Merlin Paints the Young Knight's Shield by Gustave Doré
Merlin Paints the Young Knight's Shield by Gustave Doré from Vivien by Alfred Lord Tennyson. London: Edward Moxon & Company, 1867

It would be easy if I were a wizard, like Merlin in the picture book I read with Granddad. I’d just raise my arms, close my eyes, and say the magic words: “Anath orthibis bethad!” and all the toys would be back in the toy box.

What if I am a wizard and just don’t know it? There was only one way to find out. I stood in the center of the room and raised my arms, closed my eyes, and said, “Anath orthibis bethad!

When I opened my eyes, the toys were still there.

But even if I’m not a wizard, I can always pretend to be one. So I stood in the center of the room and raised my arms, closed my eyes, and said, “Anath orthibis…

Then I ran around the room as fast as I could, picking up toys. When I came around to the toy box, I dumped them in and kept going. Once, twice, three times around, picking up toys and dumping them in the toy box.

After I dumped the last toy, I ran to the center of the room and raised my arms, closed my eyes, and said, “Bethad!

I opened my eyes. The floor was clean and all the toys, in the toy box.

Just then my mom came in to check on me. Looking around the room, she said, “How did you do that so fast, Littlelot?”

I grinned at her and said, “Magic!”

 

Stephen Wendell is a grown-up who believes in magic. He’s the author of the Littlelot series of books for children and parents who read to them.

The First Story of Littlelot

Ebook

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The First Story of
Littlelot

An Arthurian legend with knights and damsels and other action figures

In his game of make-believe, a boy must make a choice—break his oath to the king or break the heart of the woman who gave him the most meaningful gift.

GET IT FREE
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A Peregrine’s Path

Littlelot and the Real Monster

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Littlelot
and the
Real Monster

Littlelot must overcome his fear to confront the monster that threatens to eat him and his family too!

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Cantercon

The tall, armored woman let out a breath. Her sturdy frame relaxed. The magic-user studied her expression.

“What’s your name, fighting-woman?”

“Thrace.”

Her eyes didn’t narrow; her brow remained uncreased. By these signs, he knew the spell he cast on entering had been successful. It made her predisposed to friendliness toward him.

“Thrace,” he repeated, trying the name on her. He admired how she held herself, straight and confident. “Call me Cantercon. I search these rooms for a book. I invite you to join me.”

“How do you know there’s nothing under the statue, Cantercon?”

“Nothing of value,” he said. “The runes on the pedestal indicate it represents the wizard Ardendred Faerthoht, Doommaker, builder of this elaborate complex. In the early phases of construction, he hid great treasures beneath representations of himself.”

Deep Dungeon Doom“Great treasures?”

“All his wealth secured, in later phases he hid deadly traps instead.”

Her eyes shifted to the pedestal beneath the stone-robed figure. Cantercon pointed behind to the archway with the monster-head keystone. Its one eye stared down at them. “Faerthoht favored the cyclops motif in later phases.”

The conjurer allowed a moment for his new friend to assimilate the information.

“Come.” Motioning for her to follow, he stepped toward the corridor beyond the statue. “We’ll divide treasure evenly.”

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Hanami, Ancient Japanese Tradition

The way opens between two hedge rows. Birds chitter within. Entering by a narrow lane, the world blooms into rosy hues. A soft breeze through branches carries the delicate scent of cherry blossoms. Cherry tree in bloom  Parc de SceauxCheckered blankets spread beneath them, well dressed men and women clink glasses. Laughing children roll in lush green grass. Tiny birds flit from branch to branch, tree to tree, twittering the news: “Spring, spring! Springtime is here!”

I walked into a cherry orchard at the Parc de Sceaux. All the trees were in full bloom, all the people were there to see them, and everyone brought a picnic.

Cherry blossoms  pink and white  dazzle in sunlightA Japanese guy set up a camera on a tripod. Its lens, as long as my forearm, extended toward pink and white blossoms, dazzling in the sunlight. The hollow pop of a cork leaving a Champagne bottle turned heads and made a girl giggle.

“Is there a party?” I asked the guy, my American accent coming through the French.

“Hanami,” he said with a Japanese accent, “ancient Japanese custom, big spring celebration.”

We chatted for a few minutes while he lined up a shot with the camera. I took a few photos as well and made a note to look up this custom when I got home. This is what I’ve found so far:

In eighth-century Japan, neighboring Chinese culture was considered more sophisticated. Such was its influence that the Japanese capital, Nara, was modeled after its Chinese counterpart, including numerous plum trees imported from China. Plum trees bloom in late February and mark the end of winter.

Tranquility beneath a cherry tree

Emperor Saga in the early ninth century is credited as the first to throw a party in a blooming orchard. Thus Hanami, “flower viewing” in Japanese, began among the elite of the imperial court.

Due to a rebellion in China, that country’s exports to Japan halted. This intercultural rupture is marked by the 894 abolition of Japan’s official delegations to China, which required an arduous crossing of the Sea of Japan. Reduced influence from the mainland allowed an independent Japanese culture to flourish, and the native cherry tree gained in popularity over the old plum tree. Blooming at the end of March, cherry blossoms mark the arrival of spring.

Curious margin note: The popularity of plum and cherry blossoms is measured by the number of mentions each receives throughout history in various writings, such as chronicles, diaries, and poetry, including waka and haiku. So many mentions for plums in this century versus only this many for cherries. The next couple centuries see an increase in cherry mentions and a decrease in plums. Vote for your favorite thing in writing!

Yayoi or Sangatsu  Asukayama Hanami
Yayoi or Sangatsu, Asukayama Hanami (Third Lunar Month, Blossom Viewing at Asuka Hill) by Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820), from the series Jūnikagetsu (Twelve Months), between 1772 and 1776. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Hanami remained a practice of the elite until the eighteenth century. His people suffering from poverty, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune invited local subjects into a private cherry orchard to share in the springtime festival, which included a feast as well as cherry blossoms. The event was well received. The shogun then ordered the planting of cherry trees along rivers and lanes and encouraged the people to participate in the annual event.

Today, Hanami is as popular as ever in Japan, and the custom has spread around the world. In April of each year, some 200 Japanese cherry trees attract members of the local Japanese community and Parisians to two orchards in the Parc de Sceaux, south of Paris.

I’m still hunting down the provenance of these particular trees. I’ll update this article when I find out. Meanwhile, if you want to see the spectacle, it’s happening this week!

 

Stephen Wendell lives near the Parc de Sceaux, where he goes for a daily run. He is the author of the Littlelot series of children’s books and The Way to Vict’ry, a book of three haiku inspired by Sun Tzu, Matthieu Ricard, and a magpie flight instructor.

Northern cherry orchard  west of the Grand Canal

View of the northern (pink) cherry tree orchard, west of the Grand Canal, Parc de Sceaux

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Mouchel and Langlois, Cherbourg Tutors

Bon Dumoucel dit Mouchel
Self-portrait, Bon Dumoucel “dit” Mouchel

“You don’t mean to tell me that this young man made those drawings by himself!” said Mouchel.

The elder Millet defended his affirmation, saying he watched his son draw them. He had brought Jean-François to see this Cherbourg artist who was also a tutor. They showed him two drawings the boy had made, hoping Mouchel would take him on as pupil.

The younger Millet insisted on his sole authorship, and Mouchel was eventually convinced.

“Well, then,” he said to the father, “all I can say is, you will be damned for having kept him so long at the plough, for your boy has the making of a great painter in him.” (Cartwright 32)

Thus, Jean-François Millet went to study painting in Cherbourg. Of his first tutors, history records little. Alfred Sensier devotes a few pages to these two characters in his Millet biography. Those pages, including footnotes added by the editor Paul Mantz, may well have saved the names of Bon Dumoucel, called “Mouchel,” and Lucien-Théophile Langlois from history’s oubliette. Though my research is far from exhaustive, Sensier’s work is the source of every other reference to them I’ve so far found.

Poissonnerie de la Grande-Rue à Cherbourg - Mouchel
Poissonnerie de la Grande-Rue de Cherbourg, Mouchel, 1836; currently at the Thomas Henry Museum

Sensier describes Mouchel as a curious character. A self-taught artist, he followed the neoclassical School of Jacques-Louis David. He began many large canvases but didn’t always finish them. On request of local clergy, he painted alter-pieces, which he then donated to the church.

Mouchel taught at his home-studio in a small valley on the edge of town, where he lived with his wife. He worked a garden beside a mill and had a pet pig whose language he understood and could speak. Sensier, less bold, writes, “pretended to understand” (emphasis mine).

As Millet’s tutor, he recognized genius in the young man and gave him free rein: “Draw what you like; choose anything of mine that you like to copy; follow your own inclination, and above all go to the Museum.” (Cartwright 33)

It was at the Thomas Henry Museum where a messenger found Jean-François to inform him of his father’s illness.

Months later, Millet returned to Cherbourg under another tutor. Théophile Langlois de Chévreville was a trained artist, student of Antoine-Jean Gros, also neoclassical. During his own studies, Langlois had traveled to Greece and Italy, a fact he made sure everyone knew. He was considered as Cherbourg’s best painter. Some years later, he would become a drawing professor at the town college.

Like Mouchel, seeing that he didn’t have much to teach the young man, Langlois gave his student much the same treatment as his predecessor. “Go to the Museum,” was a common refrain.

After less than a year, Langlois penned a letter to the Cherbourg town council to make Millet’s case. In the letter, he suggested that the town provide the promising artist with a scholarship to study in Paris. So confident was he in Millet’s talent, he dared to predict the future:

“Allow me, gentlemen, for once, to lift the veil of the future, and to promise you a place in the memory of mankind, if you help in this manner to endow our country with another great man.”

In January of 1837 with a Cherbourg scholarship of 600 francs, Jean-François Millet bid farewell to his mother and grandmother at Gruchy and rode by carriage to Paris.


Quoted dialog from Jean-François Millet, His Life and Letters by Julia Cartwright (London: Swan Sonnenshein & Co., 1896).

Biographical information from La vie et l’oeuvre de Jean-François Millet by Alfred Sensier (Paris: A. Quantin, 1881).

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Thomas Henry Museum

Twenty year-old Jean-François Millet went to study painting in Cherbourg, where some 70 years previously Thomas Henry was born.

Though educated in commerce, Henry had a taste for art. In his early career he went to Saint-Domingue, a lucrative French colony on the island of Hispaniola. He was a merchant there until a successful slave revolt, now known as the Haitian Revolution, put an end to the colony and created the Empire of Haiti in 1804.

The Conversion of Saint Augustin
The Conversion of Saint Augustin by Fra Angelico, ca. 1430; donated to the town of Cherbourg by Thomas Henry, 1835

Having proved himself in business, back in France Henry went to Paris and became a painting restorer, then an accomplished artist as well as a successful art dealer. From this time onward he collected paintings and sculptures from the major movements in Western European art of the previous four centuries. He became a celebrated connoisseur, his opinion of a work’s provenance and of its quality being highly regarded.

By 1831, he had lost both sons and sensed his own life’s end. He began donating—anonymously—portions of his collection to his native town.

La Justice
La Justice, original by Pierre Subleyras, ca. 1740 (left); copy by Jean-François Millet, 1837

After receiving a significant number of these artworks, the Cherbourg town council decided to open a museum. An investigation revealed the donor’s name, and the Musée Thomas Henry opened its doors in 1835. Among its first visitors was Jean-François Millet, who came to copy the works of the masters as part of his studies.

Petit génie de la peinture
Petit génie de la peinture (Little genius of painting), Jean-François Millet ca. 1842; part of the Ono donation, as was Millet’s Justice above

A later donation, that of Millet’s nephew Paul Ono in 1915, would add to the museum’s collection a large number of Millet’s early paintings. Among them were many of the student artist’s copies, which museum visitors can see beside the original.

Today, the Thomas Henry Museum holds the third largest Millet collection in the world.

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Preface to The Way to Vict’ry

The Way to Vict’ry on AmazonThe Way to Vict’ry is an ebook of three haiku inspired by Sun Tzu, Matthieu Ricard, and a magpie flight instructor.

 

Preface

In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the fifth-century BC Taoist author likens the successful battle plan to a watercourse: it follows the path of least resistance to its objective.

Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard devotes a chapter of his book Happiness (Atlantic Books, 2012) to the ego. He suggests the ego, imposed as a shield, becomes a target, which attracts suffering.

These works inspired the first two haiku in this book.

And the magpie flight instructor? It’s one of a mated pair that makes its nest in the bay tree behind the house. The springtime garden is a cacophony of young magpies on flight training day.

In haiku form, the lessons are easier to retain. These three have become personal mantras.

Stephen Wendell
November 9, 2016
Paris, France

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Young J. F. Millet, Road to Success

Maison où est né Millet
House where Millet was born.
(Pastel from the collection of Mr. Feuardent father.)
Sensier 3

That the young Millet grew up bigger than the other kids his age and strong and curious, that his father was a farmer like his grandfather, that he was the oldest son of eight children and so was obliged to become a farmer as well, that he enjoyed the work and didn’t regret this duty, that he learned Latin and read the Bible and the Confessions of Saint Augustin in that language, that he loved to draw and had a natural talent for it—all this has little bearing on the legend which would be born nearer the end of his life than its beginning. 

Gruchy
Apart from cars on paved roads and a rooftop antenna, modern day Gruchy appears much the same as in the early nineteenth century

However, within the summary of the painter’s youth are two separate lessons concerning success: How much counts the encouragement of our loved ones, and how narrow is the window of opportunity.

At eighteen, Jean-François talked with his father about his desire to become an artist. His father said:

“My poor François, I see thou art troubled by the idea. I should gladly have sent you to have the trade of painting taught you, which they say is so fine, but you are the oldest boy, and I could not spare you; now that your brothers are older, I do not wish to prevent you from learning that which you are so anxious to know.” (Sensier 40)

Millet’s birthplace
Inside the Millet home now a museum

So with his father’s encouragement, he went to Cherbourg to study painting. But only two months later the father was dying of a sudden illness. The son returned to Gruchy to sit at the deathbed.

Although the short time in Cherbourg had lit the passion within him, after his father’s death, Jean-François succumbed to his sense of family duty and stayed to run the farm. It was only by his grandmother’s insistence that he returned to his destiny:

“My François, you must accept the will of God; your father, my Jean-Louis, said you should be a painter; obey him, and go back to Cherbourg.” (Sensier 42)

How much counts the encouragement of loved ones toward our success! How narrow the window of opportunity!

 


This is the latest episode in A Pilgrimage to Barbizon. Follow this link to catch up on previous episodes (listed in chronological order). On Wednesday we’ll follow the fledgling painter to Cherbourg. 

Quoted dialog from Jean-François Millet, Peasant and Painter. Alfred Sensier, Helena de Kay translator. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1881.

Image “House where Millet was born” from Sensier’s original work, La vie et l’oeuvre de J.-F. Millet. Paris: A. Quantin, 1881.

 

The House by the Well at Gruchy
The House by the Well at Gruchy,
painting by Jean-François Millet, 1864

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Gruchy-Gréville, Normandy, 1814

France in 1814 was a tumultuous country. The French Revolution, begun 25 years before, ended in 1799, but the Napoléonic wars followed. A young artillery officer during the revolution, a certain Bonaparte rose to power and established the First French Empire in 1804. Napoléon I fought a series of wars with his European neighbors then, in 1812, invaded Russia.

 

French Empire 1811Map of the French Empire and Central Europe in 1811
From The Cambridge Modern History Atlas. Ward, Prothero, Leathes editors. Cambridge: University Press, 1912 (455-6).

 

Allying with Prussia and Austria, Russia responded in kind. The allies captured Paris in the spring of 1814. Forcing the emperor to abdicate, they sent Napoléon into exile on the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy and near his home in Corsica. He would escape the island the following year and return to France to continue his aggression. Within a few months, Napoléon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. This time, he was exiled to Saint Helena, a small island in the middle of the South Atlantic. He didn’t escape again.

Meanwhile, in 1814, the Parisian “bistro” (Russian for “quickly”) was named by occupying soldiers pressed for time, immigrant American protestants established the American Church in Paris, and the long process of moving bones from the Holy Innocents Cemetery to the catacombs below Denfert-Rochereau was completed.

All this may have seemed far removed from Gruchy hamlet in the commune of Gréville on the Normandy coast, a week’s carriage ride north of Paris. Situated on the Cotentin Peninsula, which protrudes into the English Channel, Gruchy boasted not more than 25 thatched-roofed homes. These farmhouses lined either side of a single street, wide as a buggy. Fields beyond gave way to pastures and woodlands. Into this pastoral landscape was born Jean-François Millet, who would become known as the peasant painter.

Normandy Coast near GruchyOn the Normandy coast near Gruchy wind and rain are not uncommon in any season; late July 2016, this was the day’s best weather

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