Claudette Difresca Nuret Paquet was expelled from a French arts academy in the year 1924. Having spent two and a half years there disguised as a man, it was no surprise at all to her when she was finally discovered. In those years, however, she grew notable skills in oil painting, and she discovered that a bright artistic vision resided within her. She’d been inspired and motivated by the great paintings of contemporary artists such as Benoit Donat. Undeterred by her impromptu expulsion, she marched off down the Paris streets carrying a bag of brushes, a few small jars of linseed oil, some pigments, a palette, a wooden tripod, and her meager savings.
“One small canvas, Monsieur,” she spoke, in French, to a salesperson at the supply store beside the academy, showing the coins in her hand. Minutes later, she happily carried on down the sidewalk with all that she would need to start a career as a painter on the streets.
It was a crisp April morning, and a steady breeze flowed along the cobblestone lanes that lined the Seine. The iron peak of La Tour Eiffel sprouted into the sky from behind the rows of shops and apartments, skewing the otherwise flat skyline. Claudette stopped near a grassy park and set up her canvas near a park bench between two maple trees. Her trained eyes set focus on a man in a suit, smoking a cigar in the doorway of a bakery. To most, this would have seemed to be an uninteresting and everyday sight, but to Claudette, this was a perfect glimpse into the life of an anonymous Frenchman. Her instinctive vision ignited, and she set to work.
Wasting no time, she began mixing and blending several colors of pigment to find the perfect hues. Before the man could move away from the bakery, she snatched up a charcoal pen and began to sketch out the scene before her. Starting with the darkest hues, she then layered on colors starting with the dark browns and grays of the buildings and cobblestones. Layer by layer she brought the world to life on her canvas, and all the while she became further satisfied with her work.
Before long, several passersby began to peer behind her to catch a glimpse of the painting. Claudette was aware of them but only spoke to each long enough to smile and say, “Bonjour.” None offered to buy her work, however, which was a bit of a disappointment.
Just past noon, when she had signed her name in black and applied one last layer of linseed oil, a large gray motor car rolled to a halt at the edge of the sidewalk. Claudette glanced up over her canvas to see three men step out. One was a clean-shaven oriental man who surely could be no taller than her. The other two were taller Eastern European men wearing heavy gray overcoats. Like many others who had passed during the morning, they stepped behind her to admire her painting.
“Very nice,” spoke the oriental man, smiling pleasantly, “I think that my employer would be proud to have your painting.”
“Merci,” Claudette blushed, allowing them to step closer. “Would you like to buy it? Name your price.”
“Nothing at all, Madame. You are going to give it to me.”
“Excusez-moi?” Claudette gasped, offended. In that same moment, one of the taller men opened the front of his coat a few centimeters to reveal the Colt revolver nested in the inside pocket. In that moment, Claudette realized that this would not be a price negotiation; this would be a theft. While Claudette held back her tears, one of the tall men plucked the canvas from its tripod and carried it off to the motor car.
“Merci, Madame.” The oriental man smiled, tipping his hat before following his bodyguards to the car. Just like that, Claudette’s first true work was lost, and with it a sizeable part of her dignity.
Shakily, she gathered her supplies and turned back up the street towards the academy and the supply shop. Her head hung low, and her eyes watched her worn shoes kicking pebbles up the sidewalk. By the time she had arrived at the small shop where she’d bought her canvas, the springtime breeze had begun to feel so much colder.
“Bonjour encore, Madame,” smiled the sales clerk, unaware of her misfortune. It was at that moment Claudette dropped her bag before the counter and began to quietly sob into her palms. At first, she faced away from the young man, preferring to gaze back out of the storefront window rather than towards the now-sympathetic clerk. He swiftly fetched a handkerchief and strode over towards her. As he handed her the cloth, she looked up and saw the look of concern on his face. Finally feeling safe after her troubling ordeal, she told the clerk the story of the painting and of the thieves who made off with it.
Upon hearing this, the clerk made his way to the back of the store where he found another blank canvas, not unlike the first, and presented it to Claudette with a friendly smile. At once, she reached into her pocket and scavenged for a few small coins, but the clerk shook his head.
“No charge,” he insisted, “Take it as a gift from me.”
The two of them locked eyes for a second time. This time, Claudette managed a light smile, and with steady hands, she took the canvas gratefully.
The clerk eventually retreated back behind the counter, and Claudette collected her bag and prepared to leave. As she reached for the knob of the door at the front of the shop, her hand wavered, descended, and fell to her side. With another sudden spark of vision, she stepped back from the door and set her bag down again. This time, she pulled from it the tripod, on which she dutifully set her new canvas. To the greatest surprise of the now-idle clerk, Claudette began to sketch a new portrait, this time of the clerk himself.
From that day on, the world began to open up to Claudette. The clerk, Olivier, whom she soon learned was also the owner of the shop, granted her a space in the back room to work on her paintings and a small room above the shop to sleep at night. She began to display some of her works in the storefront windows. She sold them consistently, and soon some customers in the shop were paying as much as two hundred Francs for a single painting. Claudette, encouraged by her growing success, offered to split profits with the generous Olivier, but he always insisted that she need only pay for supplies.
On some days, Claudette would go out and buy lunch for the clerk and herself, and they would endlessly talk about pigments and oils over soup or fresh fruit from the market. Although Olivier was always reluctant to share in the success of his resident artist, he never ceased to enjoy her colorful and lively presence. And on a breezy April morning, exactly one year after Claudette had first entered his shop, he asked her to marry him.
By that time, word of Claudette’s extraordinary talents had spread across the networks of artists in Paris. Even the great Benoit Donat, the most esteemed artist in the city, had heard word of her skills. This was a man who had toured three separate exhibitions of his works, one of which had remained in the Louvre for nine months.
On one warm morning, a week before the wedding of Claudette and Olivier, a mailman arrived at the art supply shop with a small letter that read:
Dear Monsieur Olivier P. Ruben and Madame Claudette Nuret Paquet,
It is my honor, as the host of the Annual Paris Arts Gala, to cordially invite the both of you to the aforementioned event on April the twenty-fifth of this year. The event will be held at the Musee du Louvre, at eight o’clock in the evening.
Monsieur Benoit Donat
“We have to attend!” Claudette exclaimed upon reading the letter. Since her days at the academy, it had been a dream of hers to meet Monsieur Donat. Olivier, equally intrigued by the idea, agreed that they ought to go to the gala, despite it being set only one day before their wedding.
Only a few days later the two eagerly set off for the gala in a small taxi. Winding up the Paris streets, they made their way to the Louvre, where several hundred invitees had already gathered. The crowded event was held in the great hall, where the high vaulted ceiling was suspended on a dozen marble Corinthian columns. Long wooden tables spanned the hall, and thirty Greek statues gazed down solemnly over the guests. To an outsider, the gala would have seemed like a meeting of ancient philosophers, but to Claudette, the gala was a display of the best talents that France had to offer. Claudette and Olivier stood at the entrance to the hall watching the guests noisily milling about.
“Look at all of them, Olivier,” she marvelled, “What an honor that such fine people know my name!”
“Monsieur, Madame,” spoke a well dressed man who approached them, walking with a cane, “Welcome to my gala. As you know, my name is Benoit Donat. It is my pleasure to meet you both.”
Donat bowed, and so did Olivier. Claudette, shocked and surprised at suddenly meeting her idol, bowed her head and smiled, blushing. Donat smiled back, pointing to a gallery neighboring the hall.
“Come now,” he said, “It would be my honor to show you both my exhibition before the gala begins.”
Olivier and Claudette turned to follow him into the neighboring hall. Before they walked from the crowded marble room, however, Claudette caught a glimpse of someone unexpected among the hundreds of guests.
“Olivier,” she whispered to her fiancé, “He’s here.”
“Who?” he responded, unnerved by her fearful voice.
“An old foe.”
At the back of the marble room stood an oriental man in a formal suit, standing beside a proud Greek statue. The fiend who had tarnished the start of what became Claudette’s prosperous career had, like her, been invited to celebrate the arts among those who had earned the same right through hard work and talent.
Lost in thought, desperately trying to figure out why the thief would be among them, Claudette followed Olivier and Donat into the exhibition. Olivier held her hand comfortingly, knowing that she may choose to leave at any moment despite the presence of her idol, Monsieur Donat.
“All my best from the last four years,” Donat smiled, ushering them into the next room, “I call it, ‘The Portraits of Paris.’”
Claudette and Olivier had hardly entered the room when she spotted one of Donat’s masterpieces. At the back of the exhibition hall, in the center of one of the white walls, was a canvas framed in gold. The brush strokes were precise, thoughtful, and purposeful, just as in all his paintings. And just like all the others, it bore the same small signature, “Donat.” What made this painting a masterpiece was not its quality, but its vision. As Claudette had been taught, the greatest talent that an artist can have is the vision to show what the world needs to see. The masterpiece was a work of a true visionary artist; it bore the marks of a trained eye.
Portrayed in the painting was a man smoking a cigar in the doorway of a bakery.
Claudette froze before her stolen painting. In her mind, she suddenly recalled the words of the thief: “I think that my employer would be proud to have your painting.” The employer of the thief, she realized, was Donat himself. Donat had collected her painting and repainted it as his own, then signed it with his name. Awestruck and shocked, Claudette averted her eyes from the painting, her painting, only to see the hundreds of others that filled the exhibition, each of them stolen and copied from the undiscovered artists living on the Paris streets.
“Olivier, let’s go back to the great hall,” she whispered, “I’ve seen all I need to see.”
“What’s wrong?” Donat asked, unaware that his secret had been betrayed.
“Nothing at all,” Olivier smiled at him awkwardly, having recognized the painting as Claudette had once described it, “She’s a bit overwhelmed, I’m afraid.”
Claudette returned to the marble hall so quickly that Olivier could hardly keep up. Donat, restricted by his handicap, followed far behind them. When Claudette rushed down the marble steps to the tables where the guests had begun to take their seats, Olivier stopped her, placing one hand on her shoulder.
“My dear,” he said to her, “I know what you are about to do, and I am helpless and have no right to stop you from doing so. However, I must warn you that there may be great danger in sharing the secrets of the rich and powerful.”
“I know, Olivier.”
With that, they took their seats near the end of one of the long tables. Just as Donat’s cane tapped across the top of the hall’s marble steps, Claudette picked up her champagne glass and proudly stood up from her seat.
“Good evening, everyone,” she began, “I would like to offer a toast to the excellent and talented host of tonight’s gala, Monsieur Donat. To you, Monsieur, a vote santé.”
The guests looked up the marble steps at Donat and smiled, some applauding kindly, as Donat took a bow.
“And now, I would like to offer a story with which to begin tonight’s celebration. It is a true story, and a story that few have ever heard. It is the story of how my life as a painter began.”
Claudette, to the shock of all the guests, went on to retell the story of the day when she was expelled from the arts academy. Omitting any detailed description of the thief, his bodyguards, or even the painting itself, she then revealed the entire incident by which she lost her first painting. Some at the tables looked withdrawn, or even saddened. Others, specifically Donat, the oriental man, and his bodyguards, looked more uneasy than forlorn. As Claudette neared the end of her story, one of the bodyguards slowly walked towards her end of the table, ready to quickly cut her speech short if needed.
“The painting was lost,” she proclaimed, “and it is likely to remain that way. But I am not lost. You see, the thieves took my canvas. They took my signature, too. But they never took my vision. That vision, the vision to see the world and all its beauty, has never left me. It’s been the key to everything. All the best things in my life…” she turned to Olivier, remembering how a sudden vision had led her to paint his portrait a year before, “All the best things have come from my vision. That is why I am proud to say what an honor it is to put the past behind me, and to share this evening with so many others who share my vision of the world.”
The tables erupted in applause, and the band struck up a joyous tune. The bodyguard returned to his seat, and Donat retreated into the shadows of the corridor. Claudette and Olivier rushed into the center of the hall, hand in hand, and danced happily all night long.
The next day, Claudette and Olivier were married in a small church near their art shop. The ceremony was attended by their friends and family, who all shared in their joy. Claudette was happy to finally move on from the troubles of her past, and so was Olivier. As the guests left the church one by one, the painter’s foe quietly returned one last time. The oriental man drifted into the church carrying a framed canvas, on which was Claudette’s original painting, complete with her signature. It had been locked away for a year, hidden from the world while Donat’s copy was set on display. The man set the painting down with the rest of the wedding presents and left as quickly as he had come. Claudette and Olivier were stunned and overjoyed when they found the painting later, and never knew exactly how it had returned so suddenly.
That same day, Donat’s exhibition was inexplicably removed from the Louvre. There were rumors that he’d died, as he was rarely ever seen in public again. Some said his limp had grown worse and that he could no longer walk. Others said he’d gone blind. Whatever the truth, Paris forgot him and was better off, and the world of the arts blossomed in the April breeze.