Fortuny by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

I think I knew Fortuny as well as any one did. He was surcharged with energy, animation and good-cheer; and the sunshine he worked into every canvas he attempted, was only a reflection of the sparkling, gem-like radiance of his own nature. He absorbed from earth, air, sky, the waters and men, and transmuted all dross into gold. To him all things were good.

—Letter From Regnault

Now, once upon a day there was a swart, stubby boy by the name of Mariano Fortuny. He was ten years old, going on ‘leven, and lived with his grandfather away up and up four flights of rickety stairs in an old house at the village of Reus, in Spain. Mariano’s father had died some years before–died mysteriously in a drunken fight at a fair, where he ran a Punch and Judy show. Some said the Devil had come and carried him off, just as he nightly did Mr. Punch.

Frowsy, little, shock-headed Mariano didn’t feel so awfully bad when his father died, because his father used to make him turn the hand-organ all day, and half the night, and take up the collections; and the fond parent used to cuff him when there were less than ten coppers in the tambourine. They traveled around from place to place, with a big yellow dog and a little blue wagon that contained the show. They hitched their wagon to a dog. At night they would sleep in some shed back of a tavern, or under a table at a market, and Mariano would pillow his head on the yellow dog and curl up in a ball trying to keep warm.

When the father died, a tall man, who carried a sword and wore spurs, and had two rows of brass buttons down the front of his coat, took the dog and the wagon and the Punch and Judy show and sold ’em all–so as to get money to pay the funeral expenses of the dead man.

The tall man with the sword might have sold little Mariano, too, or thrown him in with the lot for good measure, but nobody seemed to want the boy–they all had more boys than they really needed already.

A fat market-woman gave the lad a cake, and another one gave him two oranges, and still another market-woman, fatter than the rest, blew her nose violently on her check apron and said it was too bad a boy like that didn’t have a mother.

Mariano never had a mother–at least none that he knew of, and it really seemed as if it didn’t make much difference, but now he began to cry, and, since the fat woman had suggested it, really wished he had a mother, after all.

There was an old priest standing by in the group. Mariano had not noticed him. But when the priest said, “But God is both our father and our mother, so no harm can come to us!” Mariano looked up in his face and felt better.

The priest’s name was Father Gonzales; Mariano knew, because this is what the market-woman called him. The fat market-woman talked with the priest, and the priest talked with the man with the dangling sword, and then Father Gonzales took the boy by the hand and led him away, and Mariano trotted along by his side, quite content, save for a stifled wish that the big yellow dog might go too. And it is a gross error to suppose that a yellow dog is necessarily nothing but a canine whose capillary covering is highly charged with ocherish pigment.

Where they were going made no difference. “God is our father and our mother”–Father Gonzales said so–and, faith! he ought to know.

And by and by they came to the tall old tenement-house, and climbed up the stairs to where Mariano’s old “grandfather” lived. Perhaps he wasn’t Mariano’s sure-enough grandfather, but he was just as good as if he had been.

* * * * *

But now it was an awfully long time ago since little Mariano and Father Gonzales had first climbed the stairs to where Grandfather Fortuny lived. The old grandfather and Mariano worked very hard, but they were quite content and happy. They had enough to eat, and each had a straw bed and warm blankets to cover him at night, and when the weather was very cold they made a fire of charcoal in a brazier and sat before it with spread-out hands, very thankful that God had given them such a good home and so many comforts.

The grandfather made images out of white plaster, flowers sometimes, and curious emblems that people bought for votive offerings. Little Mariano’s share in the work was to color the figures with blue and red paint, and give a lifelike tint to the fruit and bouquets that the grandfather cast from the white plaster.

Father Gonzales was their best customer, and used often to come up and watch Mariano paint an image of the Virgin, just as he ordered it. Mariano was very proud to receive Father Gonzales’ approval; and when the image was complete he would sometimes get a copper extra for delivering the work to some stricken person that the priest wished especially to remember. For one of Father Gonzales’ peculiarities was that although he bought lots of things he always gave them away.

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Mariano used often to carry letters and packages for Father Gonzales.

One day the good priest came up the stairs quite out of breath. He carried a letter in his hand.

“Here, Mariano, my boy, you can run, while my poor old legs are full of rheumatism. Here, take this letter down to the Diligence Office and tell them to send it tonight, sure. It is for the Bishop at Barcelona and it must be in his hands before tomorrow. Run now, for the last post closes very soon.”

Mariano took the letter, dived hatless out of the door and, sitting on the first stair, shot to the bottom like the slide to doom.

Grandfather Fortuny and the gentle old priest leaned out over the stone window-sill and laughed to see the boy scurry down the street.

Then the priest went his way.

Grandfather Fortuny waited, looking out of the window, for the boy to come back. The boy did not come.

He waited.

Lights began to flicker in the windows across the way.

A big red star came up in the West. The wind blew fresh and cool.

The old man shut down the sash, and looked at the untasted supper of brown bread and goat’s milk and fresh fruit.

He took his hat from the peg and his cane from the corner and hobbled down the stairs. He went to the Diligence Office. No one there remembered seeing the boy–how can busy officials be expected to remember everything?

Grandfather Fortuny made his way to the house of Father Gonzales. The priest had been called away to attend a man sick unto death–he would not be back for an hour.

The old man waited–waited one hour–two.

Father Gonzales came, and listened calmly to the troubled tale of the old man. Then together they made their way over to the tall tenement and up the creaky stairway.

There was the flicker of a candle to be seen under the door.

They entered, and there at the table sat Mariano munching silently on his midnight supper.

“Where have you been?” was the surprised question of both old men, speaking as one person.

“Me? I’ve been to Barcelona to give the letter to the Bishop–the last diligence had gone,” said the boy with his mouth full of bread.

“To Barcelona–ten miles, and back?”

“Me? Yes.”

“Did you walk?”

“No, I ran.”

Father Gonzales looked at Grandfather Fortuny, and Grandfather Fortuny looked at Father Gonzales; then they both burst out laughing. Mariano placed an extra plate on the table, and the three drew up chairs.

* * * * *

Business was looking up with Grandfather Fortuny and Mariano. All the images they made were quickly taken. People said they liked the way the cheeks and noses of the Apostles were colored; and when Father Gonzales brought in a sailor who had been shipwrecked, and the sailorman left ten pesetas for a plaster-of-Paris ship to be placed as a votive offering in the Chapel of Saint Dominic, their cup was full.

Mariano made the ship himself, and painted it, adding the yellow pennant of Spain to the mainmast.

This piece of work caused a quarrel between Grandfather Fortuny and Father Gonzales. The priest declared that a boy like that shouldn’t waste his youth in the shabby, tumble-down village of Reus–he should go to Barcelona and receive instruction in art.

The grandfather cried and protested that the boy was all he had to love in the wide world; he himself was growing feeble, and without the lad’s help at the business nothing could be done–starvation would be the end.

Besides, it would take much money to send Mariano to the Academy–it would take all their savings, and more! Do not inflate the child with foolish notions of making a fortune and winning fame! The world is cruel, men are unkind, and the strife of trying to win leads only to disappointment and vain regret at the last. Did not the artist Salvio commit suicide? Mariano had now a trade–who in Reus could make an image of the Virgin and color it in green, red and yellow so it would sell on sight for two pesetas?

Father Gonzales smiled and said something about images at two pesetas each as compared with the work of Murillo and Velasquez. He laughed at the old man’s fears of starvation, and defied him to name a single case where any one had ever starved. And as for expenses, why, he had thought it all out: he would pay Mariano’s expenses himself!

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“Should we two old men, about ready to die, stand in the way of the success of that boy?” exclaimed the priest. “Why, he will be an artist yet, do you hear?–an artist!”

They compromised on the Grammar-School, with three lessons a week by a drawing-master.

Grandfather Fortuny did not starve. Mariano was a regular steam-engine for work. He made more images evenings, and better ones, than they had ever made before during the day.

Finally Father Gonzales’ wishes prevailed and Mariano was sent to the Academy at Barcelona. Out of his own scanty income the old priest set aside a sum equal to eight dollars a month for Mariano; and when the grandfather’s sight grew too feeble for him to work at his trade he moved over to the rectory.

For a year, Father Gonzales sent the eight dollars on the first of each month. And then there came to him a brusk notification from Claudio Lorenzale, the Director of the Academy, to the effect that certain sums had been provided by the City of Barcelona to pay the expenses of four of the most worthy pupils at the Academy, and Mariano Fortuny had been voted as one who should receive the benefit of the endowment.

Father Gonzales read the notice to Grandfather Fortuny, and then they sent out for a fowl, and a bottle and a loaf of bread two feet long; and together the two old men made merry.

The grandfather had now fully come to the belief that the lad would some day be a great artist.

We do not know much concerning the details of Mariano’s life at Barcelona, save from scraps of information he now and then gave out to his friends Regnault and Lorenzo Valles, and which they in turn have given to us.

Yet we know he won the love of his teachers, and that Federico Madrazo picked out his work and especially recommended it.

Madrazo, I believe, is living now–at least he was a few years ago. He was born and bred an artist. His father, Joseph, had been a pupil under David, and was an artist of more than national renown. He served the Court at Madrid in various diplomatic relations, and won wealth and a noble name.

Federico Madrazo used to spend a portion of his time at the Academy of Barcelona as instructor and adviser to the Director. I do not know his official position, if he had one, but I know he afterward became the Director of the Museum of Art at Madrid.

Madrazo had two sons, who are now celebrated in the art world. One of them, Raimonde Madrazo, is well known in Paris, and, in Eighteen Hundred Ninety-three, had several pictures on exhibition at the Chicago Exposition; while another son, Rivera, is a noted sculptor and a painter of no small repute.

And so it was that Mariano Fortuny at Barcelona attracted the attention of Federico Madrazo, the artist patrician.

I can not find that Mariano’s work at this time had any very special merit. It merely showed the patient, painstaking, conscientious workman. But the bright, strong, eager young man was the sort that every teacher must love. He knew what he was at school for, and did his best.

Madrazo said, “He’s a manly fellow, and if he does not succeed he is now doing more–he deserves success.” So Mariano Fortuny and the great Madrazo, pupil and teacher, became firm friends.

And we know that, in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-seven, Mariano was voted the “Prize of Rome.” Each year this prize was awarded to the scholar who on vote of the teachers and scholars was deemed most deserving. It meant two years of study at Rome with five hundred dollars a year for expenses. And the only obligation was that the pupil should each year send home two paintings: one an original and the other a copy of some old masterpiece.

The sum of two hundred fifty dollars was advanced to Mariano at once. He straightway sent one-half of the amount down to his grandfather, with particulars of the good news.

“What did I tell you?” said the grandfather. “It was I who first taught him to use a brush. I used to caution him about running his reds into his greens, and told him to do as I said and he would be a great artist yet.”

Father Gonzales and Grandfather Fortuny went out and bought two fowls, three bottles, and a loaf of bread a yard long.

Mariano made all preparations to start for Rome. But the night before the journey was to begin, conscription officers came to his lodging and told him to consider himself under arrest–he must serve the State as a soldier.

It seems that the laws of Spain are such that any citizen can be called on to carry arms at any moment; and there are officials who do little but lie in wait for those who can pay, but have no time to fight. These officials are more intent on bleeding their countrymen than the enemy.

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Mariano applied to his friend Madrazo for advice as to what to do, and Madrazo simply cut the Gordian knot by paying out of his own purse three hundred dollars to secure the release of the young artist.

And so Mariano started gaily away, carrying with him the heart’s love of two old men, and the admiring affection of a whole school.

The grandfather died three months afterward–went babbling down into the Valley, making prophecies to the last to the effect that Mariano Fortuny would yet win deathless fame.

And Father Gonzales lived to see these prophecies fulfilled.

* * * * *

Then, at twenty-two, Fortuny was ordered by the city of Barcelona to accompany General Prim on his Algerian expedition, it was a milepost on his highway of success.

Nominally he was secretary to the General. Who it was secured his appointment he never knew; but we have reason to suppose it was Federico Madrazo.

Fortuny’s two years in Rome had just expired; his Barcelona friends knew that the time had been well spent, and the opportunities improved, and a further transplantation they believed would result in an increased blossoming.

“Enter into life! Enter into life!” was the call of a prophet long ago. In barbaric Africa, Fortuny entered into life with the same fine, free, eager, receptive spirit that he had elsewhere shown. General Prim, soldier and scholar, saw that his secretary was capable of doing something more than keeping accounts, and so a substitute was hired and Fortuny was sent here and there as messenger, but in reality, so that he could see as many sides of old Moorish life as possible.

Staid old General Prim loved the young man just as Madrazo had. Fortuny was not much of a soldier, for war did not interest him, save from its picturesque side. “War is transient, but Beauty is eternal,” he once said.

Even the fact that the Spanish Army was now on the soil of her ancient enemy, the Moor, did not stir his patriotism.

He sketched with feverish industry, fearing the war would end too soon, and he would have to go back with empty sketchbooks. The long stretches of white sands, the glaring sunshine, the paradox of riotous riches and ragged poverty, the veiled women, blinking camels, long rifles with butts inlaid with silver, swords whose hilts are set with precious stones, gray Arab horses with tails sweeping the ground, and everywhere the flutter of rags–these things bore in on his artist-nature and filled his heart.

He hastily painted in a few of his sketches and sent them as presents to his friends in Barcelona.

The very haste of the work, the meager outline and simple colors–glaring whites and limpid blues, with here and there a dash of red to indicate a scarf or sash–astonished his old teachers. Here were pictures painted in an hour that outmatched any of the carefully worked out, methodical attempts of the Academy! It was all life, life, life–palpitating life.

The sketches were shown, the men in power interviewed, and the city of Barcelona ordered Fortuny to paint one large picture to be eventually placed in the Parliament House to commemorate the victory of General Prim.

As an earnest of good faith a remittance of five hundred dollars accompanied the order.

The war was short. At the battle of Wad Ras the enemy was routed after a pitched fight where marked dash and spirit were shown on both sides.

And so this was to be the scene of Fortuny’s great painting. Hundreds of sketches were made, including portraits of General Prim and various officers. Fortuny set about the work as a duty to his patrons who had so generously paved the way for all the good fortune that was his. The painting was to be a world-beater; and Fortuny, young, strong, ambitious–knowing no such word as fail–went at the task.

Fortuny had associated with many artists at Rome and he had heard of that wonderful performance of Horace Vernet’s, the “Taking of the Smalah of Abd-el-Kader.” This picture of Vernet’s, up to that time, was the largest picture ever held in a single frame. It is seventy-one feet long and sixteen feet high. To describe that picture of Vernet’s with its thousand figures, charging cavalry, flashing sabers, dust-clouds, fleeing cattle, stampeding buffalos, riderless horses, overturned tents, and fear-stricken, beautiful women would require a book.

In passing, it is well to say that this picture of Vernet’s is the parent of all the panorama pictures that have added to the ready cash of certain enterprising citizens of Chicago, and that Vernet is the father of the modern “military school.”

If you have seen Vernet’s painting you can never forget it, and if there were nothing else to see at Versailles but this one picture you would be repaid, and amply repaid, for going out from Paris to view it.

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Before beginning his great canvas Fortuny was advised to go to Versailles and see the Vernet masterpiece.

He went and spent three days studying it in detail.

He turned away discouraged. To know too much of what other men have said is death to a writer; for an artist to be too familiar with the best in art is to have inspiration ooze out at every pore.

Fortuny took a week to think it over. He was not discouraged–not he–but he decided to postpone work on the masterpiece and busy himself for a while with simpler themes. He remained at Paris and made his thumb-nail sketches: a Moor in spotless white robe with red cap, leaning against a wall; a camel-driver at rest; a solitary horseman with long spear, a trellis with climbing vines, and a veiled beauty looking out from behind, etc.

And in all these pictures is dazzling sunshine and living life. The joy of them, the ease, the grace, the beauty, are matchless.

Goupil and Company, the art-dealers, contracted to take all the work he could turn out. And Fortuny did not make the mistake of doing too much. He possessed the artistic conscience, and nothing left his studio that did not satisfy his heart and head.

Trips had been taken to Florence, Venice and the beloved Morocco, and the poise and grace and limpid beauty of Fortuny’s pictures seemed to increase.

Three years had passed, and now came a letter from the authorities at Barcelona asking for their great battle picture, and a remittance was sent “to meet expenses.”

Fortuny promised, and made an effort at the work.

Another year went by and another letter of importunity came. Barcelona did not comprehend how her gifted son was now being counted among the very ablest artists in Paris–that world center of art. Artists should struggle for recognition, be rebuffed, live on a crust in dingy garrets, cultivate a gaunt and haggard look, and wear suits shiny at the elbows!

How could the old professors down at Barcelona understand that this mere youth was pressed with commissions from rich Americans, and in receipt of a princely income?

Fortuny returned all the money that Barcelona had sent him, regarding it all as a mere loan, and promised to complete the battle picture whenever he could bring his mind to bear upon it so that the work would satisfy himself.

The next year he visited Spain and was received at Madrid and Barcelona as a prince. Decorations and ceremonials greeted him at Madrid; and at Barcelona there were arches of triumph built over the streets, and a hundred students drew his carriage from the steamboat-landing up to the old Academy where he used to draw angles and curves from a copy all day long.

And it was not so many moons after this little visit to Barcelona that wedding-bells were sent a-swing, and Mariano Fortuny was married to Cecilia, daughter of Federico Madrazo.

Their honeymoon of a year was spent at the Alhambra Palace amid the scenes made famous by our own Washington Irving. And it was from Granada that he sent a picture to America to be sold for the benefit of the sufferers in the Chicago fire.

But there were no idle days. The artist worked with diligence, dipping deep into the old Moorish life, and catching the queer angles of old ruins and more queer humanity upon his palette. His noble wife proved his mate in very deed, and much of his best work is traceable to her loving criticism and inspiration.

Paris, Granada and Rome were their home, each in turn. The prices Fortuny realized were even greater than Meissonier commanded. Some of his best pieces are owned in America, through the efforts of W. H. Stewart of Philadelphia. At the A. T. Stewart sale, in New York, the “Fortunys” brought higher prices than anything else in the collection, save, I believe, the “1807” of Meissonier. In fact, there are more “Fortunys” owned in New York than there are in either Barcelona or Madrid.

Indeed, there is a marked similarity between the style of Fortuny and that of Meissonier. When some busybody informed Meissonier that Fortuny was imitating him, Meissonier replied, “To have such a genius as Mariano Fortuny imitate me would be the greatest happiness of my whole career.”

Fortuny’s life is mirrored in his name: his whole career was one triumphant march to fortune, fame, love and honor.

He avoided society, as he was jealous of the fleeting hours, and his close friends were few; but those who knew him loved him to a point just this side of idolatry.

Fortuny died at Rome on November Twenty-second, Eighteen Hundred Seventy-two, of brain rupture–an instant and painless death. In his short life of thirty-six years he accomplished remarkable results, but all this splendid work he regarded as merely in the line of preparation for a greater work yet to come.

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For some weeks before he died he had been troubled with a slight fever, contracted, he thought, from painting in a damp church; but the day of his death he took up his brush again and, as he worked, gaily talked with his wife of their plans for the future.

It is very pleasant to recall, however, that before death claimed him, Fortuny had completed the great picture of “The Battle of Wad Ras.” The canvas is now hanging on the wall of the Parliament House at Barcelona, and the picture is justly the pride of the city that showed itself such a wise and loving mother to the motherless boy, Mariano Fortuny.

* * * * *

Italy and Spain are sisters, and not merely first cousins, as Mr. Whistler once remarked. Their history to a great degree is contemporaneous. They have seen dynasties arise, grow old, and die; and schools of art, once the pride of the people, sink into blank forgetfulness: for schools, like dynasties and men, live their day and go tottering to their rest.

Italy, as the elder sister, has set the fashion for the younger. The manners, habits and customs of the people have been the same.

To a great extent all art is controlled by fad and fashion; and all the fashions in the polite arts easily drifted from Italy into Spain. The works of Titian carried to Madrid produced a swarm of imitators, some of whom, like Velasquez, Zurbaran, Ribera and Murillo, having spun their cocoons, passed through the chrysalis stage, developed wings, and soared to high heaven. But the generations of imitators who followed these have usually done little better than gape.

And although Spain has been a kind mother to art for four hundred years, yet the modern school of Spanish art shows no “apostolic succession” from the past. It is a thing separate and alone: gorgeous, dazzling, strong, and rarely beautiful. Totally unlike the art of the old masters, it takes its scenes from Nature and actual living life–depending not on myth, legend or fable. It discards pure imagination, and by holding a mirror up to Nature has done the world the untold blessing of introducing it to itself.

The average man sees things in the mass, and therefore sees nothing; everything, to his vision, is run together in hopeless jumble: all is discord, confusion–inextricable confusion worse confounded.

But the artist who is also a scientist (whether he knows it or not) discovers that in the seeming confusion, order, method and law yet reign supreme. And to prove his point he lifts from the tangle of things one simple, single scene and shows this, and this alone, in all its full and rounded completeness–beautiful as a snow-crystal on the slide of a microscope.

All art consists in this: to show the harmony of a part. And having seen the harmony of a part we pass on to a point where we can guess the harmony of the whole. Whether you be painter, sculptor, musician or writer, all your endeavors are toward lifting from the mass of things a scene, a form, a harmony, a truth, and, relieving it from all that distracts, catch it in immortal amber.

The writer merely unearths truth: truth has always existed: he lifts it out of the mass, and holding it up where others can see it, the discerning cry, “Yes, yes–we recognize it!” The musician takes the sound he needs from the winds blowing through the forest branches, constructs a harp strung with Apollo’s golden hair, and behold, we have a symphony! The wrongs of a race in bondage never touched the hearts of men until a woman lifted out a single, solitary black man and showed us the stripes upon the quivering back of Uncle Tom. One human being nailed to a cross reveals the concentrated woes of earth; and as we gaze upon the picture, into our hard hearts there comes creeping a desire to lessen the sorrows of the world by an increased love; and a gentleness and sympathy are ours such as we have never before known.

Fortuny is king of the modern school of Spanish painters. His genius made an epoch, and worked a revolution in the art of his country–and, some have said, in the art of the time.

As a nation it may be that Spain is crumbling into dust, but her rotting ruins will yet fertilize many a bank of violets. Certain it is that no modern art surpasses the art of Spain; and for once Italy must go to Spain for her pattern.

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