He arrived in Paris for the first time huddled on a hay cart. That was a morning in the May of 1702, blustery and wet, with silk in the air and Dutch clouds piled up and a dull pewter shine on the river. He was on the run: something to do with a woman. The authorities in Utrecht were looking for him. His mother had wept; his father the roofer, that rude man, had swung a punch at him. He was eighteen and already had a cough–Gillot, his first teacher, told him he sounded like a crow. What was his name then? Faubelin, Vanhoblin, Van Hobellijn: take your pick. He changed his name, his nationality, everything, covering his tracks. He never lost those Dutch gutturals though, at which his fancy friends laughed behind their hands.

For a week he lay on a pallet wrapped in his cloak in a dirty little room above Gérin’s print shop on the Pont Notre Dame, shaking with fever and grumbled at by the maître. Below him the other student hacks copied holy pictures all day long, lugubrious madonnas, St Jeromes with book and lion, ill-proportioned depositions from the cross. The stink of turpentine and pigments seeped up through the floorboards, and he would say that forever afterwards all studios smelled to him faintly of sickness. There was a war going on and the streets were thronged with beggars showing off their stumps.

He worked at the Opéra, painting sets, and even acted in the drama on occasion. Acting did not suit him, though: too much like life for him, who did not know how else to live except by playing parts. He went to the Comédie and stood in the pit amid the ceaseless noise and bustle and the stench of bodies, lost in contemplation of that glowing world above him on the stage. He never followed the plots, those ridiculous farragos, but watched the actors, studying their movements, their stylized, outlandish gestures. Afterwards he sat alone for hours in the Café Procope, sketching from memory. One of his first submissions to the Academy was a harlequinade in oils, very prettily done, he thought, with just the right balance of gaiety and menace. Second prize. Well.

A Colossal Hoard
Death of the Author