Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Quest for artistic history doesn't end in success

It's midday.

We're in the tiny village of La Verdiere in the south of France, sitting at a roadside cafe enjoying scrumptious plates of salads and omelets.

Inside the cafe, old men in braces and berets are standing at the bar nursing slim, smoky glasses of pastis, celebrating their WWII Liberation Day. A jukebox is humming traditional chansons by Aznavour and Piaf and Greco. And the Provencal sun is high and hot, and only occasional wisps of white spoil an otherwise perfect azure sky.

La Verdiere is an idyllic little spot in the Upper Var Valley, some 50 miles north of the Mediterranean town of Toulon. And the views across the olive groves and vineyards are well within the sensational range.

But despite all this, all is not quite well with the world. The mission that we had set out on from Nice earlier in the day, with so much hope and enthusiasm, is not going entirely as planned. And as we work the patrons in the cafe, a sense of mild frustration begins to set in.

We are here deep in southeast France with a Toledo couple, searching for the bones - or at least some visible vestiges - of an artist by the name of Paul Emile Blanc, who was born in this village in the mid 1800s. But mysteriously for us, no one here seems to know anything about him. Not the cafe owner or the old men at the bar, not the people we question in the street or even the mayors of nearby villages.

Oh, there's no shortage of Blancs in this part of Provence. You see their names on war memorials that are central to every town and hamlet. And there are at least eight Blancs listed in the local phone directory. A couple we questioned at a nearby table even have a Blanc in their family tree.

But relatives of the artist? Not as far as they - or anyone else, for that matter - seem to know.

The reason for our interest in this patently obscure engraver is that our friends have come into possession of an extensive collection of many original Blanc etchings, 74 in all. These works have been handed down over the years from one sympathetic artist to another - and even locked in a Scottish bank vault for 50 years!

Eager to find out all they can about the good Monsieur Blanc, his birthplace and painting grounds seemed like a good place to start.

They already know that he was born in La Verdiere in 1837, and in his early 20s went to Paris to study art. By the mid-1860s, Blanc was living the convivial life of a wealthy student, frequenting the better nightclubs and restaurants of the city.

But he also developed an interest in the beggars, vagrants, and cripples who would wait outside cafes and hostelries. He would give them food and money, and even the clothes off his back.

Then, in 1866, Blanc left Paris for Italy, where he joined a band of gypsies, wandering with them throughout the peninsula and chronicling their journeys. After seven years, he ran out of money and was forced to return to the Var Valley, settling in the dilapidated village of St Julian la Montagnier.

There he produced etchings of street people from his tiny studio, which was filled with every kind of beggar's garb - woolen rags, threadbare overcoats, fishermen's caps, Calabrian cloaks - and, on occasion, a few beggars themselves.

While his pictures were praised by experts for their stark realism and compassion, sales were sluggish and, despite exhibitions of his work in Paris and Marseilles, Blanc finally gave up. He died penniless in Provence in 1910, at the age of 74.

From La Verdiere we drove on up to St Julian in further pursuit of the elusive artist ... and found a pretty-as-a-picture village with a fortified medieval church, and a restaurant filled with old soldiers, anciens combattants, remembering their glory days.

One of them, resting from the revelry, claimed to have some knowledge of our subject and suggested we wait till the dinner was over to question his comrades as well.

We reluctantly turned down his offer, as time was running short - and we suspected that the free-flowing celebration could easily spark all manner of Blanc sightings. So sadly, we had to give up the search and turned our aptly monikered Renault “Picasso” back towards Nice.

Paul Emile Blanc still remains a mystery. But at least we stirred up some local interest ... and trod for a day in the footsteps of a master etcher.

Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

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