The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Bear’s grease mixed with pounded rose petals made a hopeful hair restorer. The ancient Persians made a rose wine so powerful yet so benign it softened the hardest heart, and put the most miserable wretch to sleep. In Elizabethan England they made a rose liqueur warranted to “wash the mulligrubs out of a moody brain.” Mulligrubs is a good word yet in my part of the country, the South, to describe that state of lowered resistance to life now known generally as the “blues.” In turn, “blues,” in its exact present sense, was a good word in seventeenth-century England, and was brought to America by the early Virginia settlers. Whether they brought roses at first I do not know, nor whether they found any here; but there is a most beautiful rose, single, large-petaled, streaked red and white, called the Cherokee Rose, of a heavenly perfume, which is perfectly at home here. It came from Asia by way of England, however, a long time ago, and has not a drop of Indian blood in it. Maybe the Virginians did bring it—it flourishes best in the Southern states.

  The celebrated botanists, rose growers, collectors, hybridizers, perfume makers, as well as the scientific or commercial exploiters of the rose, have all been men; so far as I know, not a woman among them. And naturally in such a large company we find a few who labor restlessly to grow a rose with a six-foot stem; with a thousand petals, and a face broad as a plate; to color them blue, or black, or violet. The rose being by nature a shrub they could not rest until they made a tree of it. In the same spirit, there are those who embalm them in wax, dip them in dye-stuffs, manufacture them in colored paper, and sprinkle them with synthetic perfume. This is not real wickedness but something worse, sheer poverty of feeling and misdirected energy with effrontery, a combination found in all vulgarizers. The “arrangers” of great music, the “editors” of literary masterpieces, the re-painters of great pictures, the falsifiers of noble ideas—that whole race of the monkey-minded and monkey-fingered “adapters”; the rose too has been their victim. Remy de Gourmont cursed all women in the name of the rose, with the ferocity of perverted love; and aesthetic hypersensibility turned not to hatred but to something even more painful, disgust, nausea, at the weight of false symbol, the hypocritical associations, the sickly sentiment which appeared to have overwhelmed it. With the wild logic of bitterness and disillusion, he cursed the rose, that is, woman, and through it, all those things which had degraded it in his eyes, concluding that the rose itself is vile by nature, and attracts vileness. Only a disappointed lover behaves so unreasonably. He got a brilliant poem out of it, however (Litanies de la Rose).

  Women have been the treasurers of seedlings and cuttings; they are the ones who will root a single slip in a bottle of water in the corner of a closet; or set out, as the pioneer American women did, on their bitter journeys to the Carolinas, to Kentucky, to Texas, to California, the Middle West, the Indian territories, guarding who knows how their priceless little store of seeds and roots of apples, plums, pears, grapes, and roses—always roses. China Rose, Bengal Rose, Musk Rose, Moss Rose, Briar Rose, Damask Rose—in how many places those very same pioneer rose bushes are blooming yet. But where did all those hedges of wild roses spring from? Were they always there? Gloire de Dijon, Cup of Hebe, Old Blush, Roger Lambelin, Cherokee, Maréchal Niel, Cramoisy—these are some names I remember from gardens I knew; and Noisette, a small perfect rose, result of the first crossbreeding in this country, a century and a quarter ago. . . . Where did I see that little story about someone advertising a place for sale as an earthly paradise, “the only drawbacks being the litter of rose petals and the noise of nightingales”?

  The rose is sacred to religion, to human love, and to the arts. It is associated with the longing for earthly joy, and for eternal life. There is a noticeable absence of them, or flowers of any kind, in the textbooks of magic, witchcraft, the Black Arts by any name. The world of evil is mechanistic, furnished with alembics, retorts, ovens, grinding stones; herbs, mainly poisonous; the wheel, but not the rose; hollow circles, zones of safety for the conjuror. The alchemist with his madness for gold—for what did they devote all that hermetic wisdom, that moral grandeur, that spiritual purity they professed but to the dream of making gold? Or of turning pebbles into jewels, as St. John was said to have done? A slander, I do believe, unless taken symbolically. But the evidence is against this: the alchemists meant to make real gold. It is the most grotesquely materialistic of all ends. The witch, with her blood vows and her grave robbing and her animal rites and transformations, how stupid and poor her activities and aims! Where can pictures more coarse and gross and debased be found than in books of magic: they cannot even rouse horror except in the offended eye.

  Evil is dull, that is the worst of it, and black magic is the dullest of all evils. . . . Only when the poor metamorphosed Ass can find and eat of good Venus’s roses may he be restored again to his right form, and to the reassuring, purely human world of love and music and poetry, reclaimed by the benign sweetness of its petals and leaves from the subhuman mechanistic domain of evil.

  And then, the rose of fire: that core of eternal radiance in which Dante beheld the Beatific Vision; this rose still illuminates the heart of Poets:

  “. . . From my little span

  I cry of Christ, Who is the ultimate Fire

  Who will burn away the cold in the heart of Man. . . .”

  Springs come, springs go. . . .

  “I was reddere on Rode than the Rose in the rayne.”

  “This smel is Crist, clepid the plantynge of the Rose in Jerico.”

  (Edith Sitwell, “The Canticle of the Rose”)


  All shall be well and

  All manner of thing shall be well

  When the tongues of flame are in-folded

  Into the crowned knot of fire

  And the fire and the rose are one.

  (T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”)


  A Note on Pierre-Joseph Redouté


  For the reproductions of his water colors, he invented a process of printing in colors which he never consented to perfect to the point where it would be completely mechanical. Each one of these prints had further to be retouched by hand. They owe to these light but indispensable retouchings the capricious illusion and movement of life—a life prolonged beyond its term. In effect, the greater part of the roses who posed for Redouté no longer exist today, in nature. Rosarians are not conservators. They have come to create a race of roses, they do not care whether they shall endure, but only that they, the creators, shall give shape to a new race. So the old species disappear little by little; or if they survive, it is not in famous rosaries, which disdain them, but in old gardens, scattered, forgotten, where there is no concern for fashions in flowers.

  Jean-Louis Vaudoyer: Les Roses de Bagatelle

  HERE is an eye-witness description of Pierre-Joseph Redouté: “A short thick body, with the members of an elephant, a face heavy and flat as a Holland cheese, thick lips, a dull voice, crooked fat fingers, a repellent aspect altogether; and under this rind, an extreme fineness of tact, exquisite taste, a profound sense of the arts, great delicacy of feeling, with the elevation of character and constancy in his work necessary to develop his genius: such was Redouté, the painter of flowers, who had as his students all the pretty women in Paris.” This is by Joseph-François Grillé, a lively gossip in his time.

  A writer of our own time, looking at Redouté’s portraits, by Gérard and others, concludes: “In spite of the solid redingote, the ample cravat and the standing collar of the bourgeois, his portraits make one think of some old gardener weathered and wrinkled like a winter apple.”

  Dear me: I have seen only the engraving after a painting by Gérard, and can find nothing at all strange, much less monstrous, in it. He seems a man of moderate build, in the becoming dress of his age, though plainer than most; with a very good face indeed with rather blunt features, and pleasant, candid, attentive eyes. Perhaps Gérard loved the man who lived inside that unpro
mising but useful rind, and showed him as he really was.

  He was born in Saint-Hubert, Belgium, the son and grandson of artisan-painters, decorators of churches and municipal buildings. His two brothers became also painter-decorators. In the hardy fashion of the times, after a solid apprenticeship to his father, at the age of thirteen he was turned out in the world to make his own way. Dreaming of fame, riches, glory, he roamed all Belgium and Flanders looking for jobs and starving by the way. He took a year of hard work at Liège in the ateliers of famous painters and was sent to Luxembourg to paint portraits of his first royalties, the Princess de Tornaco and others. The Princess was so pleased with his work she gave him letters to present to certain persons of quality residing in Versailles.

  In Flanders he studied deeply the painters of the ancient Flemish school. After ten years of this laborious apprenticeship, he joined his elder brother Antoine-Ferdinand in Paris; Antoine-Ferdinand had all that time been unadventurously earning a good living as painter-decorator. Pierre-Joseph helped his brother decorate the Italian Theater, and painted flowers wherever he was allowed. He learned the art of engraving, and he managed to get into the King’s Garden, a botanical wonder, in that time, of royal and noble gardens, in order to study, draw and paint plants and flowers. There he met Charles-Louis L’Héritier of Belgium, a man of great wealth, an impassioned botanist and adherent of the classical methods of Linnaeus.

  From this time Redouté’s history is the straight road to fame, fortune, and the happy life of a man capable of total constancy to his own gifts, who had the great good fortune to be born at the right hour in time, in the right place, and with the pure instinct which led him infallibly to the place where he could flourish and the people who needed and wanted precisely the thing that he could do. The rage for botanical gardening which had been growing for nearly two centuries had reached its climax. Only the royal, the noble, only the newly rich could afford these extravagant collections of rare shrubs, trees, flowers. There were no more simple adorers of flowers, but collectors of rarities and amateur botanists. It was an age of nature lovers, whose true god was science. Redouté was a botanist and a scientist, a decorator with a superior talent for painting. He stepped into the whole company of such combination scientists and decorator-artisans which surrounded and lived by the bounty of rich amateurs. Armed with brush, pencil, microscope, copper plates, stains, colors and acids, they adhered mightily and single-mindedly to their sources of benefits—intellectual bees, they were. Nothing could have been more touching than their indifference to social significance: they hadn’t got the faintest notion where the times were driving them, or why; theirs only to pursue their personal passions and pleasures with scientific concentration, theirs to invent new processes of engraving, coloring, more exact representations of the subject in hand. The gardeners were concerned only to invent new roses, the botanists to botanize them, the artist-artisans to anatomize and engrave them. They were good workmen to whom the employment and not the employer was important.

  It is astonishing how a world may turn over, and a whole society fall into ruin, and yet there is always a large population which survives, and hardly knows what has happened; indeed, can with all good faith write as a student in Paris did to his anxious father in Bordeaux, at the very height of the troubles of 1792: “All is quiet here,” he declared, mentioning casually an execution or so. Later, he gave most painful descriptions of seeing, at every step in the street, the hideous bleeding rags of corpses piled up, uncovered; once he saw seven tumbrils of them being hauled away, the wheels leaving long tracks of blood. Yet there was dancing in the streets (he did not like to dance), bonfires at the slightest pretext (he hated bonfires), and all public places of entertainment were going at full speed. A craze for a new game called Coblentz, later Yo-yo, came to the point that everybody played it no matter where, all the time. When the King was beheaded, in January, 1793, Mercier tells how people rushed to dip handkerchiefs, feathers, bits of paper in his blood, like human hyenas: one man dipped his finger in it, tasted it, and said: “It’s beastly salty!” (Il est bougrement salé!) Yet no doubt there were whole streets and sections where no terror came. Our student, an ardent Republican and stern moralist, got his four years of tutoring and college, exactly as planned. The Collège de France opened its doors promptly every autumn the whole time he was there.

  Redouté, in the center of the royal family, as private painting teacher to the Queen, later appointed as “Designer of the Royal Academy of Sciences,” designer in Marie Antoinette’s own Cabinet, seemed destined to go almost as untouched by political disasters as the student writing to his father. On the very eve of the revolution, he was called before the royal family in the Temple, to watch the unfolding of a particularly ephemeral cactus bloom, and to paint it at its several stages.

  When the Queen was put to death in October, 1793, it was David, patriot-painter, who made the terrible little sketch of her in the cart on her way to the scaffold: a sunken-faced old woman with chopped-off hair, the dress of a fishwife, hands bound behind her, eyes closed: but her head carried as high, her spine as straight, as if she were on her throne. We see for the first time clearly the long curved masculine-looking nose, the brutal Hapsburg jaw. But something else that perhaps David did not mean to show comes through his sparse strokes: as if all the elements of her character in life had been transmuted in the hour of her death—stubbornness to strength, arrogance to dignity, recklessness to courage, frivolity to tragedy. It is wonderful what strange amends David, moved by hatred, made to his victim.*

  Her friendly, but preoccupied, painter-decorator happened to be in England with L’Héritier, who had done some very fancy work indeed getting away with a treasure of botanical specimens against a capricious government order. The two sat poring over their precious loot in perfect peace while France was being put together again. They returned, and went on with their work under the National Convention, which took great pride in the embellishment of the King’s Garden, renamed the Garden of Natural History. (By 1823, after four overturns of the French government, this garden settled down for a good while under the name of the Museum of Natural History of the King’s Garden.)

  Josephine Bonaparte of course had the most lavish, extravagant collection of rare plants, trees, and flowers at Malmaison, and Redouté became her faithful right hand as painter, decorator, straight through her career as Empress, and until her death. In the meantime he was teacher of painting to Empress Marie-Louise; went on to receive a gold medal from the hand of Louis XVIII for his invention of color printing from a single plate; the ribbon of the Legion of Honor was bestowed upon him by Charles X, in 1825; he painted the portrait of the rose named for Queen Marie Amélie; and lived to see his adored pupil Princess Marie-Louise, elder daughter of Louis-Philippe, become Queen of the Belgians.

  During one upset or another, his beautiful house and garden at Fleury-sous-Meudon, were almost destroyed; he seems to have invested all the handsome fortune he had made in this place. Yet he simply moved into Paris with his family and went on working. In 1830 again there were the crowds milling savagely in the gardens of the Royal Palace, this time roaring: “Long live the Charter. Down with Charles X! Down with the Bourbons!” Charles went down and Louis-Philippe came in, the last king Redouté was to see. While royal figures came and went in the Tuileries, “that inn for crowned transients,” as Béranger remarked, the painters Gérard, Isabey, and Redouté remained a part of the furniture of the Crown, no matter who wore it.

  Such a charmed life! Only one of that huge company of men living in the tranced reality of science and art, was for a moment in danger. L’Héritier almost got his head cut off during the first revolution; in 1805 he was killed in the street near his own door—I have seen no account which says why. Did even those who murdered him know why they did it? Did L’Héritier himself know?

  The story of Redouté’s labors, his teaching, painting, engraving, his valuable discoveries in methods of engraving, coloring plates, a
nd printing, is overwhelming. He worked as he breathed, with such facility, fertility of resources, and abundant energy, he was the wonder of his colleagues, themselves good masters of the long hard day’s work. Redouté is said to have painted more than one thousand pictures of roses alone, many of them now vanished; it is on these strange, beautiful portrait-anatomies that his popular fame endures. He loved fame, and was honestly eager for praise, like a good child; but he took no short cuts to gain them, nor any unworthy method. When he invented a certain process of printing in colors, he saw its danger, and stopped short of perfecting it; he did not want any work to become altogether mechanical. All his prints made by this process required to be retouched by hand, for as a good artist he understood, indeed had learned from nature itself, the divine law of uniqueness: that no two leaves on the same tree are ever exactly alike.

  His life had classical shape and symmetry. It began with sound gifts in poverty, labor and high human aspirations, rose to honestly won fame and wealth, with much love, too, and admiration without envy from his fellow artists and his students. It went on to very old age in losses and poverty again, with several friends and a royalty or two making ineffectual gestures toward his relief. But then, his friends, both artist and royal, were seeing hard times too. On the day of his death he received a student for a lesson. The student brought him a lily, and he died holding it.

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