Men I Have Painted/Henri Rochefort
WHILE I was painting Henri Rochefort, in Paris, I called to see my former master, Gérome. He was old and gray, and tired. He had worked too hard, and yet he was still hard at it, finishing a bronze statue of young Napoleon on horseback, a Tamerlane, his horse bestriding un monceau de têtes de mort, and painting at two or three canvases on the easels. After a little talk about himself and his work, he asked me what I was doing. "A portrait of Rochefort," was my answer. "Rochefort!" he exclaimed, in a strident voice, "Ne pourriez vous pas trouver autre chose à faire que cela? Rochefort! Cet homme-là a fait plus de mal à la France que n'importe quel autre de nos jours. C'est un miserable!" Et il poursuivit d'injures l'editeur de l'Intransigeant. Je me tus, je ne savais que répondre. Enfin j'osais balbutier, "Mais, il est si pittoresque, il a une chevelure." Gérome était tellement courroucé que je trouvais bon de m'esquiver.
Henri Rochefort was the man of the chevelure à la cockatoo, of whom a colossal bust was made by Rodin, in his most brutal manner. He was for many years a well-known figure in London, a political exile. One remarked him in Piccadilly, in the same way as one noticed Sir Squire Bancroft with his head in the air seeming to overlook everybody through his monocle. How very few remarkable figures there are, figures that stand out conspicuously among a mass of mediocrities!
Rochefort could have been seen, with his handsome niece, constantly in Christie's auction rooms, watching the sales of pictures and furniture. After his return to Paris I commenced the portrait at his house. It was never finished. The Dreyfus affair was at its hottest. At first I was not interested, but a New York lady, who lived always in Europe, called my attention to the apparent injustice of the officer's conviction, degradation, and exile. After reading Zola's famous letter, J'accuse, I became a Dreyfusard, and followed every aspect of le petit bleu with ardour and excitement.
It was an unfortunate moment to be closeted with Henri Rochefort. The French language contained no epithet strong enough, no cochonnerie vile enough to convey Rochefort's spleen against this unfortunate "spy," who was not only in league with the Devil, but, what was far worse, with the Emperor William of Germany. There was no doubt at all in Rochefort's mind that the Emperor himself was in constant secret communication with Dreyfus, and that the fireproof safe, in his palace at Potsdam, contained documents supplied by his correspondent in France, revealing the strength and the weakness of the French army, the characters of the personnel of the staff, the number and calibre of the guns, and the definitions of all the secret mechanisms and appliances of the various armaments.
Rochefort did not believe in original sin, and vigorously pooh-poohed the idea that little children, pure and innocent angels, as he called them, could possibly be inheritors of the germs of wickedness. But original sin and all other kinds of sin were innate in the Kaiser and in the traitorous miscreant who had betrayed France to the grasp of the "mailed fist," the foe acharné de la Patrie.
Whatever may have been the views of English statesmen in 1896, Henri Rochefort harboured no illusions as to the ambitions and aims of the German Emperor.
In the light of what has transpired since, a light that blazed red for four years, I may have done Rochefort an injustice by quitting his house before the portrait was finished, because of the vehemence of his invective against the enemies of France and the unfortunate Dreyfus.