Alouette Arsenault was cursed with the ability to paint anything.
That’s the way she looked at her talent. Her work was so realistic it actually looked like photographs of people and landscapes. It was the people part where the curse came in.
Alouette was a simple country girl born in the south of France in 1565. When her mother was burned at the stake for being a witch, she was taken by her aunt Amitee, who raised her from a baby, in a hut located in the middle of the Aquitaine forest.
It was her ability to depict things around her in charcoal at an early age that caught Amitee’s attention. She watched Alouette draw imaginary friends and the world around her with pride. She was a born artist who deserved to work in more lasting mediums.
When Alouette turned fourteen, Amitee took her to Paris. She had a brother who lived there and he took them in. With his help, and the money Amitee made sewing people’s clothes, she was sent to a nearby art studio.
As the only female there, she suffered constant indignities, but the master, Ferdinand Elle, let her stay.
He saw something none of the jealous young men saw – she was a natural artist. Her eye for detail impressed Elle, but it was the confident ease with which she rendered her work that really made him realize she was going to be something special.
Using oil on canvas, Alouette painted her first portrait at fifteen years-old. It was of a minor city official. Elle allowed her to have the commission, and to paint her customer in the studio.
After studying the client’s face, she saw a hint of a shy smile. When she was done the client was overjoyed with her work. From that point forward he was a transformed man. Where once he spent all of his time worrying about things, he was now impossibly happy.
Of course, the client sang Alouette’s praise to everyone who would listen. It wasn’t long before clients came in asking for her at the master’s studio. Elle decided to charge her rent for the use of the studio, and materials.
Alouette didn’t make any connection with how happy her first client’s life became. Nor how her second client insisted she paint him frowning (he said it was an aristocratic pose), and when the portrait was done his normally mild nature turned into a combative one.
This went on for over a year.
But people began to talk, and compare results among themselves after having Alouette paint their portrait. They talked about people being so sad afterward, they committed suicide. Talk about the devil signing a pact with her swirled through the streets of Paris, sparking talk of witchcraft.
People were concerned it was the devil’s work. It was a very superstitious time in Europe, where hundreds of women were burned at the stake, hung, or drowned in trials designed to see if they were a witch.
Alouette quit painting portraits the moment she heard the rumors. When she started refusing clients Elle took her aside and asked, “What’s happening little one?” even though he’d also heard the rumors.
“I cannot paint any longer master Elle,” she said.
“I knew you were a witch a long time ago. That’s because I’m a warlock!”
“Witch! You mean I’m really a witch?” she sobbed.
“Yes. calm down my dear. We have work to do. It will be your greatest work, I assure you. Now listen to me. One of the many reasons you’re such a talented artist is because you have a great memory.
“We must put this memory to the test. I will walk with you through town and you must pay attention to everyone you see, especially city officials. Fix their faces in your wonderful memory.”
It only took her two days to finish the painting. It was massive. The largest in the studio. It was full of the people of Paris. All with big smiles as they went about their routines. Elles hid the final product…which was titled, “Gay Paree in the Springtime.”
Alouette thanked Elle, and left Paris with her aunt Aimitee, disappearing into the dusty footnotes of history.
As It Stands, I’ve often wondered why there weren’t more women artists during the Renaissance in the western world.