The Beauty of Impermanence: Finding Inspiration in Renoir’s Fugitive Pigments
Jennifer Murphy on Choosing a Vibrant Life
It was one of those weird coincidences, what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would have called synchronicity. I had just completed my first novel, due for release that June, and I’d been struggling with the idea of a new novel about a mother and daughter who were living a fugitive lifestyle, moving from town to town to elude capture from a phantom man. I had other novel ideas floating in my head, but this one kept tugging. The placeholder title I’d given the novel was Fugitive Pigment, which felt right but I was yet to articulate why.
As both a writer and painter, I was familiar with the term, fugitive pigment, which refers to impermanent pigments derived from nature that fade over time due to light or other atmospheric conditions, a common occurrence in paintings executed prior to the 20th century and the advent of permanent pigments such as Windsor & Newton.
I had a fuzzy notion of what that term had to do with a novel about a mother and daughter on the run, but it wasn’t until that day in February of 2014, when I entered The Chicago Art Institute and viewed an exhibit entitled Renoir’s True Colors that I understood not only its significance to my protagonists’ stories but also my own.
At that moment, my life was in flux. Within months of viewing this exhibit I would be moving across the country again, a practice that had become all too familiar, and which was taking a toll on my otherwise positive nature. I have always been a nester. I like the comfort of sameness, of knowing the exact shelf where a book I’m seeking resides or seeing the same exact people on a daily walk through the neighborhood. For several years I had been a single mom and traveled extensively for my work, but there was always the comfort of home awaiting me, and the downtime to readjust.
Then I married a man whose job required moving. I had prided myself on my ability to pack in an hour and make it to the airport with ten minutes to spare, with a child in tow no less. I considered it a sign of my flexibility and nomadic prowess, but I was no match for my current reality. Moving every couple of years was, I would discover, much different than traveling a lot. It involved a never-ending chaos of packing and unpacking, finding new doctors and dentists and hairdressers, choosing a new neighbor to whom you feel comfortable giving an extra key, locating a space within a new house to write or paint, and all along knowing that these adjustments were temporary, that permanence was elusive.
I remember feeling continually exhausted and as if I was disappearing inside myself. I became less social, less resilient. What would normally have been small difficulties began to feel unmanageable. I hid from the world and myself, turned down invitations, stopped seeking out new friends. It was all just too much work. But this metamorphosis had happened so gradually that I didn’t make the connection between my feelings and my physical reality. I’d just kept moving, putting one foot in front the other. Until that one synchronistic event.
I was on a work trip and, as I often do, I’d set aside time to visit the local art museum. The Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the finest collections of Impressionist era paintings in the world. Picassos, van Goghs, Seurats, Monets and Manets, and Renoirs to name a few. It was a small ancillary exhibit entitled Renoir’s True Colors that I found so profound that February day, because the exhibit centered around a little-known art term called fugitive pigment.
The exhibit was meant to highlight the effects of fugitive pigments on paintings by the Great Masters. The main subject of the exhibit was a painting by Pierre-August Renoir called Madame Léon Clapisson. According to a description, while removing the canvas from its frame for an overdue cleaning, the conservators had accidentally discovered that the edges of the painting beneath the frame were significantly brighter, prompting them to realize the extent to which the canvas had faded. To illustrate this phenomenon, two portraits of Madame hung side-by-side. The first was the original, painted by Renoir in 1883. It was luscious in appearance, exemplifying Renoir’s command of color, one of the qualities for which he is most lauded. I wouldn’t have considered it anything less than beautiful until I saw the the digital reproduction hanging to the original’s right. The reds, especially in the reproduction’s background, were brilliant.
Over the years the reds in the original painting had dulled significantly. Renoir had been obsessed with finding the most dazzling reds, so much so that he was once quoted as saying, “I want a red to be sonorous, to sound like a bell.” I knew from the numerous art history courses I had taken while getting my MFA in painting that manuals from the 19th century showed that even back then artists knew certain red pigments to be fugitive.
So why, I wondered, would Renoir have used a fugitive red that he knew might disappear at some point in the future? A description of the cleaning and restoring process conservators went through partially answered my question. Through molecular color matching, the conservators were able to determine that the exact shade Renoir had used in the original painting’s background was carmine lake, a rich crimson color, which was extracted from the body of a bug called the cochineal, native to South America.
Due to the smallness of cochineals, carmine lake was extremely expensive, but its exceptional brilliance made it all the vogue, and artists of the time were clamoring to get ahold of the rare pigment. Renoir, it has been said, was so enamored with carmine’s deep and rich pigmentation that he chose immediate satisfaction over longevity. As one conservator summed up Madame’s 21st-century fate, her reds had bled leaving behind a festering wound of greens and grays. But did Renoir understand the degree to which the reds would fade? Was he perhaps so enamored he didn’t think at all?
I remember trying to unpack all of this, the exhibit, Renoir’s painting, and his choice to use fugitive pigments on my flight back to my then current but not long for home in Seattle. The notions of bleeding and fleeing and fading paint stayed with me. I began writing a rough draft of what would ultimately become my upcoming novel Scarlet in Blue. The name change was an evolution.
As I wrote, although everything I created was a fiction, I took the journey toward self-discovery with my main characters. As they moved from town to town, I moved from Seattle to South Haven, Michigan to Charleston, South Carolina to Houston, Texas. I packed, moved, unpacked, settled in, hiked, painted, wrote. Packed, moved, unpacked, settled in, hiked, painted, wrote. Other than family, disparate hiking trails, and occasional paintings, writing Scarlet in Blue was the only constant in my life during those years, the only world in which I felt the comfort of sameness. And yet, inside that sameness lived a story of constant flux, about two artists, a painter and a musician, fleeing like Renoir’s paint and me, from time.
Until that exhibit, I hadn’t made the connection between the lifestyle I had been living and the story behind the novel I was imagining. Nor had I admitted to myself that the feelings I was experiencing, the exhaustion and the sadness and the need to hide, were products of loss. However much I tried not to bond with those ephemeral cities and homes, as a nester it was unavoidable. It took that exhibit for me to see that I was my characters, the running mother and daughter, that time was the phantom man chasing me, and that fugitive pigment was those parts of me that I felt were fading away. And that like Renoir, I had chosen this life, chosen those vibrant reds, even though I knew it meant impermanence.
And perhaps that is the nature of painting or writing or music or love. Seizing the beauty and perfection of the moment and trusting that the future it will bring is meant to be. While I may not have been prepared for what was ahead, I would do it again. I’m betting Renoir would too.
Jennifer Murphy’s novel Scarlet in Blue is available now via Dutton.