Gabrielle, part two

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Drats! Blasted 19th century infant mortality! Yesterday, I went back to the Ryerson library to finish reading Roger Bonniot’s Gustave Courbet en Saintonge in the hopes of finding some clues about Gabrielle’s descendants. The news was sobering. Let’s start out with her mother, Laure. She had five children: Louise Corinne, Louise Laure, Gabrielle (not my Gabrielle, I’m getting there soon), Jules Ernest, and Jules Lucien. Three out of the five died before their second birthday. It turns out that my Gabrielle is actually Louise number two (her full name was Louise Laure Zoïde Borreau). Her parents nicknamed her after her sister Gabrielle who died shortly after she was born, a bit like Van Gogh’s parents did Van Gogh. That wasn’t a happy ending either, now was it?

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The Borreaus moved to Paris from the Saintonge region in 1870. Monsieur Borreau set up a toy workshop in their apartment. Laure and her daughter Gabrielle visited Courbet often during his stay at the prison Sainte-Pélagie (where he was for his role in the Commune). It is possible that we have one more painting of Gabrielle Bourreau – Courbet painted Head of Woman and Flowers while in prison and some scholars have suggested that it is Gabrielle. For those who don’t find Rêverie as bewitching as me, don’t even click to see Head of Woman and Flowers. It is a dreamlike, if not disturbing painting (signaling the work of Odilon Redon and the Nabis): neither face nor bouquet look entirely finished and we see them as if through a filter that distorts images, much in the same way that those mirrors do at carnivals (or the “bulge”, “dent”, “twirl” and “stretch” features in Photo Booth which transform any normal person into Elephant Man).

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During one visit at Sainte-Pélagie, Courbet gave Gabrielle a painting of flowers that she hung onto all her life, in the end donating (anonymously) to the French government. Gabrielle took over the family business in 1882 and won honorable mention at the 1889 Universal Exposition for her handmade dolls. In 1882 she married widower Thomas Breban and they had two children, Laure who died at four and Jules who died at six. Gabrielle’s remaining brother (Jules Lucien) died in 1902 and was followed to the grave three years later by his only son, aged fifteen. Gabrielle herself died in 1918, four years after her husband. She made it long enough to see World War I and the advent of trench warfare. Joy. Her son-in-law (her husband’s son from his first marriage) described her as “thin, lonely, and full of melancholy”. Gee, I wonder why?

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The whole story begged for a dead baby joke, but I was in no mood to think of one yesterday in the Ryerson Library. Not a single Borreau remains. Zip. Zilch. Zero. I had already purchased my ticket and was ready to sleuth through Paris to find Gabrielle’s descendants. Now what was I going to do? Luckily I have a friend whose strength is bringing me back to reality. She reminded me that there are museums, great food, and lots of wine in Paris and that just because I wouldn’t find some dead person’s relatives didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have a good time. Touché.

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Amidst all the dead babies, adultery, and prison there is at least some sunny news! Yesterday in gallery 222, brandished with my new questionnaire on Rêverie (Portrait de Gabrielle Borreau), I interviewed an older couple about the painting. They spent at least five minutes staring at it and coming up with responses. When they came over and joined me on the bench, a whole other group of people quickly went to look at the painting (what were they missing?). I looked out of the corner of my eye and smiled. Gabrielle is on her way, albeit posthumously, to stardom.

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Postscriptum: I’m seeing her face all over Chicago now. If you live here and are on the North Side, check out the H & M billboard at Belmont and Sheffield, the girl to the very left.

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