Please welcome back historical fiction author and artist, Caddy Rowland, our monthly contributor here at Historical Fiction Connection.
Portrait of Père Tanguy by Vincent van Gogh
Art supplies aren’t cheap now, and they certainly weren’t back in the nineteenth century. Many of the paints were made from rare materials. In fact, some still are. It’s a very real problem heading forward, as sources for some of these colors are running low. I can’t imagine a world where some of the most valued paint colors are no longer available. But I digress. We’re back in the nineteenth century right now, and worrying about running out wasn’t the issue…unless one counts running out of a color and not having the money to restock.
Lack of money for paint supplies was a common issue. Thankfully for those artists, and for us, there was someone who believed in them so much he set up an artist’s supply store in 1870 and worked with them in regard to getting supplies.
The man’s name was Julien Tanguy . He was so well-loved by these artists they even called him Père (Father) Tangay. He truly was like a father to these struggling painters. His art supply shop was, of course, in Montmartre. Père also garnered their respect having spent time in prison because of his political beliefs.
The Paris Commune ruled Paris for two short months in 1871. Tangay was heavily involved. The Paris Commune didn’t end prettily. During La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) government troops forced the Paris Commune out of power. “Forced” isn’t really a strong enough word. Estimates vary from 6,000 to 50,000 as to the number of men, women, and children killed. They were lined up and executed. Somehow Père avoided being killed. He also eventually got released from prison, but as a precaution he stayed in the more rural, bohemian area of Montmartre for the rest of his life.
Staying in Montmartre was fine with him. Montmartre was where all the new art was happening. During this time Père showed Van Gogh's paintings (but never sold one). Soon Monet, Sisley, Gauguin, Seurat and Cézanne paintings could also be found at his store. Like many artists, Cézanne didn't sell well during his lifetime, either. In fact, from 1877 to 1893 the only place where one would find a Cézanne in the whole city was in Tanguy's art supply store.
Showing their work wasn’t the only way he supported artists. He also shared food. Still, as I mentioned, being dirt poor meant many days painters had no money for canvas and paint. Think about that. If they had no canvas or paint, we wouldn’t have the glorious paintings we now prize from this era today.
Thanks to Père Tanguy, having no money didn’t stop them. Père allowed them to buy paint and canvas in exchange for a painting, and even on credit. He didn’t charge interest, nor did he have high prices. Tangay simply gave them what they needed. All many artists gave in return was a verbal promise to pay him whenever they could. Père was no dummy. He was fully aware quite a number would never be able to pay. It didn’t matter. He continued to honor the artists verbal agreements.
He would be called a fool by many, both back then and now. I shudder to think of what his wife may have called him. It would be easy to understand such a sentiment. Credit for supplies to people with no means to pay isn't a very smart way to run a business. You may think he was wealthy, but he wasn't even close to middle-class.
The world would be a much colder place without promise and hope. Great things can happen when someone believes. Because of Père Tangay, the art world saw painting change forever in great ways.
Yes, indeed, he was very much like a father. If he could talk today, I’m willing to bet he’d say his “children” did him proud.
Historical Fiction by Caddy Rowland: