Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Queen in a Park

In Chapter 14 of her memoirs, Portraits with Backgrounds, entitled "A Queen in a Park," Catherine Barjansky recalls Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Mme. Barjansky had met the Queen during the 1920's at an exhibition of the artist's sculptures in Brussels. She was soon invited to do the Queen's portrait, and a friendship arose between Elisabeth and herself. Mme. Barjansky portrays the Belgian queen as a deeply poetic and intellectual woman of great charm, simplicity, warmth, kindness. The artist writes:
After a half-dozen sittings my wax sculpture of the Queen of Belgium was finished, but in the meantime a sort of friendship had grown up between us. She was easy to talk to because she was understanding, direct, and sincere, and entirely lacking in pose. She began asking me to stay after my work for the day was finished, and then to lunch as well.

That too was completely informal. Luncheon was served in her drawing-room; a table already set was rolled in on wheels by two footmen, another table was brought in on which silver-covered dishes stood on electric heaters, and coffee was served in a blue thermos bottle. The footmen left, and we were alone, waiting on each other. Once I remember the Queen smiled her mischievous smile as she offered me a new dish. "Do try some," she urged me. "It is our national dish. I have never liked it, but as I never dared tell the cook, I am always having it."

I liked her not because she was a queen, but because she had the soul of an artist and of an elf, a strange, half-human, half-divine being from legendary forests. She loved the great park at Laeken; her real life was centered on it. She and the King had a warm friendship with the old gardener, Monsieur Parat... I often saw him walking with the King in the park, where he had a little house in which he lived with his family...

In the river that crossed the park there were hundreds of swans, white ones and black. Often the gardener came to tell the Queen that a new swan had been born or to show her nests where there were swan's eggs. 

Once at luncheon the Queen started to tell me something about the greenhouse. "What!" she exclaimed. "You have never seen it? Quick, let's finish lunch and go there." I followed her light quick steps as we hurried to the greenhouse. It was celebrated in Brussels, with its exotic flowers, orchids, and a pergola miles long over whose arch hung fuchsia. It was fantastically beautiful. It was that day she discovered I loved flowers, and never again did I leave the palace without my arms filled with them, placed in the carriage for me at the Queen's orders.

We began to take long walks in the park, talking, talking, for her interests were universal. One day she said she would like to paint in the park with me.

"Madame, I should be delighted," I replied, and I began to tell her some of my ideas about painting.

"Wait a minute," she exclaimed, and she ran out of the room and came back with some water-colors. "Now show me what you mean."

As we were bending over her work the door opened, and an unusually tall man with a beautiful head, even features, blue eyes, and blond hair appeared. 

"Am I disturbing you?" 

"Oh no," she said. "Come in."

That was Albert, the King of Belgium. He spoke slowly, in a low voice, with a pronounced Germanic accent. He squinted near-sightedly through a pince-nez. With almost as much simplicity as his wife, he talked to me for a moment about my husband, whom he knew, and about my son. Then he urged the Queen to go to some audience. Compared with her husband she was tiny... 

The Queen of Belgium did not live in accordance with the usual ideas of court life. She rose early and after a light breakfast began to practice violin, either alone or with her teacher. If it were necessary, she went to the palace in Brussels for an audience or to receive a delegation, and she visited a number of charities and exhibitions. Every day she took a lesson in Flemish, which is not an easy language, as she was obliged to reply in that tongue when she opened bazaars in the Flemish part of Belgium. In the afternoons she often made music with other musicians or had someone play for her. In the evenings, if their presence was not required for an opening of some sort, the King and Queen remained alone at Laeken, taking long walks in the park or sitting before the fireplace while she read aloud to him. They were a devoted couple. 

Once, when I knew her better, I asked: "Where did you meet the King for the first time?"

"Oh, that was in Paris in the house of my aunt, the Queen of Naples."

"And was it at once the coup de foudre?"

Her eyes sparkled. "I thought he was wonderful," she said simply.

They were a love match and they were happy. Together they visited all the corners of the earth, to see people, to learn about things. Like her, the King was insatiably curious and unwilling to be hedged around with court etiquette. They were wonderful companions and devoted parents to their three children, the handsome Prince Leopold, the strange and gloomy Prince Charles, and Princess Marie-José, who was extremely tall, with a thick bunch of curly blond hair and blue eyes...

More and more often I visited the Queen during that three-month visit to Brussels, and always after that, whenever I returned to Belgium, I spent most of my time with her in the park...

On a very gray day the Queen sent for me. She was waiting impatiently when I arrived and said: "Don't take off your coat. Come out into the park. I must show you something." 

We hurried downstairs and into the park, walking until we reached a part which I did not know at all.

"Now," she said in excitement. "Close your eyes and give me your hand. Don't open your eyes until I tell you." We walked for a few moments, and then she said triumphantly, "Now!"

We stood in a little field completely blue with forget-me-nots, with a few trees laden with yellow blossoms. The sky was a deep heavy gray, and the whole composition gave the effect of an impressionistic picture.

The Queen was radiant. "Isn't it beautiful?" she exclaimed...

Court circles are rarely noted for their brilliance, but the Queen preferred to surround herself not with the usual court groups but with creative people - musicians, artists, writers, scientists. She wanted to know them, to grasp their ideas, and, as a result, she had a number of close friendships among such people. 

And sometimes, during those long hours, I asked her about the First World War in which she proved herself to be a splendid nurse.

"Looking back now," she said, "I don't know how I was able to do it. When I first visited the hospitals and saw the wounded, I would cry. Finally the doctor told me I could not behave like that. Unless I pulled myself together, I would do more harm than good. It is amazing what you can endure, how much suffering and sorrow and blood and wounds and dead bodies one can see.

Once I remember visiting a battlefield after a battle. The sun had just gone down. The earth was black and damp, and there was a little pool of water red with blood. Lying beside it was a handsome boy, so blond, his helmet beside him. The doctors and I buried him, and I sent his medal to his mother. Oh, it was terrible. I could not do it again!" 

But the next day a telephone call came from the palace, asking me not to come. There had been a great disaster at the mines, and the Queen had gone, smiling and compassionate, to console the distraught wives of the miners. Once more she was making the effort that she had said was impossible.
Soon, Mme. Barjansky was teaching the Queen the art of sculpting.
The Queen loved sculpture, and she had the satisfaction, rare for royalty, of knowing that she had accomplished it all herself. I never touched her clay. After her first lesson she was still so excited that I stayed on, and for two hours we walked in the park while she bombarded me with questions about sculpture. I remember, because it was a typical gesture of this elfin queen, that on the way back she caught a firefly and held it to her watch to tell the time...


Christina said...

Thank you for this beautiful passage. It has thrown a whol new light onto Albert and Elizabeth for me. I always admired them both, but knew so little about their everyday lives and the Queen's artistic nature - thank you! That was beautiful!

May said...

Thank you! I had not heard much back on the Barjansky passages.