My novel’s hero, “le petit Noël,” as the astronomer Chappe called Noël in his handwritten diary, may have been a person of “profound short stature.” The phrase, “the little Noël,” comes up again and again. I first thought it referred to Noël’s age. He was the youngest member of the expedition.However, I now think the phrase refers to his size. He may have had a growth hormone deficiency or a congenital condition such as dwarfism. Whatever the reason, Noël was extremely short.
This revelation came to me when I first saw a picture that had been missing since the time it was first exhibited in 1778. The picture is called “The Death of Chappe d’Auteroche.” The picture came up on art-auction website the week before Christmas, 2013, and I bid on it and won. No one bid against me. Not too many people want a picture of a dying man hanging above their fireplace, and the picture hadn’t been seen in so many years that even art historians may not have realized its significance. In the world of astronomy, Chappe’s death has always been viewed as a great tragedy, and here we have the whole tableau…all the major players, but one: Chappe’s nemesis, the Spanish astronomer, Lt. Salvador de Medina. He himself was gravely ill and would not have been able to hobble over to Chappe’s death bed.
Noël is the small figure in the center. I thought, wow, he’s painted himself into the picture only as an afterthought, and he didn’t do a very good job with the proportions. He’s made himself too small, and what’s with that old-looking face and the child’s body.
The longer I stared at the picture, the more I thought about other possible explanations. Noël was a well trained artist. This tableau represents accurately what Noël witnessed, and though he may have used a mirror to paint his face (and, thus, been ten years older than he was when Chappe died), there is no doubt that Noël meant to make himself small.