What a magnificent library I stumbled into here in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, once housed in the Louvre, where artists, goldsmiths, and jewelers lived rent free, thanks to the regard the French have always had for art. Now, the Ecole occupies a beautiful old hotel a couple of blocks from the CafeDeux Magots where Hemingway hung out. After an email at 2:30 saying he would be free to meet me personally if I came right away, I rushed over to meet the head of the art school’s archive, Emmanuel Schwartz. He instantly began hunting up records to help me answer the question, How did Noël get here? Who sponsored him?
A year ago, I had emailed Mr. Schwartz and asked him to look for Noël’s name in his list of students, but he hadn’t found any Noëls till much later. This time, he flipped to 1766, and Turelure popped up right away. Under December, 1766, it says:
Noël Turlure, de Brie comte Robert, age de 15 ans Juillet Prochain, Protegé de demeure ché M. Silvestre Des Galleries, il est Nomme Sur La Livre des Protegés Noel, son sur nom.
Translated, the document says Noël will turn fifteen next July, that he’s a protege of and lives with Mr. Silvestre in the Louvre. In the book of protegés, his surname is given as Noël.
When I asked Mr. Schwartz why Noël might have preferred that surname to Turelure, he said that even today, the name Turelure makes people laugh. It’s not just that Paul Claudel’s character, The Baron Turelure, might have made Noël think twice about his surname. Claudel’s book came later. No. Finding this document meant that even in 1766, Noël had decided to change his name and to create a new identity for himself, perhaps on the advice of his mentor.
I questioned the Director about how Noël, a boy from the countryside, had found his way to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture without the sponsorship of a rich patron. The Silvestres offered him shelter, but certainly couldn’t have given him much more besides moral support.
“Ah, the school was a melting pot, a forerunner of the French Revolution,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Did you know Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who designed Washington, DC, studied here at the same time as Noël?”
No, I didn’t.
“And, he studied painting, too, not architecture.”
Mr. Schwartz told me the art students were quite an unruly bunch. Every year, the King awarded a prize called the Prix de Rome, and the winners–artists, sculptors, and architects–got an all expenses paid vacation in Rome. Usually, they stayed down there three to five years, studying the masters, learning technique from Italian artists, and drawing, drawing, drawing. Apparently, the students uniformly despised the Pope. Though Catholic, they practiced their religion with, let’s say, a wink and a nod to the rules of the Church.
Winning the Prix de Rome put an artist on the path to success. To compete, he had to win three, first-place medals in the quarterly competitions. Noël had just started down that path. Shortly before he headed off to California, he came in third in a quarterly drawing competition, and those bona fides gave him the credentials he needed to make his role as peintre plausible to anyone who might ask why a boy, barely fifteen, had been chosen for such a prestigious assignment.