Text and painting by Nancy Eder, a member of Get Your Wordworth
Céret is a rambling, magical town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It has been my special privilege to have spent the past three summers there swimming in the quiet, green sea, gazing over the dark purple mountains speckled with grey olive trees, drinking in hot sun that saturates the red earth and lights up each blade of grass.
The rooftop terrace of my sister’s home in this little paradise makes the stars accessible in the cool August evenings. . . brings the Milky Way close enough to touch the roof tiles and welcomes the swoop of the swallows as they dip and glide across our view.
The house itself at 11 Avenue d’Espagne originally served as the electric company for the town when it was built at the end of the 19th century. Like many buildings in Céret, the house has a skin of yellow cement covering its thick stone walls. Large French windows serve as picture frames for the mountains, the vermillion tile rooftops and the deep cerulean blue sky. The house was here when the likes of Picasso, Dufy, Braque, and Soutine walked the streets and discussed painting and politics over glasses of wine in the local cafes.
A short climb across the street and up the hill exposes the couvent des capucins. Surrounded by pine and cypress, this convent was the subject of every painter who gazed on its bell tower in the late 1890s. It is visualized by all the many painters who have sketched the lavender hillsides and camped out in Ceret throughout the years. It is pictured in Brune’s majestic landscapes painted from the views afforded by his mountain home. It is memorialized with Soutine’s wild fauvist colors and frantically mad brush strokes.
Chaim Soutine spent two years in this village on his sojourn from Paris, traipsed through its streets, climbed the verdant mountains and recorded its distinctive landscapes. Posters of his paintings are strategically positioned on the local sites where Soutine painted the vistas beyond. Jagged brushstrokes and contortionist swaths of color sweep his canvases emblazoned with thick blacks, reds and ochres capturing what is still the pictorial truth of Céret today.
As a teenager, I admired Soutine. Today I marvel at his emotional intensity even as it was fueled by alcohol and despair. His ability to capture the essence of the wind in the poplars, the striking beauty of the ragged rooftops, the splendor of the deep green trees as they tumble down the hillsides. . . . still eludes my capabilities. But I have discovered recently that I, too, am an artist.
This year is definitely a milestone, as I celebrate my 75th birthday. I’ve lived longer than my loving father and almost as long as my beloved grandmother who died at seventy-nine. I’ve arrived at a time in my life that I recall thinking would never really come: entry into old age. But I still don’t experience “old.” I still don’t feel or act my age.
I’ve spent the summers walking in the footsteps of Soutine. I, too, am painting the fields of grapes and fig trees – carrying my drawing paper through the same cobbled streets, seeking to capture the essence of the huge plane trees which soar over the crowded Saturday market. I try, with a modicum of inner satisfaction, to grasp the wind on the beach and the intensity of color and light on the rocky hillsides of my paintings.
Gouache, a form of water color allowing for a wide range of application and contrast, has been my favored medium. This summer has been a threshold period for painting intensely with more clarity and more confidence.
Finished paintings in piles tumble from chairs and tables. Paintings waiting for my signature are scattered on the bed as I sort through the best of them. My bedroom walls are covered in sketches of gnarled old trees, sandy deserted beaches, and medieval castles. Clothes pins still clutch two almost finished sketches on the old wooden dresser: snapshots of Céret’s black cotton clouds creeping heavily over the hillsides as a rainstorm approaches, while another is boldly singing the praises of crimson tomatoes heavy on the vine. Fifty-two paintings of summer in Céret are selected.
I know that now I’m ready to have an exhibition.