The Bellwether by Oscar Windsor Smith

If I am cursed to be a failure in all else, let words be my legacy. These words that I bequeath in God's name: Open up your eyes and listen. Rejoice in the melody of light.

You of all people know how many times I have offered my opinions and yet they remain both deaf and blind. Still they talk only of 'isms'. What have their isms to do with my truth?

The very essence of life is labour, sweat and toil. What do Parisian popinjays know of that? Truth is the raw sienna of good earth, the lilac-white of early dawn, the carmine gush of blood. Can they not see the simple fact that every colour in all creation has its register, its harmonies and discords?

Truth is six brass cylinders set out in soldierly array. Six, when one should be enough. Paint them if you will in dashes of brownish-yellow: E below middle C. Render this steel instrument with a streak of whitish-grey: a high note in a minor key. Add perhaps a dab of burnt umber for the wooden grip, polished with much handling, like the shepherd's crook on that autumn morning at Zweloo.

Zweloo... Yes, that was honest. That was real.

I can't recall now if I told you in my letters how we set out in predawn darkness, my landlord and I, his farm cart trundling along the dike road to Assen market? En route we came upon a shepherd driving his sheep. A castrated ram --a wether -- headed-up the flock.

Later, they would see on my canvas only sheep. They wouldn't hear the jingle of the wether's bell or sense brush-strokes replete with soft bleating under my star-pierced ultramarine sky.

Dawn bled in. A hint of lilac-grey, at first a single brush-stroke, the horizon aglow, and then a spreading symphony vibrant with harmonics of red and yellow.

These were the images that flooded my mind on that chill morning. But how best to convey in paint those words and other elemental sounds of life: the complex chords in summer sunlight, the cadences in shadow, the pizzicato rattle of rain on windowpanes or the woodwind rush of autumn leaves?

Millet had his methods and the approbation of the Salon. I had techniques of my own, but these the Salon derided. So blinkered was their view they called my work inferior because in those days I employed a restrained palette. Perhaps my youthful judgement was out of tune but my eye, then as now, was at perfect pitch with nature.

And then of course came Paris, that rainbow concerto of excitement and Japanese art. Paris resonated in the sound box of my mind, leading to experiments with louder hues. Yes, Paris began well but as ever ended badly. Those prissy poseurs, masters of irony, remained tone deaf. Closeted in silk-draped salons, how could they comprehend toil, suffering and pain in any key or pigment? How much kinder it would have been had they castrated me in life and not with words. The fact remains that what they feared was, in truth, the timpani crash of revolution.

After Arles and St Rémy I did gain some attention, some notoriety. Those who covet possessions began to recognise my work. But did they hear my music? No. No, they simply followed the flock. Thus in desperation I experimented with the styles of others until finally descending to utter prostitution I put fleeces of my own on images of Millet's sheep.

Here at Auvers for weeks I have scurried from place to place with my easel and accoutrements, filling two or more canvasses with colour each day. Working without pause I have attempted to dispel the encroaching gloom. Applying pigment with impassioned brushstrokes did provide some temporary respite, now quite gone. How I dread the inexorable onset. Manic joy always foreshadows this plunge over the escarpment of despair. Each Mozart spring must end in dark Wagnerian winter. Who knows what damage I might do when next my madness comes.

Dear brother, I have survived thus far only on account of your love and generosity and in return have brought nothing but disgrace to our family name.

Beauty and truth are everything. What value has a so-called artist to whom God has entrusted an eye for these qualities if he cannot communicate that insight to the world?

This final truth I concede with six bullets slipped into their chambers and made ready with a heartless click.

Forgive me, God.
Forgive me, Theo.

Will they ever understand the price the wether paid?


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