Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art

  • Christopher Moore
  • WilliamMorrow
  • 416 pp.

The author’s latest novel takes on art history as a young painter works with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to investigate Vincent van Gogh’s apparent suicide and the mystery of the color blue.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

Sacré Bleu! is a mild old-fashioned French oath, often believed to refer to the traditional color of the Virgin Mary’s cloak as depicted by artists since the 13th century. As Christopher Moore explains on the first page, “This is a story about the color blue. It may dodge and weave, hide and deceive, take you down paths of love and history and inspiration, but it’s always about blue.”

The story does indeed dodge and weave, and go down a lot of unexpected paths. The sacred blue was “not just any blue, but ultramarine blue, the rarest and most expensive color in the medieval painter’s palette, the source mineral more valuable than gold.” It was traditionally made of lapis lazuli, but the sacred blue of this story is made of a substance even rarer and more mystical — and a lot funnier.

With that sacred blue as his theme, Moore is off on a combination fantasy, art history, far-ranging essay and romp through the lives of famous artists in late-19th-century France. In the first scene, Vincent van Gogh is murdered by a being called the Colorman in a dispute over blue. More conventional history says van Gogh shot himself in the heart, and then walked a mile to the local doctor’s house, where he died. Is the truth really stranger than Moore’s fiction?

The sacred blue, as it turns out, is personified as a woman, or, more precisely, a female being who inhabits the bodies of artists’ models and lovers. She has briefly touched the life of a young aspiring painter, Lucien Lessard, who is working in his parents’ Paris bakery when he hears the news of van Gogh’s death. He goes to tell their mutual friend, Count Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, known to history as Toulouse-Lautrec, and finds him at the Moulin Rouge with a couple of prostitutes, naked except for his pince-nez and his hat. When Lucien expresses surprise, Toulouse-Lautrec replies, “I am an artist, monsieur, would you have me miss a moment of inspiration due to my poor eyesight?”

Moore introduces the reader to Whistler, Manet, Monet, Courbet, Gaugin and Renoir, all of whose art has been inspired by the sacred blue. Moore also covers such wide-ranging topics as the geology of Montmartre and the privations of Parisians during the Franco-Prussian War. There is broad humor: when Lessard meets a professor who has been training mice and rats to stage chariot races in the gypsum tunnels of Montmartre, the professor observes, “You have to reward them when they do what you want. I tried punishing them when they misbehaved, but the hammer seemed to crush their spirit.” There are moments that ring true for any artist or would-be artist who ever took a life class, where two artists are discussing how the light falls on a nude model’s skin, while she resents the fact that they’re talking about her as if she were an inanimate object. It is interesting to discover that the beautiful red-haired woman painted by Whistler is the same one later painted by Courbet: Jo Heffernan, who had an interesting life of her own, as model and mistress to both men, is one incarnation of the sacred blue.

There are color illustrations of the paintings Moore alludes to, which a reader is likely to see differently after reading what he has to say. There is so much good historical information in Moore’s work that the reader may wonder if Lucien Lessard was a real painter. He was not; a Google search will reveal only this fictional character and a Canadian politician of the same name. Lessard and Toulouse-Lautrec together solve the mystery of van Gogh’s murder, and the mystery of the sacred blue.

Christopher Moore has turned his inventive talents to the subject of Jesus in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, to death in A Dirty Job, and to King Lear in Fool. All weave fantasy elements into fast-moving and surprising plots. Sacre Bleu is a wide-ranging tale, one that is informative, surprising, gossipy, bawdy and vastly entertaining.

Susan Storer Clark is a former broadcast journalist and retired civil servant. She has recently completed The Monk Woman’s Daughter, a historical novel set in 19th-century United States. Ms. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years, and is a frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books. She and her husband Rich live in Silver Spring.

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