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The Vermillion Sea

57 rue de Menilmontant

Through a Google search, I learned that Noël died on January 17, 1834. Just as a reminder, he was born July 25, 1752, and given that his life could not have been easy, he lived a very long time. With a little more searching, I found his address at the time of his death, and in fact, as part of my research, I've been putting together an address book by using the business almanacs published in Paris almost every year. Noël always identifies himself as a seascape painter--a peintre de marines--so it's easy to pick him out from the scads of painters and engravers with the same name.
     Biographies of Noël say that he's the father or grandfather of Alexis-Nicolas Noël. This artist, too, traveled a great deal, and went all the way to Australia on the Astrolabe. Even though Alexis-Nicolas lost his right arm during one of Napoleon's campaigns, he continued to work as an artist, using pincers on the stump of his forearm to hold brushes. On an early photograph taken by his brother-in-law, you'll see Alexis-Nicolas in the "teapot" pose, his gloved right hand propped on one hip. By then, he wore a prosthesis.
     But, as I found out from my research, the mythical Alexandre Jean Noël is neither Alexis-Nicolas's father nor his grandfather. Born in Clichy la Garenne in 1792, Alexis-Nicolas's father is actually Joseph Nicolas Noël, and I have Alexis-Nicolas's birth certificate to prove it.
     See what I mean about Noël being a common name? Even the art historians can't keep them separated.
     After discovering Turelure's marriage certificate though, I wondered if he had children and whether he outlived his wife. I had a kind of Norman Rockwell image in my mind and hoped that he'd died surrounded by oodles of children and grandchildren. It's the vision we all have for our death, I suppose. That we'd like to have made enough of an impact so that someone will miss us when we're gone. That our work will have a life of its own.
     The publication that gave me Noël's death date also gave me the notary-file number, so I had that file on order and anticipated reading it on Tuesday, when the archivists came back from their Ascension Day break.
     With a day off, I decided to go out to Belleville and find 57 rue de Menilmontant. Belleville--ahhh! it sounds beautiful, doesn't it? I pictured a park setting. Lots of trees. Neat, brick suburban houses. Instead, rue Menilmontant is home to kebab shops and African men with dashikis and sandals, a reminder of the reach of Colonial France and the impact any empire has on those it colonizes. As I ascended the street, a woman in a long skirt and headscarf lifted her shawl to show me two dozen phones. All for sale, cheap.
     Menilmontant is close to Pere Lachaise cemetery, and I guessed that Noël was probably buried there, but he was not.
     The death notice in the newspaper said simply this (roughly translated).


We learned of the passing of Noël, the doyen of painters, known in his day for his paintings in gouache.


     A later generation knew nothing about him. They hadn't been born when he went to California, and he outlived his contemporaries. And how would they know his work? Noël hadn't exhibited in the salons for many years, though he has a substantial body of work, including a painting at the Getty, another at the Philadelphia Art Museum, and paintings in the Musee Carnavalet and Petit Palais. What did he value most, I wondered. How would he have wanted to be remembered? I hoped the notary's inventory would tell me how his life had turned out, and indeed it did.

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