THE first appearance in France of the strange and mysterious people called “gipsies,” was in August, 1427, when a tribe of 132 souls, under a “duke,” a “count,” and ten “knights,” startled the people of Paris. Hundreds of years before this time, the Persian poet Ferdusi wrote : “For that which is unclean by nature thou canst entertain no hope : no washing will turn the gipsy white,” and ere long the presence of this singular race became distasteful to the French people. Numberless crimes and misdemeanors were imputed to them, and Francis I., following the example of other monarchs, decreed their banishment. Under Charles IX., in 1561, extermination by fire and steel was ordered against them, yet in spite of the severity of their persecutors, these masterful beggars ” managed somehow to retain a foothold in France.
As an instance of this, we can cite the fact apparently well authenticated that more than forty years after the sentence of destruction launched against them under the ninth Charles, young Jacques Callot of Nancy, great etcher-to-be, joined a band of roving gipsies bound for Italy, the fatherland of art.
How this came about is thus related : ” Of course, as Callot grew up, he began to manifest his love for art in the usual orthodox manner. Giotto neglected his sheep for his drawing, and Gainsborough put landscape sketches into his copy-book ; Rembrandt drew portraits on the sacks in his father’s mill ; and so one need not be astonished to learn that little Jacques is using his pencil, in season and out of season, particularly out of season in the precise eyes of Messer Jean Callot, his father. He, worthy man, considers the art of painting merely a useful adjunct to the noble science of heraldry. If the boy would only confine himself to the emblazoning of azure, and vert, and sang, in the proper quarters of the various shields where they should be, all would be well ; but, alas ! the young rogue has found out an azure in the sky, and a vert beneath his feet, and a sang in the glowing west when the sun goes down, fonder of drawing picturesque little peasants than of investigating the pedigree of the proudest Lorraine, alive or dead. The poor king-at-arms has had a project in that wise head of his, ever since he first saw Jacques lying in his mother’s arms, a helpless bundle of humanity. His other sons have taken themselves to various callings ; this one shall succeed him in his office, and live and die in the service of Lorraine, like he and his father before him. But even kingsat-arms are liable to be thwarted in their dearest wishes, and Jean, with anger and vexation, confessed to himself that this son of his, who is probably even now sketching some eccentric vagabond, or copying and enjoying the grotesque carving on some quaint gargoyle, is not a very likely person to perform the high and important functions of herald-atarms to his Highness of Lorraine, with satisfaction either to himself or his princely employer.
“Meanwhile Jacques is getting as dissatisfied as his father at the state of things. Renee Brunehault’s family had produced painters, and probably her stories of their lives had inflamed the imagination of her son with those brilliant dreams of Italy, the fatherland of art, of which his mind, was full, Italy, the home of painting, of Raphael and Michael Angelo, of Filippo Lappi and Andrea del Sarto; Rome, where all the treasures of ancient art were stored, oh,” that he could get to Italy, and become a humble guest at this feast of the immortals ! Heraldry, with its eccentric zoology and in-harmonious coloring, becomes more and more distasteful to the young genius, who hopes to astonish all the world with the glories of his art.
“To Italy he resolves to go at all costs, and, with a heavy heart and a light purse, he leaves the paternal domicile, and sets forth upon his journey after fame and fortune, often as perilous and as unsuccessful an enterprise as the search of the San Grail. The world was all before him where to choose, but one object alone animated him : to see the fair land of Italy, and become a famous painter ; and ere he had proceeded far, his grief at parting from home and fatherland was absorbed in the anticipation of the career he had painted for himself in all the glowing colors of the springtime’s fancy. It is written, ‘ Man shall not live by bread alone,’ but it is equally certain man cannot subsist entirely without that article, and poor Jacques’s light purse is getting lighter every day ; but what then ? when the youthful blood bounds quickly. along our veins, we are not given to despair ; while there is life there is hope. Moreover, this golden land of hope is getting nearer every day. But the daily bread ! Hunger is the most powerful subjugator of all enthusiasm, political, religious, and, indeed, of every sort whatever, and is also a quick destroyer of all social pride and distinctions of caste. Therefore we need not be surprised to hear that Callot joined himself to one of those bands of merry vagrants who then Wandered all over Europe, the Bohemians of France, the Gitanos of Spain, the Zingari of Italy, the Gipsies of our own land ; that mysterious race whose origin has defied the most industrious investigation.
In later life, Callot appears to have had this portion of his career often in his mind, and in one of his wonderful etchings he has portrayed a scene, probably that of his first introduction to his vagabond friends. The band are halting at the outskirts of a village, and are taking possession of an empty hay-loft, on the roof of which a cat is pursuing a bird, totally unconscious of the proximity of a dog, who exhibits vicious intentions on pussy’s tail, the dog itself being unaware of an avenging stick poised in mid-air. Some pigs, previous inhabitants of the loft, are causing dire disasters among the crowd ; in the centre the high life of gipsydom is grouped, surveying the operators with a truly aristocratic air. In the front, some stragglers have just come up, and a handsome blade is assisting a demoiselle to descend from her horse, with a gallantry worthy of Louis Bien-Aime ; and near these sits Jacques Callot, with silken doublet and feathered hat, making pictorial notes of the queer folk surrounding him, and by his side, survying his work with admiring wonder, is a charming gipsy girl, whose flowing hair and arch looks might have tempted good St. Anthony himself.
” In another of his works, ‘ The Gipsies on the March,’ we have a further reminiscence of this period of his life, gipsy men, fierce and swaggering; gipsy children, precociously imitating their sires ; gipsy women, With an air of tender gracefulness about them, re-deeming their squalid rags and gewgaw finery. Questionable company hast thou fallen into, Jacques ! .What would father jean say, could he behold thee a recognised member of this society of outcasts, without law or religion? people to whom the sixth commandment is an obsolete act, whose hand is against every one, and having every one’s hand against them ? See what comes of disobedience, my son ! Such, perhaps, in his dreams, are the words which young Callot hears addressed to him by the king-at-arms.
But Rascaldom and Bohemianism are not without redeeming traits in young eyes, particularly eyes as fond of the grotesque and the eccentric as those of that respectable herald’s own son.
“At all events, we are travelling toward the wished-for haven,” and so we see him merrily trudging away beside a sturdy “Bohemian,” who bears both sword and crutch over his shoulder, his pretence of lameness for the time put away. Dauntless twelve-year-old Jacques is in light marching order, having, so far as we can see, no bag-gage but his sketch-book. Perchance, however, the wagon behind carries his small belongings. Perhaps, also, the boy repaid the gipsies for their aid and company by sharing with them the proceeds from any sketches he might sell on his way to Rome.
Aime de Lemud, the French artist whose pencil drew our picture of the boy Callot, was himself a native of Lorraine, of which dukedom Nancy was formerly the capital. De Lemud, who is probably most familiar to us from his picture of the dreaming Beethoven, died an old man in 1887, after winning success and honors both as painter, engraver, and lithographer. In the Museum of Nancy is his ” Fall of Adam,” and that of Metz contains his ” Prisoner.”