CHM's grandfather was a painter who lived in the 1800s. His name was Charles-Henri Michel and he was born in a little village in Picardy, just a few miles north of the town of Péronne. That's where CHM and I went last Tuesday afternoon.
Actually, there are two villages right next to each other — Fins and Sorel. The Michels were originally from Sorel, but moved to Fins early on. The house in Fins where the painter C.-H. Michel lived has a plaque on it. As I said the other day, it's not actually the same house because the original one was destroyed in World War I. Another house was built later on the site, and that newer house has the plaque on it.
C.-H. Michel was born in 1817 and died in 1905. He lived most of his life in Paris. CHM's father, a doctor, was born in 1860 in Paris — and CHM was born in Paris too. But when CHM first contacted his Picardy cousin, the village mayor, by e-mail, the cousin wrote back and said: "I'm intrigued by your name. Would you by any chance be related to ‘our painter’ — notre peintre ?" He and CHM had never met before.
In the church in Fins there are three paintings by CHM's grandfather. CHM's distant cousin — they trace their lineage back to a common ancestor, Fiacre Michel, in the 1600s — is the mayor of Sorel but he was able to get the key to the church in Fins so that we could go see and take pictures of the grandfather's paintings. The mayor of Fins, a farmer, was busy harvesting his crops and not available to greet us.
The old church in Fins was also destroyed during the Great War of 1914-18 and a new church was built subsequently. Péronne and the surrounding villages and countryside were in the middle of the battlefields. The area is the valley of the Somme River. The Germans invaded, and French, British, and Australian forces tried to push them back, or at least defend the rest of France from invasion. The Americans arrived later. Australian forces were the ones who actually "liberated" the Péronne area toward the end of the war.
CHM has now donated hundreds of drawings, engravings, and paintings to the museum of the little city of Péronne nearby, where his grandfather and other family members are buried. Many are the work of his grandfather, and many others the work of his uncle — his father's brother — who was a pastelist. In going through all the things stored in his apartment in Paris, which the family has lived in since the late 1880s, he also discovered other documents that the museum was excited about having.
There was, for example, a photo of a 19th-century Picard writer, Hector Crinon, who was known for his efforts to resuscitate the Picard language — only one other such photo of the man of letters is known to exist. Crinon was to Picardy what Frédéric Mistral was to Provence. CHM also found many letters that his grandfather exchanged with other painters, including one of his mentors, Auguste Dehaussy.
CHM told me he feels a sense of relief and satisfaction knowing that his grandfather's and uncle's artwork is "in good hands" — in museums, in other words, and no longer in storage in his apartment. The family heritage will be preserved and the historical record augmented.