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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

Tags: #Portrait painters, #Fiction, #Literary, #Fantasy, #Suspense, #Historical, #Thrillers

The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque

BOOK: The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque
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Jeffrey Ford

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque

For Lynn, singular, mysterious and beautiful

A Nice Bit of Work

Much to my unease, Mrs. Reed positioned herself, all evening, beneath or immediately to either side of her new portrait. She had, for this occasion, worn the same black gown and diamond necklace I had requested she wear when posing for me. Given the situation, comparisons between God's work and my own were unavoidable. I daresay the Almighty's original was found somewhat wanting in the face of my painterly revision. Whereas, in His unquestionable wisdom, He had gone for the grandiose in the formation of her nose and saw fit to leave a prominent gap between the front teeth, I had closed ranks and reduced to beautiful normalcy those aspects of her features that made her her.

By using a faint shade of rose and sparing the chiaroscuro, I had added a certain youthful radiance to the tone and elasticity of her flesh, turning back the clock to but a few minutes after that earlier hour when these corresponding changes would have seemed ludicrous.

Perhaps Mrs. Reed was wholly unaware of these discrepancies or, being aware of them, believed that by standing as close to her fairer double as possible she would permanently confuse artifice and reality in the minds of her friends and family. Perhaps she was hoping for some supernatural transmutation between flesh and paint, as was the plot of Wilde's recent novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Whatever the case, she appeared to be beaming with joy. As for the rest of us in attendance, we were all uneasy conspirators in a plot to ignore the truth. Thankfully, her husband had spent a small fortune on good champagne for the unveiling and encouraged all to drink freely.

Many of the fifty or so guests felt compelled to approach me and offer praise for my work, which if not for the alcohol would have left my expression a perma-nent wince.

"Piambo, the rendering of the goldfish in the bowl on the table next to Mrs. Reed is spectacular.


can count the very scales from here."

"The barely wilting nasturtiums in that Chinese vase behind her are so lifelike."

"No one can capture the fold of a gown as you can, and my, how the diamonds sparkle."

I politely thanked them all, knowing that in the com-ing year I would be doing for some of them precisely what I had done for Mrs. Reed. When I thought I was finally to be left alone, Shenz, my colleague in the fine art of portraiture, sidled up next to me. A short fellow, sport-ing one of those close-trimmed beards that come to a point, he was well known for an adherence to the tenets of the

Pre-Raphaelites and his portraits of the lesser luminaries of the Vanderbilt clan. Hiding his impish grin behind a large cigar, he stared across the spacious parlor at the portrait.

"A nice bit of work, Piambo," he said, and then slightly turned his head and shifted his eyes to look up at me.

"Have some more champagne," I whispered to him, and he quietly laughed.

"Salubrious is the word I would use," he said. "Yes, quite salubrious."

"I'm keeping a running tally," I told him, "as to whether people appreciate the goldfish or the nasturtiums more."

"Put me down for the nose," he said. "A truly ingen-ious economy of paint."

"I think that was Reed's favorite also. He paid me exorbitantly for this one."

"And well he should," said Shenz. "I think your magic has enchanted his wife into completely forgetting his indiscretion with that young salesgirl from Macy's. Forget about all that new
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money his ready-made shoe mills have pumped out; only your abilities could have saved his mar-riage and respectability."

"Lord knows there is much more to it than simply painting," I said. "Who is your next victim?"

"I've picked up a commission just this evening to immortalize the Hatstells' corpulent offspring.


pair of overfed little monsters I am contemplating drugging with laudanum to make them sit still for me."

Before depart-ing, he raised his champagne glass and offered a toast. "To art," he said as the rims of fine crystal touched.

After Shenz left me, I took a seat in the corner next to a potted fern and lit my own cigar, sending up a smoke screen behind which I could hide. By then I had had too many glasses of champagne, and my head whirled. The light reflecting off the ornate chandelier hanging in the center of the room, combined with the flash of jewelry bedecking the better halves of New York society's nouveau riche couples, nearly blinded me. Snatches of conversation occasionally leaped out of the oceanic rum-blings of the assembled guests, and in a matter of minutes I had heard pieces of discussions concerning everything from the opening of the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago to the latest antics of that nightshirted child who inhab-ited "Down Hogan's Alley," the World's new cartoon.

In my daze it came to me that I not only wanted but needed to be elsewhere. I realized that of late I

had been spending more time in chandeliered parlors, drinking myself to the verge of a stupor, than I did in front of the easel. At that moment the sea of partygoers shifted, my eyes focused, and I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Reed standing now by herself, staring up at her portrait. My view of her was from the back, but I saw her slowly lift one arm and touch her hand to her face. She then turned quickly and walked away. An instant later my view was again obscured by a woman wearing a green silk gown, the color of which reminded me that I was feeling a twinge of nausea.

I stubbed out the cigar in the potted fern and then rose unsteadily. Luckily, without having to venture too far into the thick of the merri-ment, I

was able to find the maid and request my coat and hat.

My plan had been to beat a hasty, unnoticed retreat, but as I made for the stairs that led down to the front door, Reed intercepted me.

"Piambo," he called, "you can't be leaving."

I turned around and saw him standing there, weaving slightly, his eyelids at half-mast. He was smiling his patented close-lipped Reed smile, which for all but those with a portraitist's keen ability to analyze physical effects would seem a manifestation of goodwill itself. The man was handsome in a modern way, with sideburns and mus-tache and features that appeared chiseled into existence by Saint-Gaudens. He was also lucky beyond measure, that was a certainty, but I tell you, what I saw when I studied him was a mechanized mill of insincerity.

"You are the guest of honor," he said, approaching me and putting his hand on my shoulder.

"Forgive me, Reed," I whispered, "but I am guilty of trying to consume all of that wonderful champagne myself. My head is spinning so, I need to get some air."

He laughed out loud, and his racket turned the heads of nearby guests. I glanced momentarily at the crowd in my embarrassment, and among all those faces, not know-ing the cause of Reed's joke but laughing along with him at my expense, I also saw Shenz shake his head and glance at the ceiling as a secret signal to me that, yes, Reed was an overbearing ass.

"Before you go, let me fetch the missus. I'm sure she would want to thank you and bid you good-bye."

"Very well," I said. Reed disappeared, and I stood star-ing down the long flight of steps toward the portal of escape. A few moments later he returned with his wife in tow.

"Piambo has pressing business across town, dear," he said to her. "He must, reluctantly, be on his way. I thought you would want to thank him for the portrait."

Page 2

Mrs. Reed smiled, and I fixated on that gap between her teeth. In the days that I'd spent in her presence, she had seemed almost devoid of personality. She had been an obedient model and not

unpleasant, but I had never tried to get at her true essence, because it had been indicated to me in not so many words, by her husband, that inner spirit was not to be the point of the portrait.

She stepped forward in a manner to indicate that she was going to kiss my cheek. In that instant, as she came toward me, I caught a fleeting glimpse of something more than the dull affect to which I had grown accustomed. Then her lips grazed my face, and before she pulled back I heard her whisper in a voice no louder than the sound of a wet brush gliding across canvas, "I hope you die." When she was again standing before me so that I could see her entire countenance, she was smiling.

"Thank you, Piambo," she now said. Reed put his arm around her, and they stood together as if posing for a work meant to depict marital bliss. The facility of vision I had trained for so many years to see into the souls of those who sat for me, yet had ignored of late in an effort to render instead what

Shenz had termed the salubrious, suddenly engaged, and I beheld a pale, mortally weary woman in the clutches of a vampire. I turned and fled, stumbling slightly on the stairs, dogged by the feeling that might attend the abandoning of a child fallen into an icy river.

The Messenger

I passed up the hansom cabs that Reed had waiting to ferry his guests home. Turning to my left, I set off south down Fifth Avenue, my head still spinning from the alco-hol and Mrs. Reed's whispered desire.

I pulled the collar of my coat up and the brim of my hat down, for it was as if summer had quietly expired at some point during the party. A stiff breeze blew down the avenue at my back, carrying past my left shoulder a sheet of yellowing newsprint that flapped and flew beneath the gas lamps like the fleeing ghost of that warm season. It was late, and I had many blocks to walk to my home on Gramercy Park, but I

needed more than anything the air, the motion, the night, as an antidote to the staleness of the crowded parlor and the false, fractured light of that damnable chandelier. The city streets were far from safe at that bleak hour, but it was a certainty that no matter how vicious an assailant I might meet, he could never be quite as insidi-ously dangerous as Reed. I shook my head at the thought of what his poor wife had been made to endure and how I had been a willing, albeit a somewhat unwitting, partici-pant in her torture.

What was evident to me now was that she had known all along what the game was. Most likely for the sake of her children, but also for her own survival, she had pretended to be enchanted by Reed's pretense. If this was the first time, I doubted it would be the last, but now, with each future assault on her dignity, the charm-ing, ageless beauty in my painting would forever bear witness to the increasing ugliness of her marriage and her life. That visage that was almost her, but not quite, was undoubtedly the woman her husband wanted. In truth, the real Mrs. Reed had more in common with the goldfish trapped in the bowl and the cut flowers left to wither in the ornate Chinese vase. I did not realize when I chose those props how telling they would prove to be.

"Piambo, what have you become?" I said to myself, and then realized I had spoken aloud. I looked to see if any passersby had heard me. But no, the few others out and about at that late hour continued on, wrapped in their own desires and admonitions. During the day the city carried on like a hell-bent millionaire genius, pursuing the future with a frenetic energy that would someday allow it to overcome its quarry, but at night, while it dreamed, its streets were like the specter-haunted thoroughfares of a deep-sea kingdom.

Even the streetcars moved at a more languorous pace, like great serpents swimming through a
Page 3

darkness made thick by the cast-off regrets of the day. I forestalled answering my own question by stopping at the corner of Thirty-third Street to peer across the avenue at the moon-lit remains of what once had been the mansion of John Jacob Astor. I had read in the newspaper that his son, to spite the mother, was going to raze the old building and erect a fine hotel. There it sat, half dismantled, like the rotting carcass of some behemoth washed ashore in a painting by Vedder. Here was a testament to the corrosive power of the city's new wealth. Even the old gods and their legacies were not protected from its onslaught. The new deity was fortune, and there was an army of Reeds willing to adjust their moral

barometers in order to join the priesthood. Its catechism trickled down from the upper reaches of

Manhattan Island all the way to the Lower East Side, where immigrant families chased the insubstantial spirit of what they could not readily grasp.

In the face of such a pervasive societal mania, how was I, a mere painter, not also to be changed by it? There had been a time not too long ago when photography estab-lished itself on the scene, and those of my profession gasped and held their breath in trepidation, envisioning a future of poverty. But once the well-to-do realized that now it was possible for even a peon to have a cheap copy of his likeness, the practice of commissioning portraits by accomplished painters exploded among the blue bloods and the self-made elite. After all, a photograph yellowed and cracked within a generation or two, but an oil paint-ing would carry its exalted subjects intact into the distant future. Then the blizzard of bills began to fall, obscuring my view of what it was I had initially sought to accom-plish with my art. That is when I came under the whip of that aspect of portraiture that John Sargent called the tyranny of vanity

BOOK: The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque
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