Portrait of a Seated Man
Galleries 29 and 30 were his favorites. The walls were painted a deep green. The frames were some of the thickest and most ornate in the museum. Inside them were faces, Dutch and Flemish faces, pale and warm. Not too many visitors. Silence and small noises. A sense of time stopping. A book held open, her forefinger pointing to the page, the ring on her forefinger. Lines emerging on his own blank page. He forgets her eyes and tries to capture something simple: the way the center fold of her white headdress is like a book open along its spine. Portrait of a Woman.
Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement. He’d always liked older art. His wife used to tease him about this. “You only like old things,” she’d say. He’d protest, “It’s not the age that matters. It’s the faces.” He was only interested in paintings that showed the human face, tried to capture an expression. He wanted individuals. He couldn’t take icons or abstraction, couldn’t figure out what they meant, but he could get lost in portraits. She wasn’t that way at all. She enjoyed a painting as much as a comfortable chair or a good piece of toast, less than a necklace. They face one another through a window frame. The man’s shadowy hands rest together on the bottom of the sill like a spider. Behind them, through a second window, green and blue gardens. Their eyes don’t meet. He’s looking at her mouth, she’s looking at his hat. They don’t know how to communicate. The pearls around her neck and along her hairline, the jeweled brooch at her breast, the flowers hidden in the folds of her dark damask sleeves.
Virgin and Child. He’d taken up drawing in retirement after thirty years circling the world as a diplomat, flying in and out of poverty and wars. The flights were long. It was always better to have a window seat. Then he could sleep or get his work done, reading or writing reports, preparing position papers. The end results of the roundtables, summits and resolutions? More roundtables, summits and resolutions. Dinner parties, cocktails, receptions. Malnutrition, malaria, genocide. Tennis? No, we’re going skiing this weekend. Child soldiers. Uranium enrichment. Five million children die each year of hunger—give or take a million. There were always two sets of numbers, depending on how it was calculated. Two sets of lips in tender contact. The infant looking up, protected. The skin so soft he sees it even now, even with the old paint cracking, flaking in parts. The child they never had. How to draw that?
Portrait of a Seated Man. He carried a small folding stool with a fabric seat and a pair of bright green earplugs. He’d had to buy these after the first few days to block out all the stupid things people say when they stand in front of paintings. See how it makes a triangle? He never made any money, you know. He would seat himself centrally on his stool’s narrow strip of beige fabric, squeeze in his earplugs and concentrate on looking, shutting down his other senses, turning himself into a pair of eyes in a hollow body. It was like seeing in the dark. If a tourist’s camera flash went off, he would reel for a moment, stunned and blinded, and shake his head vigorously. After a little while working he would stand up, place his paper on the stool, and pace around it, comparing it with the original. He wasn’t interested in accuracy. There were cameras for that. He considered a sketch dead when it looked like a drawing of another drawing, better if it looked like a drawing of a living thing, and only really successful if it looked alive in its own way. A faint blue gaze drifting outwards. A drooping nose, the curved downstrokes of the mustache. Something hard to capture in the way the facial hair disappears into the chin. Still, he tries. Line, crosshatch, shadow.
Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse. The best time to work was in the mornings, when he could be alone with the paintings, his only company a few sleepy security guards in blue polyester uniforms. He’d get dismayed as the visitors arrived, strolling through the galleries, filling the air with noise. The more crowded it got the more the paintings seemed to press themselves closely against the walls. Silent, still, perfectly poised. They held themselves aloof, away from the living whose faces were constantly changing, contorted by boredom or anxiety, by emotion, by smiles, wrinkles, pimples, untamed nose hairs. He could draw them instead, pay someone to sit still, or just ask them to, but why bother? In the late stages of syphilis, Gerard de Lairesse, his nose gnawed to a swollen nub, sat still long enough for a portrait. His dark eyes peer out at the world with the sort of sustained human dignity never seen in most humans. Behind him, empty gloom. The edges of his black hat disappear. The gleam of his blond curls. Other points of light: an unfolded newspaper, white lace cuffs and lace collar.
Clothing the Naked. Why bother with any of it? More questions every time he opened his sketchbook. He started to peer at things as if he were seeing them for the first time, as though he were about to start a conversation. Buses, people on the street, trees. There was a stain from last week on his coat. He walked feebly, trudging slowly up the museum’s front steps, past its exhaust-stained columns. His cheeks and chin were stubbly, blurred around the edges. Museum staff had given him a nickname, they called him “The Toad,” and they whispered it to one another whenever he entered the galleries. He was “The Toad,” because of the way he looked perched on his little stool, leaning forward, staring hypnotically at a painting, the flecks of his eyes shining, the green earplugs squishing from his ears.
Tommaso di Folco Portinari. He began to get headaches when he drew, unaware of the sheer physical and mental exertion he was subjecting himself to. He found himself dropping more frequently into a state of suspended contemplation. He was surprised to be told one day that the museum was closing. Three hours had somehow passed without him. A tiny scar on the chin, so hard to capture it was all he could see. The guard stood over him now and told him again to leave. For a moment he couldn’t move. His mouth was dry. His legs felt like they’d been dipped in concrete. The guard rolled her eyes and repeated her announcement. He tried to stand up and fell sideways from his stool. A panicked flutter of people around him. He got up with a little help, took his stool and supplies, smiled politely and said, “Just slipped. Nothing. Sorry.” Somebody said, “But you’re bleeding.” They gave him tissue and he walked out holding it pressed against the small wound on his jaw. Oil on wood. A web of fine cracks across the surface, but the overall impression still as clear as a just-printed photograph. Meek eyes, meek hands held together in devotion.
Maria Portinari. She wasn’t meant to die before him. Her mother had lived to be ninety, her grandmother something close to it. But a few years in and out of hospitals transformed his wife into a grotesque he barely recognized, with a bloated neck and dry putty skin, fed by tubes, barely able to flutter her eyes. Croaked phrases, then messages scratched out on hospital pads, then no messages at all. She’d taken special pride in her appearance, had a quick mind and a quick temper. A woman who’d known she was always on display. Graceful hands. She was the one everyone remembered. What was his name again? A nurse was there at the end. When exactly did her last breath leave her? The nurse wrote it down on a clipboard—a professional. One more death. They happened everyday in the hospital, no matter what they did. But he was an amateur, and he stood there confused until they told him to leave. When did she stop being? He spent three days numbly going through her possessions, packing away her clothes, her purses, all the things she chose so carefully, earrings, shoes, unused perfumes. He was staring at a little cylinder of eye shadow, holding it in the palm of his hand. It was nothing. He’d never noticed it before. In a sudden, jerking motion he threw it out the window. This was followed by a pair of earrings, shoes, a fistful of blouses. The same web of fine cracks spreads across her ivory face. She looks happier than Tommaso, smiling at him from another frame. He’s too pious. Her eyes are more in tune with the pleasures of this world. She loves her necklace.
Robert Rich, Second Earl of Warwick. He was perched before a tall portrait in a room full of baroque canvases. Alone except for a guard kicking a dead moth across the floor. A long goatee and a silvery doublet. How to sketch the gleam of those bold eyes? Suddenly, a vision of perfection. A real, moving, breathing girl, a young girl in her twenties, walked in and looked up at the Earl. He watched her eyes move down the shimmering chest, then across to take in the cannon fire and smoke of the small naval battle happening just beyond his lowered right hand. He glanced at her for a second—he didn’t want her to notice him—then sketched a curved line in a corner of his page. He glanced at her again. When she walked away into the next gallery he closed his eyes and projected her image on the inside of his forehead. Dark hair pushed back by a pair of black sunglasses. Thin lips. Her skin more olive-tan than the pink seen in old paintings. He folded up his stool and caught up with her in a room full of Spanish paintings. She spent ten seconds before an El Greco. He followed her carefully onwards. She stopped at a lacquer Buddha, a black stone sarcophagus, a New Guinea totem. Even though she was moving and breathing to him she was fixed and whole, like a moving portrait. He followed her down the main staircase and walked behind her at a distance to the subway. They stepped into the same train through different doors. He declined a seat and stood where he could see her. Her museum admission button was still clipped to her collar, a spot of magenta against her green coat. He studied her face, carefully rationing his glances. Her chin protruded very slightly too far. His mind drew lines, shaded volumes. He wondered that nobody else seemed to notice her. How could they keep their eyes off of her? She put away her sunglasses and let loose her hair. In his mind he leans through a window and kisses her. He can feel the flutter of her eyelids on his cheek. She took out a set of earphones and closed her eyes.
Study Head of a Young Woman. The train rose onto an elevated track. It was beginning to get dark. They were in Queens somewhere. He followed her out and down onto the street. Soon they were walking down an empty road that ran at an angle to a busy highway. She moved quickly. He quickened his stride to overtake her. Just as he was passing he turned and tapped at his throat and said, “You’ve still got the button on.” She stopped. It took him a moment to realize she’d given a short gasp. She looked around, looked at him. Then her eyes were fixed on him and shining with fear. He realized she was holding her cell phone, pointing it at him as if it were a weapon. “I’m calling the police,” she said, “that’s who I’m calling right now.” Her voice wasn’t the way he thought it should be. He grimaced and waved his hand awkwardly. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean…” he mumbled and backed quickly away, almost running. His face was red and felt tight against his skull. Soon he was lost. He kept walking, turning down streets haphazardly, looking up at the apartment buildings, the dark windows, the yellow-lit windows and ceilings, the unknown street signs, the black iron fences. His mind had been jolted back into normalcy, and nothing looked strange anymore, even though he didn’t know where he was. He stopped and stood still in the descending night, overwhelmed by the steady plainness of the world: the air, the abandoned warehouse across the street, the restless lights of cars moving along the highway, the parked cars. He found the elevated subway track and walked underneath it until he reached a station. As the subway crossed back under the river, he caught a glimpse of his own face in the black and scratched train window. Still well-defined. You could place the nose with a single bold line. The stubble a field of careful crosshatches. Shadows at the neck, the side of the pencil.
Wheat Fields. When he returned home alone that night he took out his sketchpads and flipped through them, sitting on the bed. Half a bottle of red wine. Smudged graphite, confused lines and cross-hatching. They weren’t very good. They were angry and unfocused. There was so much he hadn’t understood. Maria and Tomasso, the Virgin, the woman at the casement window. What to do with all the faces? It isn’t a painting of wheat fields at all. It’s a portrait of clouds. A woman holds a child’s hand, walking on a dirt path towards the bottom of the frame, but they’re barely people, more figures in a landscape. Not abstract, but unknown. A man in dark clothes approaches them, a large grey-wrapped parcel under his arm. What is he carrying?