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April 3, 2018

16. The Painting

Beck Vos committed his life to art. He sold everything to pursue art. Painting was his passion, his breath of life. 

His father, Ernst Vos, was deeply disappointed in the decision of his only son but maintained a proper paternal attitude of respect and helped his aimless offspring as much as possible. But that did not prevent Ernst from telling his friends his son was really off doing great things, making up stories to fictionalize the truth.

On a beautiful Dutch day in the village, Beck opened his oil paints and prepared a stretched canvas. Today he would sit near the market and do a portrait study of passerby. The marketplace was waking up as merchants put their goods out for display. The morning sun shone clear and yellow. All manner of salespeople bustled about in preparation for the village to appear and inquire and purchase and smile.

A young lady caught Beck’s eye. He decided. This was his subject for today’s sketch. She moved about quickly but slowed as her storefront took shape. Eventually she was rooted in place, talking and smiling and laughing with her customers/patrons/shoppers. The sun glowed her skin and she radiated her beauty.

Beck painted furiously, laying down subtle hues and working from the background and establishing a tone. He watched the light and the shade trade places on her form. The colors flashed in his eyes and as quickly as he could he translated them from smudged oils to observed reality.

Within a brief hour his little painted sketch was complete. It was only a study in light and color but his subject had elevated its purpose. He became perhaps most proud of that canvas above all else. As only a study its purpose had been fulfilled in simply being created. But Beck had other plans.

Elated and feeling a bit dignified in himself he presented to his father. A token of his love and proof he would become a true master of the arts. Ernst accepted awkwardly. What was this girl to him? Who was she? Nonetheless he hugged his son and thanked him warmly.

Days later Ernst held the painting again. It was beautiful. Not just the girl but the work of art: the light, the color, the truth of the paint on the canvas. It was a true and emotional representation of beauty. Still, it was only a small portrait of some market girl. Ernst kept the painting on his mantle. But still behind other paraphernalia. It became an afterthought. Shortly, it became forgotten.

A century passed.

The little portrait became something between a holy icon and a well-placed piece of garbage. It was handed down, sold, given away, stolen, and eventually placed at the foot of a door in a market hundreds of miles and years from its origin.

It caught her eye. There in the dusty street, the painting rested. The ageless girl in transaction, selling her goods at the local market forever, frozen in a moment. 

She stared, transfixed.

She broke her own silence, “That painting. I must purchase it. How much?”

The man hardly glanced up. “That? That’s trash. Take it.”

Now this piece was her own. It was hers. She could have it and hold it and never let it go. And she did just that.

A keen concoction of dyes and powders made for her new makeup. Anything that would bring her complexion closer to the girl in the painting. Ingredients were hard to come by but nothing would stand in her way—not for the truth it granted.

“How do I look?” she asked arrogantly, knowing her beauty. Her soul was in the painting and her beauty was worn on her face. She traded herself, all of herself, for the semblance of the girl in the painting. Anyone’s answer was always a sheepish nod in agreement to her gossamer question.

Any spare time was given to staring at the painting for hours on end, concentrating and focusing on the hopes of achieving the agelessness of the female subject.

Time passed and the woman aged. The painting aged. The paint aged. But the girl in the picture did not. Her ageleslness was constant.

As she clutched the painting the woman began to drift from reality. Her mind dissolved. Her skin glowed nonetheless with the radiance of her makeup. Wrinkles seemed only to compliment her skin’s tone.

But the great reality of life peaked at death: her final moment. In that instant, at Death’s door, she looked one last time at the picture, the girl at the market that day ages ago, forgotten by all but one. And here she saw herself, in the frame, in the oils of paint, in the brushstrokes, in the canvas, and laid to rest, in eternity.

* * *

At her burial, the painting was propped beside her gravestone. A young woman passed by and asked the gardener if this was the deceased. He replied simply to take the painting, it was trash now, it was hers.

I read Kassia St Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color recently. It outlines the history of interesting colors and where they come from, a little history lesson based on color. One of them was about a white that was used for makeup in the East—China, I think. Anyway, the white dye was poisonous and eventually killed several people. I was fascinated by the story of a pursuit of beauty even unto death. A vague version of that spawned the plot here. It was pushed further after I realized how similar to Dorian Gray it was becoming. This is not as philosophically complex but the idea remains.