Story Excerpt

The Painter's Wife

by Marjorie Eccles
 

PainterWife_Laurie-Harden
Art by Laurie Harden

Anna van Doorn sits in the shadows on a high-backed chair in the Flemish house, watching him as he stands back, palette and brush in hand, absorbed, lost to everything except his work: her elderly husband, the painter, fifty years old in this year of Our Lord 1640. Anna is little more than a third of his age, and has been married to him for eight months.

She is not idle as she watches. Her busy fingers shell peas into the thick yellow pottery bowl that rests in the deep hammock of the blue skirts dipping across her lap. At this mid stage of her pregnancy she is already beginning to find difficulty in sitting with her knees together. The peas rattle into the bowl in the still, heavy silence; dust motes dance in the shaft of sunlight from the corner window. Soft and buttery, the light reflected from the canal that runs alongside the house falls onto the painting on the easel, on golden skin, rosy nipples, and the soft curves of belly and thigh. From the couch where she reclines, the Titian-haired model, Mia, looks over a bare, smooth shoulder, her face half turned, intending to convey innocence.

Anna has recently learned that Mia, no longer all that young, was the artist’s mistress for years, and maybe still is, who knows? Had she been respectable, she would not have been posing, naked, for the painter, but in any case it is not something Anna can take a stand against. In the circumstances, her mother tells her, such accommodations must be accepted. Her husband is a man of large appetites, big and handsome, a bold, roistering man. But he is kind to Anna, and especially forbearing to her in the present circumstances. This morning, for instance, when she slipped into the studio with her bowl and her basket of fresh-picked peas over her arm, he had allowed her to stay and watch, though not without a wary glance first towards his model. Yet when has he ever given a fig for conventions—even to spare this young wife of his, just now the most treasured of all his possessions?

Cornelius van Doorn is a worldly man, and what he owns means a great deal to him; he has to have evidence all around him of everything he has achieved, which is not inconsiderable. In his youth he lived a scarecrow, hand-to-mouth existence, until he began painting wealthy burghers, and sometimes their wives and children, which not only made him money but also revealed to him his life’s purpose. Conveying the inner being behind the human face excited and absorbed him more than anything he had previously done. Now, between painting bread-and-butter landscapes for various wealthy clients, and biblical and classical themes for public buildings and churches, he paints his portraits with passion, insight, and truth; if his subjects do not always like the finished result, he can afford to ignore it—though they rarely complain. He has become fashionable in this prosperous city of Bruges, and indeed across most of the Low Countries. To be painted by Cornelius is regarded as an honour.

His spreading fame, and his acceptance by both the bourgeoisie and the nobility, is what has enabled him to buy this commodious, well-built house from a wealthy merchant who ruined himself by speculation in tulips. Assisted by Anna’s dowry, of course. When Cornelius first acquired the house, the riffraff (as Anna privately calls those erstwhile companions of his, those disgraceful hangers-on whom he nevertheless refuses to renounce entirely now that he has come into better fortune) had lifted their glasses to an endless prospect of free meals and scrounged lodging whenever they needed it, remembering the largesse the painter always scatters around when he is flush, the debts he forgets to call in. The house is rarely free of one or other of them, though they would do well to remember, thinks Anna, that he is also renowned for his volatile moods and his temper when he is in drink, this last occurring too often when in their company.

Despite all this, she knows that she is fortunate such a husband has been found for her by her father—though she sometimes wonders if that good man has not acted a trifle less considerately than usual, doubtless dazzled by the painter’s fame and present prosperity. However, Cornelius takes great care of Anna, especially now. His first and second wives had been barren, and he has no other children (as far as he knows) and this proof of his virility, and the prospect of fathering a child, has delighted him.

The wall against which the model’s couch stands is bare, unadorned plaster, but the other walls of the studio are entirely covered with a painted bocage of trees, foliage, and flowers, rich and intricate, exuberant with flowing, curving, baroque forms. In other rooms of the house too—where the walls are not lined either with panelling or gilded and embossed Cordovan leather, that is—scenes from myth and legend abound, and the ceilings glow with colour and more gilding. Cornelius is consumed by the need to cover any blank surface and few parts of this house of his have escaped.

Anna is not sure what is meant by this painting he is now executing. It depicts a recumbent Venus, holding a scallop shell in a strategic position, with flowers strewn about her, against a painted background showing Cupid, a naked shepherd, and a flash of sunlight bursting from behind a cloud. Nowadays, he rarely has the time to paint anything other than commissioned work, but this is what he calls one of his “indulgences”—paintings he is not certain of being paid for but is occasionally inspired to do, though they don’t always satisfy him. He has been known to destroy such works savagely when they’re completed, and no one knows why, for he will not normally let anyone see them when they are in progress, or even after they are finished, unless he thinks fit. Today is an exception, presumably because he assumes, rightly, that his young wife has no competence to judge their merit or otherwise.

When working on his commissions, he works fast and surely; when he paints for himself, he is as one possessed, but all the same, this particular “indulgence” has occupied him for days. It is now almost finished. He stands back critically to examine the light parts he has worked up; very soon, he will sign his work with an arrogant flourish: Cornelius. Anna dares to shift her position ever so slightly and the legs of her chair scrape against the floor. The artist swears at the intrusion into his concentration, then, remembering the presence of his wife, runs his hands through his unruly hair and holds up a placatory hand. He and the model exchange a wordless communication. Anna lowers her head and looks into the bowl, hiding her eyes and her thoughts.

She can feel Mia watching the spare, efficient movements of her slim fingers as the bowl gradually fills with peas from the shallow basket on the stool beside her. A memory brushes her mind, soft as a moth against a windowpane. Something Jan Oudolf had said to her last night. The hint of a shadow touches the golden day and dims the summer light pouring into the large studio.

Although he works harder than anyone she has ever known, even harder than the peasants on her father’s lands near Leyden, and now, in his later years, can command gratifying sums for his work, Cornelius spends as he earns. Money runs through his fingers as inevitably as would a handful of water from the canal outside. It is just as well she has arrived on the scene to take care of it, otherwise he would be up to his ears in debt again in no time at all. His headlong extravagance frightens Anna’s thrifty Flemish soul. He teases her, calls her his little bourgeoise, but she believes he is secretly pleased that she is so careful.

Yet, although the opulent extravagance of everything that surrounds her still has the potential to shock her a little, it also excites her: the sumptuous walls, embroidered table carpets, and elaborate drinking vessels they use every day as a matter of course, the decorated plates and cups, the rich and heavy hangings on their carved bed. This plethora of luxury is echoed even in the garden, where the flower beds are as lavish as the inside of the house, and nature obliges by giving forth an exuberant burgeoning of leaf and blossom. The singing of the birds she can hear now comes not, as she sometimes imagines, from those which perch on the studio’s trompe l’oeil branches or fly up into a painted azure sky, but from the song-filled garden. Anna would really be very happy if only her husband were not so old.

But when she lies beside him in the confines of the marital bed, she cannot help imagining a young, strong body, someone to remind her that she has not yet entirely left her youth behind her.

She finishes shelling the peas, stands up, and, with a hand to the small of her back, leaves the studio without speaking. The model’s eyes flicker, but Cornelius, absorbed once more, doesn’t notice his wife’s exit, or at any rate pays no attention. She delivers the peas to the kitchen and goes for her rest. For a while, before she sleeps, she picks up her lute and plays, thinking of Jan Oudolf.

 

“There is always the knife, of course,” says Jan, a few weeks later. “Between the ribs. Silently, when he is drunk and on his way home, one dark night. Then I could marry you.”

“And look after me. And the baby.”

“Of course,” he says after a little pause.

“Well, perhaps,” she replies, smiling, humouring him. Knowing this is all a joke, or perhaps, more dangerously, wishful thinking. But it doesn’t seem wrong to talk like this because it is impossible that such a thing could ever happen.

Jan has been her husband’s pupil for three years. Eighteen years old, dark and slim, good-looking. Almond-shaped eyes, black, deep as molasses. He is a talented artist, although he is something of a disappointment, as Cornelius has confessed to Anna. He has the skill which first recommended him as an assistant, even flashes of brilliance, but no humanity. Without which he will never rise to the sublime. Anna wonders if Jan, deep within himself, knows this is true, and this is why he hates Cornelius.

The painter has never forgotten his early struggles, or the time when he fell ill and could not work. Now, in case this should ever happen again, his workshop has become a well-organised industry which could keep the wolf from the door at a pinch without his help. His strategy, like that of other painters before him, is to make swift sketches, with touches of the colours he suggests should be used for the landscapes, still lifes, or allegorical themes from classical mythology, religious subjects, or whatever else has been commissioned. He then passes the groundwork on to any of his four assistants to work on. Cornelius will afterwards finish the work with the masterstrokes that will give it his own personal signature When Jan sees the miraculous insight, the superior skill and judgement by which his assistants’ attempts are brought to perfection by the master, he grinds his teeth. He toils on, producing yet another competent, but in the end uninspired, creation, which Cornelius, with a few deft brush strokes, will transform into another work of genius. Jealousy and resentment boil in him.

At night, he lies in bed and cannot sleep for thinking of the meek and beautiful Anna lying curled in the feather bed with the old lecher.

 

“And don’t forget,” says Jan Oudolf, “there is always the brother.”

“Jacob?”

Anna shakes her head, smiling a little uneasily, and looks out of the window, resting her hand on her stomach, feeling the baby move. October leaves have begun to flutter from the trees outside. Only two months to go now.

Jacob van Doorn is the wastrel that his elder brother Cornelius might have become had it not been for his God-given genius and his capacity for unstinting hard work. Despite the painter’s love of luxury, his work—his art—will always take precedence over everything else in his life. He was born with the knowledge that it is the backbone of his existence, regardless of whether he eats or has clothes to his back, whereas Jacob was born with a distinct disinclination to tie himself to any form of labour. Where he gets his money from is a mystery, though before that last bitter quarrel of theirs, Anna many times saw guilders pass from Cornelius’s hands to his. He is as good-looking as his brother, in a smoother, foppish way. His lace collars are a wonder to behold, his long legs emerge from soft-topped leather boots with huge, turned-down cuffs, the sleeves of his doublet are slashed and puffed within an inch of their lives, and his lovelocks are long and silky. He has secret eyes and sports a small pointed beard which he is apt to finger.

Once Jacob is involved, the matter will no longer be a joke, a matter of idle speculation.

 

“Poison, then, in his wine.”

“No,” says Anna.

“An accident. St. Nicolaus’s Eve would be a good time. Just one more drunk falling into a canal.”

“No.” Nicolaus, the patron saint of children, is the name she has chosen for her baby, in honour of the saint whose feast day is December sixth—the beginning of the Christmas season, the time when her baby is due. But she shivers as she remembers there is another Nicolaus, Old Nicolaus, the devil, whose apprentices are also reputed to be abroad on that night. “No!”

Her tone is quite sharp now, but Jan Oudolf is too burnt up with the memory of what had happened that morning to notice.

He had been painting, as usual, in the light and airy workroom he shares with the other assistants, when Cornelius had arrived to inspect their work. Jan bent himself to his easel, while doing his best to hear whether the master was praising his rival, the toadying Snyders, but he could only catch a background murmur, and presently, he felt Cornelius behind him. For a long time, the master said nothing, considering thoughtfully the almost-finished work executed by his young pupil, a large and somewhat florid piece ordered by the wealthiest butcher in Bruges. He took up a brush, then another, and with half a dozen economical strokes, the use of his thumb and a palette knife, in an hour created from a faithful and quite pleasing representation of a ruined castle on a wooded hill, a landscape bathed in ethereal light. The others had crowded round to watch and when he had finished they let out a combined sigh of wonder and respect. Behind his seething jealousy even Jan Oudolf could not disguise his admiration.

They all of them knew better than to say anything. The master never acknowledged praise of his own work. “It will suffice, I suppose, for the butcher Gerhardt,” he said carelessly, laying down his brush. “He is still a peasant at heart.”

Pieter Snyders sniggered sycophantically.

Ignoring this, wiping his hands on a rag, Cornelius beckoned Jan to follow him into his own studio. There, he kept a tray of fine Venetian glasses, carefully washed and polished by Anna, and a flask of fine Rhenish wine for the refreshment of his clients and patrons. He poured a glass for Jan, and one for himself, holding it up to the light and watching the pattern of bubbles in the pale golden liquid.

“What is it you want most of life, Jan Oudolf?” he asked suddenly.

Money. A house like this. Anna’s body. That was what Jan had wanted to say. Impossible, of course. Yet, feeling the sensation of the golden wine sliding down his throat and loosening his tongue, he heard himself uttering: “To be famous, like you, Master,” knowing instantly and too late, although it was true, that had been wrong too. He should have said, “To paint the truth,” or something of that sort.

The Master said nothing, but when he looked at him, Jan felt he had read his very soul.

 

The model, Mia, and Jacob van Doorn have met in one of the dark alleys near the main bridge that leads, via a narrow street, into the square of the guild houses. “They would like to kill him,” she says. “Or at least, Jan Oudolf would.”

The moon sails high in the sky and its reflection floats on the still waters of the canal, which might bear a skin of ice in the morning, but it throws little light onto the banks, since the shadows of the high-gabled houses along its length create a dark and secretive chiaroscuro. Most good burghers are already asleep in their beds, though noise and light still spill from a tavern door on the other side of the bridge. Jacob pulls the woman deeper into the darkness, not wanting to be seen with her. Even on a secret assignation like this, she can’t resist dressing herself up, and the brazen scarlet cloak proclaims her for what she is. She doesn’t even have the sense to wear a cap to cover her shamelessly bare head, and has let the hood of her cloak slip back to show her bright hair.

“Kill him? How do you know that?” he asks sharply.

“Do you think I can’t read the looks that pass between a man and a maid?”

“It’s true,” he admits after a moment or two. The knowledge of this was, in fact, what had brought him here. “I have spoken with Oudolf. He has confessed to me that he hates my brother and wants to see him dead.”

Mia has a low opinion of apprentices in general and of Jan Oudolf in particular. She pities foolish, gullible little Anna. “So what is stopping him?” she asks in disgust. “Except his own cowardice?”

“He would be the first to be suspected. You are not the only one who’s seen the wind blowing in the direction of the master’s wife. The other assistants have seen it too. On the other hand, if someone else were to kill him. For instance . . .” He pauses significantly.

“You?” Mia, despite looking like an angel (if a somewhat tarnished one by now), has a laugh like a crow. He puts a hand over her mouth to stop her but her eyes gleam knowingly above it. She had spoken in jest, but she knows she has hit on the truth. “And why should you not fall under suspicion?” she asks when he finally removes his hand.

He shrugs. “As everyone is aware, I have no expectations from my brother now that he has a wife, and therefore I have no motive to kill him. Also . . . if you were to say you were with me all night, at the time he dies, no opportunity either . . .”

But Mia is having none of that. She is quite fond of Cornelius. She prefers his rough hair and beard to the smooth, carefully tended lovelocks of his brother. She likes his total lack of vanity, the way any old shirt and breeches will suffice—no silk shirts and puffed doublets for him. She likes his strong, pigment-stained hands, though they are never quite clean of paint, and the smell of linseed oil that permeates his clothes. She admires his generosity. “How you must hate him.”

Jacob shakes his head. He does not hate his brother. He does not in fact hate, or like, anyone. He is indifferent to both emotions. The absence of feeling is a coldness at his heart that prevents him from having a conscience. But he is capable of bearing a grudge, unable to forget that last bitter quarrel.

Mia knows this and reminds him, quite gently, “He always forgives in the end.”

“But maybe I do not, hein?”

“Let Jan Oudolf find someone else to do the job.” She draws her cloak around her, suddenly cold. “There’s always someone willing, if the price is right.”

“But there’s the rub. My brother being who he is, so well known, so famous, the price would be too high.”

“And what is your price?”

“Cornelius has money to leave.”

“Ja, and a little fool of a wife to leave it to, as you’ve already said. And in less than a month, maybe a son also.”

“If Cornelius dies, however, young Oudolf will marry her, then the money will be his. He will not be ungenerous,” Jacob tells her, stroking his beard. “We have an agreement.”

“You and Jan Oudolf? Then I hope you have it sealed well! And I? What do I get for sacrificing my good name for you?” Mia asks mockingly.

He reaches out a hand and takes her chin between his thumb and finger and smiles into her face. “Why, when I have the money, we can go to a notary and be married.” She is highly sceptical of this fairy tale and cannot stop herself from showing it. “Very well then, as soon as he is dead.”

If he wants this enough, if I were to promise, I could make him go now and make sure of him, she thinks, but if all this chancy plan does not come off, she does not want to be saddled with Jacob van Doorn as a husband. All the same, no one has ever offered to marry Mia before—or not for a very long time. . . .

There is a rustle from the shadows behind them. “What’s that?” asks Jacob, suddenly jumpy. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2018. The Painter's Wife by Marjorie Eccles