|Photo courtesy: metmuseum.org (all others by S. Pause)|
First she was just a figure moving toward me in the distance, among a great many others doing the same thing. A second later she was a girl. Then she became a pretty girl, exquisitely dressed. Next a responsive girl, whose eyes said “Are you lonely?,” whose shade of a smile said, “Then speak.” And by that time we had reached and were almost passing one another…
-- Cornell Woolrich, Manhattan Love Song
NEVER MY MADAME
I went to see war. I went for the ugliness of the world; I had no use of for the beautiful things. I wanted death as my muse. I wanted to see George Washington Crossing the Delaware River, on his way into glorious battle. I wanted to contemplate history made through bloodshed, to ponder world changing loss of life. I had a satchel full of history books, war tactics and personal accounts of ensuing skirmishes, and I planned to write about how much the artist got wrong, how disparate his art was from reality. And I would have been content with this day-long meditation on how art just could not compare to the actuality of the harsh world. But unbeknownst to me, fate had conspired otherwise.
Washington’s river crossing was mysteriously absent, nowhere to be seen. It had been hidden away in some darkened vault beneath my feet, stowed in an ark to be shown to someone else at some later time. It wasn’t meant for my eyes. But what else was there to see in such a place if not the pinnacle of military strategy, a defining battle in a nation’s history?
The question was left to foment while I began to wander aimlessly in search of some new, insufficient substitute for inspiration. I didn’t even have the motivation to move to another wing, so I meandered through America, slowly contenting myself with the notion that I would accomplish nothing, the idea of failure festering into a desire to abandon that forlorn place forever.
But then, lost amidst the forgotten faces on a quiet floor reserved only for storage, an epiphany.
She appeared to me in all her radiance.
The inward curve of her waist, the sweep of her hips, those petite lips rouged to life against a snow white complexion and a dress so starkly black. And that delicate neckline.
That seducingly long and delicate neckline.
What was she doing there, mingling with former presidents amongst the Tiffany glass and antique furniture? Had she retreated to the storage room to seek refuge from prying eyes? If so, she had largely succeeded. As I stood there in awe, an entire group of people, more than twenty strong, committed the crime of simply passing her by, only one or two stopping for even a cursory glance.
An “Oh my,” from a woman who didn’t even break stride, prompting a question from her bespeckled and graying husband, who himself continued a slow amble past.
“Somebody you know?”
A moment later I could hear the echo of their guide from a distant corner of the hall.
…And that neckline – her hair pulled as high as it will go, revealing every possibly inch of that majestically contoured nape. The subtlety of the pose – her right hand reaching to the back of the Empire table to keep her steady – naturally accentuating her most feminine attributes, extending effortlessly the line of succession from irresistible neck to slightly dipping and wholly exposed shoulder to smoothly bent arm to slender thumb pressed against dark wood, and all with a skin so pure a complexion that she barely seems alive. Pure as the driven snow, indeed.
Truly a modern woman by any standards: deeply sophisticated in expression yet simply elegant in dress. That dress, the bodice tapering her inconceivably lithe waist, her hips boldly flaring out, all at once showing her as petite and imposing. The abysmal blackness of it, swallowing the features of her lower half, her legs lost amid the velvety softness of the elegant garment whose own features appear only faintly. They don’t matter. Neither do her shoes, or whatever is in her hand. Is that a fan that blends in so perfectly, or do her delicate fingers simply cling to her dress below the waist? She is either pulling it up alluringly, or perhaps practically, to keep her feet from becoming entangled in the flowing fabric.
And what to make of that expression? Is she turning her cheek away from a lover, spurning his desperate advance? Is it a devilishly scornful disaffection of a kiss not wanted, or a melancholy sadness that there is no one there to kiss? Perhaps she is gazing at the three-paneled Tiffany dressing curtain in the adjacent display case, an oddity to her as it won’t be produced until thirty years into her future.
Perhaps her look is disguised – a glance away – a bashfulness to prevent blushing caused by the stoic timepieces staring at her from across the aisle. The six grandfather clocks are fragile old men; by the time she comes into the world they are already eighty years old. Yet each one knows beauty when they see it. Each has stopped at the exact same moment, their faces – the hands of time – frozen in her presence, acknowledging her beauty the only way they know how. Their lunar cycles too are not simply frozen, but shaken out of their synchronicity; the old face from Reading, Pennsylvania, has thrust its moon into mid-sky while the smirking orb from Norwich, Connecticut, is just beginning to rise from its corner of the clockface. Her pull is strong enough to shift the tides.
Another group of people stops briefly a few feet away and breaks the silence. The guide mentions a name – Eakins – as the greatest painter to come out of America. Suddenly the Madame appears to look away with distaste – she banishes such a thought. She knows John Singer Sargent is the greatest. The look on her face is more than enough to convince me.
As the group passes, again ignorant to the beauty they are dismissing, one of them stops, only to thrust a barb tinged with malice at the nameless Madame.
The old woman’s mumbling trails off from beneath her hunched back as she passes. She stresses the final two words, slowly.
“This is very famous. Terrible scandal…”
The Madame barely acknowledges the comment, looking away as if to mockingly ignore the old woman. The ill-mannered quip falls on a deaf ear – a perfectly sketched lobe on a woman too dignified to pay the comment any mind.
All of this and yet she stands naked – no frame to give her comfort – the scene incomplete. Perhaps that is why her expression is one that borders on fretting. The woman next to her, the Lady with the Rose, displays a beautifully ornamented frame, a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, gilded gold in a subconscious display of fertility. The Lady with the Rose is also fetching to the eye, but with a youthful nonchalance, a childish air. She daintily holds her rose like a cup of tea, with thumb and index fingers, while her other hand lazily rests on the back of her hip. She is aloof, uncaring, and ultimately alluring standing next to the Madame.
My Madame needs no rose to add beauty to her perfection. She is so enchanting that she needs no accessories. There is only the slightest hint of a jewel in her hair, a small dash of light that could just as soon be the sprouting of a halo as it might be a jeweled pin keeping her hair aloft. She us unadorned except for one thing.
One very tiny piece of jewelry.
Ever so faintly – the wedding band on her left ring finger. Not even an imposing diamond encrusted treasure, but a simple gold band. With only a quick stroke of a small brush dabbed with the saddest speck of white did Sargent include what he had to. How painful must that dab of paint have been for him? How long did he wait to include that one, ever-so-necessary, ever-so-heartbreaking touch to his masterpiece? How long did it consume him?
How could Sargent not look on her and simply weep? He was charged not only with passing this beauty on through the centuries, but along with it the essential idea of the heartbreak that he must have felt. The idea that such a treasure could never be possessed. He shows this beauty, at the cost of hope, at the cost of inner peace. How much did this weigh on him as he plied his trade, day in and day out, knowing that with the beauty he was giving, he was taking away the hope that something so perfect that could ever be his.
That was the heartbreak that he had poisoned me with. How swiftly she had gone from My Madame to once again Madame X. Sargent had brought me ever so close to perfection, only to remind me with the most miniscule detail that she is not mine. She was never mine, and she will never be mine.
This realization came quickly to me, and once the poison was in the wound it was impossible to stop. But how long did Sargent deny himself this undeniable fact? Was this why he spent so long struggling to find the right pose, wasting through countless sketches and rough drafts? Not a striving for perfection but an attempt to delay the inevitable goodbye that had to accompany the completion of such a masterpiece. Perhaps it explains the signature in the bottom right-hand corner, which begins with a deeply bold stroke but quickly fades from life, becoming barely visible at the conclusion, as if his courage to complete the work vanished the closer he got to finishing.
I knew what Sargent was feeling, because I too found myself simply unable to walk away from her. How could I turn my back on her? Wherever I had come from, I couldn’t ever go back. I just couldn’t make myself step back onto those towering stone steps and into the cold world outside, not without feeling the emptiness of the world enveloping me, the grotesque buildings of the metropolitan world weighing me down, crushing whatever she had left behind of my shattered heart.
She was inside that vault; she would forever be inside. And she belongs in a museum with the treasures of a thousand kingdoms. She belongs with the relics that defined nations, if for nothing else than to show that while the stones of power crumble into dust, she endures.
As for me, I will keep her locked inside my own vault, the delicate memory of an impossible perfection. I eventually ventured outside, only to make that slow sojourn back to my cold home, alone, to think about her. I rode the subway out to the final stop, the whole car abandoning me before then, reinforcing the loneliness that dominated the day.
I went there to write of war, of bitter fighting, of blood and battles and death – the ugly things of the world – and instead I witnessed a beauty that I never would have known existed in this too cold world.
I went to write of war and I left thinking only of her.
Forever my Madame.
Never my Madame.