The velvet hours, p.10
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       The Velvet Hours, p.10

           Alyson Richman

  “Well, the name will certainly give me away if they search through the records.”

  “I don’t think we should worry ourselves about such matters now, Solange. There are no Germans marching down the Champs-Élysées just yet.”

  “Not yet,” I said as I turned up the dial of the radio. “But I can’t help but imagine if they did.”



  Paris 1898

  Marthe had not quite believed Charles when he promised her there would be a second present to follow the pearls. She couldn’t imagine anything that could possibly top what he had already given her. But less than a week later, as they lay in bed with his finger tracing the length of her body, he turned to her and said: “I’ve commissioned a portrait of you.”

  She grabbed the sheet around her and sat up. “A portrait?”

  “Yes.” Despite his fragility, she could see the pleasure in his eyes. “I’ve taken note of all of your little collections . . . all of your objects scattered throughout the apartment and all of those paintings in the dining room, too. Now, I want a large portrait of you to hang over the mantel in the parlor. I want to be able to see two of you whenever I’m here.”

  “For such an ascetic these days . . . you’re becoming quite greedy, aren’t you?” She took her hand to his cheek. “Really, two of me?” She feigned a sense of modesty at his generous suggestion.

  He reached out to kiss her. She closed her eyes. It was hard to see him so thin. He resembled one of those wire armatures that sculptors used to create the skeleton before they began applying the clay.

  “I really wish you’d save your strength, instead of squandering it negotiating with artists.”

  “Come now, Marthe . . . I know you far too well. Doesn’t the idea absolutely thrill you? To sit for one of the most fashionable portrait painters in Paris?”

  “And who might that be?” she teased.

  “A man named Giovanni Boldini.”

  Marthe’s face went blank. She didn’t recognize the name.

  “Why, he’s the biggest name in society portraits these days, my darling. He’s a good friend of Sargent’s.”

  Marthe raised an eyebrow, intrigued. She had certainly come a long way from the first time she had heard the name John Singer Sargent mentioned while strolling the halls of the 1884 Paris Salon with her fellow seamstress, Camille.

  Camille had always been full of ideas and was interested in making any spare time outside their workshop an adventure.

  They had agreed to meet just outside the Palais de l’Industrie. Marthe had been so excited, she arrived early. She had never seen so many people crowding the streets. The day was beautiful. The chestnut trees were in bloom. A steady stream of horse-drawn carriages pulled up to the entranceway. Marthe watched as the city’s most fashionable women stepped out into the daylight, their pastel parasols opening like cabbage roses in the sun.

  She and Camille walked together into the first salon rooms, their lungs filled with the strong, foreign smells of varnish and linseed oil. They wandered through the enormous hallways, clutching their Salon catalogs. They walked past the enormous mural by Pierre Puvis and then stood for a few minutes contemplating the nude figures drinking wine in Bouguereau’s The Youth of Bacchus.

  But it was Sargent’s portrait of Amélie Gautreau that she remembered most clearly. It had been the scandal of the Salon. Displayed in the final room of the exhibition halls, the large portrait stood out in haughty defiance. The painting was nearly life-size, taking up almost the entire hall, and dwarfing the other paintings that surrounded it. Marthe could close her eyes and still recall how Sargent had painted Gautreau’s creamy white flesh and swanlike neck, her chiseled features as sharp as glass.

  Marthe and Camille had walked past countless rooms of nudes that afternoon, but this portrait of the fully clothed Gautreau had been the most provocative of all. The nudes rendered in the other paintings all looked like sexless cherubs, most of them cast in idealized landscapes. Madame Gautreau, or Madame X as she was identified by the small plaque beside the portrait, appeared far more sexual than any of the other paintings exhibited. Sargent had painted his subject with her head turned in profile, wearing a plunging black bodice with one strap over her shoulder and the other dangling over her porcelain white arm. It was as if the dress could slip off of her at any moment. The painting had struck Marthe like a dare.

  All these years later, Marthe had never forgotten the painting. Gautreau’s body, though sheathed in black velvet, had left little to the imagination. One could see every line and curve. This was a portrait that lit up the room like a match.

  While everyone gasped and whispered at its inappropriateness, it had secretly thrilled Marthe.

  Now, she could hardly believe that Charles was suggesting a contemporary of this great artist to paint her portrait. “I do like Sargent,” she said, curling up closer to Charles. “But I’ve never heard of this Boldini . . .”

  In her mind, she started imagining how an artist might portray her. Already, she could envision herself sitting with her head turned, her body dressed in one of her most beautiful gowns. It was comforting to also know that even in his illness, Charles had not tired of seeing her from all points of view.

  “I’ve made an appointment for him to visit the day after tomorrow,” Charles interrupted her from her reverie.

  “Let Giselle prepare something nice for him. He’s small, but he’s known to have an enormous appetite.”

  He smiled. “You’ll see what I mean when you meet him.”

  She took his hand and brought it to her lips. “I am not too concerned, my darling. I’ve never been known to starve a man.”

  * * *

  Boldini arrived at half past noon. Marthe was already seated, waiting for him in the parlor. A pale lilac dress fell languidly over her long body. Around her neck, she wore the pearls from Charles.

  “Monsieur Boldini,” Giselle announced as she ushered the painter into the room.

  Marthe could hardly believe her eyes. The man did not look like anything she had imagined. He was short and balding, with a long mustache and goatee. His eyes were framed by thin wire glasses, and above their rims emerged a pair of thick and pointed brows.

  Marthe rose from her chair and extended her hand. She was nearly a half foot taller than the artist.

  “What a relief to discover I’ll have such a beautiful subject to paint,” he said as he kissed her hand. “You will make my job here a pleasure.”

  She smiled, pleased that the artist made up in charm what he lacked in good looks and height.

  “And I am grateful to be painted by such a talent. Charles has spoken incredibly highly of you.”

  He was still standing in the center of the parlor. Against his waist, he held a large sketch pad tied closed with black cord.

  “Please, Monsieur Boldini, make yourself at home . . .” She made a small gesture, encouraging him to sit down.

  He nodded, taking a seat across from her. She noticed how his eyes were scanning the objects around the room.

  “I see you like Oriental ceramics.”

  Marthe smiled, delighted that the artist had taken note of her collection. Her porcelains had become a source of great pride for her. “Yes, very much. They were the first precious objects I began collecting . . . and once I started, I couldn’t get enough.”

  “How interesting . . .” His expression suggested he was genuinely surprised that Marthe had chosen something so exotic as her first collection, for Asian porcelains were appreciated by a rarefied few.

  “I must confess, I’m a bit of a collector myself.” Again, his eyes scanned the room. “I admire what you’ve managed to get your hands on.”

  Marthe beamed. She was happy to have impressed him with something she had cultivated by herself, something beyond her own beauty.

  Boldini po
inted to one of the gourd-shaped vases on the shelves. “Moonlight glaze. One of my favorites.” He closed his eyes briefly, as though the pale blue glaze had triggered something in his mind.

  “The Asians have such a delicacy of palette,” he continued. “It’s as if they can pinpoint the exact shade of breath, of water, of ice . . . Elements we think of as being clear, they find in that perfect shade of blue.”

  She felt a slight flutter inside her as he spoke, a feeling wholly unexpected. She wanted him to keep talking, for she was immensely curious about what else he had to say.

  “And that one . . .” He pointed to another one of her porcelains, one of the famille rose variety. “How easy it would be to imagine one of the blooms in my hand . . . the velvet petals between my fingers.” His voice lowered in pitch as though he wanted to intensify the almost erotic nature of his words.

  Marthe’s skin grew warm underneath her dress.

  “The lines of the artist’s brush fired to a perfect high relief. The contrast of the hard against the soft.” He turned from the porcelain and then focused his eyes on her. “There’s something quite sensual to it . . . don’t you think?”

  She smiled back at him, pleased that they had something in common. She could feel herself becoming entranced by him, despite his impish appearance. Marthe studied him again. The small face, the pinched features. The balding head. Nothing was handsome about him at all. He lacked what had first attracted her to Charles: the height, the head full of thick black hair, the sharp, straight nose and cupid-bow lips. But when her eyes fell upon Boldini’s hands, she saw the one physical feature in which nature had been kind.

  The fingers were long and tapered. The skin white and smooth, not a blemish or hair to be seen.

  How beautiful his fingers were indeed. She could easily imagine him holding a paintbrush and palette.

  “Yes,” she said, trying to reignite the conversation after her momentary distraction. “It’s not only the lines of the enamels that are so remarkable . . . it’s the shape of the porcelains as well . . . There’s something so feminine about the hourglass ones . . . even the melon gourds have a certain female robustness to them . . .”

  “You have an extremely good eye.” He smiled. “I am impressed.”

  “There is no need to be impressed,” she answered. “It’s refreshing to discover someone else who speaks the same language . . .”

  “This is a rare thing, madame. To be able to speak to a woman so freely about beauty and art . . .” He opened his hands above his lap as though he were releasing an imaginary bird into the air. Marthe watched him intently, listening to every word. She could feel herself becoming almost hypnotized by his movements and speech.

  “The glazes inspire my own work . . . You can’t imagine how many times I’ve tried to replicate those shades. Yet it’s impossible to achieve that kind of transparency with oil paint . . .”

  “Yes, I can imagine.” Her body rushed with adrenaline. Their conversation was a form of flattery that thrilled her. The artist spoke to her as though she were an equal, a woman who understood the unique language between artists.

  “But I do have other talents,” he said, again gesturing with his hands. “So don’t fret. I can promise you, your portrait will be beautiful.”

  “I have little doubt,” Marthe answered with a beguiling, feminine smile. “I’ve been told that if one is to have her portrait done, you’re the top choice of those in the best circles.”

  “My patrons have made Paris a very hospitable place for me, that is for certain.”

  Again, she saw a certain flash in his eyes. He possessed a unique sense of vitality, and she realized that she had missed being in the company of someone with such physical and mental energy since Charles’s illness had made him a faint shadow of his former self.

  Boldini reached down the leg of the chair, where he had rested his sketch pad. He took it and began to untie the black ribbons that were wrapped around the stiff canvas book.

  “May I?” He tapped his sketch pad. “It might help to get a few quick drawings of you sitting here before I leave.”

  “Of course,” she said, readjusting herself in the chair so her posture was straighter and her chin was slightly lifted. Then, like a huntress, she focused her gaze squarely at him.

  “You seem to have done this before,” he mused.

  “No. You will be my first.”

  He smiled. “At some point that’s convenient for you, I will need you to come to my studio on Boulevard Berthier so I can start the portrait. My easel, paints, and brushes are all there.” He opened up his sketch pad and smoothed over one of the blank pieces of paper with his hands. “And I certainly wouldn’t want to sully your apartment with all of my supplies . . .

  “But if you don’t mind, today I’d just like to do a few sketches of your face . . . your features . . .”

  His pen had already started to fly over the paper. He began capturing her in a flurry of rapid black strokes before she even had a chance to respond.

  * * *

  “What a queer little man!” she told Charles when she next saw him. He lay against the pillows of her bed, the barrel of his eagle and talon pipe nestled in his hand.

  “But quite talented, I assure you. I saw his portrait of Madame Veil-Picard at the Paris Salon last year . . .” He sucked in his pipe again. “It was remarkable. He caught the mischief in her eyes . . .” He placed a finger underneath Marthe’s chin and tickled her. “I wouldn’t want just some stale portrait of you. I want someone who can bring you to life.”

  “I wish you had commissioned a portrait of yourself, too.” She turned and whispered into his ear, “You’re the one we should be immortalizing.”

  He smiled. Two paper fans of wrinkles lined the corners of his eyes. “I’m afraid I’m no longer worthy,” he said with a small laugh. “I’m in, as they say, a state of decline.” He took her hand and brought it to his chest. “But you . . . you’re at the peak of your splendor.”

  “But you seem better, my darling.” She had thought in the past week his pallor had seemed much improved. He had even eaten some of the small sandwiches that she had asked Giselle to prepare.

  “Let us just enjoy ourselves right here, at this moment,” he said. By now, Charles had become an expert in changing the subject anytime Marthe tried to discuss his health.

  He took a hand and placed it between her thighs. “Never mind this Boldini,” he said playfully. “He might paint those lips of yours.” Charles kissed her on the mouth. “But I get to see you at your most beautiful.”

  She felt his fingers enter her.

  He touched her so deftly. A smile came over her, and she closed her eyes.



  October 1939

  That autumn in Paris proved to be the last months of mass delusion about the impending war. I had never seen so many lines at the cinema as movies had become the perfect two-hour tonic for those who wanted to forget reality. Instead of sitting in my favorite café with my journal, even I would take my two sous and spend it on a movie ticket instead of a cup of coffee.

  By the end of September, Warsaw had surrendered, and Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland between themselves, forcing the former government to flee to London.

  As the headlines blared the latest news of the Soviet troops arriving en masse in Latvia and the French troops retreating to the Maginot Line in anticipation of a German invasion, the average French person seemed more concerned with the emptiness in their stomachs. We all dreamt of butter and sugar ever since the glass cases in the local boulangeries appeared nearly barren. In one bakery, only baguettes and a few rustic boules of bread lined the wicker baskets. Gone were the trays of tarts and chocolate cakes. Instead of sweets, the baker had only a basket of bruised fruit to offer. Overhead, we saw the silver wings of airplanes, though not yet the iron cross of the

  My father had begun to stockpile penicillin, a new drug he believed would be as valuable as gold as the war progressed. I watched as he brought a few precious vials home to the apartment and stored them in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.

  “All the boys your age will now be drafted, Solange,” he informed me over dinner one night. “Conscription begins at nineteen.”

  I shook my head. It was terrible to imagine that so many of the boys I had attended school with would now be sent off to fight. I could only imagine the pain in their mothers’ hearts.

  “How horrible for the families of these boys, who are expected to become men and soldiers overnight,” Papa went on.

  I nodded. My mind wandered to Alex and his father. Alex had to be at least nineteen.

  “You’ll be safe from the draft, though . . . won’t you?” I asked. Papa was no longer a young man, and I couldn’t imagine him being asked to fight.

  He didn’t answer me at first. His eyes seemed to be focused elsewhere, perhaps remembering when he was drafted decades before when he was only in his twenties.

  “I doubt I’ll be called to fight, but there will be a great need for pharmacists on the front to help administer medicine. Or I could be called to assist in one of the military hospitals. It’s hard to predict what will happen.”

  I knotted my hands together. The anxiety of the unknown was a burden that nearly everyone in France now shared. Everyone except Marthe. I had started seeing her nearly every day, and when I left our apartment to visit her, I took note of the changes of the people around me. Women wrapped themselves in the protection of their shawls, and men reached into their pockets only to retrieve a few coins for the latest newspaper edition. The hands of children were clasped tighter in their mothers’ grasp. Under the gaslights, lovers pressed against each other, their kisses frantic as though they might be their last.

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