The velvet hours, p.11
The Velvet Hours, p.11Alyson Richman
I found my own life to be without interest, while the lives of those around me I could ponder for hours. I saw everything through the lens of someone perpetually on the outside. And I wondered if this was the curse of those who aspired to write.
So I continued to pass through the streets with my notebook pressed to my chest, my eyes firmly focused on my surroundings.
I now walked through the doors of Marthe’s apartment knowing she was expecting me with my pen and paper in hand. The chapters of her story were beginning to accumulate, the characters now forming themselves on the page. My head was spinning with anticipation, as I waited to hear her tell about Monsieur Boldini and the creation of Marthe’s portrait.
The artist had handed her a small card just before he left her apartment that stated his address.
41 Boulevard Berthier
She clutched it, staring at the black embossed print before turning it over, where she discovered the painter had left her a small surprise—a quick drawing of her in profile. In a few deft strokes, he had captured her long neck, her straight jaw, and a few tendrils of her hair. His departure that first afternoon had left her intrigued. They had discussed so much more than just her portrait, and she was eager to see him again and learn what else they might have in common. Perhaps he even shared her secret love of the erotic shunga prints. Marthe secretly tucked those thoughts into the back of her mind.
He had suggested she visit him at his studio on Wednesday, and she had waited anxiously for the two days in between. But the day had finally arrived, and she awakened full of excitement. Being that the space was owned by John Singer Sargent, Marthe wondered if the artist had painted his scandalous portrait of Amélie Gautreau within the same walls in which she herself would now be depicted.
Sargent’s portrait had captured both the light and the darkness of its muse. Gautreau’s luminous white skin was in stark contrast to her dress’s black bodice. But this effect had given Gautreau a severity—a cold beauty—and Marthe imagined herself being portrayed with more softness.
She now stood in front of her wardrobe pondering what dress she should wear in her portrait.
Her fingers reached out and touched the long skirts of her various gowns. There was one in particular that she loved and which she thought Boldini might enjoy painting. It was one of her most sumptuous dresses, her first and only one purchased from the famous Callot Soeurs—four sisters who had created one of the most fashionable couture shops in Paris. Marthe had coveted their dresses since her own days as a seamstress. She pulled the bodice and skirt from her armoire and pressed it against her body. The color of the silk was a deep rose. It seemed like yesterday she had visited the store on the Rue Taitbout and discussed the details of the dress with the most talented of the four sisters, Marie.
Marie had suggested the silk charmeuse. The elder sister had taken the bolt of fabric from the shelf, and pulled out a length of the fabric for Marthe to examine.
“It has what we call an iridescent,” Marie informed her. “It’s semiopaque . . . Think of it like the sun and the moon.” She placed her fingers under the fabric and showed how the color changed from dark to light when she moved her hand.
“It’s especially beautiful when you walk,” Marie went on. “The fabric has its own vitality . . . a certain magic, shall we say?”
Marie remained completely unaware that her client had been a former seamstress herself and knew very well the gifts such a fabric would lend to a dress.
“Come near the window,” she had sweetly instructed Marthe. “You see how it has its own shimmer? The warp and the weft of the silk are woven in opposite directions to create the effect.”
Marthe touched the fabric between her fingers and nodded. “Yes, it will make a magnificent dress.”
Marie then showed her a pale seashell pink organza for the sleeves. Marthe touched the stiff silk fabric and knew right away the dazzling effect it would have as the material stood away from her shoulders. “We’ll make them voluminous—like two sunbursts—to accentuate the narrowness of the bodice and skirt,” she said, her voice flush with creative excitement. “Let me go get some paper and a pen to show you.”
The drawing had been unnecessary, for Marthe could envision the gown with ease. The contrast between the two fabrics, the feather-like effect of the sleeves, and the lines of her body revealed through the lines of the dress.
Now as she brought the gown up against her body, Marthe smiled. Just as Marie had promised, the dress possessed its own magic. The sleeves were extravagant with several tiers of ruffles, the pigeon-breast bodice tight and plunging with two rows of lace sewn down its front. When she moved, the fabric reflected a thousand different shades.
That’s what she wanted Boldini to capture with his paintbrush, not just the curves of her figure or the angles of her chiseled features. Marthe wanted to show how she could become transformed—shifting from opacity to transparency—a woman emerging from the shadows, resplendent when the light struck her. She imagined the portrait to have the capacity to illuminate an entire room.
The Callot Soeurs had charged a small fortune for the gown, but now the cost would be well worth it. Already she could imagine herself walking into Boldini’s studio, his eyes capturing her even before his brush touched his palette. She knew he would react to the first sight of her in the dress, that his imagination would immediately be stirred. He would bring her to life on the canvas. He would show her as she saw her collection of porcelains. A woman comprised of a thousand different glazes. A woman of both fire and softness, one filled with her own shadow and light.
Now that she had chosen the perfect ensemble, Marthe was determined to perfect the rest of the finishing touches. So after Giselle had fastened the dress and wrapped the jeweled sash around her waist, Marthe sat down at her vanity and applied a little rouge to her cheeks and a deep shade of pink to her lips. She piled her long sheets of auburn hair high above her head, pinning it so her slender neck was revealed, and then reached for her priceless strand of pearls.
* * *
The coachman helped her down from the carriage when they arrived at the Boulevard Berthier. It was a rather unremarkable street with little splendor or luxurious facades unlike the Rue Fortuny, where Charles lived with Émilienne.
She pulled up the hem of her dress and walked toward the door. Outside she heard a newspaper boy screaming the most recent headlines about the Dreyfus trial. J’accuse! the newspaper blared. Earlier that morning on her way out, she could have sworn she heard an older boy scream, “Death to the Jews! Death to the traitor!”
Marthe cringed at the outbursts. Like most other political events, she had not concerned herself with the details of this latest scandal and, not knowing many Jewish people herself, she had little feelings toward them one way or the other. But the ugly words offended her sensibility. She loathed brutish behavior. She hurried toward the entrance and pressed the doorbell, anxious to enter the artist’s oasis, away from all the unsavory noise outside.
“Madame de Florian,” he said as he ushered her in. He was wearing a smock over his suit, and two paintbrushes emerged from one of its side pockets. “I’m so delighted you’ve come.”
“The pleasure is mine,” she said as she extended her hand. She watched as his lips hovered slightly over the skin of her glove, the kiss barely perceptible.
“May I take your cape?” She had selected an oyster gray silk velvet capelet with pink satin ribbons to wear over her upper body. As he slipped it from her shoulders, she smiled and fluffed up her sleeves. “Perhaps your hat, too?”
She reached above her head and unpinned the small marabou feather hat she had put on just before she left her apartment.
“Why, thank you.” Her voice revealed how much delight she took in his attention.
He placed the cape over his arm and made a sweeping gesture with her feathered hat. “Now please . . . if you’ll come this way.”
* * *
As she entered the large room with canvases set against the walls, the smell of oil paint and varnish struck her immediately. The strong vapors made her feel light-headed, but at the same time a renewed sense of vitality flowed through her.
“You’ve painted all these?” She gestured to the works around the room.
“Yes, they’re in different stages of completion . . . I move between paintings. So often when I return to one, I see it with fresh eyes.”
“It would be nice if we could do that with people . . . ,” she mused. “The distance might do us all some good.”
He paused for a moment as if studying her, gauging whether he should answer with a polite “indeed,” or to answer her more fully as though she were his artistic peer. He chose the latter. “Perspective is a tool used far too infrequently. If people had the courage to alternate their lens every now and then, the world would be a far more beautiful place.”
Marthe eyes met Boldini’s. “You’re quite right. We have magnifying glasses to read our letters, and opera spectacles for when we attend the theater . . . but we rarely look at our lives from another point of view.”
He remained quiet before answering her, but his momentary silence only served to increase Marthe’s adrenaline. She hadn’t realized how much she missed the tête-à-têtes she used to have with Charles before he became ill. Her life inside the apartment had been insular even before Charles’s sickness, but in recent weeks she had felt her mental energy might tire him, so she tried not to share every thought that raced through her mind. But now that she was in the company of Boldini, the chance to speak about art and the painter’s creative process made her feel more alive than she had in months.
“I think beneath that beautiful gown, the pearl collier, and the tumble of strawberry hair, you’re really an artist, Madame de Florian . . .” His green eyes narrowed behind the glass of his spectacles. “What you’ve just said to me now is something one of my painter friends would have expressed.”
She smiled. “Monsieur Boldini, you flatter me too much.” Marthe’s hand lightly touched her pearls. She could feel the clasp, which she had tucked beneath her hair, slide slightly around her neck.
“If I wanted to flatter you . . . I need only remark on your beauty. I wouldn’t have to bring art into the equation.”
Marthe flushed at his words.
“Now the challenge for me is to somehow convey all of this with my oil paints and brush. I cannot simply create a portrait that merely shows your likeness. I must also reveal your fire, your intelligence . . . your exuberance for life,” Boldini said, breaking the silence. “And that, Madame, will be a formidable challenge.”
This short man with the balding head, wire glasses, and narrow eyes had just taken her breath away.
“Well, let us begin, then,” she said as her eyes sparkled like two brightly colored stones.
* * *
“Why don’t you sit down?” Boldini suggested as he guided Marthe to a less crowded spot within the studio. In the corner, she noticed a pale taupe-colored love seat with scrolled white edges. A matching chair was positioned just across from it.
“I don’t have a servant to fetch us some tea, but I am capable of boiling water.”
“You are what they call a man of the modern age, then . . .” She laughed, then turned around to face the few bits of furniture. The light streamed from the tall windows that flanked one side of the room. Marthe could feel his eyes on her as she moved. She knew the fabric would play with the light as she walked.
“And you’d be equally welcome at home in any era, madame. It was obvious that it was that artistic eye of yours that led you to choose a fabric so evocative . . . The color shifts with each footstep.”
“Does it now?” she said, her voice feigning surprise at his remark. She paused by the love seat before reaching for skirt and train. She deftly shifted the abundant material to the side, so she wouldn’t be encumbered by the fullness.
“Should we even have tea?” He stopped himself for a moment. “Do we need such a formality between us? It would only be wasting time . . .”
He sat down across from her and leaned in. “What I really want to do is begin sketching you in that dress . . .” He raised both eyebrows. “Would that be quite wrong?”
“I think you already know, Monsieur Boldini, that I’m quite happy to forgo tea.”
A smile flashed over his face.
“I do believe it’s better we spend our time on the portrait than idly sipping tea.”
“You are a great sport, madame. Sacrificing the niceties for the sake of a painter’s insatiable appetite. Let me get my sketchbook.”
She watched as he proceeded to the far corner of the room where, amidst lots of papers, a stack of sketchbooks in varying sizes was piled high. He took one of the larger portfolios and a few stems of vine charcoal out from a long slender tin.
As Boldini walked back to where she was sitting, Marthe could feel her adrenaline escalating. He sat down and opened the pad on his lap.
“Turn your head to the left, please,” he instructed.
As she turned, the ruffles of her sleeves fell beneath her shoulders, and she could feel the cool air of the room strike her breasts.
He had not yet put the charcoal to paper. Instead, his head remained lifted slightly above the sketchbook, and he studied her as though he were making an appraisal of something of considerable value.
She lifted her chin to ensure the lines of her profile were as sharp as a knife’s edge. But instead of the expected sound of his charcoal hitting the paper, she heard him placing his sketchbook down on the floor.
He stood up. “I just need to make a few adjustments.” He came closer to her and she could feel his hands adjust her necklace. He slid its clasp to the back of her neck and then pressed his hands on the ruffles of her sleeves, pulling them deeper over her arms and revealing more of her bare shoulders.
“There,” he said as he placed a finger underneath her chin. His hand felt like a lit match. “That’s much better.”
He went back to his chair, opened his sketchbook, and began drawing. The sound of the charcoal finally moving along the paper was thrilling to her—like the wings of a bird first taking flight.
Charles now appeared ghostlike to Marthe. In the three months since she first noticed his illness, he seemed to have transformed from a tall, elegant figure to one shrunken with pain. Even though it was now April, he shuddered from the cold. Marthe had to ask Giselle to keep a fire going in the parlor just to keep him warm.
His complexion was no longer gray or ashen, but yellow. She suspected jaundice, for even the whites of his eyes now also appeared the color of custard. And perhaps even more alarming, he no longer had the appetite to even disrobe and lie in her butterfly bed.
They instead settled into a quiet routine of companionship. He would arrive wrapped in a long coat and hat, his pipe clutched between bone-white hands. Her skin would still be warm from her morning bath as she embraced him, his cheeks cold as she cupped them in her hands.
Despite his illness, Charles’s ability to absorb Marthe’s beauty had not diminished. He savored the sight of her in her transparent silks. He inhaled her perfume as though she were his own rose garden.
Sometimes she caught him staring at her in such a way that it reminded her of the way Boldini now studied her.
He had surprised her the last time he visited, when he confided to her that when he was a young boy, his governess had told
“I used to draw birds,” he told her as he threaded her fingers into his own.
“We had so many at the estate. And even though the larger birds, like the pheasants and the hawks, were the most majestic, I always gravitated toward the tinier ones, like the wrens and sparrows. I loved that they were so small you could hold them in your hands.”
She had smiled and closed her eyes, imagining Charles as a little boy with a sketchbook. She envisioned him looking like his son when she had seen him that day outside his home. The thin legs poking out of wool shorts, the white shirt and suspenders. What an endearing image of him sitting cross-legged in the garden of his family estate drawing birds.
“So now you know why I thought of you as my little dove.” His eyes looked at her softly.
It hadn’t surprised her that Charles had exhibited artistic talent when he was young. She knew that he had decorated her apartment, the scattering of objets d’art, the mirrors, and the furniture that was upholstered in the softest, most sensual hues. Those were not skills of a banker, but of one with a keenly trained eye.
“Why did you stop drawing if it brought you so much pleasure?” She tightened her fingers around his. They were both so relaxed now, she didn’t want him to fall asleep.
He let out a deep sigh and she felt her hand fall with his sinking chest. “My father, I suppose. He started taking me out to shoot. Never the small birds, but the pheasants and the grouse on the property. My life became less tranquil after that . . .” His voice trailed off. “By the time I was sent off to boarding school, I no longer had the peace of mind to lose myself in drawing.”
“How sad,” she said. “I would have very much liked to have you draw me.”
He laughed. “I’ve hired the best to do that . . . and a painting, not just a little pencil sketch!”
The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes