Sunday, November 22, 2009

The woman who wasn't happy

The woman sits in three-quarters face, the right side of her face toward me, looking out the corners of her eyes at me. Her hair is an incredible vermilion, a lock in front has been pulled back and secured at her crown with a barrette, and mercilessly bleached. Her lips are sensual, her cheeks thin. She is wearing a blue t-shirt. She is not happy. She is definitely not happy. Sadness shows in the dark blue rings under her eyes, discontent in the pout of her mouth, anger in her gaze.

I'm a little startled to realize that the artist herself , or the husband she met in art school fifty years ago, framed the painting. It is complete, though in places the paint barely covers the canvas. The woman and her frame of mind have been captured in the absolute minimum of brush strokes—more here on the forehead, fewer under the eyes, just a few strokes delineate the shirt. The mouth is perfectly, fully drawn in a few deft strokes of pink and red.

The background is mostly a detail-less tan-brown, except for three short horizontal strokes of dark blue to the right of her face. They might have been abstracted from a window sill or fence rail, but now they are emotion or aura or waves of alarm the painter felt in the face of this unhappiness.

The fact that the painting is framed, yet sitting in the studio after the artist is gone tells me that it was a gift rejected, and now I remember the story: The artist laughed uncomfortably. She had offered it, but the sitter didn't want it. "Too accurate," her husband had diagnosed. He meant it as consolation.

There were other occasions when the artist said her truth and was surprised by the reaction. She interceded between a father and his daughter when she thought the daughter was being abused. And again years later, she defended a different girl against her abusive mother, at Thanksgiving, causing a family brouhaha for which she seemed completely unprepared.

I imagine the unhappy woman sitting for the painting, having her portrait done by the kindly old artist, what she must have been hoping for. "Show me I'm beautiful." But truth, as the poet said, is beauty, art is about truth, and this old woman was an artist at the height of her powers. When she turned her gaze on a subject, kindness had nothing to do with it.