Fair Women, by Wm Sharp
I DO not know how it was, but after the clock had struck six at the Grafton Gallery on the day of the private view, I found myself there still in deserted rooms. The last private-viewer had gone; the directors and secretaries and assistants and collaborators had shaken hands and departed rejoicing; even the hall porter, after having locked and bolted the front door, had disappeared.
I cannot say how long I brooded over this unexpected derangement of my plans, but presumably for some time; for all at once I became aware that the rooms were dark, and that I was alone without any knowledge of where the electric light could be turned on, if electric light there were--alone, without even a match.
The situation to some extent resembled that of Don Juan when he found himself in the Sultan's harem at Stamboul. But then, though I too was surrounded by a superfluity of Fair Women, there was a marked distinction. Besides, even if the ladies were alive, or if any one could come to life at the touch of mortal hand, it was profoundly dark, and I might touch the wrong person. On canvas I had much admired the technical presentment of certain dames with whom, however, it would be no pleasure to have a further acquaintanceship--Maria Voogt Claasdr, for example, or Cornelis Janssen's fair Hollander.
I was uncertain even in what room I stood, but, strange to say, was conscious of the fact that the portraits had become actualized, were alive. Had I realized that I was in the Centre Room, I might have found my way to a friendly picture with whom (it would be rude to say "which") I might have had some interesting conversation. But I think I dreaded Maria Voogt Claasdr, or Queen Elizabeth as "Diana," or even the fair but too impulsive Jane Elizabeth Digby.
All perplexity, however, was speedily solved. In a moment there was a brilliant illumination. Obviously this was no kindly consideration on the part of the returned porter, for the glow was entirely diffused from the light in innumerable beautiful eyes, and from the gleam of jewels upon white arms and breasts. I saw then, to my bewilderment, that I was not in the Octagon Room, but in the Centre Gallery. It was with only vague curiosity, however, I noted the great enlargement of this room, both in width and length. All the bric-A-brac cases had been removed, and a small company of ladies was moving to and fro, chatting and laughing.
There was no mistaking Queen Victoria, as Von Angeli had painted her. I made an obeisance, and again to the beautiful, wistful-eyed Princess Alix, but was less ready with a lady who at that moment stepped down from frame No. 103. As she seemed somewhat perturbed at my not at once bowing low before her, I looked to see who she was, and discovered her an early Richmond, and no other than the future Queen of England. "I had always thought the Princess beautiful as well as distinguished," I murmured to myself in excuse.
At first it looked as though all the ladies in the room had come down from their frames; but soon I saw this was not so, and that I was assisting at a gathering of modem paintings only. With a start of surprise I noticed there were a few gentlemen present, among whom were Sir Frederick Leighton and several of his confréres, including M. Boldini from Paris, though this was nothing compared with my astonishment when I became aware of the charming unconventionality that prevailed. Every lady appeared exactly as she was painted, and no one seemed astonished at any informality; in fact, there was no embarrassment even among the gentlemen, except in three instances. Mr. Calderon looked confused and very uneasy when Aphrodite advanced towards him laughingly, and begged him to run and fetch a towel, as she was still dripping from her delightful dip in the Ionian sea; Mr. Poynter distinctly flushed when, hearing someone calling to him, he glanced round and perceived the pretty young girl, clothed only with a fan, whom he had painted as High Noon. She had perched herself on the top of a heavy frame in lieu of the rocks, whence she indolently crawled. As for the President, I noted that he avoided the corner where the lady of the frigidarium stood calmly inspecting her reflection in the bath-water; indeed, he did not at any time seem anxious to meet even his beautiful Corinna of Tanagra. Probably they had had some slight disagreement in the studio concerning the length of her eyelashes or certain details of her dress.
However, I understood how one might prefer new acquaintances. There were several ladies whom I had met before, but towards whom my ardour had cooled. So far back as twelve years ago I remembered having almost fallen in love with a Fair Woman introduced to public notice by Rossetti under the name of Veronica Veronese. Years had passed since I had looked into an art record, of which in my youth I had been guilty, but in a flash I recollected my crude rhapsodizings. There Veronica was, however, seated near her frame, and listening to her canary. How I remember that fowl! Did I not write of it, more scoticé, "The latter is a pure yellow canary" and did not an amused critic demand what right I had to cast any imputation upon the morality of canaries in general by this obtrusive insistence on the purity of the Rossettian bird?
I looked at her now from a changed standpoint. There could be no question but that, for myself at least, I had overrated her artistic charm, though that she had charm as well as beauty is not to be gainsaid. Overcoming my shyness, I went up to her. After a brief conversation, wherein Veronica remarked that she feared there was only one critic left who would wax enthusiastic about her charms, and even his eloquence was no longer as burning as it was, notwithstanding unremitting practice in a leading periodical, I asked her who Girolama Ridolfi was, and where one could procure the Lettres whence came the extract which Rossetti had placed on the lower part of her frame.
For a moment she smiled, and the pure yellow canary stopped its incessant living-up to its designation of l'oiseau inspirateur.
"Girolama Ridolfl," she said, "was a young man who lived in the same haunted house as Chiaro dell' Erma, Chiaro of Hand and Soul, you remember? His Lettres would, I am afraid, be as difficult to find as that triptych in Dresden or that picture in the Pitti palace of which my father-in-art gave so fascinating an account."
I was the more interested in this confirmation of my suspicion as that very day I had been snubbed by a fellow art-critic who, on my asking him as we stood before Veronica Veronese who Ridolfi was, had replied with mingled surprise at my ignorance and in easy surety of knowledge, "Oh, Ridolfi? Why,the famous Girolama Ridolfi, of course, who wrote the Lettres, you know."¹
¹ As I have seen the French quotation in question attributed seriously to "the medieval writer Ridolfi," I may as well say definitely here that Rossetti himself told me he had written these imaginary words of the imaginary Ridolfi.
It was with pleasure I turned to the bright and winsome Lavinia who had strolled from beneath the warm lights and shadows of the tree where G. D. Leslie had seen and painted her. It may be a bourgeois taste, but I admit that I preferred this wholesome, sunny, sweet-natured young Englishwoman to her more aesthetic neighbour with the canary. Glancing back at the canvas itself, it seemed to me one of the best open-air pictures that Leslie ever painted, and to show the thorough skill and knowledge of that fine English artist who it has long been the fashion to depreciate.² If Lavinia was as gentle in voice and manner as her smiles and expression would naturally indicate, there was a contrast at hand in the person of a very pretty but rather pettish girl who stood biting a long wisp of hair which she had snatched from her tangled wavy locks. I remembered a drawing by Mr. Frederick Sandys called Proud Maisie, and it was easy to recognise the original. I did not speak, however; and also passed, without more than a bow, a lady of great fame both in the ancient and the modern world. In truth I had at home a Shakesperian portrait of "Egypt" that was far preferable to the Hebraically-handsome personage whom I overheard complaining to her beautiful and stately neighbour, Corinna of Tanagra, that she wished either Mr. Alma Tadema or Sir Henry Thompson would remove the offensive Op. cxlvi. which is painted on her canvas. "I am not a piece of music," added Cleopatra, "nor do I care to be labelled as though I were the hundred and forty-sixth work for sale."
² The reader interested in the subject will find the best account of Leslie and his art in the essay by Mr. P. G. Hamerton in Thoughts about Art.
It was a gratification to meet Corinna. In the flrst place, her beauty is remarkable, and of a rare type. Then rumour has declared for centuries that she was not less distinguished as a poetess than celebrated for her loveliness. Psappha the Lesbian, Erinna of Telos, Corinna of Tanagra---three song-sweet names with magic in them still! To meet the rival of Pindar was no small honour, but I adniit that I would have rejoiced in her beauty had she been "nobody." The opportunity for settling one or two matters was too good to be lost. Hence, after a tribute of homage which it was impossible to resist paying, I asked her whether she really came from Tanagra, or from Thebes, as some have asserted.
"There was no question of the kind in my day," she replied coldly. "Everyone knew that Corinna was called 'Corinna of Tanagra.' Possibly some too-appreciative historian in Thebes has claimed me as a citizen."
"Just so; as to this day enthusiasts dispute concerning the birthplace of Homer, the character and importance and number of writings of Sappho, and other matters of extreme interest to all lovers of ancient literature. You will forgive the adjective, Corinna, but you know that in our hurried age we apply the term 'ancient' somewhat loosely."
"Do not disturb yourself, I pray. From all I have seen and heard I have no wish to be other than antique. But now you must forgive me. I wish to speak to a lady who is also, I understand, a daughter of the Muses, or at any rate is one who has earned repute by her pen. Her father-in-art, M. Boldini, has just informed me that I must meet my only possible rival."
"Ah, you mean---"
"Yes, that lady in black. I thought at first she was Lamia. She has a serpentine grace that charms me when she moves to and fro, but I must say that when she sits in the manner in which M. Boldini has painted her I am perplexed. Women of old stood when they stood, and sat when they sat; but this Fair Woman--to use your phrase, though I note that her type of beauty is dark, as it was in my own time--seems, as she reclines, to dispose very uncomfortably of what I believe it is the vogue now to allude to as the lower limbs. Will you introduce me to her?"
"I will introduce her to you with pleasure, Corinna, if you will only be good enough to answer one or two little questions which I may not again have an opportunity to ask. Now, about Pindar"
"Excuse me, we who are only visitors to the Old Country cannot discuss others who, like ourselves, are no longer residents here."
"Tell me, at least, whether Ælian is right in his statement that you won the bardic victory over Pindar no fewer than five times; or is Pausanias correct in his declaration that you contested only once with that famous Doric poet?"
Corinna looked at me somewhat disdainfully.
"I have heaxd about this Pausanias. He averred that I strove only once with my pupil Pindar, and that my victory was due to my beauty, which biassed the judges, and also to the fact that my lyric verse was chanted in the Aolic, and so was better understood of my auditory than Pindar with his unquestionably very beautiful Doric measures. Well, let me assure you that Pausanias was wrong. I excelled by virtue of the merit of my verse. I would scorn to succeed because of the accident of good looks."
"That, Corinna, has been said by every beautiful woman who has come into the world."
"You do not believe me?"
"Do not speak so coldly, beautiful Corinna. I ask you to turn and look at the canvas you have just left. Is not the phantom of you that Sir Frederick has fixed there enough to missuade the judgment of poor weak men? There are many fair women here at this moment, and some whose moral worth is superlative, yet what man could refuse to award to you the--"
"One moment. Would you give me the palm of beauty over, say, the serpentine lady, over your fin-de-siécle Lamia, of whom M. Boldini is the father-in-art?"
It was awkward, for at this moment M. Boldini and Lady Colin Campbell came close to us. There are times when the bravest of men is a coward. I am not the bravest of men, and I had not even a temptation to be honest at all cost. Like George Washington, I had no hesitation about a lie. It was not for nothing I had been in the habit of visiting the studios of popular painters. With ready tact I changed the subject.
"Ah, you must meet each other! The Antique and the Modern World! Serpentina, you must allow me to introduce you to the celebrated Corinna, of Tanagra, the instructor and rival and master of Pindar, the author of five volumes of imperishable verse,³ and the most beautiful woman of that wonderful fifth century before our Christian era. Corinna, permit me to---"
³A polite fiction; the five volumes once existed, it is true, but were irretrievably lost, probably more than 2,000 years ago. Only a few authentic fragments of the writings of this famous poetess have been preserved.
At that moment, unfortunately, M. Boldini seized me by the arm. When I released myself, the two fair women were already in animated conversation, the one tall and as dignified as the Venus of Milo, the other no longer with her garments so twisted about her as to suggest that she had girt herself for a dance, but now a fitting rival to her companion.
There was nothing for it but to resign myself to my new interlocutor.
"Heavens! my friend," he exclaimed, "what do these painters of yours---Rossetti, Watts, Burne-Jones---mean? They seem to me to paint portraits of portraits, not of living women. There is no inside. Each of these aesthetic and academical women I have seen here and at the Academy is as manufactured as dear old Villiers' Hadaly. You remember her, the automatic heroine of L'Eve Future?¹ Look at this Circe of your Sir Edward. Has he ever seen sails at sea that he has painted them in this impossible fashion?"
¹L'Eve Future, by Villiers de I'lsle Adam; a remarkable romance based on the actual and imagined electrical inventions of Mr. Edison, with a beautiful automatic woman as heroine.
I was thankful that he spoke in a low voice; also that he did not understand English. For just behind us were Mr. Watts and the painter of Circe, and they were discussing the strange mental condition of those French impressionists who, because of a brilliant cleverness of a mechanical kind, believe that they and they alone possess the secret of true Art.
"They are the talented journalists of Art, not her poets, her sages," said the one.
"They are society-paper paragraphists who wish to be thought Thackeray," remarked the other.
"Which is the truth, President?" some one asked at that moment of the well-known personage who strolled by, with a nod for everyone.
"The truth? In Art all is truth that is truthful. This is a profound thought. At Burlington House there are many mansions. We have had deceased British artists who in the flesh would not speak to each other. Some winter---far off I hope---there will be a Watts Exhibition, also, I need hardly say, a Burne-Jones Exhibition. Ah! my dear Sir John, we were just saying that the Millais Exhibition, which must one winter---far remote I trust---be the chief attraction at Burlington House--ah, you here, Monsieur Boldini! This is an unexpected pleasure. But a second ago we were saying that the presence among us of men like yourself is not only most welcome, but is an added stimulus to emulation---"
At that moment the parroquet which was perching on the shoulder of a young lady who had passed from a frame labelled Love Birds flew to the graceful and lovely Iris, whom I remembered having met in Mr. Shannon's studio. The incident, trivial as it was, distracted my attention. Iris, I thought, looked tired and bored; in fact, she admitted, in, a whisper, that this was the case.
"Why should Mr. Shannon send me here?" she added, "though perhaps it is not his doing after all. He must know that some of my easel-sisters would care more for this kind of thing, and certainly be much more appreciated. The Marchioness of Granby--- of course you remember her at the Grosvenor some years ago---she ought to be here; and, by the way, you must look at her lovely little drawings."
I am afraid I heard no more, if any more were said---which is unlikely, as Iris was already in a reverie, a dream as white and lovely as her own white and lovely self. For just then I was dazzled by the sheen and glitter of Miss Ellen Terry's gorgeous Lady Macbeth apparel. She came forward arm in arm with Mme. Sara Bernhardt, laughing consumedly, much more in the manner of Rosalind than of the grim spouse of the Thane of Cawdor.
"Oh, have you seen my father-in-art, Mr. Sargent? No? I do so want to get hold of him. He has always said that some dreadful malformation underlay that glove on Miss Grant's right arm and hand; and now she is about to reveal the mystery! You know Miss Grant, don't you? You must have met her at Professor Herkomer's. Well, she is tired to death, she says, of the critics who will draw attention to what she admits to be a shortcoming, but is nothing so very dreadful after all; and now that Professor Herkomer is busy at Bushey, she is going to take the opportunity of settling the matter. Do you see that robust brunette? She is a daughter of the Lagunes, whom Mr. Luke Fildes brought over with him from Venice. I admire the way in which these two Fair Women stick by each other. Each is such an admirable foil to the other. Ah, there is Veronica Veronese's canary! Catch it! catch it!"
But at this the spell came to an end.
The lovely glow waned; the figures became confused ; there was even, it appeared to me, an unseemly scramble in front of a score or so of frames. The swish of a long serpentine black dress came right across my eyes, as I staggered against the dissolving shadow of M. Boldini. Then all was darkness, and I knew no more.