The Portrait of Henry James
The face…..sharp aquiline nose like a ridge waving down to the curved hard lips, a peculiar symmetrical chin between the cheeks, the high cheekbones leading up to the temples, a drawn look in the grey eyes mixed with desire and danger and the hair drawn back showing a broad forehead…he was obsessed with the face.
Monsieur! Monsieur! the maid calls him
The artist, a lean, thin man in his late thirties, opens the door and the young maid enters. Looking pretty in a pale blue dress and white apron, blonde hair rolled back to a bun, she flashes a smile. Adrien returns to the face again – a shade of darkness on the painting disturbs him and he gets up and pulls the curtains to let the sunshine trickle, a blank almost casual stare at the overlooking Place de la Bastille, a few yards away from his studio and he returns to his brush.
‘Ce que avec ceci?’ the maid got some croissants from the kitchen and was asking what to do with them
‘C’est pour vous, prennent ceux’, he asks her to take them with her. She smiles.
She emerges from the kitchen with the croissants neatly placed in a brown packet.
‘Au revoir’, she smiles again and leaves.
Adrien watches her go as she shakes her hips a little and then concentrates on the painting again. He has seen this man only once, this man whom he is painting and Adrien, the artist, was a seeker of this face that caught his attention on the Paris subway and he followed this man until he disappeared amidst the crowd in Montmartre . Adrien lost him, he dreamt of a face for many years and this was the face he dreamt of, and he found him one Sunday evening and then he lost him. That night, Adrien cried like a baby. ‘Je l'ai perdu’….I lost him…he was saying to himself.
Yet it was just a face he dreamt of and he took his brush and painted it, it was in his head for too many years and then on the subway and then on the canvas. He was in love with the face, it was very peculiar, handsome and the kind that leaves a lasting impression, it never left him in his dreams and not in his life too. It was the face of a man in his late thirties, sharp and well defined as if the emotions could be very well expressed through the face. The face was impressionable and impressive at the same time and that was its peculiarity.
Adrien starts working on the portrait again. The face was almost like his yet not his, it is sharper, has more piercing eyes the edges being better defined and it gripped him like an obsession. He thought of it all the time. He worked on a few more touches, the dark edges, the slight crease near the eye, the turns in the right ear, the sharp cut on the upper lip…..he breathed heavily and sat on his bed….he has to find this man again, the man to whom this face belongs, somehow….
And he found him. At the Musée d'Orsay, Adrien was lost in a Renoir when he saw the man again, the same sharp face, the piercing eyes…
‘Est-ce que je peux vous parler pendant un moment?’ Adrien moved forward and asked softly
‘English?’ The man replied
‘Of course, of course. You speak English. I was asking whether I can talk to you for a while?’
‘Oh yes, why not?’ The man did not look too surprised, as if he was expecting Adrien’s approach.
‘Shall we go to the café?’ Adrien suggested and the man nodded.
The waitress placed an espresso and a latte on the table. After sipping on the espresso, Adrien looked up. ‘I have something to show you, can you come with me to my studio? I live near Place de la Bastille.’ The man smelt of old wine. He agreed to Adrien’s suggestion immeadiately. Somehow he too was curious about the artist. He excused himself that he had to make a call, and then returned after a while while Adrien was already impatient to go.
Adrien’s studio was anything but clean and was strewn with rags, smudged paints, beer cans, cigarette stubs, torn canvases, broken frames. ‘Sorry about the mess, I do have a maid who is not allowed to clean’ Adrien smiled, the man was examining the portrait with curiosity.
‘Is this me or you?’ the man asked with some confusion
‘Yes we look similar don’t we? that is so strange. But the face is not mine, if you see properly, that’s yours, that’s how I want to look like, that’s what I always wanted to look like, you are handsome’.
‘Thank you, but how did you paint me? You haven’t seen me before?’
‘I have seen you before in my dreams, on the subway, I followed you into Montmartre and then lost you. I was glad to find you again today at the Musée. I did not expect it.’
‘So why did you bring me here? To show this?’
‘I believe we have a connection’, Adrien lit a cigarette and looked up with piercing eyes , a sharper face and an aquiline nose that moved its way to the well defined chin…he was becoming the face….’what’s your name?’
‘Haha...you never asked me that , did you? I'm Henry, Henry James'.
'I'm Adrien'. They shook hands, a bit too late perhaps.
The man flashed a peculiar smile as Adrien stared hard at him, too hard.
Monsieur! Monsieur! next morning the maid knocked at the door but found it unlocked.
Surprised, she opened it wide, entered the studio silently and with unease. She sensed a stale smell of paint, cigarettes and blood. The room was somehow different, not the usual one she entered into. It was too dark for her to see and she pulled the curtains apart and opened the windows to let in fresh air. The artist was seated on a chair in a blue shirt and blue trousers with the head turned towards a side and his face could not be seen.
‘Monsieur, êtes-vous bien ?’ the maid asks whether he is fine and the artist does not reply. She turns the face towards her with her hands and finds….blood. Screaming, she runs out of the studio.
‘So Nicolas, this was your brother, Adrien an artist, but the portrait here on the canvas is signed as Henry James’.
‘Yes’, Nicolas, Adrien’s brother looks grim as he answers the police officer. Nicolas has blue eyes and a flatter face and chin than Adrien. He stares blankly at the people in the studio and the body of the artist. He continues with an emotionless voice, ‘Henry James was his pseudonym, he used that name for signing all his paintings, Henry was my brother’s alter ego, Adrien was obsessed with Henry. Henry represented everything beautiful and positive that Adrien did not have. Henry was a more handsome version of him and more successful, an art dealer. Henry was Adrien’s dream and Adrien looked for him everywhere but Henry was simply a figment of his imagination. Adrien believed that Henry exists and he will meet him someday that Henry and his destiny was linked but that was his madness and also his inspiration. This portrait was Henry’s, the beautiful version of Adrien’s own face, but this is his self portrait. We spoke to a psychiatrist who told us that Adrien’s obsession with Henry might lead to something fatal and this is it’. Nicolas looks devastated as he utters his statement without pausing and all the time he continues to stare at the face of the artist now distorted and pale and smashed badly. The artist has apparently smashed his own face.
Probably out of hatred. That’s what everyone thought.
The portrait was still in the room where the face glowed bright under the direct morning sunlight and that peculiar curved smile of the face looked even more cynical and mysterious…
A police officer in London was talking to a young lady ‘What was his name you said?’
‘Henry James. My husband, an art dealer, he went to Paris two months ago and was supposed to return last month and he didn’t. He hasn’t replied to any of my phone calls. I simply want to know what happened to him’. The young lady looked distraught, dishevelled and in despair. She wore thin rimmed glasses and her straight brown hair touched her shoulders.
‘Mrs. James I understand your impatience, this report will be sent to Scotland Yard headquarters and then we have to collaborate with the French police to acquire information about your husband. When was the last time you spoke with him?' the young very handsome policeman showed some concern.
'I spoke with him two months ago when he was going to visit an artist Adrien at his studio.'
'We will try our best to help you'.
The lady buried her face in her hands, unable to control her tears.
A few months later, in a small studio in Venice , an artist was painting the face of a beautiful young woman. The dark-haired brown eyed woman was seated on a sofa in a red dress as the artist worked on a piece of canvas.
‘Did you ever paint a face before?’ she asked, straightening the crease of her dress
‘Of course I did, I’ve been obsessed with a face all my life’, the painter looked up, he had a peculiar mysterious seductive smile with curved upper lips, a sharp aquiline nose leading to a symmetrical chin between the lips and high cheekbones to the temples, between piercing grey eyes reflecting danger and desire……
He handed the portrait to the young woman 'Quello è per voi, that’s for you’.
‘Grazie’ the woman thanked the artist and smiled. She touched the edges of the canvas with an appreciating look, marveling at the beauty of her own face and spent a moment on the signature. ‘That’s how you sign your name? Interesting’. She stood up to leave.
The sounds of a gondola passing through the waters almost drowned her musical voice when she opened the door to let in the faint water-dripped moonlight of narrow Venetian streets and she turned around to look at him again.
‘I shall meet you again, Mr. Henry James’.
The artist's lips curved to a strange, almost wicked smile.
Copyrighted material - Saberi Roy, October 20, 2007
For permission to use, contact the author
Copyrighted material - Saberi Roy, October 20, 2007
For permission to use, contact the author.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Saberi Roy.
Published on e-Stories.org on 20.10.2007.