Anne Marie Byrne has recently retired from working as a student advisor in Dublin City University. She has attended Tanya Farrelly’s creative writing workshops at Purple House in Bray, Co Wicklow where this piece of flash fiction was developed.
Her research interests include criminology, incarceration, education and the role of drama in prisons. Her M.Phil thesis (Trinity College, Dublin) focused on the Theatre Project in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin and her Ph.D (Dublin City University) explored education for juvenile offenders in Ireland.
Her leisure interests include theatre, photography, reading, travel, cookery, swimming and enjoying nature, especially in her native county Wicklow.
Looking back on my career as an artist I sometimes wonder did it all really happen? Did it all happen to me? Was I really the creator of an enigma? It all seems such a far cry from the life that began as the eldest son of diamond merchant in Antwerp.
As a devout Christian I had set out to follow a career as a priest but my speech impediment and my natural shyness put paid to that ambition very soon after my ordination. My father had paid for my education in the seminary and despite warnings from my superiors that I might not fit the role of a religious leader my father had insisted that I graduate and be ordained, believing as he did that ‘God would provide’. After a trial period as a deacon in a small parish in a suburb of Leuven, the powers that be decided that the life of a pastor was not for me. Five years studying theology and developing an intimate knowledge of the Bible seemed to count for nothing and I was unceremoniously shown the door by my superiors. As a concession to my lost career and vocation I was sent to a monastery in rural France to contemplate my future. The monks in this establishment lived a simple life of prayer, singing plainchant and growing and preparing their own food. They ran two businesses in order to keep themselves self-sufficient. One was wine-making and the other was icon-writing and repairing. As it was not envisaged that I would stay longer than a year and I was not worth investing much valuable time in, I was not offered work in the winery where precision and expertise were valued but was instead given a menial position in the workshop of the iconographers. Grinding pigments from minerals and precious stones such as lapis lazuli as well as local clay and chalk was my main daily task at first. I also prepared the egg yolks for making tempera on a daily basis as fresh tempera had to be used every day and the iconographers liked to have a ready supply available. After a few weeks, when they realised that I was applying myself to the tasks set out for me and indeed taking the work seriously, the monks gradually gave me new tasks such as applying a cloth base to the wooden boards, sizing the boards with gesso or painting over the gesso with a dark background colour. To the craftsmen these were laborious chores and they were happy to let me expand my range of activities and even develop some skills. Spending time in the workshops gave me the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the theology, philosophy and mathematics behind the art of iconography. I learned how to read an icon, recognising the Virgin Mary by the ever present three stars in any representation of her – one always on her forehead and one on each of her shoulders. I knew that it was important that at least two eyes and one ear of the subject would be visible so that the sacred figure could always see and hear the viewer. Most importantly I learned that the use of multiple layers of ever lighter colours gave the icons a translucent quality that was their unique characteristic. The light in an icon came from within.
By the time my year of contemplation was up I was still not much clearer about my future prospects. I had enjoyed and benefitted from my time living the monastic life and learning the art of iconography from the masters. Now I felt that my calling was to art but I also felt the pull of the outside world. As I was in France and I knew Paris was the centre of the art world I set my sights on starting a new life there.
My younger brother Leo had escaped the constraints of our father’s conservative views, having been born ten years after me. Rather than being forced to follow a conventional path into religion or the law, Leo had been indulged by my mother and allowed to pursue a career in art. Initially apprenticed to a local artist where he spent most of his days grinding pigments, making stretchers for canvasses and painting backgrounds for his master to work on, Leo and I had inadvertently had a very similar internship but in very different milieus. Having served his time as an apprentice Leo had moved to Paris where he attended classes in the classical style of landscape painting and life drawing. At the same time he was greatly influenced by the new movements that were burgeoning among the young artists who were his companions, and who often painted outdoors and were given to representing ordinary people in their everyday situations.
Leo welcomed me to Paris and to his home. Even though we were brothers we were not particularly well acquainted up to this point. He was only a young child when I had been sent to boarding school and thereafter to the seminary. Of course, we had corresponded and met at holiday times but it would be true to say we were not particularly close. Nevertheless, we got on well and I was rapidly accepted into Leo’s circle of friends and associates. Soon I was churning out garish Parisian scenes for the tourist market. Bertrand, one of Leo’s friends had a stall on the Place du Tertre and he would display my paintings, taking a portion of the sale price as commission. This arrangement suited me well as it gave me a small amount to live on, which when added to the small allowance I got from my late father’s legacy was sufficient to get by on. When I could afford it I would attend life-drawing classes at one of the many studios that had developed around Montmartre at that time. Life drawing was both new and not new for me. Iconography had of course been representative of the human figure but I was used to the stylised depiction of the figures with their elongated features and subtle inner glow. In order to paint portraits in the modern idiom I had to learn new techniques that highlighted the natural features of the sitter without any cryptic symbolism or religious implication, without distortion or embellishment. In terms of technique too I had to adjust my methods. Rather than building up the layers of lighter and lighter shades, gradually revealing the inner spirituality of the holy subject, now I had to paint directly onto the canvas in oils or watercolours. Oils allowed for a certain amount of adjustment and could be built up to give texture but watercolours proved to be most difficult for me. They were not forgiving of any miscalculation or oversight and had to be applied precisely when and where they would suit the picture best. There was no margin of error with watercolours.
During that first year in Paris I worked hard, driven by the inner ambition to make something worthwhile of my life after my disastrous start. My brother enjoyed a successful enough career as a landscape painter and became more and more drawn to the developing principles of impressionism. He frequently joined with his friends on trips to the south of France where the light suited them so well. But I was more inclined to remain in Paris. There I continued to marry the classical principals with the lighter, freer panache of impressionism. With a comfortable living to be made from portraying dignitaries, bankers and military men there was often the opportunity to depict their wives and daughters too, usually as a gift for a special occasion such as an engagement or a birthday.
I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when or even precisely where I first became acquainted with the lady Vanessa, but I can say for sure that she is someone I shall never forget and never regret encountering. I believe she may have accompanied her husband, a popular and wealthy senator to several of his sittings at my studio. I may have come across her at one or other of the social gatherings that Leo and I frequented, a race meeting at Longchamps, a hunting party picnic in the Bois de Boulogne or perhaps at some ball given by one or other of my clients.
While the date of our first meeting is unclear, the impression she made on me is as vivid today as it was fifty years ago. She was tall and had an impressive stature, her porcelain skin contrasted sharply with her jet-black hair. She had a serenity about her that in combination with her long nose and rosebud lips immediately brought to mind one of the Greek icons I had laboured on in the monastery in France. It was easy to imagine her sitting with her head tilted to one side with a hand raised in blessing or tenderly holding an infant Christ. Every time I saw her I became more and more enthralled. I knew I wouldn’t rest until I could paint her portrait. I began to drop subtle hints to her husband, suggesting that it would be fitting to have a portrait of both himself and his wife hanging side by side. The approach of their tenth wedding anniversary provided the ideal occasion to commemorate with a pair of portraits and so it was decided that as soon as I completed the senator’s portrait I should begin one of his wife Vanessa.
Because I followed my desire to capture on canvas the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on you may be thinking that my quest was for more than a portrait of my muse. But you would be wrong; in fact it was she who developed a desire for me. At first she was demure and seemed almost reluctant to participate in the portrait project. After a few days, however, she seemed to relax and embrace the situation. I would almost say she became coquettish. I began to notice a slight blush when she entered my studio and often heard a deep sigh of regret when the session ended. Once or twice there was an accidental brush against my arm when I arranged her shawl. These are among the many hints and signs that Vanessa gave me to indicate an interest, perhaps even a willingness to take our relationship to another level. But it was not to be. I admired Vanessa but I did not desire her. The vow of celibacy that I had taken at my ordination was still strong with me as far as sex with women was concerned. It had provided me with both an aid to abstinence and an excuse not to get involved. My interests lay elsewhere as it happens but I had no intention of pursuing my true desires in the murky underworld of nineteenth century Paris. There had been dalliances of course but the risks and dangers outweighed the recompenses so it was the life of a celibate aesthete for me. Between my respectable family background, my religious indoctrination, and my successful career I had no intention of letting my true nature be known, nor indeed of faking sexual flirtation with a woman, no matter how beautiful or influential. Had I responded to Vanessa’s advances even in a superficial way I would have let myself down, frustrated her and disrespected her husband, who was after all a valued client of mine. And so it was that I was able to keep my relationship with Vanessa a professional one and concentrate on producing my masterpiece in platonic bliss.
Although outwardly brimming with confidence in my own ability I sometimes lay awake at night nervous that fate was playing a trick on me, that hubris would catch me out and quash my self-pride. This self-doubt was surely a product of my long indoctrination that pride was a sin, indeed not just a sin but the root of all evil, the deadliest of sins.
Despite my attempts to foster humility in myself from the first sitting I knew that this portrait was going to be significant in sealing my reputation and in setting the standard for portraits for years to come. I don’t know why this commission filled me with such confidence in my own ability but I know that I was driven by a metaphysical force throughout the long days and weeks that I laboured over what was to become my magnum opus. It took several days just to get the pose right. Initially I had thought a standing pose would be best to show off Vanessa’s magnificent presence but revised that view and settled on a seated position. So as not to distract the viewer from the beauty of the sitter I filled in a non-descript bucolic landscape as a background. Her clothes, again, were not to be the focus of the viewer so I dressed her in dark green and dark red with ruched sleeves and a shawl draping over one arm. The deep tones of the clothing highlighted the paleness of her skin, and the classical lines were reminiscent of the icons of Byzantium. When the two portraits were revealed at their tenth anniversary party in their house in the Marais it was Vanessa’s eyes and her enigmatic smile that captivated the viewers. The hint of violet in her deep blue eyes drew the viewer in and the half smile on her lips intrigued them. While her husband’s portrait was deemed to be a very fine likeness it was Vanessa’s that impressed the onlookers so much that it was almost immediately borrowed by a gallery where it could be seen and appreciated by the public. In the following years it gained in popularity and it went on tour to the National Gallery in London and to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam before returning to its Parisian home. Newspapers and magazines carried articles about the enigmatic smiling beauty that was Vanessa and she herself became a celebrity. When she tragically died some five years later following a fatal riding accident Vanessa’s popularity doubled. Postcards of her portrait were sold at every newsstand in Paris. Portraits of tourists were painted in that style by street artists in every square and park in the city. Photographers would urge their clients to give them that ‘Vanessa smile’ when posing for a photograph. After the death of her husband when the estate was being dealt with, their son, Gérard, decided to gift the portrait to the state. After some wrangling and discussion about classical art and popular art it was decided to offer the portrait a permanent home in the Louvre where it remains to this day.
As a naturalised Frenchman I come from a race known for the vigour of desire and the ardour of passion, but the gusto with which the portrait of Vanessa was embraced by both the art world and the public is a phenomenon that I am both in awe of and very grateful for. It was my skill as an iconographer that formed the backbone of my artistic work but it was the beauty of Vanessa that created a true icon.