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A Moral Story.

Fortnightly Fiction.


Translated by John Taylor.

In Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing, which appeared in 1960, John Berger tells this story. I liked it, so I’ll tell it in turn. (I say ‘tell’ because I’ll take a few liberties with the original and, since I don’t know where he found it or even if he totally invented it, I feel free to add a little to it. Such is the fate of stories, of good stories: to be told, lost, found again, told again. . . It is also sometimes the fate of paintings to be admired, scorned, forgotten, rediscovered, adulated or lacerated.)

Around 1640, in Amsterdam, a ship’s chandler, who had become rich through the development of shipping companies, commissioned a portrait of his wife from a reputed local painter. ‘You must paint her as she is because this is how I love her’, the merchant had advised. ‘She is a pious, faithful woman who keeps her eye on things; without her, my business would not be as flourishing, and I am indebted to her for this. Our children bear my family name, not hers,’ the merchant continued. ‘By bequeathing their mother’s portrait to them, I want them to know where half of their fortune comes from.’

For the posing session, the chandler’s wife wears her everyday apparel: an ample black dress, a white cloth bonnet and a starched collar. In the Netherlands back then, it was not Christian to display one’s wealth by donning expensive fineries. The painter has her sit in an armchair and places himself to her right. One of her hands is posed on the arm of the armchair and seems to grip it whereas the other hand, the left one, is raised and holds a handkerchief. The handkerchief, the bonnet and the collar represent the only light colours on the painting. The full-length portrait barely stands out against the warm dark-brown background. What makes the painting come alive is the perfect harmony between the gaze, the facial expression and the position of the hands. More than a portrait, it is a live snapshot; the lady seems about to stand up and speak, perhaps to welcome visitors—which we are.

For several generations, the portrait remained hanging on the salon wall of the chandler’s big house on the bank of a canal. To their children, parents would show their grandmother, then their great grandmother. Everyone remembered her name and liked to cite aspects of her character. She was good-natured and lively, ever ready to find the right word, knowing how to watch over expenditures as it must be done—an exacting but fair, indeed saintly woman. Blessed be the painter who had known how to keep the memory of such a beautiful person alive in this family.

But memories fade. The time came when no one in the house would look any longer at the portrait of the unknown ancestor. The image was mute and no longer expressed anything to anyone. One day, the painting was taken down and the wall repainted to make the dark halo, which time had deposited around the frame, disappear. After a long stay in the attic, where no one bothered about it, the portrait of the chandler’s wife found itself among some old things in a rummage sale for charity. An antiques dealer from Amsterdam bought everything for three pounds.

A few years later, a London businessman, attracted by a pair of silver candlesticks, pushed open the antiques dealer’s door. When he spotted the portrait in a corner of the shop, he was immediately convinced that it was a painting by Rembrandt. Nonchalantly, he asked what the price was, bargained a little so as not to arouse suspicion and left with the painting and the candlesticks for forty pounds.

Now the painting is hanging in the place of honour in a flat in Kensington. Our business man, an advertising executive, often receives guests at his home. Friends, clients, purveyors—all of them admire the painting. Its new owner, proud of his find, is full of himself because of it. He reads a new esteem in his friends’ eyes and he knows that he owes this to the Rembrandt.

Although he has not the slightest intention of selling it, he discreetly acquires information about the prices of similar works of art. With confidence in his eye and his good luck, he begins thinking that, with this painting as a guaranty, he could take risks, in his business affairs, that he would not have allowed himself to take beforehand. This was the right move, for the money ventured in his way quickly earns him much more than the supposed value of the Rembrandt.

With his new earnings, he acquired an advertising agency in New York and decided to settle in that town for a year in order to take charge of the new subsidiary. At the same time, one of his fellow students at the university, a German man from Hamburg, announced his visit and the news that he had been transferred to London by his firm. ‘Move into my flat, it will not be used for at least a year’, said the businessman. ‘My mind will be at rest if I know that it is occupied and that someone whom I can trust is watching over my Rembrandt.’ What was said was done.

A while later, the German friend invites some acquaintances to dinner. Among them is a renowned art historian who declares, without beating around the bush, that the painting is surely from the Flemish school at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but that it can by no means be a Rembrandt.

Upon his return from New York, the businessman, who has become richer and richer, learns the bad news. He summons another expert, who confirms that it is not a Rembrandt. The painting is taken down. Not wishing to admit his disappointment, the businessman tells all his friends that he has sold it. In fact, the painting is once again in the closet. Our businessman is a pragmatist: he knows that, in one way or another, he owes his fortune to this painting, be it a Rembrandt or not. He keeps it like a fetish. For himself alone.

At this juncture, the businessman receives the visit of a young artist seeking employment in the creative department of the agency. The two men get along well; the young painter is full of energy and good humour; he reminds the businessman of his own youth. He develops an affection for the young man, invites him to dinner. A lot of wine is served at the dinner; each man talks about himself, his hopes and disappointments; inevitably the story of the false Rembrandt crops up during the conversation. The young painter asks to see the painting. ‘It is perhaps not a Rembrandt’, the young man declares, ‘but it is surely a magnificent painting. Whoever painted it was a master’. ‘Well then, take it, it’s for you’, says the host. ‘May it bring you luck as it did for me. And don’t waste your talent in advertising for peanuts, devote yourself to your art and remember me when you become famous’.

‘I have perhaps not discovered a Rembrandt’, the businessman said to himself, ‘but at least I can do something for someone whom I like and who deserves it’. He went to bed, entirely proud of his good deed.

The young painter hung the painting on the wall of the single room in which he worked, ate and slept with his wife. The painting brought great joy to him. He even began to think that the model looked like his own young wife, that she would have that same benevolence and lively gaze when she was older. He had always felt a little guilty with respect to his wife; her health was fragile and yet it was she who went to work every day to earn their livelihood. During this time, he painted canvases that found no buyers and all his attempts to find a little job up his alley failed.

A few months later, the young woman became pregnant and had to stop working. Although he was not yet famous, the young painter decided to go back and see his benefactor and ask for a job. He told him that he would know how to draw, and even conceive, the labels, packaging and advertisements of the products that the agency was in charge of promoting. The businessman once again refused, explaining that in art it is indeed at the very moment when one is ready to abandon everything, to renounce everything, that one must grasp the energy given off by despair in order to take the decisive leap. ‘Don’t give up’, he told him, ‘I’ll lend you a hundred pounds so that you can turn around and get by’. After much hesitation, the painter accepted the money, but at all costs he wanted to give back the painting as a guaranty. ‘I well know that it is not worth the money that you are lending me, but at least you will have something, and because I am attached to it, I’ll do everything I can to pay you back and recover the painting.’

The child was born and the hundred pounds were quickly spent. Driven into a corner, the young painter at last found a job in which he was so successful that after a few months he was able to move into a bigger flat, with a bedroom for the child, and to give the money back to his friend.

The ex-Rembrandt is now back on the wall of the young couple’s bedroom. Every day, the painter takes a renewed pleasure from it. Even better: by scrutinizing the way in which the Flemish artist knew how to bring life to the background from which the portrait stands out, he draws instruction for his own work. He throws himself into a series of big, vibrant, inspired abstract paintings that begin to attract attention. Art critics and museum directors come to visit him. As one of them questions him about the reasons inducing him to undertake this series of paintings, which are without human figures and yet haunted by an intense presence, the painter leads him into the bedroom and shows him the fetish painting. ‘Everything comes from this’, he tells him. ‘It is this painting that told me what I needed to do. It saved my life.’ And the young painter once again tells the entire story.

The museum director, who is a specialist of the seventeenth century, comes closer, examines the background, the figure, and then his face suddenly lights up: ‘Fabritius!’ he exclaims. ‘Carel Fabritius, I’ll stake my life on that. He was Rembrandt’s pupil during the 1640s, while his master was busy for an entire year on The Night Watch. Rembrandt would entrust portrait commissions, which he continued to receive, to his pupils. Fabritius, who was only twenty years old, made several of them by endeavouring to paint in his master’s manner: muted colours, lumpy paint. He even made a front-view portrait of Rembrandt wearing a black beret, and it’s not far from equalling the master’s own self-portraits. Little by little, Fabritius disengaged himself from his master’s influence. He settled in Delft and was accredited as the official portraitist at the Court of the Princes of Orange. But in 1654, when he was thirty-two years old, he was killed in the explosion of the Delft powder magazine, which set fire to his studio. All his paintings vanished with him; only about twenty of his works subsist. He was forgotten, and it was only at the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to research undertaken by Théophile Thoré-Burger, that Fabritius’s career was rediscovered and that numerous paintings erroneously ascribed to Rembrandt, such as this one, were reattributed to him. But in Delft, he truly discovered light, and he developed a hundredfold what you have perceived in the background of this portrait. Behind the human figures, he would paint walls as vibrant as skies—the sky of Delft, often grey but always luminous. His most famous painting, The Goldfinch, painted the year that he died, is a small panel of 20 x 30 cm. housed at The Mauritshuis in The Hague. It is a marvel of simplicity and captive life: the life-size bird is perched on its feeding dish and stands out from the grey background of a wall as alive and quivering as the bird itself. And how can one not notice that the touch of yellow between the two deep-black stripes on its wing inspired the famous ‘little patch of yellow wall’ of the View of Delft that Vermeer, Fabritius’s pupil, painted a little while afterwards? Your paintings have that grace and depth. The spirit is nomadic: it alights wherever it pleases, one day on a bird’s wing, another day on a little patch of wall; today, it is in your studio. Take care of it’, said the museum director as he said good-bye to the young painter.

This text is excerpted and translated from Jean Frémon’s Le Miroir magique (P.O.L., 2020).

Jean Frémon, born in 1946, is a French novelist, poet, art critic, and the president of the Galerie Lelong. Many of his books are noted for the engaging ways in which they blend history, art criticism, ekphrasis, and fictional narrative. Several of his works have appeared in English translations:

Painting, Black Square Editions, 1999, trans. Brian Evenson
Island of the Dead, Green Integer Books, 2003, trans. Cole Swensen
Distant Noise, Avec Books, 2003, trans. N. Cole, L. Davis, S. Gavronsky, C. Swensen
The Paradoxes of Robert Ryman, Black Square Editions, 2008, trans. Brian Evenson
The Real Life of Shadows, Post Apollo Press, 2009, trans. Cole Swensen
The Botanical Garden, Green Integer Books, 2012, trans. Brian Evenson
The Posthumous Life of RW, Omnidawn, 2014, trans. Cole Swensen
Proustiennes, La Presse, 2016, trans. Brian Evenson
Now Now, Louison, Les Fugitives, 2018; New Directions, 2019 trans. Cole Swensen
Nativity, Les Fugitives, 2020; Black Square Editions, 2020, trans. Cole Swensen

John Taylor is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For the Fortnightly’s Odd Volumes series, he has translated Philippe Jaccottet’s Truinas, the latter’s memoir of his friendship with the poet André du Bouchet. Also in the Odd Volumes series is A Notebook of Clouds and A Notebook of Ridges, a double book co-authored by Taylor and the late Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis. Among his many collections of poetry and short prose is Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press). His three most recent translations are Philippe Jaccottet’s Ponge, Pastures, Prairies (Black Square Editions), Franca Mancinelli’s The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose 2008-2021 (The Bitter Oleander Press), and José-Flore Tappy’s Trás-os-Montes (The MadHat Press).

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