by Emma Klopfer
“He died only days after completing this painting.”
Our tour guide is a young woman with a crisp English accent identical to everyone surrounding us. Locals.
“It was found sitting on his easel, untouched,” she continues, leading her pack of uninterested day-trippers. Babies clutching iPads. Adults answering emails. Grandfathers blinking heavily, pinched on the arm by wives desperate to get out of this grand home of artifacts and get a glass of wine. That’s how I knew they were locals. Nobody who’d never been to this museum would be so eager for the tour to conclude. “Oil on panel...” she prattles on, telling the story of how the museum got it. She is so distracted by her own blabbering that she doesn’t notice me linger at the edges of her vision, stopping at the bench in front of the paintings.
Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare by John Everett Millais.
On the Brink by Alfred Elmore.
And on the parallel wall hangs Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, framed in red velvet curtains.
The brushstrokes of these paintings are what captures me. An animal’s tail was snipped. Someone’s hand held the resulting brush. They sketched an outline. They dipped it into linseed oil and pigment.
My mind again returns to the delicate hand that, with a leaping eye, drew the lines, thecurves, the patches of color. The painting of the Twins is directly in front of the bench, and I sit. The tour has moved out of the room, anyway. What lovely faces they have. What realism. The one of the right’s face is long, a rectangle, her twin a bit softer. Their loyal hound sits besidethem, eyes red with alertness, head tilted downward. They are not recreations of women fromcenturies before, – they were real girls before Millais made them more real.
The anxiety on her face is tangible – On the Brink of... what? Gambling goes on behind her, rambunctious, the smell of smoke wafts off the painting. I can feel the thick, bated breath of the man leaning over her – my – shoulder. The party is loud behind me. A lady flicks her fan, cryptography I am too young to comprehend. Victorian gentlemen behind me mutter about the dangers of gambling. Pale moon on pale skin, red and gold gaudiness behind me. I am her, all my money went on cards, unable to guard my expressions.
All of these observations, all of this awe – none of it is my own.
And then there is Joan. The half-sketched canvas on my lap looks pitiful in comparison. The guidelines for Mr. Ross’s assignment – to recreate one of these paintings – blur in my mind. I hadn’t been paying attention again. Littles does he know that there is oil paint in my room still drying from attempted recreations years ago. Red splotch for hair, eyes upward. That much, I can do. The one thing I can never capture is the eyes. Hers, in Rossetti’s painting, they hold something. Whereas my Joan’s eyes are empty, his Joan has eyes like wicker baskets full of – there, see? I cannot grasp what it is. Hunger? Prayer? Desire?
I stare. I squint. I shift on my bench like a fidgety child. Adjust the angle. Tilt my head. I cannot decipher what lies in those eyes. And I must. I must.
“Lovely painting, you think?”
I uncrane my neck to find Mr. Ross with his blanched beard and woolen cap, dark eyes laden with sleepiness.
“Yes, of course.”
“How are you enjoying the trip, Jane?”
“Very much, sir. I definitely think the school needed something out of the ordinary to keep us going.”
Mr. Ross grunts out a laugh. “Admin didn’t seem to see things that way – though I’m glad you think so.” He pauses, and the warm air steeps with comfortable silence. “I’ve always been fascinated by Joan of Arc myself.”
“Have you tried to paint her?”
“Of course. What kind of art teacher would I be if I hadn’t? But I’ve also tried to capture her through poetry, sketches, essays,” the old man replies. “Too little is known about her. That’s why I love this painting.”
“I was just trying to decipher it, actually,” I say, surprised. Mr. Ross and I are rarely on the same page. Usually, he’s too focused on his own pages – pages of a sketchbook, that is – to heed others’ thoughts. “To get into the art university I want to attend, my portfolio has to include a recreation. I want to do her, but I just can’t.”
“May I?” Before I can agree, he sits beside me and sighs fleetingly, a sound that reminds me of my grandfather reclining in his favorite red rocking chair. “I’ve never been successful in my own attempts to replicate her. Always struggled with translating her eyes. She looks so emotionless, but so conflicted.”
“I was just thinking the same. But how am I to translate that into oil?” I drag a hand down my face, and Mom and Dad’s faces blink through my vision. Mom’s got her hair twisted up witha paintbrush, as always, and Dad stares at a blank canvas. Unlike mine, his doesn’t stay blank forlong.
“I think it might be exhaustion,” Mr. Ross says suddenly.
“What might be?”
“In her eyes. I think it might be exhaustion. See the color gray? How it’s the only cool color in the whole painting? It’s emptiness. It’s exhaustion. At least, I think that’s what Rossetti would’ve said.”
I look down at the glimmerings of the pencil on my canvas. Still, I can’t shake the feeling of my aunt and uncle standing behind me. She holds a saxophone, he sits at his typewriter. My cousins, each clad in expensive ballet shoes, twist and tumble near me, graceful as swans.
If you were to get into this university, Mom says as we stand in the center of the campus, tour long over, fountain pulsating water. It would enhance our family name. Your name. My name. Dad’s name. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want your Wikipedia page someday to say that you graduated from here? Oh, the pride you would feel!
Slowly, the single oval of Joan’s eye falls into place beneath my swift fingers. Mr. Ross watches from over my shoulder, his pedagogical gaze mirroring that of my grandfather. One of Italy’s most famous theatre actors.
“You – oh, you captured it this time!”
And it is true. The unripe sketch of Joan stares upward, her eyes both drooping and enriched. She looks like she’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders; which, historically, I suppose is true. Her face is similar to that of mine in my Art’s Academy ID photo.
Mr. Ross wags his finger at me. “Maybe I’ve given away too much.”
“Rosetti meant for her to be an enigma! Just as she was in real life. We’ve solved her puzzle, it would seem.”
“It would seem so,” I repeat, still staring at my sketch. I know that it is futile to attempt to progress the piece any further. My wrist has been reshaped to be good at this. No, not good, superior. But the moment I add color, everything gets lost and muddled.
“We have not solved your puzzle yet, Jane,” Mr. Ross says.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Well, you’re a senior. And it’s February. Do you know where you’d like to further your education?”
“You mean what college I want to go to.”
Mr. Ross shrugs. “Many would call it that, yes.”
“Yes. That’s what this portfolio is for.”
“An art college, then.”
“Univeristy,” I correct him. They’re the words of my mother.
“Not somewhere to further your love of rock climbing? What about politics? Your essay on the legal system was astoundingly well-written.”
“No, I’m going to an arts university.”
Then he was gone, leaving his familiar smell of crushed velvet and linseed oil. I felt as though I had failed him, somehow.
He wished me good luck with the rest of my painting and turned away. Then he was gone, leaving his familiar smell of crushed velvet and linseed oil. I felt as though I had failed him, somehow.
And in my failure, a tiny seed of doubt had been planted.
About the Writer...
Emma Klopfer has been writing for as long as she can remember and writes primarily long-form novels. She attends Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and is 17 years old. Her work primarily discusses her connection to nature and the transition from girlhood to womanhood.
About the Artist...
An artist looks at ordinary things, things that wouldn't interest other people, people who have no time to waste, and it's like being hit by lightning. The feeling is so erratic and fleeting; an artist has to paint it to life before it is lost. I find myself in that very cycle, I live, then I paint it.