The Curious Case Of An Unknown Portrait Painter

There was a once upon another time

When, if a man made the right patron

With a conveniently heavy purse happy enough,

An artist could avoid starving and even live

In a manner nearly befitting his betters.

One such man (his name—as well as much of his work—being lost

To the boot sales and dustbins of time) made a reputation

Which transcended his small town in Schleswig-Holstein

And spread among the surrounding principalities.

He was a portrait painter—although he would demur,

Protesting that he was simply a man with a brush and a palette—

Who, having secured the favor and coinage of some of the area’s

More substantial citizens, would often take advantage

Of his leisure to commit to canvas the faces of the ordinary

And, if some cases, somewhat iniquitous.

His portfolio, then, was a crazy-quilt of his milieu,

And, in his comfortable yet cluttered rooms, they lived back-to-back

In no particular order—princes and flower girls, priests and whores.


The sterling reputation the painter enjoyed was not due simply

To his technical skills—oh, he was, to be sure, expert in matters

Of shading and line, and his eye for color and detail

Nothing less than remarkable—but for an eye to what

Was revealed in the curve of the lips or the set of the eyes

And, more importantly, how to enhance the subtle gifts

Or veil those unpleasant secrets they suggested.

And so, the venality in the banker’s sneer was softened

To intimate nothing more than levelheaded concern

For the sanctity of the mark and the guilder,

Or the gentle smile of the prince’s youngest daughter

Augmented to evoke the beatitudes of the angels themselves.

The craft and subtlety of his work combined to create

A most curious effect; his subjects actually (surely without

Any semblance of consciousness or intent) began to imitate

Those supplemental qualities imparted to them

Through the artist’s craft, and so became less parsimonious

Or more humane, as warranted by the brush strokes,

And carried on living lives that were the most noble version

Of their actual being.


At some point, whether through the onset of some trickle

Of madness or perhaps just sheer whimsy, the painter

Made a peculiar change in his methodology.

He began to graft qualities onto his subjects

That they never had nor hoped to possess,

Perhaps in the hope that, having pinned them

To the corkboard, his butterflies might take wing,

But his command of light and pigment was so strong

Yet understated that no one who sat for him ever noticed

That they were being mocked or enriched, as the case might be;

And still the canvases acted as tails wagging the dog about—

Priests were found dead in their rectories, in the midst of scenes

Of unspeakable debauchery, while courtesans lit candles

And kneeled in pews until their backs and thighs screamed

In the service of such highly unusual positions,

Or the banker flipped the urchin a coin while gently petting

The boy’s undernourished cur, and perhaps it was

All due to the machinations of the painter,

But he would, with just a hint of slyness playing about

The corners of his eyes and mouth, deny any culpability.

He was, after all, just a man with a brush.


4 thoughts on “The Curious Case Of An Unknown Portrait Painter

  1. sir, your pynchon is showing, just a wee bit. I very much liked this curious case, curious indeed, quite! As per your usual, you’ve spun another story, wry and sly. Thanks for posting!

  2. What a tale you have woven here: taking the concept of painter and subject that much further down the psychological paths of possibility. Clever, clever piece. Thank you for sharing on RT.

  3. Intriguing story – perception becoming reality is a theme that fascinates, and the idea that an artist can impose his vision of reality on the world and actually see it come into being is seductive. As always, though, such power tends to corrupt. Good thing this is just a story…

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