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.