Museum Picture By Jeremiah Minihan

“Completely naked?”

“Don’t worry, my dear, it will be all right.” He cocked his head. “You did promise.”

Mr. Thayer moved to touch Lydia’s shoulder, but she pulled back, wrapping the thick robe tighter. Mr. Thayer – she would never have thought to call him Gregory – stood back from her. Lydia could not interpret his expression. He might have been showing a twist of amusement or contempt around his bearded lips, but mostly she felt that he was studying her as if she were an animal or a specimen. That was what he did, after all, studied and painted.

And she had promised him. She found herself blushing. At the same time, she felt in control, in some way.

If she was a little girl, she thought, this dream would vanish. But she was not dreaming, and she was not a child. In fact, she was a grown woman, a member of one of Boston’s prominent families– at least her husband Frederick was. Frederick was the golden heir who managed the Peterson fortune. Lydia was poorly born, but that did not matter now. If you had money, things were good, now that the Great War was over.

This modeling was not something Frederick would approve of. As shocking as it might seem, this was what she wanted to do at this moment. This would be her decision, if not entirely her idea.

Mr. Thayer moved toward her, keeping his distance. His voice sounded like that of her father but without the curses and oaths her father had used.  He wanted to know if she wanted tea.  He also mentioned, quietly, that he could have Mrs. Lee enter the studio and stay with them while the picture was created.

“No. That will not be necessary,” she answered quickly. Lydia did not want the fussy housekeeper to see her undressed.

Then she stood and let the robe fall, and moved to the pieces of furniture he had arranged for her

***

The museum gallery was too large for the painting, Lydia thought. The long dark-paneled walls showed off the colorful brightness of the paintings—a few portraits and a still life. It amused her to look at the others who were visiting the museum today and this room in particular: the sloping elderly couple and the college students and one young woman, hand on chin, who studied the nude with some concentration. Lydia smiled, wondering the girl’s interest was artistic or something else entirely.

Plodding around the room, she read carefully each of the explanation tags. She had always done this, read slowly, even when she brought her own children to this museum. They would pull her arm and moan as they dragged her toward another exhibit, toward something more interesting. She smiled thinking that Matthew, two years older than Anne, would have actually been the true artist, the boy with talent. But Matthew was dead now, dead these many years

Lydia walked close to the picture, not exactly looking at it yet, as she studied the little explanation card. She read the standard information about the artist — dates of birth and death – and a story about how the painting had been lost for decades and had only recently been donated by the artist’s elderly niece. The title was “Portrait of a Young Woman,” but there were no identifying comments about the model. Lydia smiled, hoping that that some other bits of information would stay hidden.

Once she was ready, she stood back to look at the tall painting. She did not notice the large shapes first but looked closely at the flurry of Mr. Thayer’s small brush strokes. The colors were distinct, of course, but blended nicely together.

You would think that she would remember every detail of the picture, but she could not. She had condensed the sittings – there were a number of them – into one lone experience. Besides, Mr. Thayer did not let her see the picture until the very end. She wondered if that was to protect her sensibilities. Perhaps if he had showed her the preliminary work or she had seen his earlier nudes, she might have been less inclined to pose for him. Or she might have continued, but her expression might have hardened to anger or rigidity. .

As it was, she never posed for him again.

Lydia realized that she was tired. She knew why, and she sat on the thin bench opposite the painting. She needed to rest for a while, and stared ahead at nothing in particular. She wanted to close her eyes but knew that would be a mistake. Others would look at her and be concerned that she was ill.

***

“Lovely today, my dear, lovely.” Lydia remembered the softness of Mr. Thayer’s voice so at odds with his rough bearded face and his large hands more suitable to painting bridges than portraits.

He spoke quietly to her. “I remember your comments at the dinner, when you said you admired my work at the gallery.” She nodded, trying to smile.

He led her further into the studio. The painting was turned toward the wall so that she could not see it. Mr. Thayer had dressed in his usual shirt and tie. She wondered how someone could paint like that. He pulled a smock over everything, though, as he worked.

She thought that Frederick would like Mr. Thayer if he had taken the time to speak to him. But Frederick was only interested in money things at the moment, and his work at the stock brokers did not leave him much time for art or any cultural matters. Art and music were his wife’s interests, not his. He knew that Lydia was posing for Mr. Thayer, but he did not know the details. He assumed that it would be a standard portrait or group setting. He would have been shocked at her nakedness, but Lydia also thought that he might be amused. In fact, he might have enjoyed the thought of his pretty young wife forced to undress in front of this powerful man. Perhaps he would not have thought of it at all since he had other women by then.

Smiling, she knew that she had agreed to all of this. She was not forced to do anything. Thinking about it, this act was more of defiance than risk.

The finished work would never be shown. Lydia was assured of that. And Mr. Thayer had explained to her that he would change just enough of her features so that she would be unrecognizable at the end.

The sessions continued for weeks. Lydia had felt the stirring of something within her belly, and she suspected that she was pregnant Tests would have to be run before she could tell Frederick. She was unsure what his feelings might be.

She did not tell Mr. Thayer. He might stop the painting altogether. Even if she was not showing the swelling, there might be some new look in her expression which might make him uncomfortable or anxious.

Mr. Thayer treated her carefully in every way. He did not seem embarrassed by her nudity – after all, he was an artist. He plied her with tea (nothing stronger) during the several hours she modeled for him. Lydia asked him about his other work since she had seen the articles in the newspaper and pictures of him and his wife with other society figures. He was abrupt with her when she asked, as if she were a naughty child asking questions of an adult.

“I’m sorry, my dear, but I suppose that I am not used to young people.” He stopped and looked up at her, stroking the edges of his beard in an awkward way. “My late wife and I did not have children.” He hesitated over the verb as though he was going to say “could not” instead of “did not”.

She drew the drapery more tightly around her as though she felt a brief chill, and she did not ask more about Mrs. Thayer.

The sessions were conducted, for the most part, in silence. From time to time he would approach her and tilt her head just so. He commented on the deep color of her face and the lightness of her hair. She did not feel embarrassed at all: this was just the touch a hairdresser might make so the head was more accessible to the scissors.

Other than that, he did not touch her. She noticed that he was careful to keep away from other parts of her body. When she saw him looking at her breasts or buttocks it was indifferently, as a doctor might.

***

In the gallery again, Lydia stood and walked from picture to picture. Different people were whispering. She was rested now, and she forced herself to look at the other Thayer paintings, especially those with human subjects. She wondered if she could identify any of the models. There was a young man in a hunting outfit. He did seem familiar, but she could not be sure. She smiled, thinking that Mr. Thayer had disguised them as well. Still, she was the only naked one in the room. She smiled again, thinking that other visitors might be staring at the young, nude woman and not connect the model with the old woman in the gallery.

Lydia looked at her watch and realized that she could not stay much longer. She would have a staff member call her a taxi so that she could be back on Beacon Hill before the darkness. During her marriage, Frederick had always complained about her tardiness, snapping at her querulously and tapping his watch when she arrived home. It had been years since she had heard his voice, and she had nearly forgotten what it had sounded like.

***

Lydia would never forget the quietness in the doctor’s office. A small mantel clock ticked nearby. She had noticed the clock of her earlier visit. The ornate woodwork of the clock seemed to clash with the modern colors and the plain furnishings – large desk, thick medical books – of the rest of the office.

“It will be all right, Mother. You will see.” Anne had grabbed her hand and squeezed it. She did not want to look at Anne, feeling that her daughter would break or collapse. That was unfair — Anne really did have greater strength than her mother gave her credit for.

Lydia looked up at the doctor, a young woman whose eyes seemed especially wise. She had felt this woman’s cool hands on her before. There was no smile, only a compassionate softness of the lips.

Anne fretted in her seat. No longer young herself, Lydia wondered if this nervousness had less to do with her mother’s medical condition and more to do with her own aging.

“We’ll be fine, Mother. You’ll see. Maggie and I will see to it. Maggie has had the medical training.”

Lydia smiled, letting her daughter prattle on. She had met Anne’s companion before, and she was not sure she wanted Maggie becoming so intimately involved in the messier aspects of a last illness.

Lydia could handle things herself as long as she could. This was what she was expected to do.

The doctor spoke about support, avoiding any comments about additional treatments. Lydia let her eyes turn about the room as the two younger women discussed her situation and future visits.

***

She thought she had slept, but she had not. It would have been awkward to have a sickly-looking elderly woman collapsed on the bench. The people had changed again, and she felt, in a silly way, that she was watching a carousal swirl slowly around the room. She was only watching the carousal. She could never ride such a thing again.

When she looked at the time, she realized that Anne would be calling her soon to check up on her. Anne had stopped asking her to move in, and now she was trying something else: the constant phone calls.

Lydia had seen Mr. Thayer only once later in life. It must have been right after the war. She was sorry that she had seen him. He had taken his beard off, but with his slack features and trembling hands, she knew that he would not have much longer to go.

He had not recognized her at first, but then his lips twisted in a curious way. Was it admiration or pleasure or pity? When they spoke, the words seemed to matter less than what was unsaid.

Pulling herself up, she placed the heavy cane firmly on the wood floor, making sure the little rubber thimble at the bottom had caught.

Turning painfully – at a distance now – Lydia studied the bright, young body in the frame. It was a true likeness, she knew, of what she had looked like then. Frederick, in his better days, before the Crash and the drink, had often commented on her attractiveness.

She smiled again.

She looked once more at the figure, but Lydia did not look at the face since she knew it was not hers.

 

Jeremiah Minihan

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

 

 

6 thoughts on “Museum Picture By Jeremiah Minihan

  1. Cool story and ending which sums up the theme. Not sure why Lydia decided to become a nude model “more out of defiance than risk,” says the story, so perhaps it came out of her own unhappiness in marriage. Her material fortunes changed when she became Frederick’s wife, but it seems she did not feel love for him. Could be in a way she became a child of the enigmatic Mr. Thayer, yet they never really connected personally.. more with art. Yet he painted her with a different face. Good title!

    Like

  2. Hi Jeremiah,
    Rebellion is always interesting to read about.
    And when you incorporate the times then the reader is left with an idea of just how brave this was.
    Being brave for others is easier than being brave for yourself.
    You have given us a very interesting character in Lydia.
    Hugh

    Like

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