Jean-Claude loved women. He loved to draw them. At certain times, in certain places. He would position himself in a café at the bottom of a long flight of steps, say those leading down from Sacre Coeur. A location such as this was most promising in spring and summer. The way women’s skirts swayed at their knees. He remembered with great fondness the summer when fashion dictated women wear pleated skirts. His joy seeing the motion of the skirt against the statuary of the descending legs.
During cooler times, he preferred restaurants. He sat opposite the entry or across from the coat check. It was not the best table in the house, at times a chill breeze, but it presented a view un-findable elsewhere. Women would enter wrapped in a coat. The process of unbuttoning the garment, raising the shoulders, then pulling them back as someone took the coat, breasts pushed forward with the material of the blouse tightening, giving them the shape they most deserved.
In these years, people dined at the same cafes and restaurants and Jean-Claude saw the objects of his admiration somewhat frequently. This gave him the opportunity to create a rather complete sketch when he wished. Not often, only sometimes, would he present his sketch to its subject. His hesitancy arose from the fact that he was ugly. His features had been thrown at his face randomly with his left eye ending up slightly lower than the right one, his nose a bit to the left of center, and his mouth at a slant down to the right. He shaved in the dark to avoid his own reflection, with the consequent results.
The recipients of his sketches in cafes and restaurants were universally pleased with their gifts. He would not accept money. A modest inheritance had provided for his needs. Jean-Claude’s reward was his subject’s pleasure. Well, he would accept a glass of wine at his table but refused to belabor the woman or her companion with his face. Outwardly, reluctance was the face he gave the world. Buried deeply, there was a small light of hope, no larger than a votive candle flickering at the end of its wick, that desired recognition. A woman who would ignore his face, see the beauty of his spirit, see him as a companion, see his admiration of her, see him as a lover.
One March evening, he presented a sketch to Agnès Duchamp at Chez Julien, the bistro by Pont Louis Phillippe. She was so taken, she asked if he would paint her portrait. “It is many years since I have done more than these sketches, I am not confident you will be happy with the result.”
“I would like you to try. You captured my look with your sketch. Please.”
Two weeks later, Agnès was sitting in the window of her apartment overlooking the Tuileries with its chestnut trees beginning to show their new green leaves. Her pale complexion, blue eyes, dark hair, offset by a black dress with a décolletage styled on Sargent’s Madame X.
In his thirty-five years, Jean-Claude had never spent as much time in the company of, conversing with, exchanging looks with, touching a woman, her hair, her face, her lips, arranging her dress, its drape, its folds, its corsage. The first weeks he was tentative, physically awkward, while staging Agnès’s pose. She feigned to not notice and had the instinctive grace to move in a way that smoothed his clumsiness.
Jean-Claude began to lose some of his awkwardness outside of her apartment and felt more at ease offering his sketches to other women, felt more comfortable accepting the glass of wine, even sitting down for a few minutes.
What began as a formal relationship of painter and sitter, over two sittings a week for three months became a warm acquaintance between a woman and man occupying different worlds. Her husband, Francois, was Minister for African Affairs in de Gaulle’s government, and she accompanied him on many of his trips as an ambassadress for CARE.
“Stop, stop, Agnès, you cannot tell me about the poverty in Gabon while I’m painting your eyes. My tears are dropping in my paints. You are turning your blue eyes gray.”
Her talent lay in encouraging Jean-Claude to talk about himself, the anguish of his ugliness, his lack of friends, and now that his parents were gone, a family. He had never been able to talk to anyone about these things.
At the end of the sessions, the good-byes that started with bows from the easel to the chair, to handshakes, to one, two, then four cheek kisses, to embraces lasting two minutes, ten, twenty, then all night when the minister was on a trip to Libreville. She had the grace to treat his lack of experience as an adventure and gently guide him, so that as the portrait neared its completion, she was praising his skills in bed.
Further emboldened by his social skills and convinced that the portrait was a success, Jean-Claude began to frequent more illustrious restaurants, in hope of attracting a distinguished clientele.
In mid-June, he peered from behind the easel, “You may see your portrait now.”
Cautiously, she stood and went to his side to look. For minutes she said nothing, shifted from one foot to the other, stepped back, then to the end of the room behind him. He began to fear she was displeased, unhappy, not what she was expecting. She came up from behind and leaned into him. “I was right. You know me.”
She slipped out of the room, leaving him to look again at his work. Yes, it was good. Agnès came back with her husband. Like she, he said nothing for a long while, stepped back, then with his nose nearly touching the canvas, looked closely at the face, stared, shifted his gaze to the hands, turned to Jean-Claude, shook his hand, clapped him on the shoulder, “My Agnès, that violet in her eyes is seen in only one room in this apartment, the curve of the lower lip is observed at only one time. You’ve captured her, you know her well.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The minister looked at Jean-Claude for a long moment.
“As you have constructed this portrait with great care, I should like to construct the compensation equally so. I wish to appoint you ambassador to the mask project the French government is sponsoring in Gabon, very important, the masks to the Gabonese, headquartered in Libreville, a multi-year assignment, a handsome stipend, one understands your inheritance is nearly exhausted.”
Jean-Claude did not know how the minister knew he was behind on his rent, living on day old baguettes and onion sandwiches, but it was true. He had sacrificed to frequent the better restaurants. He blushed. And in sympathy, even more deeply for the coarseness of her husband, did Agnès. “François, must you be so. . .”
He raised his hand to silence her.
Jean-Claude twisted his hands, and face, in faux agony. “Sir, two days ago, I might have accepted your offer. Today, I refuse. I have accepted a portrait commission from a lady starting next week, for herself and family. It will occupy me for the year.”
François stepped forward, “Who can be so important?”
“I cannot say, sir. Only that it is someone you most probably know, or most assuredly, have read of.”
François marched out of the room. Agnès kissed his cheek and whispered something in his ear.
The following January, Agnès, not Agnès and François, received an invitation to the unveiling of the portraits of the Comtesse de Renville, the Comte de Renville, and the Renville children by Jean-Claude Dumont at their hotel in Paris. Agnès wrote Jean-Claude that her attendance, though much desired, would not be politic in the family.
The following week, returning from a flight to Libreville, François, stormed into the apartment waving a copy of Paris Match. “Did you see this? A six-page spread on the Renvilles? The Renvilles, descendants of Henri IV? Their portraits? By that gargoyle Jean-Claude?”
“No, darling, I don’t read that rag.”
“Well, it was the only thing on the flight. And to think we hid your portrait when we had our diplomatic reception at Christmas. Damnit.”
“I believe you insisted.”
Image by Sierra Clark from Pixabay
3 thoughts on “The Sketcher by Townsend Walker”
I enjoyed the way this piece gained depth as is went along. Jean Claude’s art is a bit too lively for some. I like that.
An absorbing look at the artist personality, and why women fall for artists. Look at all the women who fell in love with Picasso, and he was pretty ugly in quite a few ways. Jean-Claude seemed to have a much more humble and gracious personality. I liked that moment when the husband checks out the portrait, and his reaction.
Very well written and what interesting characters.
I think there are a few ways to look at the ending and this adds to the whole story experience.
Excellent my fine friend.