Paris … ah Paris … he had been in love with the city since that magical day in April fifty five years before when he had stepped off the train at the Gare du Nord and walked out of the station into the bustle of the busy streets of the capital. He was a country born and had lived all his life on his father’s farm and his mother had decided that now he was fifteen it was time he saw something of the wider world. He was a quiet and sensitive boy who preferred to spend his days with his head buried in a book, or sketching in the countryside. As the youngest of five children, he was his mother’s favourite and she had arranged with her sister that he should spend the Easter holidays with her family in their apartment in the Paris suburbs.
His aunt met him off the train and as there was time to kill before they needed to catch their suburban train from the Gare Saint-Lazare she took him to a café on the corner of the Rue Saint Lazare and the Rue d’Amsterdam. It was one of the first warm days after a winter that had been one of the coldest in living memory and they drank fresh pressed citron while he gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the busy traffic and the smartly dressed passers by hurrying about their business. To this day the sound of car horns took him back to that moment and his first experience of metropolitan life, so different from the sleepy streets of his home village.
He had three cousins. The eldest Jean was eighteen years old and in the Army doing his National Service, and was only home at weekends. The other two were both girls, Jacqueline who was seventeen and Geneviève who was a year younger than him. The only girls he had known until then were typical country girls who dressed simply in plain smocks and wore thick serge stockings, and whose conversation was mainly about dolls and babies. In contrast his cousins seemed much older and so sophisticated, especially Jacqueline who wore smart dresses and nylon stockings, and even makeup, which he found shocking at first.
His uncle worked for SNCF, the national French Railway company , and the family all travelled free in the trains. Over the next two weeks the girls showed him all the sights of the city, and he marvelled at the majestic buildings on the boulevards and the grand palaces, monuments and churches. They climbed the hill of Montmartre to take in the panoramic view of the city from the top of the Eglise de Sacré-Coure, had coffee at one of the many cafés in the Place du Tertre, and strolled past the booths of the street artists, successors of the Impressionists who had lived and worked there in the last years of the nineteenth century. One memorable evening the whole family walked arm in arm along the Champs Elysées past the brightly lit shops until they stood at the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the arch of the flood-lit splendour of the Arc de Triomphe. The highlight for him however, had been the day they spent at the Musée du Louvre and, best of all, the Museum of the Impressionists in the Tuileries.
It is hardly surprising that as well as the city, he also fell in love with Jacqueline. She treated him as an adult and flirted with him a little, calling him her petit chou-fleur, and one memorable day when they were walking hand in hand in the gardens of the Petit Trianon at Versailles he managed to steal a shy kiss while his aunt wasn’t looking. Years later he would say that his three week holiday had changed the whole course of his life and turned him from a gawky and naive boy into a budding adult. Until then he had given little thought to his future, but on his return home he was quite clear that he did not want to be a farmer like his father and live the rest of his life in the country. He had three older brothers, the eldest of whom was at agricultural college and would inherit the farm anyway, one who wished to join the Army, and one who wished to become a priest. After much meditation he realised that most of all he would like to study art at the Sorbonne in Paris, which is what he eventually did, although there was some resistance from his father at first.
It had been an uncomfortably hot day, unusually so even for this summer, and there was not even a breath of wind to stir the dust. It was nearly eight in the evening, but the blast of air from the subway entrances was still as scorching as a dragon’s breath and he was reluctant to join the masses on the Metro for the short journey to his apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement overlooking the Bois de Boulogne. It would be best to wait until it was cooler he thought and he took another sip of wine from his glass. He decided he would prefer to eat here — he had been told that the steak was very good — even though there would be a meal in the fridge prepared by his daughter for him to heat up when he got home in the evening. Never mind, it would still be okay for another day and he was sure she would understand — she was used to his whims by now. However he’d better phone her anyway so that she wouldn’t be concerned — she did worry — and he keyed her number into his mobile.
Even now the apartment still felt empty although it was six years since his wife had died. After university he had married his cousin, not Jacqueline but Geneviève, the quiet one. Maybe he should have moved to somewhere smaller when she tragically died far too young of a brain tumour, perhaps closer to the Jardin du Luxembourg and Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie where he was Professor of Modern Art, but now he was about to retire that would have been foolish. He still felt her loss keenly and it was strangely comforting to see her things in their familiar places with all the memories that they evoked of their many years of happy marriage. It was the silence that was most unsettling but he had been surprised to discover that, almost more than the sound of her voice, it was the clatter of everyday life he missed as she went about her household tasks.
He thought back over the events of the day, idly watching the people passing his table; nameless office workers weary to get home and pretty girls eager to meet a lover — he did a lot of people watching these days. That was when he saw her in the far distance, radiant in her own bubble of sunlight. Time seemed to stand still for an eternity and he froze with his glass halfway to his mouth, spellbound by this dream of otherworldliness. She moved as if she owned the space around her with the grace and assurance of an athlete. He had never seen anything so lovely; a once in a lifetime vision of beauty — not the skin deep artifice of a model — but something fundamental, almost divine.
To his surprise she stopped and sat down at the table next to his. The waiter, whose attention he had found so difficult to engage, immediately moved from where he was hovering at the entrance to the café and asked her what she would like. She asked for a cup of coffee — an espresso — and a glass of pastis, and while she was waiting she took a long cigarette holder and a pack of black Russian cigarettes — the type with a gold filter tip — from her handbag. After lighting the cigarette with a gold lighter, she inhaled deeply and then blew a long stream of smoke into the evening air, reminding him of those sophisticated and glamorous film stars of the fifties. Then she looked over at him … and smiled … not just a friendly smile, but a smile full of meaning. He was totally nonplussed and blushed like a teenager, uttering a feeble greeting, but she just smiled again and continued smoking with an air of utter relaxation.
Shortly after that his order arrived, followed by her coffee and pastis, and he turned his attention to his steak, which was really rather good and cooked just as he liked it. Nothing further was spoken between them and after about half an hour she stood up, nodded to him and walked off into the gathering gloom. He guessed that he would never see her again and he regretted his unusual shyness. If she had been a student he would have had no problem asking what she was studying — an annoying habit of an ageing academic. She was so remarkable he would loved to have known her story — what she did and why she was there, but he had missed his chance and he would forever wonder. Perhaps she was just a vision.
Over the next few days while he was sitting at his desk in the evening trying to write his valedictory lecture on “The Erotic in Art, the Enduring Attraction of Beauty”, his mind kept wandering as he recalled that brief moment of magic — he just couldn’t get her out of his head. He would chide himself that he was just a foolish old man, and leave his desk to and make another cup of strong black coffee accompanied by a very large glass of a fine cognac, before returning to his labours.
He dressed carefully for his lecture in a long mustard frock coat and large pale yellow cravat — as a professor of modern art he had always liked to present a slightly raffish, if slightly old fashioned, air, and he had always considered a black tuxedo to be so boring. After the lecture there would be a reception in his honour and the idea of showing off a little appealed to him. One never knew, but there might be an attractive lady who would be pleased to join him in an intimate late supper; just a little flirtation to round the evening off in a pleasant fashion — nothing more serious of course.
The lecture was going well and he was in that zone where he seemed to be speaking directly to every member of the audience. Suddenly his attention was distracted by movement at the back of the darkened theatre — a late comer was trying to find a seat. Normally such things didn’t bother him, but there was something this time that made him pause, and he looked up to see who it might be. And then he realised — it was her, the young lady of his daydreams, sitting there with that same air of mystery and seemingly still surrounded by an aura of light in the darkness. He soon recovered his composure and continued with his presentation. When he had finished there was a moment of silence and then the audience rose and gave him a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes. And that was that, the conclusion of a successful career, and he made a slight bow and left the podium with the applause still ringing in his ears.
At the reception he had to sit through a long and slightly tedious presentation by the Director of the University, who insisted on enumerating his successes. This was followed by a much more pleasant and much shorter speech by one of his former students who was now a member of the National Assembly, and then he was free to mingle amongst the guests, receiving their generally sincere plaudits with due modesty. And then, what he had secretly hoped for happened. She was there in front of him and everything else faded into the background as if they were the only people there. She came up and instead of shaking his hand, as would have been perfectly normal, she kissed him gently on the lips and then spoke for the first time. Her voice was as melodious as her appearance was elegant, and although she spoke perfect French it was with the hint of an American accent.
“Bravo Monsieur Le Professeur,” she said, “your presentation was as interesting and entertaining as I had expected it to be. It was a privilege to be here.”
“Perhaps,” she continued, “ you might permit me to visit you at your home, I have a proposition I would like to make to you. Please phone me tomorrow.”
She pressed a card into his hand and then she was gone, moving amongst the guests with the same grace that had first attracted him until she was lost to sight.
He paced the floor of his drawing room like a nervous cat, unable to sit down and relax for more than a few seconds. He glanced at his watch for the thousandth time — surely it must be past eight o’clock but stubbornly the hands seem to be frozen as if time was standing still. Perhaps she wouldn’t come, he thought, and then at last when he was beginning to give up hope, the doorbell rang.
After closing the door he took her coat and hung it carefully on the stand before ushering her into the drawing room. Without saying a word she moved around the room looking at the many modern objets d’art he had collected as well as the photographs in their silver frames of his wife and children. Finally she stopped at the window and gazed out at the view of the Bois de Boulogne with the lights on the trees beginning to twinkle in the gathering dusk.
She turned to face him and spoke, “You have a very fine collection Monsieur, as I would have expected from a man of your refined tastes, and your wife was very pretty. I have only seen photographs of her as a child but I can see her likeness to my mother. You were a very fortunate man and I’m sure she made you very happy.”
Then he understood. She was Jacqueline’s daughter and his niece — she could have even have been his daughter, except that Jacqueline had married an American and moved to New York long before he started courting Geneviève. He recollected that Jacqueline had divorced after several years of a childless and unhappy marriage, and that she and her second husband had been killed in a motoring accident when their only child was small. They had subsequently lost contact with her when she was adopted by another American couple.
“You must be Françoise,” he said, somewhat prosaically, “you resemble your mother, or what I guess your mother would have looked like when she was your age, although the last time I saw her was fifty five years ago when she was seventeen and I was a callow youth of fifteen. I am delighted, even overjoyed to meet you — and if I may say so, you are a beautiful and poised young lady.”
“Thank-you uncle,” she replied, “I may call you uncle, I hope, even though we are still strangers, although I know much more about you than you do about me.”
“It would be a privilege and an honour,” he said, “and I hope you will be staying in France long enough for us to get to know each other and for you to meet your cousins. They will be delighted I know. But I have been very remiss as a host, please take a seat and let me get you something to drink — have you eaten by the way, I know of a nice restaurant nearby? And then you can tell me all about yourself, and I believe you said you had a proposition for me.”
“I ate at my hotel, but a cup of coffee would be welcome, and an aperitif would be nice too. Do you mind if I smoke; it’s a terrible habit I know, but I do enjoy a cigarette or two in the evening.”
“My dear, I have no objections to your smoking, let me find you an ashtray. The scent of Black Russian cigarettes is quite pleasant, and my wife used to smoke them occasionally. I was a pipe smoker but I had to give up on the advice of my doctor, my chest you understand.”
The next two hours passed in the twinkling of an eye. He learned that he adopted parents were close friends of her father’s family. They were a childless couple who were already well into middle age when her parents were killed, and that they had both died whilst she was at university in California studying art. She had been offered a job with a small publishing company specialising in fine art books and also refined artistic erotica. She had learned about my reputation as an expert in twentieth century paintings of the nude whilst she was at university, and had suggested to her employers that a series on the erotic in modern art would be fine addition to their collection. Which is where he came in.
“When I told my boss that you were my uncle, and that in my opinion a series by a world renowned expert with your reputation would give that extra caché a small publisher like us needs in today’s competitive market, he nearly snapped my hand off. So I am here, and I do hope you will say yes to the proposal. We will pay you a very good fee and you will get a generous share of the royalties.”
He thought for a few minutes before replying, “I am very flattered by your proposal, and I am delighted to accept. The money is immaterial to me as I will be able to live very comfortably on my pension, but it will give me something satisfying to do in my retirement. My daughter would like me to sell this apartment and move out of town to something more modest where I can grow flowers. Sadly the idea bores me, and my father may have been a farmer but I have no aptitude at all with plants. Anyway, I could not bear to leave Paris, it captured my heart long ago and this is where I am at home. To leave after living here for over fifty years would break my heart.”
“That’s fixed then,” she said, “I will send you the contract tomorrow. But that’s not all. I have one other very personal request, or rather two requests.”
“Oh,” he replied, wondering whatever she could mean.
“My first request is easy. I am getting married in three months time, and I would like you to give me away. The second request is more, shall we say, semsitive.”
“Ask away,” he said, and smiled, “I’m certain it can’t be too difficult … or shocking, and it will be an honour for someone as charming … and special … as you.”
“I’m sorry if it appears like prying, but I couldn’t help noticing the painting over your bed — the door was open and I just peeked in I’m afraid. I have seen one or two of your paintings in galleries and you are a gifted painter as well as an academic, and I would dearly like a painting of me like that as a wedding present for my husband.”
He sat in silence for a bit longer. This was something totally unexpected and he wasn’t sure that he was still capable of producing a competent work of art, let alone capturing the likeness of a sitter. In his youth he had specialised in painting nude portraits of ordinary people, both men and women, in a style not unlike that of the amateur female artist Suzanne Valadon. She had posed as a model for both Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec among others in the 1880s and was also the mother of Maurice Utrillo by an unknown father, and had been the subject of his doctoral thesis.
Although he sold a few pictures he had realised by his early thirties that with a wife and young family to support he wasn’t talented enough to earn a living from painting. However he did discover that he had a flair for communication and from then on concentrated on his academic career. He had continued to paint for a couple of decades for pleasure and relaxation, but by the time of his retirement he hadn’t picked up a brush in years.
He explained all this to François, but she was insistent and said she was absolutely certain that once he started his ability would come flooding back. As she appeared to be adamant, and not wanting to offend such a beautiful young lady, he decided that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to accede to her request. However when he told her that he was willing to paint her in the nude as she desired, it was on the condition that there should be a chaperone present and that he was sure his daughter would be happy to do this. He also explained that as well as two or three sittings, he would need to take some photographs which he would give to her once the painting was completed to his satisfaction.
The painting was finally completed a couple of weeks before he was due to fly out to California for François’ wedding. The pose he wanted had been easy to decide. He particularly wanted to capture the aura and bloom of her flesh that had so captivated him when he first caught sight of her that summer evening in Paris. He placed her on a chair at a slight angle to the window with its westerly view across the park as if she was watching for her lover to return, with her legs crossed and her arms demurely in her lap. He chose a time of day when the sun was beginning to set so that her body appeared to glow against the darkness of the room in order to give an impression of the warmth of her flesh and the radiance of her personality.
He was surprised how easily he found it to capture her likeness, but he struggled with the skin tones and it was only after several abortive attempts that he finally found the right mixture of colours. At last however he was happy with the result and allowed his daughter to view the finished picture, which he had kept hidden from her whilst he was working on it. To his delight she said that in her opinion it was one of the best things he had ever done, and specifically commented on the remarkable quality of the flesh tones which seemed to glow with an inner light. This pleased him immensely since that was precisely what he had been hoping to capture.
Once he had finished making a few final touches he did something that might have seemed odd to the casual observer who might have expected him to continue painting now that he had rediscovered his talent. He threw away his brushes, palette and tubes of paint, and vowed never to paint again. This would be his final statement in paint because he knew that he could never again hope to capture the essence of a person so perfectly. It was his one and only masterpiece, not because of his skill and expertise, but because of the particular and special character of the subject. It was as much her work as his, and it was painted with love. It said everything he had ever wished to say in paint about the beauty of the human soul, which is the quality that all the best portraits seek to portray.
He has continued to live in Paris, and now in his old age he will often be found sitting in a chair looking out over the city where he first discovered love. If you asked him what he was thinking he might reply that he was dreaming of a special evening when he saw someone who embodied the elemental spirit of that wonderful and uniquely beautiful city.