a flash-fiction piece
John Singer Sargent became the much sought after society portraitist of his time though, in middle-age, having gained some fame and a little wealth, he grew increasingly wearisome of this work. He was, in spirit, a man of the plein-air style of painting and seldom ventured out without a small box of watercolours and paper on which to sketch whatever, or whomever, took his liking.
And so he found himself on a balmy afternoon in late May, strolling through one of the city’s most popular parks when he came across a young lady, reading within the shade of a plane tree.
So engrossed in her book was she that it seemed his approach had gone unnoticed, and so he stepped a little back from the path and secreted himself behind a myrtle bush where, having made himself comfortable, prepared his paints for a sketch.
He had made satisfactory progress and was at the point of introducing some dark, tonal shadows when his attention was drawn to the slow approach of a dandy gentleman, swinging an ebony cane. Not wishing to invite a scene, Sargent put down his brush and hid his work beneath his coat. The gentleman eventually passed and in doing so, the two strangers nodded a cordial greeting. Sargent was about to renew his sketch when the other man swiftly turned on his heels and raised his cane in the painter’s direction.
“Good Lord,” said the man, “Are you not the painter, John Singer Sargent?!”
“That I am,” replied Sargent in a modest voice.
The young woman, startled by their voices, turned to face them.
“And you are painting this young lady, I see?” continued the man, swinging the cane in her direction now.
“Evidently,” Sargent sighed.
The woman blushed, which put Sargent in mind of rose madder; a useful pigment; he had run short, he noticed…
The woman, to his dismay, had gathered up her few belongings all too quickly and, without the slightest glance, hurried away in the direction of the South gate. The stranger stood still, watching her departure and when she could no longer be discerned from the others in the park, he said,
“Well, well, I do hope I haven’t spoilt the occasion, old chap. Fancy, though – John Singer Sargent – so pleased to have made your acquaintance, sir. And now I’m afraid I must dash. No rest for the wicked!”
And with that said, the man swung himself around and sauntered off, leisurely swinging his cane.
Sargent would meet the gentleman again, on occasions and purely by chance, and with each subsequent meeting, the gentleman would acknowledge their acquaintance with added determinism and, if he was ever in company, would imply he had known Sargent for many years. As for the young woman, Sargent never set eyes on her again.
written for The Haunted Wordsmith Prompt – April 29th.
The American painter, John Singer Sargent, is one of my favourite artists though more for his society portraiture than anything else. He possessed an exceptional talent, in particular with the women sitters, for suggesting in their pose and expression, something hidden, almost scandalous. Of course, he was accused of this whilst working in Paris and so moved to London. I did read how he grew tired of society portraits and preferred landscape painting “plein-air” but it wasn’t nearly as lucrative.
The above story is fictional. It is the first time I’ve come across this painting, “Resting” (watercolour, 1880-90 – Joseph F. McCrindle Collection).