It was the late in the summer of 1998 when I first became acquainted with Steven. Circumstance had provided us the opportunity to work together, a collaboration which culminated in a slick bit of legal craftsmanship which had all the hallmarks of a jurisprudential masterpiece, at least when viewed by someone who could appreciate the invisible strings we fashioned to manipulate a sensitive artistic universe. Raising a toast of some rather exquisite champagne, Steven and I indulgently acknowledged our own handiwork, well aware that our finest accomplishment lay in the fact that no one outside the room would ever really appreciate our delicate touch. If things went as planned, we laughed, they would never even realize we had been there.
One bottle from Steven’s extensive cellars led to another, and we spoke that day at great length, in ways our work had never allowed. Working together had been a great joy for both of us, I like to think, because Steven and I shared a sense of focus which meant every working hour of those two months had been devoted solely to the task at hand. I’m almost ashamed of the single-minded intensity that I dedicate to my tasks, although I know no other fashion of approaching a problem, but all too often the obsessive devotion I suffer in the course of a serious project has cost me bitterly, both in my professional and personal relationships. Yet with Steven, for once, it had been different. He was every bit as concentrated as I had ever been. With a grin, I might even admit that he could turn the flame a notch or two further than I. How could I not enjoy the company of a man who not only appreciated my tendencies, but challenged me to demand more of myself? As neglected as our subtle monument would be, I took great pride in knowing that Steven understood. We raised another toast, and again, until the sun slipped orange beyond the dark wooded acres of Steven’s estate.
Those two months, dedicated as they were to the definition and protection of the intangible property rights of visual artists, taught me a great deal about a subject I had really never paid any mind. I understood the vagaries of copyright in the abstract, and had done the cursory rounds through several great galleries during my travels, but before that summer, art remained a decorative item for me. In fact, the work we did with the Foundation did much to increase my exposure and augment my vocabulary, but Steven provided the catalyst which turned on the light.
Champagne had led to Chablis which led to a Chardonnay “we simply have to share”, to a special unlabelled bottle from a tiny Swiss monastery to a very old bottle of Scotch and the tenth hour of our celebration had warmed my spirits into a pleasant sense of incautious confidence.
“What it really boils down to,” I said, pretending wisdom, “is that much of the work that is being done in this country derives again from European influences.” Steven smiled, distracted. He put down his glass and leaned forward, his high brow slightly wrinkled.
“I don’t think we go very far describing an artist’s work in terms of influences,” Steven said. “There is always an evolution of linguistic terms, so to speak, but language is a living component of our expression. Substance always triumphs over form, yet without comprehensible forms, the expression becomes lost.”
I remember listening carefully, because I respected Steven more than anyone I had ever known. Part of me had always believed the arts perpetrated a fraud, that a conspiracy of critics and galleries operated to decide one piece would be valuable and another would not. To me, a painting was pretty or it was not. The rest sounded like poppycock. Yet Steven seemed to believe.
“I want to show you something,” Steven said and with my assent, he led me upstairs to a large room I calculated to be his study. The south wall of the grand space was almost entirely built of glass, windows that seemed to draw in the broad reaches of landscape, the small pond, the gentle roll of pasture, the distant oak forests and broad color-rich skies. A wide glossy desk sat poised beneath the darkening panes, cluttered uncharacteristically, I thought, with a dozen strewn volumes, piled open in a chaotic array. The east and west walls climbed some thirty feet high with overfilled bookshelves, majestic old leather bound tomes near piles of unkempt paperbacks. Steven approached the north wall, where a curtain hung.
“Do you know Pandolf?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, laughing at the notion that even someone asbgenerally ignorant as I could fail to know of Fra Pandolf. “I mean, I’ve never met him, if that’s what you mean, but his paintings are already worth millions.”
“He did a painting for me, years ago,” Steven said.
“Really?” I asked, quite amazed.
“My wife commissioned a painting, as a gift. Anna had quite an eye for artists. He was just a local back then. I think she only paid a few thousand for this.” Steven pulled the cord which drew back the curtain.
A large canvas hung on the wall, filled with greens and blues and sunlight golds. The subject, only slightly abstracted, was a beautiful woman, simply radiant in her loveliness with water bright eyes, soft skin, long sensuous legs and a smile that almost laughed out loud. I smiled, pleased, knowing the treasure Steven showed me was a very pretty picture.
“It was our tenth anniversary,” Steven said, his eyes fixed on the portrait of his wife, Anna. “She posed without my knowing and gave me the finished painting. It was a surprise.”
“I can imagine,” I said, astounded by the living sense I felt as I studied the woman’s graceful lines. Pandolf, I knew, was one of the darlings of modern art, and for once, I could bear witness to genius. This was a brilliant example of incredible skill. “It must be worth a fortune,” I said tactlessly, thinking aloud.
“I suppose,” Steven said. “It’s priceless to me.”
“Of course,” I said. “Have you ever shown it, loaned it to a gallery?” I tried to show off some of the knowledge of standard art practices I had learned in our work. Steven frowned and then laughed.
“No,” he said. “I haven’t shown anyone this painting in ten years.”
“Why?” I asked.
“When Anna gave me this painting, I was no patron of the arts. I knew a little, could talk at parties about symmetry and impression, but when I first saw this piece of work, I saw it as a husband.” Steven stopped to stare again at the painting of his disrobed wife.
“I thought it was beautiful,” he said, “just as I thought Anna was beautiful, but I also thought it was too beautiful. Do you know much about Pandolf?”
“No,” I replied.
“When this painting was done, his reputation wasn’t as much for being a painter as it was for being a scoundrel. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but I was spending a fair amount of time at the courthouse and I knew about his scandals; public drunkeness, vandalism, even petty assaults on stuffy art patrons. I had a low opinion of the man as a decent citizen. What did I know about art?”
Steven left me standing in front of the painting while he went to a small assortment of crystal bottles and poured himself a short drink. He downed the brown liquid in a single motion.
“Anna was beside herself with delight when she gave me this painting and I smiled and fawned and thanked her for her generous kindness, but the whole time I was thinking about my Anna posed naked while this creature,” Steven paused. “Painted her.” He took a deep breath. “It seemed an outrage, and yet I couldn’t accuse Anna of doing anything wrong when all she had meant to do was provide me with a monument to the beauty I worshipped. I loved her dearly. She shone.”
“And I couldn’t fault Pandolf’s work,” Steven said. “All art aside, it is a magnificent piece. It truly captures the essence of Anna’s beauty and I felt grateful in that regard. He accomplished a feat I could never in a thousand lifetimes have managed. Pandolf drew out the very essence of my love for Anna and immortalized the feeling on canvas. But then, the demons rose up within me.” Steven sat down, staring again at the portrait. I went to the small bar and poured myself a drink.
“One night, months after, I made love to Anna and in the very moment of ecstasy, a realization struck me. There, in her eyes, as a giddy laugh passed over her lips, I found the instant of beauty that is there, frozen into that infernal painting. I left our bed almost as quickly as it is conceivably possible to abandon a woman in the throes of love, and I rushed down here and gazed into the eyes of the painting and I knew I was right. In the strokes of his brush, Pandolf had broken my heart. Anna had shown him the ecstasy of her soul.”
Steven seethed with living rage and I looked again at the painting, almost embarrassed to be privy to such an intimate view of the beautiful Anna. I knew he spoke the truth, for while at first glance the piece seemed simply beautiful, a glimmer of the delight I had, myself, witnessed in the climactic expressions of lovely young women glowed in the face of the portrait’s subject. I shuddered to imagine what Steven had felt, an outpouring of furious emotion that still burned in him.
“I pulled the curtain closed and ran from the study,” Steven said. “Anna had followed after me, curious to see where I had dashed off to, but I managed to meet her in the hallway. Grabbing her, I kissed my wife with more passion than I ever had before in all our years together. In the first moment, when I looked into the glimmering black pupils of the painting, I had felt the anger and pain that comes from the first blow of a poisoned dagger. Her lips seemed to mock me, almost pursed in a hungry kiss. I wanted to tear the painting down from the wall and destroy the canvas thread by thread. But just there, beneath the smooth skin of her throat, I could almost feel the eager pulse of her heart. Her breasts, so soft and warm, pressed against my chest. Her arms . . .” Steven stopped. I looked away.
“I loved Anna more than I ever had. I couldn’t care if she had betrayed me because it seemed inconsequential compared to the pain I would feel if I lost her. I loved her madly, with every fiber of my being, for the rest of her life.” Steven stood and approached the painting. “And I was right. The pain of losing her was worst of all.”
I sat dumbfounded as I looked at the painting of Anna by Pandolf, and for the first time, truly marvelled at the passion that could be contained within a single square of canvas, covered over by globs of oily pigment. Steven sobbed softly. I rose and put an arm around him, feeling the magnificent adoration for this work of art he expressed with each convulsed breath. And with a glance, I loved her, too.
“It was years before I showed anyone else the painting. He was an old friend and a great admirer of Pandolf’s. He told me that this piece marked the transition for the painter. In this painting, he said, Pandolf spoke a universal truth, taking that final step beyond the personal truths that characterized his earlier work. That Pandolf often spoke of a great piece he had sold and forever regretted giving up. That my Anna’s was the one.”
I nodded. I had seen the face of beauty before. The painting held a recognition.
“Anna told me on that first night that the painter had tried to refuse to give the painting to her. She told him they had a contract and that her husband was a lawyer and that if he didn’t give her the painting, there would be hell to pay. Then she gave him two hundred extra because she felt sorry.”
“Amazing,” I said.
“She loved me,” he said. “You can see it in her eyes.”