Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

The Portrait
by [?]

It was at Mrs. Mellish’s, one Sunday afternoon last spring. We were talking over George Lillo’s portraits–a collection of them was being shown at Durand-Ruel’s–and a pretty woman had emphatically declared:–

“Nothing on earth would induce me to sit to him!”

There was a chorus of interrogations.

“Oh, because–he makes people look so horrid; the way one looks on board ship, or early in the morning, or when one’s hair is out of curl and one knows it. I’d so much rather be done by Mr. Cumberton!”

Little Cumberton, the fashionable purveyor of rose-water pastels, stroked his moustache to hide a conscious smile.

“Lillo is a genius–that we must all admit,” he said indulgently, as though condoning a friend’s weakness; “but he has an unfortunate temperament. He has been denied the gift–so precious to an artist–of perceiving the ideal. He sees only the defects of his sitters; one might almost fancy that he takes a morbid pleasure in exaggerating their weak points, in painting them on their worst days; but I honestly believe he can’t help himself. His peculiar limitations prevent his seeing anything but the most prosaic side of human nature–

“‘A primrose by the river’s brim
A yellow primrose is to him,
And it is nothing more.

Cumberton looked round to surprise an order in the eye of the lady whose sentiments he had so deftly interpreted, but poetry always made her uncomfortable, and her nomadic attention had strayed to other topics. His glance was tripped up by Mrs. Mellish.

“Limitations? But, my dear man, it’s because he hasn’t any limitations, because he doesn’t wear the portrait-painter’s conventional blinders, that we’re all so afraid of being painted by him. It’s not because he sees only one aspect of his sitters, it’s because he selects the real, the typical one, as instinctively as a detective collars a pick-pocket in a crowd. If there’s nothing to paint–no real person–he paints nothing; look at the sumptuous emptiness of his portrait of Mrs. Guy Awdrey”–(“Why,” the pretty woman perplexedly interjected, “that’s the only nice picture he ever did!”) “If there’s one positive trait in a negative whole he brings it out in spite of himself; if it isn’t a nice trait, so much the worse for the sitter; it isn’t Lillo’s fault: he’s no more to blame than a mirror. Your other painters do the surface–he does the depths; they paint the ripples on the pond, he drags the bottom. He makes flesh seem as fortuitous as clothes. When I look at his portraits of fine ladies in pearls and velvet I seem to see a little naked cowering wisp of a soul sitting beside the big splendid body, like a poor relation in the darkest corner of an opera-box. But look at his pictures of really great people– how great they are! There’s plenty of ideal there. Take his Professor Clyde; how clearly the man’s history is written in those broad steady strokes of the brush: the hard work, the endless patience, the fearless imagination of the great savant! Or the picture of Mr. Domfrey–the man who has felt beauty without having the power to create it. The very brush- work expresses the difference between the two; the crowding of nervous tentative lines, the subtler gradations of color, somehow convey a suggestion of dilettantism. You feel what a delicate instrument the man is, how every sense has been tuned to the finest responsiveness.” Mrs. Mellish paused, blushing a little at the echo of her own eloquence. “My advice is, don’t let George Lillo paint you if you don’t want to be found out–or to find yourself out. That’s why I’ve never let him do me; I’m waiting for the day of judgment,” she ended with a laugh.

Every one but the pretty woman, whose eyes betrayed a quivering impatience to discuss clothes, had listened attentively to Mrs. Mellish. Lillo’s presence in New York–he had come over from Paris for the first time in twelve years, to arrange the exhibition of his pictures–gave to the analysis of his methods as personal a flavor as though one had been furtively dissecting his domestic relations. The analogy, indeed, is not unapt; for in Lillo’s curiously detached existence it is difficult to figure any closer tie than that which unites him to his pictures. In this light, Mrs. Mellish’s flushed harangue seemed not unfitted to the trivialities of the tea hour, and some one almost at once carried on the argument by saying:–“But according to your theory–that the significance of his work depends on the significance of the sitter–his portrait of Vard ought to be a master-piece; and it’s his biggest failure.”