‘LOOK AT HER EYES. They’re empty. You can tell she’s really cold or probably never had an orgasm in her life. It’s typical of women of that period. Look at her skin, it’s all blotchy. Probably has some STD. And those hands, they’re more like claws. How could you expect any man to sleep with that./But she’s got a beautiful neck and hairline./If you like double chins./Yeah, but you mostly look at the face. I know I wouldn’t want to./I bet she was a bitch in real life. That little mean mouth. The way it curls up in the corners. More like a smirk./That’s what she’s doing. She’s just smirking at us./She’s not the Mona Lisa, that’s for sure./Hardly./More like the moan./Look at all that gold. Probably had lots of money and got some old whoremaster to pay a mediocre painter to do her portrait just to play into her vanity. They did that a lot then. It was kind a 19th century selfie./She has a nice balcony./They always exaggerated their breasts, made them look more comely./How old would you say she is there?/I’d say under thirty./You think so?/I’d say she’s more in her mid to late forties. Look at the suggestion of the crows feet in her eyes, and that hand is slightly freckled. You see the age spot near the thumb./That could be foxing from age. Or the oil discolouring the canvas from too much sun exposure./Still, I love the dress. Those pinks and greens are so feminine. It’s a pity we don’t dress like that anymore./I think that’s why men used be more horny in those days, trying to get their hands under all those garments to grab your buttocks./You’re obsessed./Imagine if she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt––she’d look like shit.’
The things people say when they don’t think you’re listening. It’s horrible. I try to turn off, but it’s hard. ‘I don’t like her face, she’s not ugly, I don’t know what it is, I just don’t like it.’ ‘At the time she must have been considered pretty otherwise why would he have painted her, but not by today’s standards.’ ‘Do you know what her relationship was with the painter?’ ‘It doesn’t say in the catalogue.’ ‘Do you think they were involved?’ ‘Hey, look at the flush on her breasts. Looks like they just had sex.’ ‘Or were about to have it.’
Most people don’t get a chance to hear what others say behind their backs, but me, it’s all I ever hear. Half of them come here to stare at my breasts. One is visible through my blouse. The suggestion of a nipple. Sometimes they reach out and try to touch it. Kids who come with their mothers can’t help themselves, they sneak a stroke when she’s not looking, and I don’t say anything. I let them get away with it. I’m 176 years old, you get attention where you can find it. It’s nice to still feel appreciated.
Not all the visitors are the same. There’s one, he’s come a few times, he’s different. I can tell he wants me.
And I am appreciated, it’s not all insults, I just tend to remember those. Some people find me beautiful, intriguing even. I remember one said, ‘her eyes sparkle with the intelligence of Caligula’. ‘Her smile has a secret. Mischief,’ that’s what one critic said. I heard the tour guide reading from a book. It made me blush.
‘Do you think she’s pregnant?’ this know-it-all turns to his companion who seems to be considering it.
‘Look at the way she’s holding her fan. It’s like she’s hiding something.’
Alright, enough about my weight.
None of their guesses are right, of course. I was no rich man’s mistress. No one’s illegitimate child, nor the artist in disguise. I am a nobody. I was momentarily loved by the painter, then he moved on, and I was forgotten, shoved into the back closet until I was found and sold as one of the painter’s ‘unknown women’. There’s a few of us in this room like that.
Madame Celeste was put away for safe keeping during the war and forgotten, only rediscovered recently. She was damaged a little, a masonry nail gauged her neck. They cleaned her up and covered the scar, but I don’t think she’ll ever be the same. Subject of a new documentary. Over fifty years in the dark, it’s got to leave you shell-shocked.
It’s the same with the pastels on level three. Kept in a windowless room in the semi-darkness. I wonder if they even know the difference between day or night.
This place is full of pick up artists! Stylishly malnourished in their black spectacles and scraggily goatees. Check out this one channeling a Van Gogh beard, trying to look like a vagabond you’d find sleeping under a haystack. Last week his goatee was plain old mouse brown, now it’s red. Trying to pick up earnest young co-eds, repeating phrases he lifted from the catalogue and passing them off as his own opinions. But he doesn’t fool me. He’s been doing it for years.
They are about to close up our section of the gallery for renovations. All of us will be put into storage for a year. All except Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1865, she’ll probably go on loan. She’s always travelling, the little tart. So made-up and of dubious provenance. Has had ‘extensive restoration’, that’s art historian speak for she’s had work done. But they fall for it just the same. The way she gives the evil eye to everyone who comes in the room.
I don’t envy her, I don’t. Beauty like that attracts a special brand of weirdo. I remember one, used to sit on a bench opposite her with his box of charcoals on his lap. It was obvious to everyone what he was doing, tossing his ‘etchings’. He got thrown out after a schoolgirl sat down next to him and reported him for indecency.
My best friend was stolen last year. They took her in broad daylight. Cut her out of the frame and walked out. I always knew security was too lax. They got her back in a few months. Now she’s surrounded by glass and a permanent guard and has cameras trained on her. It must be hard to be taken so violently, and yet when it happened a part of me thought: maybe she’s lucky. Rolled up in a tube and carried on the back of some young leather-jacketed man on a motorcycle, on her way to be held as security for a drug lord or a weird obsessed collector who’d burned for her all his life. Imagine.
The last time I was loved that way was when he was painting me. And then when he was finished, he took me off the easel and added me to his stack of paintings and unfinished ideas and forgot all about me.
He was the very first man I was with and I think, if there’s something that would make my portrait special, it’s that sense of discovery in my eyes. I am embarrassed and naked, but I didn’t know enough then to realise how vulnerable I was. The painter put himself in the picture too, reflected in the smoky mirror. Barely there. I could never tell if he was smiling or laughing at some stupid girlish thing I said, and it’s the same with his expression in the mirror. Is it a smile or is he mocking me?
I know they are coming for me, but I don’t know when. I could tell because he and his colleague spent so long in the room not looking at me. Stopping in front of almost every other painting except mine. The painter was like that too, as soon as he decided he wanted to seduce me, he went about avoiding me.
I think it’s going to be tonight. No particular reason. Something just feels…And you know what, I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait to escape. Maybe after midnight they’ll come. When it gets quiet here, there’s no other silence like it.
The Thief takes out a knife and makes four quick cuts and just like that I’m being rolled up and travelling in a sack on his back, in the dead of night, on my way to some unknown collector who will probably hide me away for the rest of my life. From one prison to another. And yet in this moment I feel free, almost weightless as the motorcycle takes fast and risky bends and skirts the darkness, and I want it to last, but know it can’t and as we cross over the small bridge, the wind traveling through me like a tunnel, I coil up tight and then let myself spring out, floating over the cool night air like a parachute, drifting up once more over the rushing water before crashing onto the sharp rocks below.
Cover image: Original artwork by Mia Funk.