Chapter 2 : the art
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(all art is at once surface and symbol)
Even Henri is speechless when she first walks in.
The snow of the night before is still on the ground and she’s shivering despite the cloak around her, pale cheeks glowing from a bitter wind that should have made them burn red with cold. Electric lights illuminate the room but her hair seems to shimmer even without their help, gleaming and golden under the hood of her cloak. He catches a glimpse of high cheekbones, cerulean eyes and blushing lips before he realises he’s staring.
He thinks she’s wonderful.
He quickly tears his eyes away and returns his gaze to the newspaper in front of him – a sight much less appealing but far more appropriate. He pretends not to have seen her, and glancing up again sees that she is fussing about with her cloak, which has snagged in the doorframe, and so is unlikely to have noticed his momentary lapse. Only when a musical “Good morning” reaches his ears does he emerge from behind his paper-and-ink barrier, releasing himself from the comforting embrace of the written word to accept unconditionally whatever unknown adventures this remarkable creature will offer him.
He sets the paper down on the desk. “And to you,” he replies. He stands up politely, and she towers over him, slim and slight, statuesque.
He feels like a fool, but with his eyes now on her again he can’t quite bring himself to take them away. She is incredible, mesmerising. Tantalising. Perfection is standing in his office and he is acutely, painfully, aware of it.
“Henri Delacour?” she asks, pulling her cloak a little more tightly around her.
With someone else, he might have pointed out the sign on the street outside or the plaque on his desk. With her, he conjures his most charming smile and answers, “The very same.”
She smiles in return, looking a little more relaxed at his friendliness. It occurs to him that a smile does not enhance her beauty as it does with so many.
“Please take a seat,” he says, and she does. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“I’d like you to paint me,” she says, and grins. “Oddly enough.”
“It would be my pleasure.” He spins around a little to reach for his files, in the same manner that had so amused Robert the day before. It is then that it occurs to him.
He spins back around to face her. “You must be Apolline.”
“Robert told me about you.”
“And he told me about you. He said you were the best.”
He inclines his head. “Robert’s a good brother, always suitably complimentary.”
“I don’t see many portraits here, though,” she says, and pointedly glances around. He follows the path of her gaze to the frames on the walls. The idyllic and idealistic country scenes he is so fond of, the droplets of water cascading from a common source in his impressionist fountain, the woman drowning in the depths of Hell and Despair, whom Robert had rather aptly described as a banshee. She looks a little like Jacqueline, he supposes.
“Recently the majority of my customers have been Muggles,” he explains, “and they don’t seem so interested in portraits.”
“You paint for Muggles?”
“I prefer them, frankly, when it comes to business.”
She’s looking at him strangely, and he studies her as comprehension dawns. It all fits, she’ll be thinking, it all makes sense now – the unassuming office on the Muggle street, the blatantly Muggle decorations right down to the chair he’s sitting in, and the fact that not one of the pictures surrounding them is moving.
“I hope that hasn’t put you off,” he says, feigning concern. “I am more than capable of producing wizarding portraits, I assure you, and have a number of examples in storage if you would care to –”
“I would, if you don’t mind. But later. I’m willing to believe you. Well, actually I’m willing to believe Robert. He spoke very highly of you, and he seems to be a man of his word.”
Henri knows that Robert is, in general, anything but. He wonders if Robert’s connection to this woman is more than he had claimed. He says, “In that case, there are a few forms for you to sign, and appointments to be arranged, and the – ah – first payment to be made.”
“The first?” She accepts the sheets of parchment he hands her and picks up the quill on his desk.
“Half now, half when the picture is finished.”
She scans the document, signing once, twice, three times. When she reaches the end, she raises an eyebrow. “You’re expensive.”
“You’d better be much more than good if this is what I’m paying,” she says, and hands the forms back to him. He wonders why, if she doubts him so, she is so eager to press on with the proceedings.
They then both pull out their diaries and make two appointments for the current week and one per week for the rest of the month. He had hoped for more – he likes to take time over things and is a firm believer than perfection cannot be rushed – but she tells him she’s busy, very busy, and that is the end of that. He then gives her a portfolio of his past portraits to take away with her, instructing her to choose a preferred pose.
All business done, he politely shows her out, reapplying the charm he had forgone after her condescension about his Muggle clients and lack of appreciation for the art on his walls. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then, Miss Lefèvre,” he says, smiling and holding the door open for her. Despite everything, he can’t wait for it to come. He is itching to get brush to canvas and have the chance to attempt his greatest challenge to date.
She returns the smile, though it seems a little more forced. “I look forward to it,” she says, and he can’t help but hope she is telling the truth.
When she comes she is late, but he can forgive her for that. He is just glad she came at all. In those twenty minutes that she left him waiting he had assumed the worst: that she wasn’t coming, that she had changed her mind and gone to someone else, that some inferior artist would have the chance that is rightly his.
But she is here – she’s harassed and irritable but she’s here – and so he leads her upstairs to his studio, and asks what she wants the painting to be. She has a clear vision in her head – they always do – and even though he disagrees with almost all her choices, he will abide by them. She should be standing, not sitting, with a blank background instead of the window behind her, but he will do as she says and can only hope she is pleased with the result.
So she sits down and he does too, perched on the old wooden stool that was his father’s and twiddling a piece of charcoal between his fingers.
For the first time that he can remember, the instrument is awkward in his hand. The excitement of yesterday is over, the relief he felt mere moments ago vanished completely.
How can he possibly draw her?
This will be the end of him, he is sure of it. This will be a failure of epic proportions and he will be ruined. It can be nothing but a failure, for no matter how hard he tries or how long he slaves, the picture will never amount to anything.
She is impossible to paint; it is as simple as that. He can’t capture that beauty with a paintbrush, can’t possibly replicate that perfection onto canvas.
The picture, in short, cannot possibly outdo the real life masterpiece.
This he knows and it terrifies him, because what is art if not an illusion too perfect to capture in reality? If reality outshines the illusion, then what beauty is there in art?
But he must try. She is sitting and waiting and she has paid, and so try he does.
As with anything one puts effort into, a result eventually starts to come about, though whether this particular result is a cause for pride or despair Henri cannot quite decide. At times he thinks this is the best thing he has ever done, as by all rights it should be. At others he curses her for ever having come and himself for agreeing to take on such an impossible task, marvelling at her beauty and lamenting his lack of talent in concurrency.
But whether it is destined to be a success or a failure, slowly the picture takes shape, developing from a charcoal sketch to something resembling her watercolour reflection. He won’t allow her to see it, though. He lets no one see it, in fact, no one but himself, as though another set of eyes upon it would bleach the paint and shatter the canvas and destroy the masterpiece he is creating.
She has complained about this on more than one occasion – on a regular basis, in fact – but he will not be swayed. Nor will she ever give up, however. Among her many vices and virtues, persistence is certainly a prominent quality.
She can talk about nothing for hours, and does so regularly with enthusiasm and flair. She irritates him and he bores her; she has never said so but the drama and frequency with which she rolls her eyes speaks volumes. She fidgets constantly, which irritates him still more.
“I’m sorry, but you really must keep still,” he has told her more than once.
“I know, sorry,” she’ll say without remorse. “I’m trying.” Often she’ll sigh dramatically, flicking her golden hair and examining her fingernails with an expression of great offence.
“Could you put your hair back where it was? It was just right before.”
“Sorry. But can’t you at least talk to me or something?”
“I prefer to work in silence. Your hair, please?”
“Sorry. It is a bit boring, though. How do your other subjects manage?”
In truth he has few other clients now, though he doesn’t tell her this. His time now is spent almost exclusively on her, whether she is present or not. His days and nights alike are consumed by thoughts of her; visions of her now have a permanent place in his head. Is it right? he wonders constantly, perched on the stool in his studio, brush in one hand and paint palette in the other. Are her eyes quite like that? he’ll think, then redo them because he is convinced they aren’t.
When she arrives the next morning he’ll realise that neither was correct, that the first were the wrong shape and the second the wrong shade, and he will start again.
And even when he can tear himself from her image on the canvas she is still there in the back of his mind, in the space that is now reserved for her. He thinks of her often, replays in his thoughts the moment when true beauty first walked into his office, into his life. It still seems unreal to him sometimes, and it remains a moment of bittersweet ecstasy for him. She is so perfect and so flawed, and the flaws are agony to him. The surface is divine and her initial air of grace, charm and mystery is utterly enticing, but he has made the mistake of brushing the surface and trying to delve deeper, and he has paid for it dearly.
Does true beauty exist? she has forced him to wonder. When she first walked through his door she had seemed the embodiment of beauty, but to know her a little better is to know much more of her imperfection. She is a woman – no, little more than a girl in all honesty, a wittering, immature girl blessed with an impossible beauty that is marred by petty aspects of personality.
To err is human, he thinks. Is humanity itself an imperfection? Can humanity, in all its flawed wonder, ever produce something truly and utterly perfect?
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