. . . . She for her part, looked at him too with a shyness that was not without its appeal, and blushed. The fact is that this charming woman carried her shyness to an extreme that was barely credible; her brother and her husband had been obliged to make a scene in order to induce her to come and see some pictures in the company of a painter she did not know. In a manner of speaking she had made a monster out of this painter, a man of the highest merit and chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Her fancy had pictured a sort of swashbuckler covered with gold chains, wearing a long black beard, and eyeing her constantly from head to foot; talking incessantly and very loud, and, even, telling her the most embarrassing things.
When she saw the arrival of a slim young man with a good figure, dressed in black, wearing his watch attached by a ribbon of the same colour, with an almost imperceptible red ribbon on his coat and a quite ordinary beard, she gripped her husband’s arm, so great was her surprise.
“But that’s not the celebrated painter?” she said to him.
And she was just getting reassured when her brother launched into his brutal account of the word ‘pious’, which presented her devotion in such an unfavourable light. She hardly dared look at the young painter; she dreaded to encounter the most mocking of glances. Reassured, however, by his modest and grave manner, she ended by venturing to raise her eyes. Imagine her joy and amazement when she found in the young painter a serious, almost tender expression. Extreme shyness, when linked with intelligence, leads one to reflect with all the clairvoyance of passion on the slightest detail of things, besides sharpening the wits. This was Valentine’s case. As a result of cholera she had early been left an orphan and had been put in a convent, which she had left only to marry M.Boissaux, who seemed to her as odd as her brother but lacking the gaiety and wit which made the latter such good company when he toned them down and was not wholly absorbed in making himself agreeable. In no time Valentine had indulged in a swarm of reflections on this great painter, who had turned out so different from the one she had figured. Then she was hurt at remembering that he seemed unwilling to paint her portrait. One must realize that to pose for this portrait, to submit for so long to the scrutinizing gaze of a stranger, was for her an appalling ordeal. It had reached so serious a point that she had needed to remind herself of the oath she had sworn at the altar to consider her husband as absolute master of all her important actions, before consenting to this portrait. Her brother had repeated to her two or three times, each time with great exaggeration, the reasons advanced by Féder for preferring the great artist already mentioned.
Valentine was agreeably and deeply surprised when, on reaching a comparison of the two paintings she saw all Féder’s reasons against doing her portrait waver; he could do no less than repeat them, having put them forward only the previous night, in talking to Delangle. With the subtlety natural to a woman of intelligence, however little experience chance had yet provided for her, Valentine noticed that Féder, in comparing his own work with the masterpiece they had come to see, became quite another man. That projecting lower lip was definitely a flaw in her beauty, and Féder felt it keenly; but it did announce a certain possibility of loving with passion to which, somehow or other, he now found himself most susceptible. He was seized with an immoderate desire to paint Valentine’s portrait; to achieve this, it was necessary to address Delangle in a language absolutely opposed to that of the previous night. But Delangle was not the man to restrain his sense of humour. If he detected this variation in Féder’s opinion, he was just the man to shout: “By Jove, sister, let’s do your bright eyes justice; they’ve change the great painter’s mind for him”; and the remark, repeated a score of times in stentorian tones and in every conceivable variation, would have been absolute torture to Féder. He had therefore to let himself be swayed by Delangle’s arguments, and, if he did abandon his verdict of the night before, at least to execute this manoeuvre so far from unknown in our day, with all the skill of a deputy most in command of his words. Above all, he dare not let it be guessed that in fact he set an infinite value on doing this portrait.
Stendhal, 1783-1842 (Marie-Henri Beyle) Féder, ou Le Mari d’argent; 1839; published 1855 . Féder or, the Moneyed Husband
Image: Théodore Chassériau, 1819-1856. Autoportrait de l’artiste tenant une palette, Musée du Louvre © RMN