Edith Wharton – The Custom of the Country,1913

Chapter 14

It was one of the distinctions of Mr. Claud Walsingham Popple that his studio was never too much encumbered with the attributes of his art to permit the installing, in one of its cushioned corners, of an elaborately furnished tea-table flanked by the most varied seductions in sandwiches and pastry.

Mr. Popple, like all great men, had at first had his ups and downs; but his reputation had been permanently established by the verdict of a wealthy patron who, returning from an excursion into other fields of portraiture, had given it as the final fruit of his experience that Popple was the only man who could “do pearls.” To sitters for whom this was of the first consequence it was another of the artist’s merits that he always subordinated art to elegance, in life as well as in his portraits. The “messy” element of production was no more visible in his expensively screened and tapestried studio than its results were perceptible in his painting; and it was often said, in praise of his work, that he was the only artist who kept his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress.

Mr. Popple, in fact, held that the personality of the artist should at all times be dissembled behind that of the man. It was his opinion that the essence of good-breeding lay in tossing off a picture as easily as you lit a cigarette. Ralph Marvell had once said of him that when he began a portrait he always turned back his cuffs and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, you can see there’s absolutely nothing here,” and Mrs. Fairford supplemented the description by defining his painting as “chafing-dish” art. On a certain late afternoon of December, some four years after Mr. Popple’s first meeting with Miss Undine Spragg of Apex, even the symbolic chafing-dish was nowhere visible in his studio; the only evidence of its recent activity being the full-length portrait of Mrs. Ralph Marvell, who, from her lofty easel and her heavily garlanded frame, faced the doorway with the air of having been invited to “receive” for Mr. Popple.

The artist himself, becomingly clad in mouse-coloured velveteen, had just turned away from the picture to hover above the tea-cups; but his place had been taken by the considerably broader bulk of Mr. Peter Van Degen, who, tightly moulded into a coat of the latest cut, stood before the portrait in the attitude of a first arrival.

“Yes, it’s good — it’s damn good, Popp; you’ve hit the hair off ripplingly; but the pearls ain’t big enough,” he pronounced.

A slight laugh sounded from the raised dais behind the easel.

“Of course they’re not! But it’s not HIS fault, poor man; HE didn’t give them to me!” As she spoke Mrs. Ralph Marvell rose from a monumental gilt arm-chair of pseudo-Venetian design and swept her long draperies to Van Degen’s side.

“He might, then — for the privilege of painting you!” the latter rejoined, transferring his bulging stare from the counterfeit to the original. His eyes rested on Mrs. Marvell’s in what seemed a quick exchange of understanding; then they passed on to a critical inspection of her person. She was dressed for the sitting in something faint and shining, above which the long curves of her neck looked dead white in the cold light of the studio; and her hair, all a shadowless rosy gold, was starred with a hard glitter of diamonds.

“The privilege of painting me? Mercy, I have to pay for being painted! He’ll tell you he’s giving me the picture — but what do you suppose this cost?” She laid a finger-tip on her shimmering dress.

Van Degen’s eye rested on her with cold enjoyment. “Does the price come higher than the dress?”

She ignored the allusion. “Of course what they charge for is the cut — ”

“What they cut away? That’s what they ought to charge for, ain’t it, Popp?”

Undine took this with cool disdain, but Mr. Popple’s sensibilities were offended.

“My dear Peter — really — the artist, you understand, sees all this as a pure question of colour, of pattern; and it’s a point of honour with the MAN to steel himself against the personal seduction.”

Edith Wharton,1862-1937    The Custom of the Country,1913

Image: John Singer Sargent,1856-1925. Portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon, 1904. Private Collection

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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