Actions

Work Header

Metamorphoses

Work Text:

Milan was full of light; a painter’s dream. Marianne stood by the window and waited for it to thin out, for the sky to shed its ultramarine blues, oranges, reds, lilacs, purples, and descend into blues again—softer now, darker. The day had been beautiful, but there were certain effects you could only achieve when light waned.

She stepped back and dragged a settee over the floor, placing it before the mantlepiece, then positioned her easel between them, at an angle. She laid out her brushes on a small stool: bigger and flatter first, to block in shapes, then finer and rounder for details. The air of the studio was filled with the crisp scent of pine resin that tingled her nostrils when she unscrewed the caps of two jars of turpentine and oil. A rug. A bowl of water. A few pieces of charcoal for the sketch: first on a piece of paper, then on the plain-weave linen of the canvas she had already gessoed and covered with a wash of burnt sienna. She ran a hand over it to make sure. The base was dry and ready.

The sky finally took on the velvety black of night. The servant had been dismissed for the day and Marianne kneeled by the fireplace to light it. A few sparks jumped from the flint and soon a little whirl of smoke rised from the tinder. She sat back on the balls of her feet, satisfied. It wouldn’t be enough to warm up the entire space, which was bigger than her last one, and the clutter of easels, chests and unfinished projects she brought with her hadn’t managed to take it over quite yet. But it would create a small cocoon of heat, and the nights here were milder than she was used to anyway.

The flame grew bigger, swirled and danced as Marianne kept looking. It changed by the second, it never changed at all. She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth on her cheeks, and waited for a sound of footsteps on the staircase outside of the room. The fire crackled.




Not a single day had been calm in Paris; there was success to achieve there and she grabbed it with both of her oil-stained hands, dug her fingers into it and clung for her life. She took her father’s name in the Academia and forged her own out of it through private commissions, none of them quite as engaging as—but all of them lucrative enough to allow her to move out of the studio she shared with her father and afford her own.

Her days were full of images created for the eye of the public, and it was good. It meant independence. But her head was full of images she wanted to paint even if they would never bring her money or recognition. Some were scenes from places a respectable lady shouldn’t acknowledge, not to mention frequent or portray in her art. She thought of Sophie, and brought the sketch inspired by the child she had removed to a canvas. It wasn’t particularly detailed, but it wasn’t ambiguous either. Mostly, what she thought about and wanted to paint in those grey mornings before her assistants came in with news and chatter, or the evenings, before she retired to her chamber, light permitting—was Heloïse. She had looked at her so much in Brittany that the memories felt vivid like colours squeezed out side by side on a palette, like she could dip her brush into them and transfer them onto linen, easy like breathing. But each time she tried, the likeness slipped out and her fists clenched.

She found her old papers, the sketches she had done back when she had been seeing Heloïse with the regularity of a ticking clock. They were almost all from the early days, where it had been a dance of eyes looking and averting. She was hoping they would help her, but instead, they took her aback by how similar they were to the sketches she was making now. Lines trying to describe the curve of a neck, chin, lips, an earlobe, leading somewhere, then lost—sketched while not looking, sketched when she wasn’t being looked at either.

The ones which were done with Heloïse knowing, Marianne studied so much that she realized she started to repeat them, the same poses over and over again. The vivid colours in her mind reduced themselves to the flat binaries of charcoal and paper with no hope of moving on to the full-colour of oil.

Do you really remember something if you can’t draw it right? Can you draw something right if you don’t really see it? She wondered. She wondered about a lot of things. How Heloïse remembered her, having only one picture of Marianne and not doomed to hope for creating more. What life was like for her now—

But she knew. She had seen her, though always indirectly, through another’s art, through the space of the concert hall filled with music. Enraptured by Vivaldi or holding that book, her finger marking a particular page, the meaning was the same: she remembered, but the narrative had led them where it had to, and the chapter had ended. It had been a decade since then and Marianne didn’t expect to see her again.

There was only one painting of Heloïse Marianne managed to complete after they parted: her dress on fire like on that one evening in the village, the figure seen from her back and faceless. She called it a portrait anyway, as a joke or in a cry of frustration, she didn’t know.

The work flowed in a steady stream as long as she fostered her connections, attended parties, even raising a few strategic eyebrows from time to time was good for business; but she had to be open to new things to stay afloat. One day an opportunity presented itself: she was asked to teach. Her eyes gleamed when a small group of girls first entered her modest atelier and threw aprons over their expensive dresses. She had never taught before.

It soon became quite clear that some of the girls were very promising. Marianne was thrilled to run with them through theory, still lifes, and measuring exercises; they were bright enough to keep up and their hands quickly grew more confident, their minds sharper. When not drawing or painting, they kept their distance, throwing Marianne wondering looks, but it didn’t worry her. She had learned her craft from her father and loved him for it, but most painters learned through apprenticeship under the wings of an accomplished painter they didn’t know before. This was probably what the relationship between a mentor and his pupils was like.

At last, Marianne thought the girls were ready to try painting from real, breathing life. She started sitting down to pose and instantly, inexplicably, the proportions and compositions of their drawings started falling apart.

They frowned in concentration, analyzing the curve of Marianne’s chin, and startled when she opened her mouth, moved slightly to point out how light was hitting the folds of her dress. Couldn’t meet her gaze even though all Marianne saw was the backs of the canvases and their skittish eyes, like light touches that couldn’t get a hold of her and only tickled. She couldn’t understand it. She was right there. They were looking at her—and couldn’t pin her down.

She saw questions in their eyes, and on one of their sessions, she saw the portrait one of them brought out by mistake or out of curiosity. The girl asked about it—it was so different than her other works they had seen. Marianne told them the title and put it back in the storage. It was not a portrait. Their eyes lingered.

“Paint what you see, not what you imagine,” she kept saying over and over, a rule every artist had to learn sooner or later: the imagination simplifies nature into ideas without character. Her students were never more unfocused than on that day, their drawings coming out as caricatures of Marianne’s features. It was the last of those tense, infuriating sessions of Marianne posing. She finally stepped back. Hired a model. The woman squinted in the sun hitting her body from the southern window with the air of a disinterested cat, her eyes unfocused, her mind absent; becoming pure flesh and drapery for the hour. She got up during breaks as if roused from deep sleep and spared all her glances for the white envelopes Marianne gave her every month, never for the canvases steadily gaining colour over the sessions. She was still as marble, easy to work with, professional; the girls painted better. Marianne felt like she had failed them all the same.

She continued to draw her own imperfect, crippled sketches in the silent mornings and tired evenings enclosing her long days as if in parentheses, wondering why she bothered. She kept thinking about one of the nights in Brittany, the faces of Sophie and Heloïse illuminated by a grease lamp, bent over a book—the lively discussion about how parting might be for the better, how art soars in absence. But you can’t paint from memory—she had known that even then, she had tried it and the fire had been right to consume her first painting. Sophie was probably right all along: if Orpheus turned because he couldn’t not turn, he was tragic, but if he thought it would be for the best, he was a fool.

Still—no, Paris was never still, but it was good. A lot of equally skilled female painters never reached the sort of security Marianne had, and even when tired or frustrated, she was not ungrateful. If it felt sometimes as if the city grew restless along with her, she could usually find herself an opportunity to travel. When she was asked to paint a double portrait of a pair of newlyweds she knew who had recently moved to Toulouse, she felt her shoulders relax at the prospect of a new environment—and there were salons hosted there as well, weren’t they?

Toulouse came like a vision:

Marianne walked inside a room. People moved around her in waves. The walls were covered in art. A patch of darkness among the delicate pastels and brilliant colours which were currently in vogue drew everyone’s eyes in an instant.

“What a stiff pose.”

“And why so large? For something that isn’t a royal portrait or a mythological scene it feels rather excessive. Who is this?”

“Do you think the painter ran out of paints?” Marianne heard one of her companions joke before their voices ebbed away.

The outline of the full-body figure was barely visible against an equally black background, but on closer look revealed swathes of velvet covered with intricate embroidery, faintly glinting. The contrast made the bright hands, forearms, neck, face and hair all the more striking.

Heloïse looked at her in her mourning dress, and she was smiling.

Marianne turned on instinct, but of course there was no one behind her anymore, of course there wasn’t—so she turned back forward.

She trembled, trembled and thought, oddly, of all things, of swimming in the water, such a long time ago in Brittany, her knuckles white on the frames of her soaked canvases, how she had shivered all the way into the evening, then, too; how glad she had been to discover the canvases hadn’t been ruined after they had dried and she would still be able to paint.




The sketch was finished.

Little wrinkles appeared around Heloïse’s eyes and lips when she smiled. This is what she had done, seeing Marianne led by a servant into the drawing room of her Milanese house a few months after Toulouse: she had looked at her for the longest time, then, slowly, raised the corners of her mouth and rubbed at it absentmindedly with her hand. Marianne had touched her forehead, hesitated.

“It was an impressive painting,” she had said at last. “The dress was masterfully done. It didn’t agree with the tastes of the public, I’m afraid.”

“I’m glad.” Heloïse had said and smiled again, as she was smiling now, leaning against a red plush armrest, wearing nothing but a few hairpins. One of her legs was drawn up, the toes touching the ornate frame of a large, heavy mirror placed on the other side of the settee. Marianne’s reflection was little more than a dark shape surrounded by flames of the fireplace, merged with a dark rectangle of an easel. It was obvious to an attentive eye she was nude as well, or maybe just naked—but it was this that made the setup scandalous.

This painting would have to go very deep into storage. They still wanted to make it.

Marianne exchanged her charcoal sticks for a brush and started to lay down the first layer of grisaille, placing the tip against the contour of Heloïse’s arm.

“There’s more of you now,” she said.

“Thank you. I had children, you know.”

“I know.” Marianne ran the bristles along Heloïse’s hips, slow and decisive. “Can I meet them?”

“Yes, if you want to. I’m quite proud of them. You might get along.”

The pattern of light and shadow on the ribs lost its sharp edges with one, two movements blending them together. The flesh on the canvas was gaining volume. “Did you have lovers?” Marianne asked after a while.

“Did you?”

She looked up. 

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“Do you mean—?”

“No. I wouldn’t use the word ‘lover’.”

Marianne paused at the slightly downward curve of the breasts, then raised her gaze again to meet Heloïse’s eyes. “What was he like?”

They clouded over for a moment, but Heloïse didn’t break contact. She played with the edge of a cushion for a while. “He demanded a lot for his kindness,” she said at last.

Marianne dropped it like they had dropped their clothes before they began.

The first strokes of paint on a canvas are always unhurried, deliberate. First tones establish all tones that will follow, value and colour meaningless unless placed in context. Marianne stroked Heloïse’s cheek and she sighed. Slowly, she moved on to refine the background, the material around her, pushing the contrasts further—then to the frame and the mirror. Heloïse must have felt Marianne’s eyes straying. She got up and came over to stand behind Marianne’s back, placed her chin on her shoulder. Warm, heavy. Distracting.

“What have you been doing?”

“Oh.” Marianne let her hand fall from the canvas and half-turned to better see Heloïse’s face, ending up with her nose on her soft cheek. “Sorry for not telling you, I thought you already know everything. You’ve been quite precise with your strategic modelling and exhibiting.”

“Please forgive me.” Heloïse drew back a little to throw her a wide-eyed look. “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

Her flame-lit eyes glinted in mischief and Marianne puffed out a laugh. Heloïse’s chin fell back in the crook of her shoulder as she resumed their work.

Her own face in the mirror was very low-contrast, just a hint of a few features against the backdrop of a high-key light source. She didn’t look at her reflection very often and rarely attempted self-portraits in the past. For the first time, she noticed that her neckline has relaxed and dropped slightly.

“Painting, mainly,” she said, bringing out the flames around her silhouette.

“Mainly?”

“Portraits, commissions. A myth or two for the Academia. Drawings. Mainly you, when I was doing it for myself.”

“Did you? Can I see?”

Marianne shook her head, suddenly self-conscious. “Ah, no. They’re terrible—well, there’s one. I might show you later.”

“Hm. I’d like that. I think I’d like to see the terrible ones, too,” Heloïse hummed, and fell silent again, watching Marianne pick out a dry paintbrush and caress the edges of her own forehead—nose—lips, blending the tones. She touched Marianne’s elbows and ran her hands over her upper arms, unhurried. Persistent.

“You know, there’s something very sensual about watching someone paint,” she mused.

Marianne turned to look at her, huffing in disbelief. “You’re saying this now?”

“Is it a bad time?” Her hands moved to rest on Marianne’s shoulderblades and she straightened under the press of her fingers.

“No, actually.” Her brush clinked against the turpentine jar. She reached over to the water bowl and washed her hands, feeling watched, or perhaps seen. “The underpainting has to dry before I apply colour anyway. Shall we take a break?”

Together, they took the mirror down from the settee and placed it beside the mantlepiece. The fire was still burning strong, but they poked at it for a bit and added another log to keep it fed.

Marianne took Heloïse’s hand and pulled her towards the cushions. Heloïse twisted out of her grip, but followed anyway, sliding her hands from Marianne’s wrists up to her forearms and arms until they both fell down, Marianne’s hands brushing her ribs, settling on her hips.

A movement out of the corner of Marianne’s eye made her turn her head. It was the two of them, it was the four of them, multiplied in the mirror, naked against the plush, bathed in fire—orange on orange on red on a dark background that isn’t really black. Maybe a deep van Dyke brown. This was how she would have painted it, but now—now. Heloïse met her eye in the reflection, serious. Marianne averted her eyes and looked at her, the real one, softly breathing under her palms and very close. Her face was covered by faint, soft fuzz—she had forgotten. It was not the sort of detail one could paint. There were tiny lines around her eyes, her mouth as she kissed it—she hadn’t known, before.

Their bodies rose and fell in a lazy rhythm. Marianne felt herself overtook by a wave of relief. She could pick her paintings now, choose when to abandon her oils and step back, released from the burden of endless repetition as a crutch to remembrance. They were both alive, and so lucky. Heloïse bent over to her ear and whispered something about freckles, or speckles of paint on Marianne’s cheeks. She would take this present over any past.

The mirror reflected them in every warm colour from the palette left on the stool next to it, vibrant and clear, minute after minute, but nobody looked at it anymore; it could have not been there at all.




“Are you the artist?”

“One of them, yes.”

It was a Thursday. Héloïse’s drawing room was full of chatter and the whisper of colourful dresses illuminated by golden afternoon sunlight streaming in from tall windows. People were still coming in and gathering in small groups to exchange pleasantries. Héloïse herself was sitting beside a bookcase and a round table laid out for tea on the other side of the room, deep in conversation with some other woman. Her dark clothing looked at odds with her surroundings, but her face was relaxed and attentive as she listened to her companion describing something with animation.

The lady Marianne was talking to smiled politely and inclined her head a little to point at one of the walls.

“I meant the portrait of Héloïse. I admire it every time I come here, such excellent likeness.”

“Thank you. I had to revisit it to really capture it, actually.”

“Oh, you did a marvellous job,” said a younger woman who had been standing nearby, seemingly waiting for an opportunity to join them. A new face must have piqued everyone’s curiosity, because she wasn’t the only one who was throwing Marianne inquisitive looks. “It’s not like any other portraits done before marriage I’ve seen, but Héloïse has such a presence in it. I’m Isabelle, by the way. We’re not very formal here.”

“Marianne.”

“I’ve heard the Duke liked it a lot as well,” said the first woman. She had an olive complexion and moved with stately elegance, but Marianne hadn’t caught her name when she introduced herself, having been startled out of her reverie by the window. Héloïse would know, she would ask her later.

“Well, of course. He married the painting before marrying her, in a way.” Isabelle smiled a little sly smile.

“Oh, shush.” The older woman frowned. “We shouldn’t speak of it like this. His illness—such a tragedy. Well, for the children, at least. I don’t think their parents were very much in love, but it’s not easy to be alone and a mother.”

“I’m glad Héloïse is still hosting and we can be there for her. But there are far more interesting things to talk about than husbands.” Isabelle turned to Marianne again. “What brings you to Milan?”

“I needed a change, but I’ve been here before, so you could say I simply came back. It’s a lovely city—the society of painters, the concerts. It feels different than France. I hope there will be work for me here so that I can stay longer.”

“Ah, I see. If you allow me to be frank, I think you artists unnecessarily romanticize the South. The Romans. Me, I would never have given up Paris myself, but people of your profession are after different things, aren’t they? The light. The spirit of the greats in the air.” The olive-skinned woman raised her hands and made a vague gesture. The ring on one of her fingers threw yellow reflections on the pink walls; the light was indeed gorgeous.

“Oh, we aren’t really—” Marianne started, but was interrupted by another woman joining in. They were beginning to form a little circle with more and more guests standing at the edges of it and listening.

“Did I hear you’re open for work?”

“I’d be glad to. I just have to settle in a bit first.”

“Of course, yes. Settle in.”

“There are some projects I have to finish,” Marianne continued, “but after I’m done, I will try to find myself some painting assistants and commissions.” The women were looking at her with attention and a thought struck her. “I’m also planning to teach if there will be interest. Perhaps you know of some girls that might want to?”

It was a sudden idea, but as soon as she said it she realized she would very much like another chance. Perhaps she could be a better teacher now. Perhaps she could even persuade Héloïse to pose in class, perhaps the pupils would understand what painting and posing should be like, how collaborative the process was, if they saw it happening.

“Yes, I actually know one!” One of the women brightened. “My niece would really benefit from having something to do with herself. I think my sister coddles her too much and it’s painful to watch—she’s still quite young, but she doesn’t have much in her life besides a pretty face and a dowry, and it is always good to have some skills, in my opinion. I think she has tried watercolours before. I could ask her to come and bring them next week?”

“Please do. I’d be happy to—”

“I thought we might read something today,” Héloïse said. She rose from her chair across the room with a book in her hand and found Marianne’s eyes.

“We will continue this later, right?” The lady who Marianne spoke with at first gestured towards Héloïse’s table. People were slowly gathering around it and Marianne’s little group followed their example. “I’m so glad you came here. Do you know I’ve never had myself painted by a woman? I think it must be quite different, don’t you, Isabelle?”

“Oh, yes. My family always hired men and we have some great artists here—Marianne, you know some of them, surely—but I’m certain it must be different.” They pulled up a few brocade-upholstered chairs and sat down.

Marianne smiled. “I think it could be.”

“You must tell us more about yourself after the reading,” Isabelle whispered and they turned to look at Héloïse, who cleared her throat and began.

“Minos chose to move the disgrace out of his home and to keep it in a complex structure, a labyrinth built with blind passages.”

It was Ovid—again, Marianne thought, although a different fragment: the story of the Minotaur, Ariadne and Theseus. She knew it, she knew a lot of the classics, so she let herself listen more to the cadence of Héloïse’s voice than her words.

“But the third time he collected tribute, the monster was overcome, for Theseus, son of Aegeus, with the assistance of young Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, by following a thread made his way back on the tricky pathway to the entrance, a trip no one had ever made before.”

Héloïse looked up and met Marianne’s eyes.

“Why would he even go?” someone asked in the brief silence. Everyone turned to look at the petite woman with black shiny eyes who spoke up.

“He had to. I think he was part of the shipment of those who were to be sacrificed, wasn’t he? He would die anyway, so why not try to save himself?”

“And he survived!”

“Well, he went in with a sword.”

“The sword doesn’t matter.” One of the ladies turned in her seat to better look at her interlocutor. The discussion was growing heated and its edges started to fray a bit; people whispered. “He would die lost in the palace if it wasn’t for Ariadne and the thread.”

“Do you think they communicated?” asked someone else. Marianne tried to keep track of who was saying what, but it proved increasingly difficult. “One tug, ‘I’m still here’, two tugs, ‘It is done’?”

The black-eyed lady laughed. “That’s very charming.”

“They never would have really lost contact.”

“And then he emerged from the darkness, all bloody and tired, and just like that, having known each other for—what, a few days?—they fell into each other’s arms?”

“Oh, no, I don’t believe so.”

“Didn’t he abandon her on some island?”

“He did! First chance he got.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Read on, Héloïse, please.”

All heads turned to look at her again. Their voices died down.

“Oh, it’s not there,” Héloïse said. She had been observing the conversation with interest, having closed the book a while ago. “We don’t know why he did it. I don’t think it was important to the poet or the people who passed on the story.”

“Not important, and now, centuries later, we can’t help but wonder.” One of the ladies threw her arms in the air. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

“I think I don’t wonder anymore,” Héloïse said, frowning slightly. “I think… maybe myths don’t function in the same way as lives do. They aren’t always based on motivations, only—archetypes, ideas.” She looked over at Marianne. It wasn’t entirely clear if her eyes were asking a question, or maybe offering an answer, but there was certainly something in them and Marianne thought she caught it. “They can be beautiful, and look like our lives sometimes, or remind us of something, but they aren’t really our stories.”

“But aren’t myths universal? Haven’t they remained with us through all those centuries because they are?”

Marianne didn’t know which one of all those new faces had said that because she didn’t look at the rest of the room anymore. She would learn their names, but now—she felt—she felt Héloïse and herself might be even more on the same page than they had ever been.

“Or maybe they remained because they got told over and over and over,” Marianne said. “Who knows what had been lost or what had inspired them. Maybe we should leave them be, sometimes.”

They did. Héloïse drew up a pack of cards from somewhere and they all played quadrille around the table until black night fell on them by surprise, and later still.