The Charmer

Dappled with color, a japonesque puzzle of light and shadow, the bodice pushes and curves into an alluring landscape.   Smooth as enamel, complex with embroidery, intricate with embellishment, it invites affection, an exploring grasp around a tiny, artificial waist.

The lady has been asleep in her brocaded room, nestled in a soft atmosphere of flowers and opium.  The couch is as lush and indulgent as she is…a forgiving support for flesh that is white and ethereal,  like meringue. 

But a voice has awoken her:  diminutive and sweet; verdant and bright.  A sparrow perched on her finger, with a world of stories to tell, so eager to share them that it could not wait for her to wake up.  It sang of trees huddled in the blue mist, of twilight skies that ruptured into a hail of stars and planets, of a sun that brought the flowers to life in the spring and then killed them in the summer. It sang stories of love:  romantic vignettes played out in the privacy of the forest.

So, in appreciation of the sparrow’s earthy narratives, the lady’s mouth began a lengthy and languid journey towards a smile; her laudanum eyes opened.   Roused out of a blithe sleep, her face was a whisper – a soft communication of femininity, of swooning temptations.

 The painter of this portrait has not left us with her name.  Perhaps he felt that generations later her identity would be irrelevant, a pretty footnote to a decorative age.   But he has left a hint of her personality, an idea of what it must have been like to have shared a room with her.  He named her:   ‘La Charmeuse’.

Lady In Waiting


9 responses to “The Charmer

  1. Interesting, the incense burner in the foreground, and the bauble in her hair. I’m not familiar with the artist, but the painting reminds me a little of Whistler’s work.

    As usual, a nice meditation on an forgotten work of art, and an even more forgotten lady.

    • Spot on. Much of Whistler’s work from the 1870’s – 1880’s comprised of gaspingly stunning examples of anglo-japonese work: indulgent and decorative…Europe gone exotic. ‘The Peacock Room’ was designed during this time, and a decade later who took the torch? Aubrey Beardsley!!

  2. I suspect the painter is riffing on Catullus 2 and 3.
    He wrote two poems about his girl Lesbia’s bird.
    (Some readers want to read it as an extended phallic joke, but I don’t think you need to.)
    They are lovely in Latin, very strictly and perfectly metered and all, and all manner of word play and all….

    Sparrow, my sweet girl’s delight,
    whom she plays with, holds to her breast,
    whom, greedy, she gives her little finger to,
    often provoking you to a sharp bite,
    whenever my shining desire wishes
    to play with something she loves,
    I suppose, while strong passion abates,
    it might be a small relief from her pain:
    might I toy with you as she does
    and ease the cares of a sad mind!

    Mourn, O you Loves and Cupids
    and such of you as love beauty:
    my girl’s sparrow is dead,
    sparrow, the girl’s delight,
    whom she loved more than her eyes.
    For he was sweet as honey, and knew her
    as well as the girl her own mother,
    he never moved from her lap,
    but, hopping about here and there,
    chirped to his mistress alone.
    Now he goes down the shadowy road
    from which they say no one returns.
    Now let evil be yours, evil shadows of Orcus,
    that devour everything of beauty:
    you’ve stolen lovely sparrow from me.
    O evil deed! O poor little sparrow!
    Now, by your efforts, my girl’s eyes
    are swollen and red with weeping.

    These translations are from here:
    and by A. S. Kline © 2001.

    (I also really, really love 5, 51, and 101.)

    • Strangely enough, I am familiar with #3. I have a book called ‘Pride and Joy’…which is about portraits of childrren, painted from 1500-1700.

      There is a singular portrait – one of my favorites in the book, dating from the early 1500’s – that depicts a tiny girl with a tragic, confused face. In her hand is her dead pet sparrow. Included in the author’s analysis of the painting is a translation of Catullus #3

  3. on my way to work, i paused before leaving. important to touch base, to read, to be inspired. You do such fine renderings with paintings and prose and herein, especially with the small bird and its stories – i love the songs it sings here.

    Good thing I stopped here before heading out to corporate rubber stamping. (ok, that’s not exactly what I do, but mmmm…it feels like it when I’d rather be writing and listening.)

    thanks for this!

  4. Oh, I thought you were writing about me, until I saw the painting. Not me.

  5. someplace very pleasant, Angela Carter is smiling… RT

  6. oh – Thank you! The little bird will always be waiting to light upon your finger, with a world of new stories to tell.

    FD – You are never far from my thoughts. I always will be writing about the goddess.

    M&M – I hope she continues to smile, to help, inspire and encourage.

  7. Am I wrong in thinking this painting is reminiscent of Renoir?

    Amazing work, Aubrey. Seems like every time I visit your prose, you’ve upped your game. I really liked this one. And I can say from experience – meringue is indeed ethereal (and divine).

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