The Artist by Dorothy Canfield
“After the sickening stench of personality in theatrical life,” the
great Madame Orloff told the doctor with her usual free-handed use of
language, “it is like breathing a thin, pure air to be here again with
our dear inhuman old Vieyra. He hypnotizes me into his own belief that
nothing matters—not broken hearts, nor death, nor success, nor first
love, nor old age—-nothing but the chiaroscuro of his latest
The picture-dealer looked at her in silence, bringing the point of
his white beard up to his chin with a meditative fist. The big surgeon
gazed about him with appreciative eyes, touched his mustache to his
gold-lined coffee-cup, and sighed contentedly. “You're not the only
one, my dear Olga,” he said, “who finds Vieyra's hard heart a blessing.
When I am here in his magnificent old den, listening to one of his
frank accounts of his own artistic acumen and rejoicing in his
beautiful possessions, why the rest of the world—real humanity—seems
in retrospect like one great hospital full of shrieking incurables.”
“Oh, humanity——!” The actress thrust it away with one of her
startling, vivid gestures.
“You think it very clever, my distinguished friends, to discuss me
before my face,” commented the old picture-dealer indifferently. He
fingered the bright-colored decorations on his breast, looking down at
them with absent eyes. After a moment he added, “and to show your
in-ti-mate knowledge of my character.” Only its careful correctness
betrayed the foreignness of his speech.
There was a pause in which the three gazed idly at the fire's
reflection in the brass of the superb old andirons Then, “Haven't you
something new to show us?” asked the woman. “Some genuine Masaccio,
picked up in a hill-town monastery—a real Ribera?”
The small old Jew drew a long breath. “Yes, I have something new.”
He hesitated, opened his lips, closed them again and, looking at the
fire, “Oh yes, very new indeed—new to me.”
“Is it here?” The great surgeon looked about the picture-covered
“No; I have it in—you know what you call the inner sanctuary—the
light here is not good enough.”
The actress stood up, her glittering dress flashing a thousand eyes
at the fire. “Let me see it,” she commanded. “Certainly I would like to
see anything that was new to you!”
“You shall amuse yourself by identifying the artist without my aid,”
said old Vieyra.
He opened a door, held back a portiere, let his guests pass through
into a darkened room, turned on a softly brilliant light, and: “Whom do
you make the artist?” he said. He did not look at the picture. He
looked at the faces of his guests, and after a long silent pause, he
smiled faintly into his beard. “Let us go back to the fire,” he said,
and clicked them into darkness again.
“And what do you say?” he asked as they sat down.
“By Jove!” cried the doctor. “By Jove!”
Madame Orloff turned on the collector the somber glow of her
deep-set eyes. “I have dreamed it,” she said.
“It is real,” said Vieyra. “You are the first to see it. I wished to
“It's an unknown Vermeer!” The doctor brought his big white hand
down loudly on this discovery. “Nobody but Vermeer could have done the
plaster wall in the sunlight. And the girl's strange gray head-dress
must be seventeenth-century Dutch of some province I don't——”
“I am a rich man, for a picture-dealer,” said Vieyra, “but only
national governments can afford to buy Vermeers nowadays.”
“But you picked it up from some corner, some attic, some stable——”
“Yes, I picked it up from a stable,” said the collector.
The actress laid her slender, burning fingers on his cool old hand.
“Tell us—tell us,” she urged. “There is something different here.”
“Yes, there is something different,” he stirred in his chair and
thrust out his lips. “So different that I don't know if you——”
“Try me! try me!” she assured him ardently. “You have educated me
well to your own hard standards all these years.”
At this he looked at her, startled, frowning, attentive, and ended
by shaking off her hand. “No, I will not tell you.”
“You shall——” her eyes commanded, adjured him. There was a
silence. “I will understand,” she said under her breath.
“You will not understand,” he said in the same tone; but aloud he
began: “I heard of it first from an American picture-dealer over here
scraping up a mock-Barbizon collection for a new millionaire. He wanted
to get my judgment, he said, on a canvas that had been brought to him
by a cousin of his children's governess. I was to be sure to see it
when I went to New York—you knew did you not, that I had been called
to New York to testify in the prosecution of Paullsen for selling a
“Did you really go?” asked the doctor. “I thought you swore that
nothing could take you to America.”
“I went,” said the old man grimly. “Paullsen did me a bad turn once,
thirty years ago. And while I was there I went to see the unknown
canvas. The dealer half apologized for taking my time—said he did not
as a rule pay any attention to freak things brought in from country
holes by amateurs, but—I remember his wording—this thing, some ways
he looked at it, didn't seem bad somehow.”
The collector paused, passed his tongue over his lips, and said
briefly: “Then he showed it to me. It was the young girl and kitten in
“By Jove!” cried the doctor.
“You have too exciting a profession, my good old dear,” said the
actress. “Some day you will die of a heart failure.”
“Not after living through that!”
“What did you tell him?”
“I asked for the address of the cousin of his children's governess,
of course. When I had it, I bought a ticket to the place, and when I
reached there, I found myself at the end of all things—an abomination
of desolation, a parched place in the wilderness. Do you know America,
either of you?”
The doctor shook his head.
“I have toured there, three times,” said the actress.
“Did you ever hear of a place called Vermont?”
Madame Orloff looked blank. “It sounds French, not English. Perhaps
you do not pronounce it as they do.”
“Heaven forbid that I should do anything as 'they' do! This place,
then, call it what you will, is inhabited by a lean, tall, sullenly
silent race who live in preposterously ugly little wooden houses of the
most naked cleanliness ... God of my Fathers! the hideousness of the
huddle of those huts where I finally found the cousin! He was a seller
of letter-paper and cheap chromos and he knew nothing of the picture
except that it was brought to him to sell by the countryman who sold
him butter. So I found the address of the butter-maker and drove
endless miles over an execrable road to his house, and encountered at
last a person who could tell me something of what I wanted to know. It
was the butter-maker's mother, a stolid, middle-aged woman, who looked
at me out of the most uncanny quiet eyes ... all the people in that
valley have extraordinary piercing and quiet eyes ... and asked, 'Is it
about the picture? For if it is, I don't want you should let on about
it to anybody but me. Nobody but the family knows he paints 'em!”
At this the doctor burst out, “Gracious powers! You don't mean to
say that the man who painted that picture is alive now ... in 1915!”
The actress frowned at the interruption and turned with a lithe
petulance on the big Briton. “If you want to know, let him alone!” she
“And soon I had it all,” the narrator went on. “Almost more than I
could bear. The old woman could tell me what I wished to know, she
said. He was her uncle, the only brother of her mother, and he had
brought up her and her brothers and sisters. She knew... oh, she knew
with good reason, all of his life. All, that is, but the beginning. She
had heard from the older people in the valley that he had been wild in
his youth (he has always been, she told me gravely, 'queer') and she
knew that he had traveled far in his young days, very, very far.”
“'To New York?' I ventured.
“'Oh, no, beyond that. Across the water.'
“That she didn't know. It was a foreign country at least, and he had
stayed there two, three years, until he was called back by her father's
death—his brother-in-law's—to take care of his mother, and his sister
and the children. Here her mind went back to my question, and she said
she had something perhaps I could tell from, where he had been. She
kept it in her Bible. He had given it to her when she was a child as a
reward the day she had kept her little brother from falling in the
fire. She brought it out. It was a sketch, hasty, vigorous, suggestive,
haunting as the original itself, of the Leonardo da Vinci Ste. Anne.
“Yes, I told her, now I knew where he had been. And they had called
him back from there—here?
“'When my father died,' she repeated, 'my uncle was all my
grandmother and my mother had. We were five little children, and the
oldest not seven, and we were all very poor,'
“'How old was your uncle then?' I asked.
“'A young man—he was younger than my mother. Perhaps he was
“I looked at the sketch in my hand. Twenty-five, and called back
“'When did he go back to Paris?'
“'Oh, he never went back,' She told me this quite placidly, as she
said everything else. 'He never went back at all.'
“He had stayed there the rest of his life, and worked the little
farm that was all his sister had, and made a living for them—not
large, the farm being poor and he not a first-class farmer, but still
enough. He had always been kind to them—if he was quite queer and
absent. She had heard her grandmother say that at first, the first ten
years, perhaps, he had had strange, gloomy savage fits like a person
possessed that you read of in the Bible; but she herself could never
remember him as anything but quiet and smiling. He had a very queer
smile unlike anyone else, as I would notice for myself when I went to
see him about the picture. You could tell him by that, and by his being
“That brought me back with a start. I rushed at her with questions.
'How about the picture? Were there others? Were there many? Had he
always painted? Had he never shown them to anyone? Was he painting now?
“She could not tell me much. It had been a detail of their common
life she had but absently remarked, as though she had lived with a man
who collected snail-shells, or studied the post-marks on letters. She
'had never noticed'—that was the answer to most of my questions. No,
she did not think there were very many now, though he must have painted
'most a million. He was always at it, every minute he could spare from
farming. But they had been so poor he had not felt he could afford many
canvases. The paints cost a good deal too. So he painted them over and
over, first one thing and then another, as he happened to fancy. He
painted in the horse-barn. 'Had a place rigged up,' in her phrase, in
one corner of the room where the hay was stored, and had cut a big
window in the roof that was apt to let in water on the hay if the rain
came from the north.
“'What did he paint?' 'Oh, anything. He was queer about that. He'd
paint any_thing! He did one picture of nothing but the corner of the
barnyard, with a big white sow and some little pigs in the straw, early
in the morning, when the dew was on everything. He had thought quite a
lot of that, but he had had to paint over it to make the picture of her
little sister with the yellow kittie—the one she'd sent down to the
village to try to sell, the one—'
“'Yes, yes,' I told her, 'the one I saw. But did he never try to
sell any himself? Did he never even show them to anyone?'
“She hesitated, tried to remember, and said that once when they were
very poor, and there was a big doctor's bill to pay, he had sent
a picture down to New York. But it was sent back. They had made a good
deal of fun of it, the people down there, because it wasn't finished
off enough. She thought her uncle's feelings had been hurt by their
letter. The express down and back had cost a good deal too, and the
only frame he had got broken. Altogether, she guessed that discouraged
him. Anyhow, he'd never tried again. He seemed to get so after a while
that he didn't care whether anybody liked them or even saw them or
not—he just painted them to amuse himself, she guessed. He seemed to
get a good real of comfort out of it. It made his face very still and
smiling to paint. Nobody around there so much as knew he did it, the
farm was so far from neighbors.
“'Twas a real lonely place, she told me, and she had been glad to
marry and come down in the valley to live closer to folks. Her uncle
had given her her wedding outfit. He had done real well by them all,
and they were grateful; and now he was getting feeble and had trouble
with his heart, they wanted to do something for him. They had thought,
perhaps, they could sell some of his pictures for enough to hire a man
to help him with the farm work. She had heard that pictures were coming
into fashion more than they had been, and she had borrowed that one of
her little sister and the kittie, and without her uncle's knowing
anything about it, had sent it off. She was about discouraged waiting
for somebody down in the city to make up his mind whether he'd buy it
“I asked her a thousand other questions but she could answer none of
them. The only detail I could get from her being an account of her
uncle's habit of 'staring' for sometimes a half an hour at something,
without once looking away. She'd seen him stop that way, when he'd be
husking corn maybe, and stare at a place where a sunbeam came in on a
pile of corn. It put him back quite considerable in his work, that
habit, but they had nothing to complain of. He'd done well by them,
when you considered they weren't his own children.
“'Hadn't he ever tried to break away?' I asked her amazed. 'To leave
them? To go back?'
“She told me: 'Oh, no, he was the only support his mother and his
sister had, and there were all the little children. He had to
The actress broke in fiercely: “Oh, stop! stop! it makes me sick to
hear. I could boil them in oil, that family! Quick! You saw him? You
brought him away? You—”
“I saw him,” said Vieyra, “yes, I saw him.”
Madame Orloff leaned toward him, her eyebrows a line of painful
“I drove that afternoon up to a still tinier village in the
mountains near where he lived, and there I slept that night—or, at
least, I lay in a bed.”
“Of course, you could not sleep,” broke in the listening woman; “I
shall not to-night.”
“When dawn came I dressed and went out to wander until people should
be awake. I walked far, through fields, and then through a wood as red
as red-gold—like nothing I ever saw. It was in October, and the sun
was late to rise. When I came out on an uplying heath, the mists were
just beginning to roll away from the valley below. As I stood there,
leaning against a tree in the edge of the wood, some cows came by,
little, pinched, lean cows and a young dog bounding along, and then,
after them, slowly, an old man in gray—very lame.”
The actress closed her eyes.
“He did not see me. He whistled to the dog and stroked his head, and
then as the cows went through a gate, he turned and faced the rising
sun, the light full on his face. He looked at the valley coming into
sight through the mists. He was so close to me I could have tossed a
stone to him—I shall never know how long he stood there—how long I
had that face before me.”
The narrator was silent. Madame Orloff opened her eyes and looked at
“I cannot tell you—I cannot!” he answered her. 'Who can tell of
life and death and a new birth? It was as though I were thinking with
my finger-nails, or the hair of my head—a part of me I had never
before dreamed had feeling. My eyes were dazzled. I could have bowed
myself to the earth like Moses before the burning bush. How can I tell
you—? How can I tell you?”
“He was—?” breathed the woman.
“Hubert van Eyck might have painted God the Father with those
eyes—that mouth—that face of patient power—of selfless, still
beatitude.—Once the dog, nestling by his side, whimpered and licked
his hand. He looked down, he turned his eyes away from his vision, and
looked down at the animal and smiled. Jehovah! What a smile. It seemed
to me then that if God loves humanity, he can have no kinder smile for
us. And then he looked back across the valley—at the sky, at the
mountains, at the smoke rising from the houses below us—he looked at
the world—at some vision, some knowledge—what he saw—what he saw—!
“I did not know when he went. I was alone in that crimson wood.
“I went back to the village. I went back to the city. I would not
speak to him till I had some honor worthy to offer him. I tried to
think what would mean most to him. I remembered the drawing of the Ste.
Anne. I remembered his years in Paris, and I knew what would seem most
honor to him. I cabled Drouot of the Luxembourg Gallery. I waited in
New York till he came. I showed him the picture. I told him the story.
He was on fire!
“We were to go back to the mountains together, to tell him that his
picture would hang in the Luxembourg, and then in the Louvre—that in
all probability he would be decorated by the French government, that
other pictures of his would live for all time in Paris, in London, in
Brussels—a letter came from the woman, his niece. He was dead.”
The actress fell back in her chair, her hands over her face.
The surgeon stirred wrathfully. “Heavens and earth, Vieyra, what
beastly, ghastly, brutally tragic horror are you telling us, anyhow?”
The old Jew moistened his lips and was silent. After a moment he
said: “I should not have told you. I knew you could not understand.”
Madame Orloff looked up sharply. “Do you mean—is it possible that
you mean that if we had seen him—had seen that look—we
would—that he had had all that an artist—”
The picture-dealer addressed himself to her, turning his back on the
doctor. “I went back to the funeral, to the mountains. The niece told
me that before he died he smiled suddenly on them all and said: 'I have
had a happy life,' I had taken a palm to lay on his coffin, and after I
had looked long at his dead face, I put aside the palm. I felt that if
he had lived I could never have spoken to him—-could never have told
The old Jew looked down at the decorations on his breast, and around
at the picture-covered walls. He made a sweeping gesture.
“What had I to offer him?” he said.