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Posthumous Portrait

By  |  September 4, 2018
“Winter White Gold,” by Ben Schonzeit “Winter White Gold,” by Ben Schonzeit

 
Our distant ancestor Harriett Moss made a living painting portraits of dead children. But before her career began in earnest, she sketched only cows. It was her husband, Thomas Moss, who painted from corpses, memorializing deceased sons and daughters for their families. People often said Thomas had the constitution for the work because he and Harriett had not been able to have children of their own. While Thomas traveled the countryside—following up with commissions, measuring cadavers that he would reanimate in two dimensions—Harriett was left alone at their farmhouse. And while Thomas stood rapt in his studio, arranging a rich cosmology of symbols on the canvas (the child cloaked in Marian blue robes, a basket of morning glories off to the side), Harriett did the chores. 

Can you picture these two, Jessica, even dimly? Try to envision what I’m envisioning: Thomas creating images of the afterlife while Harriett shovels grassy feed, breathing in all that vegetal decay. 

Then, just around Harriett’s thirty-fifth birthday, Thomas fell off his horse and broke his leg. Later that same week, the Willards’ youngest son died. They asked Thomas to come right away so he might capture the features of their five-year-old boy before his face collapsed into something unrecognizable. They would pay very well. But Thomas could barely move. He gestured toward his bad leg and told Harriett she should go to the Willard home in his stead. 

Harriett protested. She had not painted humans recently, had rarely painted children, and had never once painted from a corpse. She just painted Daisy, their milk cow. Perfect, said Thomas, adding that there existed a great similarity between the eyes of dead children and the eyes of living cows. Besides, he said, Harriett knew the symbolic language of the paintings as well as he did. A trilobed flower in the background for the Trinity. Lilies in a vase for the resurrection. Socks with red stripes to suggest Christ’s blood. An unspooled bobbin at a child’s feet to evoke the three fates snipping at their threads. It was these symbols, along with the sense of human warmth, that made paintings of the dead more appealing than the new daguerreotypes, photographs of corpses that were often so terrifying they wound up spoiling and even displacing the happy images the bereaved had of their loved ones. Families wanted the skills and knowledge and humanity that Thomas brought to the canvas. That Harriett could bring to the canvas, Thomas said, if she would just go to the Willards’. Their carriage waited outside. 

 

When I first sat down to write you an email, Jess, I wasn’t picturing anything like this. No distant ancestors, no ekphrastic exercises, no religious symbology—and certainly no section breaks. I meant to keep my message short and supportive, free of lecture and storytelling. As your aunt, I feel like it’s my duty to provide an alternative to any sermons your mother might give you (as she gave to me when I made the same decision in grad school). I still have the first draft saved in my unsent mail folder: Your body, your decision, babe. : ) Yes, there was an actual emoticon, a tragic smiley face gone horizontal, blank black dots for eyes. I couldn’t send that email. But what was I supposed to tell you? I’m just the aunt you spend one week with every summer, the aunt your mother has told cautionary stories about, the aunt for whom you had strong-female-support-figure hopes, but who can’t send you a simple email saying, “It will be fine, you will be fine,” the aunt who can’t use an emoticon without then analyzing its vacant gaze. 

But Harriett. Harriett, with her long face and gray eyes. Harriett, on her way to the Willards’ to make sketches of their boy. It’s easier if we stay with her. 

 

When Harriett reached the Willards’ house a maid led her to the little boy. It was up to Harriett to pull back his lids, to get a sense of the color of his irises. 

There was nothing of a milk cow in the child’s eyes. 

There was nothing of the living at all. Last Christmas, Thomas had given Harriett a jar of sweet pickled cherries, unveiled them as they went on a walk together in the snow. Harriett had bitten down on a cherry and realized, to her surprise, that it had been preserved unpitted. She had spit out the pit and it settled in the snow, slick and dark, and that was what the dead child’s eye resembled. A spit-slickened pit in snow. 

She ran from the bedroom, to the Willards’ front door, and threw up. What must the family think of her? This sour-breathed she-artist. This barren painter of cows. Perhaps they were wondering how she could sympathize with them in the first place. Harriett had only once conceived a child, despite years of trying, and that child was lost before its features formed, before it had even the prospect of portraiture. She longed fiercely for a vision of the child as it might have been. She would stare at Thomas’s face and try to cross his features with her own until he looked up, startled, and asked her if he had a paint smudge on his cheek. Sometimes she would lie, say yes, and rub away the phantom paint. 

Once, she had even sat down to sketch what she thought the child might have looked like, only before she began she had imagined what might happen if she were successful in her sketch. She might be haunted by her own drawing. Wasn’t it better to long to see a face than to be haunted by a face that was a lie, a face you’d made up? She had thrown the paper into the fire, even though it was usable still, perfectly blank. 

Harriett kept her own face perfectly blank as she measured the boy with her husband’s caliper, tried to capture the dimensions. 

 

I only recently learned about Harriett. I went on FindYrRoots.com and paid money for a family tree, itself a kind of portrait of the distant dead. There, on the tree, was Harriett’s name, a great-aunt to you several times over. When I looked her up, she appeared in academic articles concerning posthumous portraiture in nineteenth-century America. I contacted a few professors and archivists out East who emailed me images of some of her paintings. 

When your mother emailed me photos from your group show last year, I couldn’t figure out exactly what was happening in your art, but it looked like big swaths of colors, reds and blues and pinks and greens battling it out on the canvas, merging and twisting together. Your mother wrote: She says she’s interested in the ahistorical nature of color??? What museums did you take her to this past summer, anyway? Bad influence haha!!! She painted mostly sunsets this time last winter . . . 

The ahistorical nature of color. So why all this history now? Why, instead of an ahistorical blue shade burgeoning in my brain, is Harriett there? 

 

After Harriett measured the dimensions of the Willards’ child, she began to quickly sketch his face. Thomas was always able to envision something charming and cherubic in what Harriett now saw was purely inanimate, mask-like. Painting that mask and calling it a portrait felt like painting a wrung coat and calling it a living boy. She needed a bigger, more expansive imagination, like Thomas seemed to possess. 

But it was getting dark and no expansive imagination had descended yet. She told the dead boy’s mother she had enough material to work with for now. Later she would come back and ask about the boy so that she might render him as realistically as possible. What was his temperament? Where were his favorite toys? Did he have a beloved pet? But these were questions for when the family might be calmer. As the boy’s mother led her out of the bedroom, Harriett looked at the body for what she thought would be the last time. A wrung-out tiny coat. Her painting doomed to be a disappointment. “She can’t have living children,” they would say, “so why did we expect her to make the dead ones come to life?” 

Harriett walked away. She stepped into the waiting carriage. 

And there, in the closed coach, was the little boy. 

George Willard. Sitting up, smiling at her. 

The carriage began to go forward. 

She did not scream. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the boy was still there. His eyes didn’t look the way they had in the bedroom, like spat-out cherry pits. They moved. His whole face, here, was transformed. She saw now his smile, which tilted up to the right. His pale eyebrows, almost invisible, gathered close when he finally looked at her, so that a tiny little crease formed just between them. She didn’t try to talk to the child and he didn’t make a sound. Instead he looked to her sketchbook and she understood. 

If this was a haunting, it was also a gift. 

Here she had a chance to sketch the dead child so that he appeared alive. 

 

Please don’t think I’m a lunatic, Jess, for the way Harriett’s story runs through my head. I didn’t open a carriage door and hear her voice. I opened your mother’s email to me. “Call me,” it said, and so I did. It’s easy to paint your mother as a villain because we have different ideas about some things. But on the phone her voice ached for you, even as she told me she was both furious at you for what you did, and for no longer returning her calls. 

It’s hard to love someone, and to be so angry at them too. It’ll exhaust you in a way nothing else in this world will. 

After talking to your mother, something got shook up in me. I had not mentioned Harriett to her—at that point, I wanted to keep Harriett mine—and once I hung up the phone, I stared for a long time at the portraits, Harriett’s images of the dead. When I finally went to bed and closed my eyes, a door opened inside my mind. Harriett’s story was on the other side, unspooling. I saw it from a slight remove, like I was hovering just above.

 

Little George Willard disappeared when Harriett stepped out of the carriage. She was home. She was home and she’d been given a vision. She immediately went to Thomas’s studio. She gathered the paints that smelled like medicine, the rare turquoises and the bruised purples and the oranges she liked to use to represent the clouds that amassed at sunset above Daisy’s head. She gathered the reds that often clumped thickly on the canvas, reminding her sometimes of her miscarriage and sometimes of the first time she menstruated, how both times she thought she was looking at the color of her end, yet both times she had gone on living. She gathered up the lilac paints and the paints that were gray like dawn and the array of Thomas’s yellows, vibrant and cheery, and she began to paint the deceased child. When her arm shook a little, when she was unsure of her next move or the best color to use, she reminded herself that her lack of education was not such an issue in this arena. Mostly the artists who painted dead children in Harriett’s day had no formal training. Successful artists, thoroughly trained artists, wealthy-from-the-start artists, wouldn’t deign to paint a corpse. Some months before, at a dinner party in a house with one of Thomas’s portraits (seven-year-old girl, scarlet fever), Harriett overheard a famous visiting artist mocking Thomas’s work while he was out of earshot. He said he was convinced the children in Thomas’s portraits must have died of broken necks, for all of their heads seemed to be the size of pumpkins. The small crowd around him laughed. Well, the esteemed artist went on, he didn’t fault Thomas for taking advantage of an opportunity. Some people had heads of state to paint and other people had their dead moppets and mannequins. 

Harriett wasn’t always full of consuming love for Thomas—she sometimes found him a little obtuse. But he was all she had, so she always tried to be loyal. It had taken all of her willpower that evening not to march up to the esteemed artist and say that while it was true that Thomas’s sense of proportion was not always the best, he had not been given the opportunities this esteemed artist had been given. There was more feeling in Thomas’s right pinkie finger than in all of the esteemed artist’s body and brain, than in all of the esteemed artist’s years of training, Harriett wanted to say. 

But she had said nothing. She lost her courage. She stayed silent. 

Even worse, since overhearing the esteemed artist’s words, Harriett’s loyalty to Thomas had begun to ebb. She would look at his work and hardly notice the fine attention to color, the symbolism in the murky black background, or the calm and placid eyes of the children. Instead she noticed the weirdly attenuated foreheads, the stiff shoulders, the massive heads. Had a part of her always seen the grotesque in Thomas’s renderings? She wondered if God had punished her for thinking the children her husband drew were horrifying by refusing her any children created by him at all. 

So, since the dinner party, she had made an effort to praise Thomas’s paintings more and more, hoping to compensate for her real thoughts. That little girl looked like an angel. That little boy seemed lit from within by divine love. How clever, oh, to show that grandfather clock, stuck forever on the last hour of life. 

Now, as she worked on her painting for the Willards, she imagined similar patronizing tones coming from Mr. and Mrs. Willard’s mouths. Unlike Thomas, she would hear it right off. She would know her own lack, the way she had failed the strange gift of seeing glimpses of the spirits of the dead. She toiled over the canvas for many days, hoping not for success so much as the avoidance of condescension. 

When she finally finished her painting and showed it to the Willards, Mrs. Willard began to weep. Mr. Willard put his arms around his wife and Harriett looked away. At last they asked Harriett if her husband had helped her with this painting, and she should have said yes, it would have been good for Thomas, and wasn’t that her role, supporting Thomas? But she didn’t do it, she didn’t lie, she just said no, he did not help. 

The Willards told her they had already suspected this, because the painting didn’t look like Thomas’s work. Harriett had not imagined the cherubic like Thomas did. What she had managed to capture was something closer to the deific. A fierce omniscience. The boy in her painting looked like the Willards’ little boy, but he also looked like the vessel for some other intelligence, one stronger, more luminous. 

And, oh, the way Mrs. Willard looked at Harriett! The milk cow had never looked at her like that. Even Thomas had never looked at her like that. It was a look so full of gratitude that it alchemized into a close-to-love sort of feeling in Harriett, like she had done right, had taken care of Mrs. Willard and her little boy. She had found her place, her reason for being.

 

They were offered another commission that Thomas could not take on—he was still limping, and now he had a bad cold. This commission was unusual: a dead bride. Gone just a day before her wedding. When Harriett arrived at the large stone house, the bride was in a bedroom and wearing her gown and veil, a wedding capelet encircled with white roses. This time when Harriett felt herself about to retch, she managed to close her eyes, to think of the banks of the ripple-free lake where she had sometimes spent afternoons as a little girl, and she was fine. 

Who had dressed the bride this way? Who had undressed her corpse originally? Her parents were not there when Harriett arrived, but the bridegroom was. Tears all down his face. He wanted a portrait of his bride like she was not only living but anticipating his arrival. 

Harriett sketched. She took measurements. The clock in the bride’s bedroom was stopped. All the clocks in the house were stopped, both to remember the time of death, but also, it was said, to trick time, to prevent time from claiming the life of another. The dead woman’s face doughy now, more bread than bride. 

In the carriage, she looked for the bride, hoping she would appear as George Willard had. All empty. Not entirely a surprise, yet still a disappointment. The sketches Harriett had done seemed flat and lifeless. For the rest of the journey home, Harriett held out hope that the woman would appear like a nuptial vision, smiling, cheeks like big red apples. She stared outside, looking for the briefest apparition in the trees. 

Nothing. 

She didn’t stop searching. She stood in the pasture by Daisy and watched the horizon, the setting sun. The clouds turned pewter, and still—no apparition. When she returned inside, Thomas asked if there was something wrong, if maybe the body that day had disturbed her. Harriett shook her head. 

That night Thomas shook and trembled over her when he came to her in her bed. His leg now mostly healed. The patch of his chest hair graying. In the moonlight his body itself a big white moon. She closed her eyes so tightly that colors bloomed behind her lids and when she opened her eyes, the bride was there. The bride from that morning in her white-rose capelet, staring at Harriett. This time Harriett did scream, which Thomas took as a sign of encouragement. He began thrusting harder. 

Harriett hooked her chin over Thomas’s freckled shoulder. The bride was still staring. Fear on the bride’s face at first, but as Thomas continued to work away, the dead woman’s mouth seemed to loosen, moisten. The fear draining away. Fading, gradually, into another look. The color rising to the bride’s cheeks. Sweat beading the faint fuzz above her lip. Remember remember remember, Harriett told herself, thinking of her painting, wishing she had her sketchpad in hand. Carefully watching the shift from fear to desire on the bride’s face made something in Harriett’s body shift. Her own moans sounded truer. She had the sense of something taking shape. A form that she could almost see on some future canvas, almost almost almost almost almost, and there, a glimpse of it, was that a glimpse of it, yesyes a wave, it was covered by a wave, more than tidal, she cried out, it was yesgone. 

Nobody in the room but Thomas and Harriett. 

 

The bridegroom was beyond pleased. 

How had Mrs. Thomas Moss done it? How had she imagined what he himself had failed to picture and had wanted to picture all the more for his failure? The unseen postcoital blush he had fantasized about many times, wondering how fervid it would be, a dark red, or a dash of pink. In Mrs. Moss’s paints, the color was something else entirely—a kind of plum-colored heat in the bride’s face. The smallest hint of sweat and the wet of the lips. She appeared painted not from life but from something more than life. But what was more than life? This, too, was beyond the bridegroom’s imagination. At least he had some hint of what this more-than-life might look like when he viewed the painting. 

He displayed it prominently in his home, inside an elaborate brass frame, but with a white lace curtain over the canvas. Guests could move the curtain aside only, he said, if they were prepared to look upon the full scope of his loss, a loss that felt to him like such a robbery, a loss that felt to him so indecent that he must cover its image up with a curtain, but, yes, go ahead, look, no, he could not bear to, death his beloved’s true bridegroom, it hurt to think of it, but go ahead, sirs, move the curtain aside. 

The painting caused a small sensation—in part, Harriett had to guess, because of the curtain, which endowed the whole experience with extra frisson, but in part because of the power of her own work, the vivid lifelike qualities of the woman, the sense of movement. 

She kept to herself the fact that the sense of movement was all thanks to the appearance of the bride at Harriett’s own bed. She had seen things even the bridegroom had not seen. The precise angle at which the bride tilted her head when the throb of her fear moved toward another rhythm. Desire was based in yearning, and yearning was predicated on the envisioning of some kind of movement, some kind of shift. Harriett had seen the shift on the bride’s face. She had captured it on canvas. 

The bridegroom’s friends asked for the artist’s name. They wanted her to re-envision their own dead and their own dead desires. 

The next commissions didn’t come for Thomas.

 

A new routine for Harriett. First, she would see the body. There were names, definite names for the dead and guess-names for what had killed them: Lavinia, Charles, Martha. Cholera infantum, teething fever, smallpox. She had to look as hard as she could at the body in the home, had to observe until she could absorb no more, and only then, as far as she understood it, would she be given the gift. The reappearance. 

Unlike the bride she had painted, the children, as if following rules not to wander too far from their parents, always appeared in the carriage. She could sketch them right there, without being seen. A few times, she tried to speak to the children, but they never seemed to understand her. They gawked, or smiled shyly. She told nobody about them. She went home and painted, and if Thomas was envious, he hid it from her. He praised her work, sometimes making small suggestions. Mostly, he left her alone. He only rarely came to her bed. 

Then, one day, after sketching the details of a twelve-year-old girl, she opened the door to the carriage and found no ghost there. Instead staring out at her was the girl’s father, very much alive. He had the look of a man who had just stopped weeping. The same disease that had taken his daughter had taken his wife the week before. He said something about the way Harriett had looked at him when she’d entered his home. Without pity, without discomfort. He hoped that he could sit with her a little longer. He had seen her bride painting and it had made him ache. He said the portrait she composed of his lost girl would be the only thing that could make him feel less alone. One of the only things. 

It was true that she had looked at him without pity. It was true, too, that she had found him beautiful from the start. His eyes were not the Marian blue that Thomas favored in his paintings, but the gray-blue of a still body of water. The man reached for her. 

In the carriage, the dead child did not appear, not that Harriett noticed, anyway. They were unobserved. Later, sketching the girl, she had no ghost to help her, and the painting was not quite as convincing as they usually were. All the same, when the girl’s father saw it, he wept with gratitude.

 

This part is harder to describe. I’ve started and stopped a few times over, closed the browser, stared out the window and tried to see new shapes in bands of imbricated clouds covering the sky. I can’t say for sure what new shapes Harriett’s thoughts took when she realized she might be pregnant. I only know that she wasn’t sure what to do. She began to draw their cow, Daisy, again, and the slope of the field behind her, and the fiery colors at sunset, and maybe Harriett wondered if she was ready to die. If she had the child at her age, if the child survived inside her and grew, it would likely kill her. The way it would rip through her body. Oh, and then Thomas might paint it, perhaps thinking the child was his, and he would get it all wrong, he would get it all wrong. The child’s head would be a big old turnip, its expression insipid. 

But what if it survived? What if they both survived? It was not impossible. 

She moved with extra care on the next commission she had. A family that had lost their middle child, a boy. The rawness of the family’s grief, the way the mother wrung at a shirt that had belonged to the child. A familiarity to it now, and still an enlivening sense of being close to a nerve. In the carriage, as usual, the apparition of the boy. Eight years old. A trail of freckles that she had not noticed on the corpse. A direct, frank expression and a habit of swinging his legs. She sketched the way life moved across his face. A sacred task. Who else was there to see this? Who was she to refuse this gift? 

The painting came out beautifully. She had worked hard on the freckles, on making sure they were neither too dark nor too faded, especially as they made their march across the boy’s forehead. The movement of his legs was more difficult to capture—to show him running up a road would too brazenly go against convention—but she figured out a way to suggest his energy. She placed him not indoors, but in the vast field outside his family’s home. She paid particular attention to the landscape around him, making it so the grass seemed to sway. You could suggest an inner movement if you bent the light around a figure right. 

The light on the face of the family when they saw the portrait. The way the boy’s father bent his head. The way the boy’s mother looked straight at Harriett, and said, “Oh,” the “oh” filling Harriett and then reminding her of the growth working to fill her, to maybe end her. 

Even if she had the child and they both survived, a part of her new life would end. She would have to give all her commissions to Thomas again. He had been kind about her success, but his kindness would only stretch so far. She would have to stay home with the child. She would lose the way families looked at her. More than that, she realized she would lose the way they looked at her paintings. With recognition. With sadness, with joy. 

“She realized.” That feels like artifice to me, and probably to you, too, Jess? I don’t know if there’s ever one moment of total realization, one moment of “Yes, this is the thing to do.” I didn’t have one. I think probably Harriett realized nothing, other than that the time had come to make a decision, to fake a realization if that was what was needed to propel herself into movement. 

She took an herbal tincture meant to “restore menstruation.” Other women she knew had done the same. Her choice was part of its own family history of choices. 

And then what? 

Then Harriett took a break. Not from painting all together. But a brief break from posthumous portraiture. She went into a kind of mourning period, but it was not like the mourning period she saw in the parents who paid her to capture and alter some shard of their grief. She just stayed home and she painted and she painted. All landscapes. She turned to trees. Faces sometimes emerged in the trunks of trees she painted. The branches like limbs. Even her landscapes transformed into portraits. 

At last, when she was ready, she went back to work. She continued to paint death until her own. Before she was buried, Thomas Moss did her portrait. In his painting, Harriett’s face is too long, her head too big, her bosom too small. Worst of all are her eyes, which are emotionless, beady and dark, like cherry pits. Thomas missed the whole point of her. 

 

I wanted to tell you this story because I thought it might be of some help. But now that the time has come to hit send or delete, I can’t choose. This long parade of paragraphs embarrasses me a little. I just wanted to give you another picture. And I didn’t want it to be only my story, as if it were some singular object I passed on to you. So: Here is Harriett, who we will never fully know, but who we might imagine. There’s a great power in choosing the ghosts you envision. Choosing a life to look back on, to see yourself inside, so you can move forward. 

The trees she depicted. She kept those paintings, never tried to sell them. A birch with a bend like a human spine. A maple with branches like beseeching arms. A willow that is willowy not like a young woman, but like its own damn self, a tree that seems achingly alive and desperate to be painted, a form that begs a frame. 


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Lee Conell is the author of the story collection Subcortical, which was awarded the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award. Her fiction has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, she currently teaches at Vanderbilt University.