by Elaine Fiedler
It was known as the MacKenzie touch—the portrait painter’s knack for capturing the perfect luminous moment of his subject’s life. I was lucky. I knew the great John MacKenzie.
I saw him for the last time in London in 1924. Tall and lean, standing straight as an Italian cypress, he was still the handsome man I remembered from my childhood. How beguiling he must have been to his clients in his younger days as they sat for their portraits!
Two of those clients were my parents. His portrait of my father reveals both his power and his warmth. His portrait of my mother is dazzling. He also painted one of me, age nine, sitting with my mother, who held me close. I was still in short pants then and wearing a floppy bow tie. I look restless and distracted by something outside of the frame. That portrait was the center of our house. I couldn’t avoid it if I wanted to.
He was the most successful portrait painter of his time and class, said his obituary. But the times have changed, and so has art. So has the society he immortalized.
The people John captured in his paintings were exceptional. They treasured harmony and beauty and bonhomie above all things. Their very postures exuded optimism. My own parents were examples of that sensibility—such an old-fashioned word now—that atmosphere, that time before the Great War.
My father and mother and John were great friends during that time. They met when my father commissioned John to paint my mother’s portrait. Soon they learned they had many things in common, including regular travel to Europe and America, my father for business, John for commissions and visits with family. They talked about art and music. John played piano as my mother sang. They started arranging trips together, to visit the great landmarks of Europe or to simply enjoy the sunny settings where they found them, usually somewhere near the Mediterranean. They took me along, but I was so young, I hardly noticed what they did.
Those were glorious days, wherever we were, in fine hotels, discreet cottages, or seashore huts. I remember lazy picnics and soaking in the sun and sea, my father relaxing, so different than his usual businessman self. My mother, her cheeks glowing, dreamily smiled as John sat nearby, languidly sketching.
I remember thinking of John as a member of the family and how much I liked him because he paid attention to me whenever I spoke. He’d show me how to build sandcastles, make paper sailboats, fly kites. Little did I know I was living a charmed life.
We stopped seeing John around the time I was twelve. When I asked her about him, my mother said he’d gone away. Places like Morocco or Cairo or Cuba. It was always to paint. And it was always far away. And that was all she said. It was as if he’d disappeared.
Years later I learned that was when John had given up portrait painting and left behind his old friends and most of his old life for a long sabbatical, to travel the world, painting only what he wanted to, no strings attached. He became a vagabond, it was said, and sought out wild and exotic people and places, working on his drawings along the way, because that’s who he was and what he did. He always acted as though the world was open to him, teaching him. He wanted to do more as an artist, and maybe as a man.
Meanwhile, everything changed for my family. Financial ruin for my father, his deepening depression, his death in 1917. My mother and I were left heartbroken, with little money. The world was at war, and at the tail end of that war, I was sent to France, landing in Paris to work as a hospital orderly. After it was over I stayed there with my new friends. We declared ourselves artists. I thought of John MacKenzie. He was the one artist I knew. I’d seen the great man paint up close—so I knew painting was possible.
But I struggled to survive. After three years, I was reduced to painting advertisements for a clothing store, which paid me next to nothing. Then my aunt Penny sent me word that my mother was very ill, and I returned to London, almost relieved because I had an excuse to give up my artwork.
My mother was gone by the end of the year. It was 1922.
Aunt Penny helped me arrange the funeral. I prepared myself for a terrible day. But, like a talisman, John appeared. He talked about how close he and my parents had been, how he missed them. He asked what I was doing, and all my hopes and desperation came pouring out.
“Why don’t you do what I did?” he said. He could teach me. “A good portrait is like money in the bank, complete with interest. I still get requests to paint portraits. I can give them your name.” All this without having seen any of my work. He made me want to weep, but helped me feel better and stronger than I had in years.
Within weeks, John focused on helping me learn portrait painting. He urged me to move to his house, to use his studio, and spend my waking hours practicing the art of portraiture.
Even I was surprised by how good my paintings were. I started to get commissions here and there. It wasn’t what I had envisioned doing and I felt a bit dishonest, but I didn’t have an alternative nearly as good: a room in a fine house in the country near London and a world-famous painter giving me advice and support.
John had recently returned to portraiture himself, he told me, after years of discovery and experimentation. He’d even gone to Paris to catch up on the latest trends. He visited friends, famous artists themselves. Now the powerful and wealthy again wanted him to do their portraits.
I wondered what John was searching for as an artist. Was he chasing another perfect moment to capture with paint? Or a special face, or pair of eyes, or possibility that he’d never seen or painted before? Why did he work so relentlessly anyway? Not that what he did looked like hard work. Painting was effortless for him, like getting dressed. In fact, his whole life seemed effortless compared to others. He was one of those charmed few, as far as I knew.
But he could not stop painting, and that itself must have been difficult, like a curse. It doesn’t leave much room for the rest of life. The pursuit of perfection, no matter how ineffably beautiful the results may be, is messy, with canvases to be stretched, long hours at the easel, mistakes needing correction—not many in his case.
What did he think about, I wondered, as he worked? He once said that he’d sometimes get bored with his society subjects—the women fussing with their clothing and hair, asking him if he’d ever been engaged to marry. The men pulling out their pocket watches, talking about the markets and the latest club gossip, stopping often to smoke or drink.
And yet, he painted them with something close to love. Doing a portrait was like figuring out a puzzle, he said, because every person is a new mystery. Look for and paint as many details of the subject as you can, he told me. The final image may tell you a secret, if you’re lucky.
One day when I was alone at the house, I needed a new canvas frame from John’s giant storage cabinet. I found sketches and watercolors John must have done on his sabbatical. He’d painted fishermen and sailors on piers, shoeless women and children on dusty streets. Solitary, enigmatic figures in half shadows. A few nudes.
John seemed taken with an Italian named Orlando. John said he was an artist, but I never saw his work. What I did see was a large, exquisite portrait of him that John had painted. Orlando had a dreamlike, aesthetic quality. His eyes were liquid and questioning, his skin was the color of pearls, and he was smoothing the lapel of his perfectly draped maroon jacket with two fingers. I smiled when I first saw it, imagining what my Paris friends would say.
John gave the portrait an honored place in his dining room across from where he usually sat. The Orlando in the portrait was a young man compared to John, so I was surprised to hear John call him his closest friend. He must have painted him when they were both younger, before the war.
It didn’t take too long for me to finally meet Orlando. John and I went into London one day to visit his old club, where he planned to meet a client. While we sat with our American cocktails and waited for the client—who never did appear—along came the man from the dining room portrait, still as slender and elegant, only somewhat older, with telltale tiny lines around his eyes and mouth.
“My dear John,” he said as he approached. As we rose to greet him, he took hold of John’s arm with one hand and grasped John’s hand with his other. The man with the faraway eyes in the portrait was transformed by an ecstatic smile. “This is incredible. I was just thinking of you the other day.”
“Were you?” John said nonchalantly. “You should have called. Just as well. Here you are.” John tactfully loosened Orlando’s grip on him. He then introduced the two of us, telling Orlando about my studying with him.
“Well, then, you must be a very talented young man.” Orlando took hold of my hand to shake it warmly, firmly.
I’ll admit, I couldn’t stop staring at his exquisite face. Here was before me a portrait come to living, breathing life.
He looked me up and down. “Have you painted him yet, John?”
“Why, no. Do you think I should?”
They both laughed. Even I laughed, although I wasn’t sure why. It seemed the thing to do. Between the cocktails and the clubby atmosphere, I felt that somehow I’d arrived. I was reminded of my father. He was like this when he was at his best and most successful: cheerful, front and center, good-natured, happy with himself and his world. Again I felt that sense of strength I’d lost after the war and that John had helped me regain at my mother’s funeral. I was where I belonged, I thought.
John asked Orlando how long he’d be in London.
“It could be quite a long time.”
“What brings you here?” John said.
“To the club? Good place to reconnect.”
“I meant, what brings you to London?”
“Things aren’t going well in Florence. I’m strapped for cash. I had to close the place down, let everyone go.”
Then they huddled together. I walked away so they could speak privately. What else could I do?
Orlando soon joined us at John’s country house. I began to think John felt a responsibility to take in strays, to get us back on our feet again.
I continued working on my painting, keen on it by then. I’d even overcome my shyness about meeting clients. I learned to play the part for them—the artist who would make them stand out, make them special, beautiful, even glamorous. Painted by a student of the famous John MacKenzie!
Orlando would come to watch me work, usually in a dressing robe and slippers because he rose late. I thought it amusing at first. He often looked half asleep or hungover. I ignored him as time went by.
One morning he sauntered in as I started a portrait at my easel and sat on the small sofa in the studio. “You’re quite good.”
I told him it was just a sketch. I repositioned the fellow on the canvas. Orlando lit a cigarette behind me and exhaled loudly.
“Could you turn around?” he asked me.
I turned to look at him. He was half reclining on the sofa, and his robe hung off his shoulders, open, exposing him.
“Would you like to paint me?” He looked down at his naked body and back at me. “I can pose in any position you like.” He started to laugh.
I’d seen worse in Paris and I wanted no part of him or his game. I was shocked, yes. And angry.
“I’m finished for now,” I told him, put away my paints, and moved toward the door.
“Aren’t you one of those fine young men John’s so proud of?”
His words felt like winter slapping my face. I didn’t know what he meant. All I knew was that I had to leave, not just the studio but, it dawned on me as my mind ran in circles, my life at John MacKenzie’s house.
John was away that morning, off to see a client. Of course he was away, I told myself; otherwise, Orlando would not have said or done what he did.
I spent the rest of the day deciding how I would leave behind John’s generosity and fine house and put together a new life for myself. I couldn’t stay on forever with him, after all. My apprenticeship was done. Odd, but that whole day I thought about John and how my leaving might affect him. I didn’t worry so much about myself because, for the first time, I knew I’d be all right on my own.
I packed my few clothes, my paintings and supplies, and moved into a tiny room in London, grateful for the two commissions I had in hand. On my own, I had time to think. A picture drew itself in my mind. The picture of John MacKenzie, who he was, and in the center, my mother and father and me.
I used to wonder why he disappeared from our lives. I had speculated that my mother may have had a flirtation or even an affair with John. I may have been too young to grasp it. But these days I think of how deeply my father loved John, as a friend. Only as a friend? Or was there more? I don’t know. How could I ever know? One simply didn’t ask John such things.
Did my parents fear John’s influence on themselves—on me? They would never have said so. They had only good things to say about John always. Yet their bond had been broken and the curtain came down on their cherished friendship. He left them behind and traveled far and wide and long. To those out-of-the-way places. Secret places.
Sometime after I went out on my own, Orlando returned to Florence. I’m guessing John was as generous to him as he’d been to me. I didn’t see John often, although we kept in touch. Then he was suddenly gone. His heart gave out. Aunt Penny told me, quietly and carefully, as if she were protecting me. After she said what you say when someone dies, she paused and, looking past me and out the window, she murmured, “A very curious man, that one.” I asked her what she meant, but she never answered.
What I’ve come to realize through the years is that we can never know another person. I have never really known other people, John, or myself, to be honest. Even if I paint every detail.
Elaine Fiedler has been published in Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly (Haworth Press) and Nonconformist Magazine. She was listed among the 100 top entries in the 2010 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition for Television/Movie Script. Elaine was an editorial production manager for the Cinefantastique Magazine Group before becoming a freelance writer/editor.