January 5, 2009

The Limner

This week The New Yorker's short story, "The Limner" by Julian Barnes, is about an itinerant painter. Here's an excerpt.

"Mr. Tuttle had been argumentative from the beginning: about the fee—twelve dollars—the size of the canvas, and the prospect to be shown through the window. Fortunately, there had been swift accord about the pose and the costume. Over these, Wadsworth was happy to oblige the customs collector; happy also to give him the appearance, as far as it was within his skill, of a gentleman. That was, after all, his business. He was a limner but also an artisan, and paid at an artisan’s rate to produce what suited the client. In thirty years, few would remember what the collector of customs had looked like; the only relic of his physical presence after he had met his Maker would be this portrait. And, in Wadsworth’s experience, clients held it more important to be pictured as sober, God-fearing men and women than they did to be offered a true likeness. This was not a matter that perturbed him.

"From the edge of his eye, Wadsworth became aware that his client had spoken, but he did not divert his gaze from the tip of his brush. Instead he pointed to the bound notebook in which so many sitters had written comments, expressed their praise and blame, wisdom and fatuity. He might as well have opened the book at any page and asked his client to select the appropriate remark left by a predecessor five or ten years before. The opinions of this customs collector so far had been as predictable as his waistcoat buttons, if less interesting. Fortunately, Wadsworth was paid to represent waistcoats, not opinions. Of course, it was more complicated than that: to represent the waistcoat, and the wig, and the breeches, was to represent an opinion—indeed, a whole corpus of them. The waistcoat and breeches showed the body beneath, as the wig and hat showed the brain beneath—though, in some cases, it was a pictorial exaggeration to suggest that any brains lay beneath.

"He would be happy to leave this town, to pack his brushes and canvases, his pigments and palette, into the small cart, to saddle his mare, and then take the forest trails that, in three days, would lead him home. There he would rest, and reflect, and perhaps decide to live differently, without this constant travail of the itinerant...." Read more.

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