icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Picturing a World

Double portrait

This striking double portrait caught my attention mostly because it's beautiful, but I lingered over it because it falls in the period of my work-in-very-slow-progress, "Anonymity." I checked, and, sure enough, Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862–1938) was an almost exact of the real Jeanette Smith whose story prompted my delve into the experience of women art students in Paris. (Surprise, surprise! Tarbell also studied at the Académie Julian.)

What really struck me about this portrait, however, was the psychological complexity Tarbell has captured in—or imparted to—each face. A double biography of Henry Clay Frick, the tycoon father, and his philanthropist daughter, Helen Clay Frick, would be an obvious project (and has probably been done by more than one author). A fictionalized account of their lives would be another.

But the portrait also seems to me to lend itself to imagining two fictional characters who need not be based on the Fricks at all. There is a silveriness to the man, and an odd blankness to his stare that might be either appalled guilt, long-sighted worry about the future, reverie, or dementia. The woman has an air of sophistication despite her youth; she seems to me warily ironic. Are they seeing the same thing? What would it take to release them into laughter and spontaneity? Are they both good? evil? Make his carefully groomed hair and beard go scraggily—now who is he? Remove her hat and make her throw back her head: does she open her mouth and close her eyes in exasperation or delight at the feel of sunlight on her face.? Does she unexpectedly howl? Update the costumes to today's gilded rich: can the expressions remain the same? Retain the expressions but try to fit them into another era: which?

Four sample openings:

  • Mr. Langstrom watched the play with increasing resignation. Obviously, it was satire aimed at his latest move to corner the market. Delia Langstrom, who had encouraged young Jackson in his theatrical ambitions, was already plotting revenge. As soon as the curtain came down, they _______________.

  • Becky Maverick and her dad swallowed hard. They watched intently as the horses lined up. Everything hung on this race—ownership of Maverick's Meteor, the Double M ranch, and probably Dick Maverick's future in politics. It was too late to do anything about it if Shifty Miller had doped his horse or sabotaged theirs, but they kept an eye out for suspicious signs anyway. The bell rang and _____________.

  • With an apprehensive Lord William Cecil at her side, Queen Elizabeth watched the fleet sail. Her eyes were still on the water when she asked, "Well, have we done the right thing?" She turned and looked him full in the face. "Ma'am," he said, bleakly, "_____________."

  • "You'll never escape my spell," she thought. Her complacency was undermined by doubts on whether it had been wise to tie herself so closely to a sorcerer in the fullness of his powers, yes, but beginning to fade in his mind.

Writing exercise: Choose one of these openers. Better still, make up your own. Jot down details on the characters' appearance and surroundings, on what they smell or hear or feel. For each detail, ask yourself if this is true, what else must be true? Take a few more notes. Circle your most important ideas. Now, when you are ready, expand the opening paragraph. Then write the next.

Post a comment