Christian McEwan is the author of In Praise of Listening, published in October 2023.
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This essay is from my book, Tasting Red: A Memoir In Paintings, which explores, through my own paintings, the complex relationship between artist and model.
This book is complete and seeking publication
The Painting of Nell
“I’m guessing you’d like to paint Nell,” said Paddy, my intermediary. “She’s an old Dutch woman, lives out, oh, way out in the country. We’ll drive up there and give her a shout, will we?”
So we drove, too fast, in a low-slung, rickety Mercedes along lanes which seemed to have been cut out of original green—green so pure that when I saw it brushing up against the window, I wanted to take a bite out of it. The heater was always on in the car and Paddy refused to wind the window down; he could have grown orchids in there. He played country music on the stereo, old Country: Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
The house was small and yellow. I remember a garden full of hollyhocks and goats.
“Nell, are you about now, Nell?” Paddy was cutting through the garden with his sharp, inquisitive nose, his short legs. In fact, Paddy was very goat-like: full of curiosity, constantly relishing subversive thoughts. His reliance on the present tense style of narration ( “Here we are arriving, will we go in now?”) may have been partly an Irish characteristic, linked—in a way I’m not capable of understanding—to what happens when one language is hoisted on to the traditions of another, but it was also a critical part of him, an expression of the constant surprise that bustled through him.
“It’s a young artist we have here, her name is Catherine, she’s all the way from America—“ ( when I tried to explain that I’m English but I live in America, the Irish would have none of it. They referred to me as The American, and made no effort to distinguish between the two places— which seemed, in the far green of West Cork, equally foreign, equally irrelevant.
Nell appeared. She fixed me, judged me with a quick, almost grim acuity. She thought at first that I wanted to paint the garden. I scanned it; the plants were so exuberant that it had a look of the ocean to it: colors lapping against each other, crashing and breaking. A goat shoved in beside her, watched us through slit eyes. When I said it was Nell I wanted to paint, she waved her hand, as if pushing us away,
“Ah, I’m not young any more...an old woman like me?”
“Yes, I would very much like to paint you”
“She would now, Nell, do you hear?”
Nell looked doubtful. “I can give you one go, I suppose. Do you want to paint me outside?”
The house was dark and cramped, and even though it was not raining, the impression inside was of water falling—as if we had fallen into a small, dark trunk: the treasure chest inside a fish tank. I had one day in which to get it, one long afternoon. I thought of Fragonard with his one hour portraits; I pictured the color tumbling on, the brush strokes slapping down—in his hands, painting became an action as instinctive and extraordinary as a spider spinning its web.
It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to get everything set up: a table for the palette, the portable easel, a lamp—because it was so dark in the underwater trunk and because I needed sharp light to cut out the grooves of the face—and a place for the turpentine and linseed oil.
I’m trying to get Nell to sit at the right angle. At first I try to pose her looking straight ahead, absolutely from the front. It’s a hard angle this; it looks unsophisticated and perhaps that is what I want— I want to refuse to consider more subtle variations; I want to produce something that’s provocatively unsettling. But no, I realize, this approach will not work with Nell. For one thing, I need the shadow at the side of her nose; the view from the front flattens her, seems to take the light out, as if I’m stabbing a butterfly with a pin. I ask her to move a little. In the new angle, she’s caught in the act of turning towards the viewer. It allows her to keep some of the surprise— she seems more in control this way, as if she’s chosen to turn towards us. Her stare is piercing, practical. She’s doing this, I sense, because she’s a generous woman, but there’s also the hint of an ultimatum: "You better catch me quickly," her look says, "or I’ll move, go back to my garden, to more important things."
At the beginning of the painting, I am struggling not to think. I’m too interested in Nell; that is the problem. I want to know more about her. She is quick, determined, spiky; I can imagine her as a prosecutor or a market gardener. How did she end up here? So I’m trying not to think. The first part of the session, before the break, goes badly. I feel nothing but pressure. First, there’s Fragonard, whose brushwork seems to be taunting me. I see him as a sort of gloating, elasticated being (what I think of, in my own shorthand as the indulged male artist. I have met a lot of his type in art school. Some of them are talented, but they have always been told that; they have always known it, because their mothers have encouraged them. I have met very few female students with the same sense of certainty, the knowledge that they are born to paint, to succeed. In my mind, I’m starting to see Fragonard as a sort of Puss- in-boots figure—he is wearing huge, red boots, waving his plumed hat, expecting everyone to faint at his brilliant feet. Must get rid of that image, concentrate on Nell. But I’m also thinking about Holland; Dutch painting versus Italian. I’m picturing the square in Delft and Vermeer’s scrupulous study of falling milk, measured drop by drop. "Shut up!" I tell my brain. "Get out!"
The brushes feel wrong. I am getting more and more angry. This is what I wrote in my diary:
Nell is cheerful and expressive, her face frequently springs into a state of peculiar, fervent alertness—when an idea occurs to her, her entire face lights up. She must have been handsome in her youth… altogether regular features in a rectangular face—at once intelligent and robust. Her English is eccentric, her pronunciation choppy. She slurs certain letters—which, since it is clearly not intentional, is childish in a rather appealing way. I painted her yesterday and it was very hard work. At first, the paint felt like mud and I couldn’t get the simplest thing to work and then, after lunch—at which I was urged to eat an enormous amount by Nell—it went much better; in fact, it arranged itself quite naturally, and at one point, when we stopped for another break, it was looking rather good. However, when we resumed—for no reason I could understand--the entire structure of the face collapsed and when I attempted to revive it, the face divided itself into segments, each of which seemed to have a cold hostility towards the others. I couldn’t convey any of the geniality in Nells’ face, its quickness or warmth. I was at an extreme pitch of frustration ( I felt I was no longer in control, that another force was at work—a force antagonistic to my own desires, which pulled everything I did
out of order, demolishing it and setting even straight lines spinning). This sort of painting is torture. To make matters worse, I didn’t know how much longer Nell would be able to sit and Amy, her grandniece, kept knocking at the door and asking plaintively for “Auntie Nell, auntie Nell?”
until my inclinations towards her were anything but gentle.
That’s the end of the entry; I don’t say anything about how I resolved it. The painting has a scrappy air, perhaps because—as I was running out of time at the end—I had to make decisions quickly, brutally. (This is sometimes a good thing—no time to linger or indulge obsessions… racing, jumping from section to section, so that all the synapses of the painting brain, all the parts of the painting, are constantly connected and engaged. This is when I have a sense of knowing; knowing what has to be done.)
I remember encountering a couple of technical problems, which I smashed through somehow. One was gray hair. I had rarely painted it before and I soon discovered that it was hard to strike the right balance: The lack of color in the strands could make it look flat and , but when I squinted to access the subtle tones of color that were present ( blue, gold, magenta, picked up from the light, or from Nell’s shirt), the surface of the hair began to fragment into too many
different colors. The hair lost its integrity, became distracting. I found I had to slap quickly back to the original gray, then mess it up just enough to make it hotter, less oppressive. I think I must have settled this in the end—as the clock ticked and the dark began to fall and the grandniece knocked on the door—by attacking the texture rather than the color, exaggerating the choppy effect, imparting color through movement. The second problem was the blue of the shirt Nell was wearing; it was severe and pulled the color from her face. I lightened it and slapped on a few swipes of goldish green.
By now, I am sure I was hungry and the fumes were getting to me—as by the end of a painting session they always do: I feel as if someone’s hollowed me out and poured me full of small, thin atoms tumbling around in constant motion. If I move too quickly, I am dizzy… but there is also a lovely sense of exultation, a sort of floating, heady tiredness; the sense that I have done something with my day today and that, of course—with my pale, whacked out brain— I’m paying for it.
And then—after I begged Nell again and again to give me “two more minutes"; after Nell’s expression had grown more and more weary— I would have felt the need to get everything done, flung into place until the last second, until Nell pulled away and I was forced to stop. Then, the full force of strung-out tiredness would have hit me; I would have been spent.
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon—have they done any research on this?—that after I’ve had a long, thoroughly involved painting session, I find it hard to speak. Yes, Of course I am tired, but it is not just that. I have trouble finding the words. I feel as if, for a while (it doesn’t last more than an hour) that part of the brain—the speaking, thinking, verbal brain—is closed off to me. It comes back slowly; I can feel it returning. I tried to explain the trouble I was having to someone once, but I got the impression she thought I was exaggerating, indulging the myth of the romantic artist. But it’s a fact and would no doubt show up in brain scans.
It is interesting to me that in the diary entry there is no mention of Nell’s involvement in the Dutch resistance, yet I clearly associate this with her. Did I hear this from Paddy? Or did I simply decide that this was likely, that she was of the right age, and that, assuming she had been in Holland during the war, she would have been involved—something to do with her keenness, her integrity? I had forgotten, until I reread the diary entry from fifteen years ago, that Nell had a grandniece, that there was a child at the edges of the scene. In the diary, there is no mention of goats, yet I clearly remember goats. I would have sworn there were goats. Did I supply them later, because they seemed so appropriate? And if I added them, when did I do it? Two years later? Five? Ten? When did the new truth become true?
My memory seems to have sought to carve her out, to make her harder, purer. And my thoughts of her now are formed by the painting itself; that has become my present view of her, my witness. And it is a raw painting, in which the subject is not a subject. (She may have been caught for a moment but she is not confined—she is in charge; her eyes nail the viewer, not the other way round). There is an odd way in which Nell manages to be at once engaged and aloof; she looks at me with the full power of her mind, but she won’t allow herself to be defined.
And there were definitely goats.
This is the journal entry from the next day:
Nell took me to the day care center today (for old people, it’s attached to a convent-run hospital). I felt absurdly tall and immensely young—hearty and thumping, like a hippo. The priest asked me if I play basketball, the old women asked me if I play basketball. I felt extremely awkward and shy and huddled next to Nell and her friend ( they were preparing needlework tasks for the women while they attended mass)….I must say I did not enjoy my attempts to sketch the old women very much. When Nell introduced me and asked if anyone wanted to be sketched, they all refused and looked glum. Nell cajoled one lady, Margaret, but she had such an unpromising face I could only regard her with dismay. It’s years since I’ve sketched (as opposed to painting) and I was using a sort of hard crayon I’m totally unfamiliar with. I was desperately nervous when I sat down. I felt my face twitching and my hands shook so much I found it hard to hold the pencil at all.
The woman had a kind face; her expression, as she sat for me, was both apprehensive and resigned. She had tiny eyes with swollen lids (and they were obscured by reinforced spectacles). She had an unevenly stitched mouth and a chin that flowed softly into her neck. What I achieved was a dull sketch but a fairly good likeness. I showed it to her reluctantly but couldn’t bring myself to put it on more general exhibition. Nell did that. Margaret’s friends pronounced it “the very image of her” although they regretted that it made her look so sad. (She DID look sad; Nell told me that her best friend had just died).
I drew a second lady called Margaret then, who was quite enthusiastic. She had a magnificent face with a lopsided nose, startled eyes, a slightly chaotic mouth and black, seaweed brows. She moved around all over the place but I felt that I did a good drawing of her. She pronounced it “terrible” and said over and over again “God, now, If I thought I looked like that, I’d cry,” and “You won’t sign my name to it, will you? You won’t put it in the paper?” The others thought it very good “The life of her”. I then attempted to draw an old woman called Frances. When she wore her spectacles, she had a striking face, full of dignity. She had lively black eyes, oddly shaped and hooded, but when she took off her glasses and looked straight at me, her face seemed stripped and terribly sad. Her face was so defenseless (cornered and hurt like an animal) that I found it painful to look at her. She was the most patient model and stayed absolutely still but I couldn’t get her face; she had an extraordinarily long face and a very perplexing nose. When I showed the sketch to her, I felt ashamed and wanted to apologize for it, but the first Margaret, said it was “An awful lot better “than hers, “Sure, ‘t’was good. But the young girl did a terrible job on her, made her want to cry.”
Neither of the other women wanted to be sketched. They both had interesting faces but would probably have been shocked by any reasonably accurate portrayal. One woman, Nora, had a round face, like a currant bun. All her features, which were bright and agile, were crammed into the bottom half, and her face was dominated by a bulging, infantile forehead. The second woman had a face like a squashed diamond. Her mouth was depressed at the corners, forming a half circle and her eyes appeared to be grooves, slipping downwards….She wore a red wig. I would have been afraid to draw her because her face already possessed a quality of caricature …but I thought it was a wonderful, astonishing face.
When I wrote the entry above, I was thirty. Now I’m forty five, firmly locked into middle age. Then, I seem to have been startled by the reactions of the women—completely unprepared for how unprepared they are. When I find out that they’ were not happy at being portrayed “accurately,” my tone was one of disappointment, of a sort of tricked righteousness: "Why," I asked, "aren’t they willing to look their age?"
For me, then, age was a concept. The signs of old age--the lines and liver spots, the tunneling and gouging—these were matters of aesthetic interest. They made the women’s faces more complex. And also, in a strange way, more worthy—because of the wisdom I imputed to them, because of the world I thought they had witnessed. I couldn’t understand that they didn’t see themselves as I saw them. For them, there was nothing heroic about age; to put it before them so clearly, only reminded them of lost youth, of lost opportunity, of everything they had lost.
I know what it is, now, to look in the mirror and wonder, “Where did she go?” I’ve felt the sense of shock, realized, "It’s happening, it’s happening to me!" I never thought I could escape death, but I think I did believe—in a certain, arrogant level of the heart— that if I just thought about it hard enough, I could stave off the effects of old age: as if somehow, it was a question of moral resilience. Now it feels, sometimes, as if my face has been pulled into the lion’s mouth. It seems to have come upon me as an act of sudden violence—to find the skin around my eyes crumbling, to find that other things are blurring, thinning, changing.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and feel such a sense of panic—blind, pure panic—that I can almost see myself as a cartoon figure running backward: "No!" I’m yelling, "No! I’m not ready yet, take me back!" Just like the women in West Cork.
There seems nothing particularly worthy or valiant about old age now. Now that it is approaching with appalling speed, I would do anything it push it back, to retain the attributes of youth. Then, I thought such vague prettiness as I possessed was “superficial”. I would love to be superficial again.
If I could go back to the daycare center now, would I draw the women differently? Actually, I don’t think it is technically in my power to make this decision; I can’t choose to represent something one way or another—what happens, happens, just as a thrush can only smash snail shells in its own way. But, if I could exercise such control—if I could choose to go back and change my portrayal of the women—would I do so? Would I be kinder, less accurate?
Maybe. At least, it presents itself as a possibility. Then, such a “lie”, a compromise, would have been unthinkable. But now that I can sense the pain of being confronted by my mortality, my physical diminishment—now, that I have looked in the mirror and seen myself as a stick figure running backward into the lovely, implausible vividness of youth…yes, I might hold the pencil a little farther out…I might not move in for the kill so avidly. I no longer see honesty as simple.
Is it also because I understand now, that for all but a very few people, growing old is not just the loss of youth, of radiance; it is also the gradual extinguishing of hope. What I thought of then —with chilling simplicity—as wisdom, I see now as something clenched and held in the body like a stone: the stillness, the knowledge of disappointment. Experience brings pain; I don’t know if it brings wisdom. I think the supposition that is does is built on the Christian idea that suffering bestows virtue, that suffering delivers grace: tit for tat. But what if suffering doesn’t bring grace? What if it just brings sadness?
We believe when we’re young that we’re exceptional, that we will do things, that our aspirations are not foolish. But most people find that everything is harder, drearier than they imagined, that the world is a mass of whims and corruption. I think we imagine ourselves galloping through the land on a horse and what we experience is an endless Sisyphean slog.
We meet ourselves coming the other way, pushing a shopping cart down the middle of the road.
Acknowledgement: This essay was originally published in The Gettysburg Review