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   Chapter 4 No.4

A Cathedral Singer By James Lane Allen Characters: 12765

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was a gay scene over at the art school next morning. Even before the accustomed hour the big barnlike room, with a few prize pictures of former classes scattered about the walls, and with the old academy easels standing about like a caravan of patient camels ever loaded with new burdens but ever traveling the same ancient sands of art-even before nine o'clock the barnlike room presented a scene of eager healthy animal spirits. On the easel of every youthful worker, nearly finished, lay the portrait of the mother. In every case it had been differently done, inadequately done; but in all cases it had been done. Hardly could any observer have failed to recognize what was there depicted. Beyond smearings and daubings of paint, as past the edges of concealing clouds, one caught glimpses of a serene and steadfast human radiance. There one beheld the familiar image of that orb which in dark and pathless hours has through all ages been the guardian light of the world-the mother.

The best in them had gone into the painting of this portrait, and the consciousness of our best gives us the sense of our power, and the consciousness of our power yields us our enthusiasm; hence the exhilaration and energy of the studio scene.

The interest of the members of the class was not concerned solely with the portrait, however: a larger share went to the model herself. They had become strongly bound to her. All the more perhaps because she held them firmly to the understanding that her life touched theirs only at the point of the stranger in need of a small sum of money. Repulsed and baffled in their wish to know her better, they nevertheless became aware that she was undergoing a wonderful transformation on her own account. The change had begun after the ordeal of the first morning. When she returned for the second sitting, and then at later sittings, they had remarked this change, and had spoken of it to one another-that she was as a person into whose life some joyous, unbelievable event has fallen, brightening the present and the future. Every day some old cloudy care seemed to loose itself from its lurking-place and drift away from her mind, leaving her face less obscured and thus the more beautifully revealed to them. Now, with the end of the sit tings not far off, what they looked forward to with most regret was the last sitting, when she, leaving her portrait in their hands, would herself vanish, taking with her both the mystery of her old sorrows and the mystery of this new happiness.

Promptly at nine o'clock the teacher of the class entered, greeted them, and glanced around for the model. Not seeing her, he looked at his watch, then without comment crossed to the easels, and studied again the progress made the previous day, correcting, approving, guiding, encouraging. His demeanor showed that he entered into the mounting enthusiasm of his class for this particular piece of work.

A few minutes were thus quickly consumed. Then, watch in hand once more, he spoke of the absence of the model:

"Something seems to detain the model this morning. But she has sent me no word and she will no doubt be here in a few minutes."

He went back to the other end of the studio and sat down, facing them with the impressiveness which belonged to him even without speech. They fixed their eyes on him with the usual expectancy. Whenever as now an unforeseen delay occurred, he was always prompt to take advantage of the interval with a brief talk. To them there were never enough of these brief talks, which invariably drew human life into relationship to the art of portraiture, and set the one reality over against the other reality-the turbulence of a human life and the still image of it on the canvas. They hoped he would thus talk to them now; in truth he had the air of casting about in his mind for a theme best suited to the moment.

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That mother, now absent, when she had blindly found her way to him, asking to pose, had fallen into good hands. He was a great teacher and he was a remarkable man, remarkable even to look at. Massively built, with a big head of black hair, olive complexion, and bluntly pointed, black beard, and with a mold of countenance grave and strong, he looked like a great Rembrandt; like some splendid full-length portrait by Rembrandt painted as that master painted men in the prime of his power. With the Rembrandt shadows on him even in life. Even when the sun beat down upon him outdoors, even when you met him in the blaze of the city streets, he seemed not to have emerged from shadow, to bear on him self the traces of a human night, a living darkness. There was light within him but it did not irradiate him.

Once he had been a headlong art student himself, starting out to become a great painter, a great one. After years abroad under the foremost masters and other years of self-trial with every favorable circumstance his, nature had one day pointed her unswerved finger at his latest canvas as at the earlier ones and had judged him to the quick: you will never be a great painter. If you cannot be content to remain less, quit, stop!

Thus youth's choice and a man's half a lifetime of effort and ambition ended in abandonment of effort not because he was a failure but because the choice of a profession had been a blunder. A multitude of men topple into this chasm and crawl out nobody. Few of them at middle age in the darkness of that pit of failure can grope within themselves for some second candle and by it once more become illumined through and through. He found his second candle,-it should have been his first,-and he lighted it and it became the light of his later years; but it did not illumine him completely, it never dispelled the shadows of the flame that had burned out. What he did was this: having reached the end of his own career as a painter, he turned and made his way back to the fields of youth, and taking his stand by that ever fresh path, always, as students would rashly pass him, he halted them like a wise monitor, describing the best way to travel, warning of the difficulties of the country ahead, but insisting that the goal was worth the toil and the trouble; searching secretly among his pupils year after year for signs of what he was not, a great painter, and pouring out his sympathies on all those who, like himself, would never be one.

Now he sat looking across at his class, the masterful teacher of them. They sat looking responsively at him. Then he took up his favorite theme:

"Your work on this portrait is your best work, because the model, as I stated to you at the outset would be the case, has called forth your finer selves; she has caused you to feel. And she has been able to do this because her countenance, her whole being, radiates one of the great passions and faiths of our common humanity-the look of reverent motherhood. You recognize that look, that mood; you believe in it; you honor it; you have worked over its living eloquence. Observe, then, the result. Turn to your canvases and see how, though proceeding differently, you have all dipped your brushes as in a common medium; how you have all drawn an identical line around that old-time human landmark. You have in truth copied from her one of the great beacon-lights of expression that has been burning and signaling through ages upon ages of human history-the look of the mother, the angel of self-sacrifice to the earth.

"While we wait, we might go a little way into this general matter, since you, in the study of portraiture, will always have to deal with it. This look of hers, which you have caught on your canvases, and all the other great beacon-lights of human expression, stand of course for the inner energies of our lives, the leading forces of our characters. But, as ages pass, human life changes; its chief elements shift their relative places, some forcing their way to the front, others being pushed to the rear; and the prominent beacon-lights change correspondingly. Ancient ones go out, new ones appear; and the art of portraiture, which is the undying historian of the human countenance, is subject to this shifting law of the birth and death of its material.

"Perhaps more ancient lights have died out of human faces than modern lights have been kindled to replace them. Do you understand why? The reason is this: throughout an immeasurable time the aim of nature was to make the human countenance as complete an instrument of expression as it could possibly be. Man, except for his gestures and wordless sounds, for ages had nothing else with which to speak; he must speak with his face. And thus the primitive face became the chronicle of what was going on within him as well as of what had taken place without. It was his earliest bulletin-board of intelligence. It was the first parchment to bear tidings; it was the original newspaper; it was the rude, but vivid, primeval book of the woods. The human face was all that. Ages more had to pass before spoken language began, and still other ages before written language began. Thus for an immeasurable time nature developed the face and multiplied its expressions to enable man to make himself understood. At last this development was checked; what we may call the natural occupation of the face culminated. Civilization began, and as soon as civilization began, the decline in natural expressiveness began with it. Gradually civilization supplanted primeval needs; it contrived other means for doing what the face alone had done frankly, marvelously. When you can print news on paper, you may cease to print news on the living countenance. Moreover, the aim of civilization is to develop in us the consciousness not to express, but to suppress. Its aim is not to reveal, but to conceal, thought and emotion; not to make the countenance a beacon-light, but a muffler of the inner candle, whatever that candle for the time may be. All our ruling passions, good or bad, noble or ignoble, we now try publicly to hide. This is civilization. And thus the face, having started out expressionless in nature, tends through civilization to become expressionless again.

"How few faces does any one of us know that frankly radiate the great passions and moods of human nature! What little is left of this ancient tremendous drama is the poor pantomime of the stage. Search crowds, search the streets. See everywhere masked faces, telling as little as possible to those around them of what they glory in or what they suffer. Search modern portrait galleries. Do you find portraits of either men or women who radiate the overwhelming passions, the vital moods, of our galled and soaring nature? It is not a long time since the Middle Ages. In the stretch of history centuries shrink to nothing, and the Middle Ages are as the earlier hours of our own historic day. But has there not been a change even within that short time? Did not the medieval portrait-painters portray in their sitters great moods as no painter portrays them now? How many painters of to-day can find great moods in the faces of their sitters?

"And so I come again to your model. What makes her so remarkable, so significant, so touching, so exquisite, so human, is the fact that her face seems almost a survival out of a past in which the beacon-lights of humanity did more openly appear on the features. In her case one beacon-light most of all,-the greatest that has ever shone on the faces of women,-the one which seems to be slowly vanishing from the faces of modern women-the look of the mother: that transfiguration of the countenance of the mother who believed that the birth of a child was the divine event in her existence, and the emotions and energies of whose life centered about her offspring. How often does any living painter have his chance to paint that look now! Galleries are well filled with portraits of contemporary women who have borne children: how often among these is to be found the portrait of the mother of old?"

He rose. The talk was ended. He looked again at his watch, and said:

"It does not seem worth while to wait longer. Evidently your model has been kept away to-day. Let us hope that no ill has befallen her and that she will be here to-morrow. If she is here, we shall go on with the portrait. If she should not be here, I shall have another model ready, and we shall take up another study until she returns. Bring fresh canvases."

He left the room. They lingered; looking again at their canvases, understanding their own work as they had not hitherto and more strongly than ever drawn toward their model whom that day they missed. Slowly and with disappointment and with many conjectures as to why she had not come, they separated.

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