Renee Roux was frustrated as he paced about in his studio. He was commissioned to do a painting of Michel, one of the dukes, by his estate just outside of Nice. Though it was a beautiful estate and the duke was a regal specimen in terms of looks, Renee just couldn’t find the inspiration, and when inspiration couldn’t be found, he paced in his studio, a mess of a room with paint stained upon pallets, unfinished paintings stacked upon one another, and rough charcoal sketches on paper strewn everywhere.
Part of the problem was he didn’t want to paint the duke. Michel was such an ugly man. By ugly it didn’t have so much to do with the duke’s physical appearance as it did his spiritual. The man was spiritually devoid of goodness, and yet he had the audacity to commission Renee to paint him in a positive light, in which he radiated generosity. The duke had a hard enough time wearing such a paper-thin façade that it was unreasonable to think that any sane artist could lie about him any further with painting.
And yet, wasn’t that what artists did? Were they not the biggest liars of all? It was an artist’s job to embellish, to stretch, or discard the truth. And yet, Renee found he couldn’t do it. And it didn’t stop with the duke. Renee had lost the ability to paint people in general. Everyone was just so petty, so mean, so self-centered. His disdain for people was such that a month ago when a physically beautiful farm girl, whom all the men loved, offered to pose for him, he turned her down when he found out that she beat her younger sister.
Yet, he needed the money to live, and the duke offered plenty.
Renee’s pacing was interrupted when he heard a knock on his door. He grumbled as he opened it. A young woman with dark hair and brown eyes stood before him. She wore a beautiful white dress, puffed out from a crinoline underneath, giving the illusion that she was wearing large white rose petals. Upon her head she wore a wreath of white flowers.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Jovanna Acquarone,” she spoke in an Italian accent. “This is the studio of Renee Roux, is it not?” She peaked inside.
“It is, but I’m afraid I’m too busy to accommodate you at the moment.”
“Oh please,” she begged, stepping in before he could protest. “I promise I shall only take but a moment.” Rudely, she looked through his stacked portraits and drawings, messing up the order.
“Would you stop that!” he shouted. “I have everything in order for a reason.”
“Of course you do,” she smiled. “Many people just see a mess in your studio, but your mess has order. Is that not what artists do? Create order out of chaos? Do they not paint to give meaning to life?”
“I paint because I feel close to God when I do so.”
“And what’s your current project?” she asked while taking a seat.
“To paint a portrait of the grand duke, but I certainly can’t paint it with you bothering me.”
“Nor can you paint it when you are busy pacing back and forth,” she pointed out. “And I might add, it’s a little hard to paint without a subject, unless you have a keen memory.”
“Is there anything else?” He was irritated that she just didn’t get the clue.
“Actually, there is. I’m wondering why you insist on painting what doesn’t interest you.”
“You don’t know what interests me and what doesn’t!” he barked at her.
“Oh, but I do! I can see it in your eyes. They tell me that you’re bored and that you want so much more. You want to create art for the sake of art, not primarily for the sake of a livelihood. The eyes, they tell us more than the tongue could ever hope to. The tongue is full of beguilement, the eyes are full of honesty.”
“What do you expect me to do, you silly woman!?” Renee growled, his face flushed red with anger.
“You can stop stressing, and take a respite,” she said in a matter of fact tone. “I’m about to head to a café nearby for tea. Then I’m thinking about going to the countryside, not far from the vineyard.”
Renee’s anger at being interrupted was quickly dying. There was a beauty to this woman, and even though she was gifted with her mild olive complexion, her dark hair, and her Italian accent, there was more than just physical traits. It was her personality. She wasn’t bound in chains to the notion of proper decorum, but was rather like a horse who had broken from a stall to run free.
“Are you asking me to join you?”
“But of course,” Jovanna smiled. “I have always loved your art.” She paused to look at a large painting he did of a lake nestled in the mountains with a cottage by it. “You say that painting helps bring you close to God. Well, the beauty of your brush strokes upon the canvas, the way they form trees, lush and green, and stunning sunsets illuminating mountains, makes me feel close to God.”
“You really like my work?” he asked.
“But of course. Though I’m from Naples, Italy, I once traveled all the way from home to see your work exhibited in a gallery in Madrid Spain.”
The artist looked at her with a newfound respect. “I guess a respite would be good for my soul,” he said. “Very well, Mademoiselle, I’ll escort you to whatever café you have in mind and then to the countryside.”
“And I shall be honored,” said Jovanna, extending an arm for him to take.
Together, they chose to relax at the outdoor patio of the Grain de Raisin Rouge, a charming café near a channel of water. Renee was drinking from a cup of coffee, and Jovanna from a cup of tea. Children were playing games nearby, as adults went on their way, holding parasols, and reading the papers. Not far from the café was a fountain with carvings of sirens upon a rock, pouring out water from shell horns. Lovers sat together around the fountain while children dangled their feet in the water. A few old men had set up tables nearby to play chess.
“What made you choose to be an artist?” asked Jovanna after taking a sip of her tea.
“I don’t think I chose,” said Renee. “I think the calling chose me. My interest started when I was a boy, when my father took me to an art exhibition. You see, I saw so much strife growing up. My family was at war with another family. It had to do with familial honor or some sort of nonsense due to some conceived insult committed years ago against my family. At first, it was just petty squabbles, stealing property from one another, and an occasional fistfight.”
Rene sighed, wondering if he’d be able to continue his story, but he pushed on. “When I was a youth, I met another youth from the rival family one day when I was in a gallery. We had been admiring the same painting. We struck up a conversation about it. I soon learned that he was the son of the rival family. But by then it didn’t matter. Pierre and I had become fast friends. We’d go to opera houses together, look at the art in the galleries, and just talk about life in general, from the complex subjects to the more simplistic things that teenage boys like to talk about, such as girls. We formed a bond. Then my father found out. In a rage, he beat Pierre to death. I then lost my father. He was executed for his crime. I ended up losing two people I loved, my friend and my father.”
“So you chose painting as a way to escape from the pain,” said Jovanna, touching Renee’s hand understandingly.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Renee. “There is so much suffering in the world that I find joy in painting an idyllic one. In a way, I try to paint a world that I think God would love. Some artists paint grim scenes of death and suffering. They say it helps us deal with reality, and to an extent, I agree with them. But I personally want to create art to elevate peoples’ minds to a higher level of joy.”
“You prove my point,” Jovanna looked at him thoughtfully. “I see sadness in your eyes, even after having mentioned that it brings you joy. Does art no longer serve its purpose? I would feign think not. Rather, I think that you are so busy working on commissions that you aren’t following your heart with your work anymore.”
Renee nodded, knowing what she said was true.
“Tell me,” she said, “what do you like to paint? Granted, I’ve seen your art, but I want you to put it in your own words.”
“I like to paint pictures of flowers in a spring field, or of brooks of rushing water, of farmlands with fields of cows and horses.” He felt excitement bubbling up within him. “I like painting the beautiful churches in Arles, or in Paris, with their magnificent steeples. I love painting what makes me feel edified.” He sighed. “Not stuffy old dukes at their estates. Besides, the duke is a vain man, cruel and callous to the poor, and anyone he finds beneath him. He’s also a violent man, making sure thieves are whipped until they are near dead He’s a man, though who’s never been in battle, still revels in war.”
“Then why paint him?”
“Because I have to earn a living and he pays well. Besides, it’s not just the duke. I have found that people are not worth my time to paint. My art is to bring out beauty, and I can’t see beauty in people anymore. Everyone is fallen, everyone is rotten. People are just so ugly. I just can’t seem to see beauty in them anymore.”
“Not even a newborn child?” she asked.
“That child could grow up to be a tyrant.”
“Could be, but doesn’t have to. I believe we are born innocent. That God made us innocent. Do you not, Renee?”
“I’d like to think that,” the artist nodded, “but I’m skeptical. I just want to paint the countryside.”
“And you should paint those subjects,” said Jovanna encouragingly. “Because from what I can tell, you are in a cage. I had to leave my cage at one time.”
“Oh yes. I was to be wed to a rich man in Rome. But I didn’t love him. You see, I originally come from a wealthy family where decorum was drilled into me. So many rules, so many regulations. Though I may have grown up in a villa of gardens, elegant dining rooms, and with bedrooms full of king size beds and fine draperies, and though we lived near the sea, I still felt as though I were in a cage.”
“I had no idea that luxury could be a burden.”
“Oh, it most certainly can! My parents seemed more concerned about social status and money than they did about me. Each time they corrected me, it was more to help them avoid humiliation in the eyes of others, rather than actually caring for me. In fact, they hardly ever associated with me. My greatest company was the maid.”
“That does sound like a horrible life,” nodded Renee.
“Maybe so, but that changed soon enough.”
“I first saw your work,” Jovanna said excitedly, “when they were exhibiting it at a local gallery in Naples. I fell in love with it. It was your work that eventually made me decide to leave my parents, and to travel across Europe.”
Renee dropped his cup of coffee, spilling it on the clean, white linen. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Thank you works.”
“Thank you, then.”
“Now, I don’t know about you, but as lovely as this café is, I could certainly do for a stroll out in the countryside,” she said putting her tea aside. “Who knows? Maybe your spark of inspiration will be rekindled again.”
Renee escorted Jovanna to the vineyard and the abandoned chateau out in the countryside, which was a short distance away from his studio and the café. The chateau was run-down, but even with the caved-in roof, and the crumbling walls, it still retained a sense of elegance with the twisted gate that enclosed it. Grapevines were growing wild and Jovanna was eager to pick some fruit off the vines.
“I think that can be arranged,” the artist said. “The chateau has been reclaimed by nature.”
Renee and Jovanna walked along the rows of grapevines, sampling the fruit that tasted liked spring and summer.
“Look,” she said putting a cluster of grapes above his right earlobe. “You now have the appearance of a Greico-Roman god, such as Bachus. Now all you need is a toga.”
“Or my own winepress to make wine,” said Renee.
“Why do you need your own winepress? We can make our own wine here.” She took a clump of grapes and squeezed them over his head, the juice running down his back.
“You have some nerve. Two can play at that game.”
“No, no, stop!” she laughed as he grabbed her by the arm to shove some grapes onto her face, only for her to slip out of his arm.
He felt alive as he chased after her. He followed her laughter and the sounds of her footsteps. Turning a corner, he nearly crashed into her. Jovanna didn’t have time to get away before he slipped a cluster of crushed grapes down her back. She turned around and reciprocated by tossing grapes at him. But he pounced on her, and the two of them rolled through the grapevines, laughing merrily. They laughed for a long time, until Renee found his stomach hurting from it.
Tired, they retired to a brook amongst a grove of trees, to have their share of water. Renee had a heart of thankfulness. If this was happiness, he wanted to live this way every day. He was thirsty for it. Such contentment continued as Jovanna encouraged him to listen to the birds within the trees, and to catch frogs with her in a nearby pond. Renee noticed that beautiful Mediterranean wildflowers were in a rainbow of bloom. Jovanna remarked how lovely they were as she began to weave herself a new crown of flowers. Her new floral crown further accentuated the beauty of her colorful soul.
“How do you feel?” asked Jovanna, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“I feel inspired,” he said. “I have to paint people again! I want to use this location as a setting. I can quickly get my easel and paints from the studio. We’re not far away. I can be back in thirty minutes.”
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
“No. You can wait here.”
“I can,” she nodded thoughtfully. “But I don’t want to.”
Finding there was no use in arguing with her, he let her assist him in bringing his supplies, though he was adamant about carrying the heavier items himself.
When they were back amongst the grove towering over the wildflowers, Jovanna asked him, “So, what do you want to paint?”
“Well, I’m worried you might think me awfully audacious if I asked,” he said nervously.
“I think I know what you’re going to ask,” she smiled at him gently. “You want to paint a picture of me. Am I right?”
“Yes, that’s right. Jovanna, you are beautiful, inside and out. I haven’t felt so inspired in such a long time. I love to paint what is beautiful, and what’s beautiful right now to me is you.”
“But of course,” the Italian woman laughed. “I would love to pose for you.”
“But of course! What would you like me to wear?”
The artist found himself blushing, embarrassed to state what was in his heart for fear she’d think he was a man of ill intent.
“Did you want me to pose nude?” she chuckled.
“Well, yes,” said Renee rather timidly. Then he felt a surge of energy rise within him. “But I’m not sorry to ask. You’re a goddess in many ways, an Aphrodite, and clothing can only hide your beauty, not magnify it. I want to put on canvas, every one of your curves, every tone of your flesh. I want to paint out from your flowing black hair and deep brown eyes, to the curves of your hips, all the way down to the elegant shape of your feet.”
“A simple yes would have sufficed,” said Jovanna, as she started to remove her stockings, followed by her dress, crinoline, and her petticoat.
Tossing her clothing aside, she stood naked before the artist, except for the new wreath of flowers in her hair. For a moment, Renee lost his breath. He felt a profound sense of reverence towards this woman. There was divinity within her, as though God himself had created the ultimate form of art. Within her was a fire that birthed creativity. The sun shone through the break in the trees, illuminating her hair like polished ebony. Her light, olive skin gave off a glow. She was a living sculpture that would have put Rodin’s best work, if living and breathing, to envy. But it was her smile that was the most beautiful, for in it was light, love, and hope. Was she even human? Or was she something more, such as an angel from God himself?
“So, do tell. How should I pose?” she awakened him out of his near worship.
“Well, I” Renee, stuttered before concluding with, “I bestow the choice to you.”
Jovanna chose a sycamore tree among the grove. Many trees were clustered in shadows around the sycamore, but she stood in a soft beam of light from where the branches were scarce, as though she were an angel who had descended from heaven. Standing bare upon the carpet of wild-flowers, she was elegant and powerful. She arched slightly back against the tree, putting her right leg a couple of inches in front of the left and arched it so her heel was pointing upwards and her sole was flat on the ground. Her arms hung at her side, slightly crossing her them behind her back. Her head was partly facing towards the left side, her chin tilted up a little bit, and she wore a look of serenity on her face that accompanied the wreath of flowers on her head perfectly.
Renee felt that creative fire rekindled in him as he dipped his brush into his pallet and manipulated the colors upon his canvas. He knew that he couldn’t put her actual flesh and her actual soul upon the board, but he could give the illusion of it. No. That wasn’t completely true. He had felt for a long time that an artist at least shared a mirror image of someone’s soul. In this case, the viewer of the work would catch a glimpse into his soul and into the soul of Jovanna. To share such, he painted for hours, capturing each of her skin tones, the curves of her body, and the flowers wreathed around her hair. He painted with delicacy and with love, for that is what she was made from. He even painted the landscape around her with that same care. It came to point in which it was hard to differentiate between her and the grove as they molded into each other.
Upon finishing his painting, he felt more exhausted than he had in a long time. Yet he also felt a sense of elevation of his spirit. Gazing upon his painting, Renee knew that it was easily one of his best. The attention to detail of the work was exquisite. He had managed to capture each little subtly and nuance of the model and of the landscape around her.
“Jovanna, come and take a look!” he beckoned to her excitedly.
Without even bothering to get dressed, Jovanna jogged over to take a look at the completed piece. Renee saw approval glisten in her eyes as she smiled. She placed a hand gently on his shoulder. “I knew you could do it,” she said.
“I couldn’t,” he protested. “Not without you. It wasn’t just I who did it. But the both of us. We equally put our hearts and souls into it. And I know that there is more art that we can create. I don’t want to create it alone, but with you by my side.”
“I cannot,” she told him sadly, “as much as I’d love to.”
“But why?” he protested. “Is it something I did?”
“It’s nothing you did,” Jovanna said, as she walked over to her clothing and began to get dressed. “It’s what has been accomplished. My sole purpose was to help you gain your inspiration again, and now you have it,” she said as she put on her petticoat. “There are others who need my help.”
“But I need you,” he protested. “Everyone else is so ugly.”
“You will always have a part of me,” she said as she pulled her stockings up. “And you’ll find other beautiful people who look just as good as I do.”
“It’s not that! As I painted you, I could feel the love and warmth that burns within you, radiating out from your heart. You are kind. You are fun. You are gentle. You inspire me.”
“Many things inspired you before you turned your passion into a profession,” she pointed out while she put her crinoline around her waist. After putting her dress back on, she looked at the artist with imploring eyes. “Don’t ever let your profession overrule your passion.”
“But you are my passion!” he shouted.
She walked back over to him and took his hands in hers. “Your art is your passion,” she said. “Your ability to create. You said God gave you a talent. I believe that’s true. God drew me to you to rekindle that talent. He wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t help others in need.”
“But I don’t want to say goodbye,” said the artist, feeling like he was going to break down.
“We don’t have to say goodbye, yet.” She hugged him close to her.
He felt her warmth, and the dress she wore even felt like a rose. Only now he also felt the thorns from a relationship that he had previously thought was the beginning of something heavenly. He had thought it would turn into a relationship that transcended above the troubles of the earthly realm. He was wrong. He held onto her tighter. He didn’t want to let go. For a moment she held onto him tightly as well.
Finally, Jovanna letting go and taking him by the hand said, “Can you please escort me to the station?”
Renee nodded, knowing that there wasn’t anything more that he could say.
The sun was setting as he walked with her, hand in hand, to the train station. It was strange about how the day was simultaneously at its saddest and most stunning during sunset. It was a poetic reminder of life, about how one is given blessings that one must appreciate before such blessings are lost.
“I am happy,” said Jovanna quietly, although there was a tinge of sorrow to her voice.
Renee stared at her in contemplation.
“I’m happy,” she continued, “that I get to enjoy the rest of this evening with you. I could ask for no greater joy.”
“And I as well,” nodded the artist, though his pain felt immense.
Renee felt another one of his heartstrings break when they came to the train station. “You know, I’m willing to board the train with you,” he said.
“I do know,” she nodded plaintively. “But it’s not to be. Trust me when I tell you as much.” Suddenly, Renee found himself again tight within her arms as she hugged him farewell. Then he was given a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for all that you’ve done. Thank you for letting me inspire you. Now go and be happy again. Pursue what gives you joy. Arrivederci.”
With these farewells given, Renee watched her train leave the station.
“Monsieur Roux,” came a voice behind him.
Renee turned around to find that he was looking at the servant of the duke he was commissioned to paint.
“Monsieur Roux, whatever are you doing at the train station? Only watching the trains leave, I presume?”
“No. I was seeing off an old friend.”
“I beg your pardon,” the servant scratched his head, puzzled. “But I have been watching your strange manners since before the last train left, and I noticed no one.”
“You had to have noticed her!” said the temperamental artist. “She was a beautiful Italian woman, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek before she left.
“Monsieur, I fear you may be hallucinating, for I saw no such person. Regardless, my master, Monsieur Michel is most excited about the painting he has commissioned of you. I trust you will grace us with your presence soon.”
“Yes, of course,” sighed Renee, absolutely emotionally worn out. “Next week, next Tuesday.”
“Very good, Monsieur Roux. Monsieur Michel looks forward to seeing you again. Until then, I take my leave. Au revoir!”
The painting of the duke was the last commissioned painting that Renee Roux ever did. From then on he worked at the old chateau and vineyards he had purchased in remembrance of the short time he had with Jovanna. That’s not to say he gave up painting. On his spare time he still painted every week, but this time out of joy and pleasure, and not out of work. He had made a few inquiries with friends in Naples to find out about an Acquarone family, but they couldn’t find any rich family with that name. Nor had anyone else heard of a Jovanna Acquarone. Her light had disappeared into the sunset that evening. The only thing he had to remember her by was the painting that he had done of her which he always kept close by in his studio.
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