ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010
The Collector of Van de Voys
There was money, but there was nothing to buy, or rather nothing else. My wife and I had all the clothes and furniture we needed, so we looked to the walls, which were bare. This was the time when everybody was buying pictures, even shopkeepers like us, so we started to spend the money on pictures. We had no children.
We are a people who put great stock in having a family, so our barrenness grieved us. But we grieved in silence, because we are also a people who put great stock in not complaining.
The van de Voy was a picture such as a child would have liked, but it was my wife who picked it out. No doubt it reminded her of her girlhood on the coast. I say “no doubt” because she never spoke of her past; she was a woman of hard work and few words, which is why I married her in the first place. That, and she had some property (she was no beauty).
She was not a woman who insisted on having her way; in fact, except with customers, she had a yielding nature. So when we went to buy the picture—the van de Voy was our first purchase—her insistence was something I was so little used to seeing, at least in relation to myself, that it took a moment to come into focus as the determination of one who would not be moved. Yet this was just how she made her preference known, even after I suggested that we look at the other pictures. She lowered her head, but did not budge from her place. She had been a hardworking and uncomplaining helpmeet for many years and she had not been feeling well lately, so I agreed to buy the picture.
It was not the best van de Voy but it was a van de Voy, and since he had recently died there would be no more van de Voys. The market in general was high and the market in van de Voys along with it, and you could always resell a picture later. Besides covering bare walls and making a modest house respectable and cultured, pictures at the time were a good investment. I handed the guilders over to the broker for the picture to be wrapped and delivered to our rooms (we lived over our shop) later that day.
I could tell my wife adored our van de Voy by the shy, sidelong glances she gave it. She seldom looked at it straight on, and never in a spirit of reverie, but she was often to be found dusting its frame. The housegirl, Gertie, was forbidden to touch it.
I didn’t know anything about pictures, but I knew this was not van de Voy at his best. I liked his earlier pictures better, the few I had seen on my busy rounds, but ours was one of his later pictures. The later ones were the most coveted—you might even think that he had painted them to appeal to the popular taste. As someone who had devoted his life buying and selling things, I should have felt more approving of this than I did. But it was strange enough that I should find myself thinking about pictures at all—I mean besides as another thing that could be bought and sold.
My estimation of our van de Voy was confirmed by a visit to my neighbor’s house across the way. He was a tradesman like me and no expert in pictures, but he had had a slight acquaintance with van de Voy himself in the early days, when the young artist was first struggling to establish himself in our city. At the time van de Voy had been a painter of obscure seascapes which were not in the popular taste and had not found their market. At one point the painter had been unable to reimburse my neighbor for a small loan and my neighbor had generously accepted one of these seascapes instead. He had kept it all these years in a dark and little-used corridor in the rear of the house, where a narrow stairway ascended to the servants’ rooms, and he was just moving it to the sunny front parlor now that the improvement in the market for van de Voys had been solidified by the painter’s death—an irrefutable case of addition by subtraction, my neighbor joked (he was fond of jokes and quips, and especially of actuarial paradoxes).
At first my neighbor’s van de Voy looked completely pointless to me: a picture, if you could even call it that, of the sea at night, with dark smudges of sky above and of wave below, a scatter of bright blobs suggesting the reflections of heavenly bodies, and no hint of a ship. A tradesman looking at such a picture would like to see a ship, so that he might muse about what kind of freight it was carrying, and which port it was taking that freight to, and would it fetch a good price. A storm at sea would have added an extra element of drama: would the ship survive without having to throw the freight overboard? Was it fully insured? But there was no ship in this picture, and no storm. It was as if van de Voy had been more interested in the shapes of the waves and the dark colors of sea and sky, and that place in the middle where the sky and the sea appeared to blur and blend (he seemed fond of blurrings and blendings of what should have been clear outlines and well-defined borders). It was almost as if he had painted the picture with no regard for the viewer or purchaser at all, which was absurd.
And yet I was fonder of this picture than of my own van de Voy, the later van de Voy that hung in our own front parlor across the way. There was no accounting for it, that I should prefer a picture that afforded no point of purchase for a viewer’s interests, and yet there it was. I almost joked to my neighbor that we should trade van de Voys, but I kept my mouth shut, because my van de Voy was certainly worth four or five times what his van de Voy was worth, and while I did not trust my judgment of pictures, I was no fool when it came to money.
My wife, I say, rarely looked at our van de Voy straight on, at least when it was in the parlor. This was not so in her final illness. She took to her bed and stared at the bare wall across from the footboard and refused any soup. I recognized the same silent determination that had made me buy the picture in the first place, so I brought it in and hung it where her gaze directed. From then on, for those last weeks, she rarely looked away. But even then she said nothing about it, and insisted on no other alteration in the household routine while she composed herself for her death, which she did as quietly and efficiently as she had lived.
I was sitting with her late one afternoon and could see that she studied the van de Voy through the slits of her eyes. I left to visit the commode—a few years ago we had been able to afford having one of these installed off the second-floor landing so that we did not have to visit the shed at the back of our small garden, which the shop assistants and servants still had to use—and when I returned I found her in the same position, with her eyes barely open and her fingers on the counterpane. But I knew immediately that this was only her husk and that her spirit had flown to its reward, which is eternal rest in the bosom of our Lord Jesus Christ. One moment she was alive and the next she was dead, without the slightest change in the folds of the bedclothes. Her eyes still looked at the painting, but now this was just a figure of speech, because she could not see anything.
It was only when I looked at the van de Voy that I felt any sadness, and even then it was mild. I was sad because I knew that the picture had meant something to her, something I felt certain had to do with her childhood by the sea, about which I knew nothing except that it had taken place by the sea. That was her single point of reference, those few times she had had occasion to bring it up. “When I was a girl,” she would say, “by the sea.” Or: “When I was a growing up, by the sea.”
Unlike his earlier paintings, there was plenty to look at in this van de Voy. It was a beach scene, with two young girls—sisters by the looks of them—in the foreground and the rocky cliffs of the bay curving out to open sea with a ship and some clouds in the background. The girls were dressed in bright smocks and aprons and bonnets such as our women wear, the ends of their flaxen hair and their ribbons tugged by the sea breeze. The older sister, seen in profile and wearing a rose-colored smock, was leaning against a rustic old rowboat overturned on the sand. She had her arm around the shoulder of her younger sister, who stood close by in a light green smock. This girl had a hand on her sister’s leg and a little smutch of seaweed on her cheek. Their smiling faces were like sun and moon: the older girl gazed out to sea and the younger gazed up at her sister’s face, the older pleased by what she saw and the younger pleased by her sister’s pleasure. In the upper left-hand corner of the picture a great three-masted schooner was cresting into view over the horizon, its sails taut in the wind. You could just make out a tiny figure waving from the bow. This spectacle had drawn the girls’ attention from their previous pastime, a picnic and collecting expedition among the sea-wrack. Some of the contents of the basket at their feet had spilled out on the sand—a tea cup and the whimsical touch of an hourglass—and a little pile of shells and odd flotsam lay nearby. Their puppy was just emerging from around the overturned rowboat, padding towards the girls with its head cocked at a darling angle.
A sentimental scene, innocent youth admiring the grand vista of the age-old world, nothing more. These sorts of images were popular at the time; our people liked to see them on their serving dishes and teapots and vases. This one had charmed my wife and soothed her passage out of the world, but the more I looked the more my sadness turn to disquiet.
At that moment Gertie, our housegirl, came in. I could hear her behind me rustling the bedclothes. “Such a waste,” she sighed, “these fine linens bound for the furnace.” There was more rustling, then a sudden intake of breath. “Mistress, mistress, what’s this you’ve left us?” I looked at the picture and heard Gertie’s soft footsteps approach. “Master, look at this.” Gertie was a good servant but young and as headstrong as my wife had been yielding. “Look.” Something flashed in the loose cage of her slender fingers. “Look, master, look.”
She came so close that I could feel her against me, but I could not tear my eyes away from our van de Voy. I seemed to be seeing it for the first time—it was the same in every detail as a moment before, but the details now made a different picture. I had the sensation of the sturdy floorboards beneath our feet giving way and Gertie and I plunging into the void, but the picture plunged with us at the same speed and so continued, with a kind of mockery, to hang motionless in my gaze.
A sudden and treacherous storm was blowing up behind the three-masted schooner on the horizon; I could just make out the slight line of a snapped cable and one of the masts akilter. The tiny figure on the bow was waving in terror, the helpless plea of a lost soul. The ship was being driven into the cliffs where it would shatter to pieces, and those who were not drowned or crushed would be the prey of sharks, whose fins I had mistaken for small rocks protruding from the waters. This prospect the elder girl regarded not with pity or fear but with glee. Her fingers had wrenched up a handful of cloth on her younger sister’s shoulder and a few locks of flaxen hair with it, as if her profound sympathy with the savage spectacle she was about to witness might lead her to tear her sibling apart. Yet the younger girl was her match for depravity: it was not seaweed on her face but the open rot of a congenital syphilis, and the hand on her sister’s thigh was creeping to the older girl’s private place, tugging up the apron on its way. The little girl’s smile was a leer; she searched for a kind of obliteration in her sister’s eyes. Darkness gaped between the grim ribs of the overturned hull behind them—it was the remains of a lifeboat from a previous wreck; the girls had come here hoping for one of the disasters that were endemic to this part of the coast. But in their heated delirium they failed to notice the flecks of diseased foam around the slavering chops of the approaching dog—a mangy stray and not a beloved pet after all. The last grains in the cracked hourglass at their feet mingled with the numberless sands.
I closed my eyes.
“Look, master, look.” Gertie was pressing so closely against me that I could feel the weight and warmth of her body through apron, smock, and shift. Against my leg I felt the small pillow of buttery fat where her thighs met. “Master, look.” As if through a curtain I seemed to see her eyes roll back into her head and her mouth open and chin lift, exposing a white throat. I felt her half-closed fist against my chest. “Look.”
There is little more to tell. My business flourished, and I expanded into a wholesale firm. More success followed and I expanded again—shipping, this time. But a part of my fortune I held in reserve for seeking out and purchasing all of the canvases of the painter van de Voys. I bought them all, even those which had made their way overseas. And all of them I destroyed.
Or rather all save one, which I keep behind the doors of a locked cabinet by my bed, and which I plan to look upon when I compose myself for death. When I die the last van de Voy will die with me—I have ordered its destruction in my will. I know this commission will be carried out, because on it depends the inheritance of my fortune by my beneficiaries, the children I had with my second wife, Gertie: unless the picture is destroyed by fire in the presence of my attorney—a man of the greatest rectitude and absolutely no imagination—all of my properties will be liquidated into a charity fund for indigent painters. I brought my children up to cherish the solid values of our race: they will do anything to keep this from happening.
The painting I have temporarily retained is not the one my late wife was so fond of and the last thing her earthly eyes beheld—that was the first to be consigned to the furnace, along with the locket that van de Voy had inscribed to the memory of their too-brief summer together on the coast, when they were both so young and so poor. No, this van de Voy is the one that my neighbor kept first in his dark back hallway and later in his sunny front parlor, from the period before the artist’s transformation into a painter in the popular mode. It is a small canvas—the pieces of the frame, rearranged into a square, would efface it—and so dark that you almost cannot tell what it depicts. Only the blobs of light give its subject away as the heavens reflected in a dark sea, as though someone had scattered silver guilders on the waters and the painter had caught them in the moment before they sank.