The Modigliani Portrait
Sarah arrived at her grandmother’s apartment and looked with disgust at the clutter of boxes scattered throughout the living room. The movers had been expected yesterday, but had called to apologize and to assure the family that they would absolutely come today… or tomorrow. Sarah’s grandmother was unperturbed. If not yesterday, then today; if not today, then tomorrow. The assisted living facility had been paid and her room secured.
Sarah always enjoyed these visits to her grandmother. She looked forward to the brownies and hot chocolate, and she loved to stare at the large Modigliani portrait above the fireplace. The woman’s long neck, unnaturally bright red hair, and angular features were endlessly fascinating. “How long have you had that Modigliani giclée, Grandma?” she asked. Her grandmother beamed to hear the girl correctly pronounce both the name of the Italian painter and the French word that had come to refer to enhanced copies of original paintings.
“Oh, the Modigliani?” replied her grandmother. "I got it a long time ago--before you were born.”
“Will there be room for it in your new digs?”
“Oh, I’ve made arrangements,” replied her grandmother vaguely. “It won’t be a problem.”
“Did you ever get to see the original?” asked Sarah.
“Well, as a matter of fact I did,” came the response. "I was just a youngster--a lot younger than you.”
“I’d like to see the original sometime. Is it in a local museum?”
“Oh, it wasn’t in a museum,” replied her grandmother. “It was in a private collection.”
“Cool. How did you get to see it?”
The old woman maneuvered her walker to the sofa, pushed aside one or two of the smaller cartons, sat down heavily, and said, “It’s a long story. Do you have time to hear it?”
Sarah nodded enthusiastically. “Well, bring my coffee from the kitchen and I’ll tell you about it.”
Settling comfortably into the sofa, Sarah’s grandmother sipped at her coffee and began her narration. “I haven’t thought about that day for a long time,” she said dreamily. “When I was little, we lived in Boston. Did you know that?” Sarah shook her head. She had not yet reached the age when ancestral origins were of much interest.
“Well, we did,” continued her grandmother. “My father’s annual vacation was coming up, and he decided that we--that is my mother and I--needed to visit the nation’s capital. I’m not sure why. The last thing I wanted to do was to ride in our old jalopy for eight hours to see a bunch of old buildings, but my father insisted, so off we went.”
“I’ve been to Washington a lot,” interjected Sarah. “No big deal.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” sniffed her grandmother. “You live in Baltimore and you can get into DC in an hour and still be home for dinner, but for us it was a major undertaking.
“Anyway, when we had been on the road for a few hours, my father casually mentioned that we were going to stop in Baltimore. He wanted to visit an old friend.”
Sarah looked surprised. “I didn’t know our family had friends here back in the old days.”
Her grandmother gave her a disapproving look--old days indeed!--before continuing. “When my dad was in college, he and his friend Herbert Silver were roommates, but they went their separate ways after graduation. Daddy got a job in Boston, and Herbert settled in Baltimore. Made a lot of money in real estate, I think.
“They didn’t talk much by phone--yes, we had telephones in the old days!--but long distance calls were pretty expensive back then, and of course computers hadn’t been invented, so they stayed in touch by exchanging an occasional holiday card or birthday greeting, rarely a
letter. Anyway, when my father decided we were going to Washington, he wrote to Herbert, and we were all invited to dinner at his house.”
The old woman sat back and closed her eyes, lost in pleasurable reminiscence. Sarah thought she might have dozed off. It wouldn’t have been the first time, but no. She sat up and continued her story.
* * *
They had directions to the house and some local maps, but no GPS, of course. Brenda’s mother wasn’t much of a navigator, and they made a number of wrong turns, but finally pulled up to a long driveway leading to the biggest house Brenda had ever seen. There was a gate across the driveway and a buzzer for visitors to identify themselves. Her parents exchanged puzzled looks and checked the address. “This must be it. I guess we’d better use the buzzer,” her father said, and took the plunge.
Once Brenda’s father had identified himself, the gate swung back and the old car made its way up the driveway to a large semi-circular path in front of the mansion. The contrast between the ancient Ford with its rusted fenders and the magnificent structure before them couldn’t have been more striking. Seven-year-old Brenda was in awe; her mother gaped. Only her father seemed to take the opulence of their surroundings in stride.
The door was opened by a servant in livery. “Please follow me,” he said. “Mr. and Mrs. Silver are awaiting your arrival in the drawing room.” He led the way through a spacious hall to a large room where the Silvers stood smiling. The men embraced and exchanged hearty greetings. Then they stepped back and made the introductions. “Herbert,” began Brenda’s father, “I’d like you to meet my wife, Helen, and my daughter, Brenda.”
“Very glad we’re finally getting to meet George’s family,” said Herbert. “This is my wife, Sylvia.” The women shook hands, and Sylvia reached down to Brenda and smiled. “How do you do, Brenda. I’m sorry there’s no one here of your age, but I hope we can make you comfortable.”
The men and women paired off. George and Herbert chatted happily about their activities since college, the obvious difference in their financial positions having no apparent effect on the pleasure that each took in the other’s company. Helen, on the other hand, felt outclassed by the elegantly dressed woman who sat beside her, and found it difficult to make small talk while they waited for dinner to be announced.
Brenda, left to her own devices, wandered around the large room, gazing at the many paintings. She stopped and stared in wonder at a large, brightly coloured painting of a woman with a long neck, angular features, and brilliant red hair. She had never been to an art museum, and her exposure to paintings had been limited to her own daubings and the few posters and magazine clippings of animals and bucolic scenes that her mother had framed to fill the walls of their home.
This painting was a revelation. What was the artist trying to do? The woman’s chair seemed to be falling out of the picture, and no one Brenda had ever seen had hair like that, and yet there was something about the image that appealed to her.
After a few minutes she became aware of Sylvia’s presence. “Do you like this painting?” she asked. Brenda nodded. “The artist’s name is Modigliani,” said Sylvia, pronouncing the name slowly. Brenda repeated, “Modigliani.” “Yes,” said Sylvia. “That’s right. What do you like about it?”
Brenda thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s beautiful.”
“Yes, I think so too,” said Sylvia with a smile, and returned to her adult guests.
Dinner was announced, and the five of them trooped into the dining room, where a staff of servants held their chairs and served the meal. George and Herbert continued their reminiscences, while Sylvia did her best to make Helen feel comfortable. Brenda, having finished eating, saw no reason to remain at the table to listen to boring adult conversation. She got down from her chair, remembering to push it in, and began to walk away. Her mother started to remonstrate, but Sylvia interjected and said, “Oh, I don’t mind if she wanders around. She’ll be fine.”
The conversation began to wane. After what she judged to be a decent interval, Helen spoke up. “George, we really need to be getting on if we want to reach our hotel before dark.” Reluctantly, George sighed and stood up. “I guess you’re right.” The visitors proceeded to tell their hosts how much they had enjoyed the visit and the meal, and the hosts replied in kind. Then they all realized that Brenda had not returned to the dining room. “She can’t have gone far,” said Sylvia reassuringly. “I’ll bet I know where she is,” she added and moved off before anyone could respond.
As she had expected, Sylvia found Brenda in an adjoining room, staring at another portrait, smaller than the Modigliani in the drawing room but in the same style. When Sylvia approached, Brenda asked, “Is this by Modigliani?”
“Very good,” said Sylvia approvingly. “Yes, it is. Do you like it?” Brenda nodded without turning her head.
Sylvia said gently, “I’m sorry to tell you that your parents are ready to leave. Perhaps you can come again some time to look at the paintings. Would you like that?” Brenda nodded again, more emphatically, and allowed herself to be led away to rejoin her parents.
Final goodbyes were said, and Brenda and her parents were on their way. They would never again make the long trip from Boston to visit the magnificent house with the Modiglianis.
* * *
Sarah had listened to her grandmother’s account intently, brow furrowed, not wanting to interrupt. She was about to ask a question when the wall phone sounded, announcing a visitor. “Please see who that is, dear,” said Brenda.
Sarah picked up the receiver. “It’s somebody named Jameson. He says he’s got two men with him. From the art museum.”
“Oh, yes,” said Brenda. “Roger Jameson. I’ve been expecting him. Please buzz him in.”
While she was waiting for the visitors to make their way to the apartment, Sarah remembered what she was going to ask. “Grandma, how were you able to get a copy of a painting in a private collection? Did the Silvers lend it to some museum for an exhibition?”
Brenda smiled at her granddaughter and said, “Aren’t you the clever child! Let Mr. Jameson in and I’ll tell you.”
Sarah did as she was asked, and Roger Jameson entered, a dapper man, impeccably dressed, and accompanied by two workers in coveralls pulling a dolly that held a wooden crate and a great deal of packing material. Brenda greeted Jameson warmly. “Roger, delighted to see you again. Punctual as always. This is my granddaughter, Sarah.”
“And I’m happy to see you, too, Brenda,” he said as he bent to kiss her cheek. “And pleased to meet you, Sarah,” he said, shaking the girl’s hand. Then, turning back to Brenda, “Well, this is the big day. We’ve been waiting a long time.”
“I know you have,” she replied, as Sarah looked on in puzzlement. Brenda hastened to explain. “Roger is a museum officer. He and his colleagues are here to cart off the Modigliani,” she explained. “It’s time to let the rest of the world have a look at it.”
Sarah was utterly bewildered. “I don’t understand. What’s the museum going to do with a giclée…?” Her voice trailed off and her eyes widened. “It’s not a copy at all!” she exclaimed. “It’s real, isn’t it? Where did you get it? All this time you’ve had a genuine Modigliani! Why didn’t you tell me? Why are you giving it away?”
“Slow down,” said Brenda. “So many questions. All right, I’ll tell you. No reason not to… now. And yes, you’re quite right. It’s not a copy.” She settled herself more comfortably on the sofa, sipped her coffee, and turned her attention to Jameson’s men, each of whom had donned a pair of cotton gloves. They approached the painting and proceeded to lift it carefully from the wall above the fireplace. While one of the men held the painting in place, the other slipped a pre-cut section of thin foam wrapping material around it. With an efficiency born of long practice, they then inserted the wrapped painting into a pre-formed section of bubble wrap and gently lifted the entire package into the foam-lined crate. No one said a word while the wrapping operation was taking place. At its conclusion, Sarah could hear Jameson exhale audibly. She turned again to her grandmother and waited impatiently for her to continue.
“As I told you, my parents never took me to see the Silvers again. I went to school in Boston, married your grandfather, and started a family. We moved to Baltimore when your grandfather accepted a position at the hospital. By then it was more than 30 years since my parents and I had visited the Silvers, and it never occurred to me to try to look them up. After all, I was only seven when I had met them, and I doubted they’d even remember me, but I never forgot those Modigliani paintings.
“Years later, Sylvia Silver wrote to my parents and asked for my address and phone number. Sylvia did indeed remember me and wondered whether I would be willing to visit. Of course I called her immediately. A few days later, your grandpa and I drove to that grand old house at the end of the driveway. I could hardly wait to see the Modiglianis again and almost forgot to offer condolences when Sylvia told us that Herbert had recently passed away.”
Brenda broke off and turned to Jameson. “Roger, where are my manners? Would you and your men like some coffee? I just made a batch of brownies. Plenty for everyone. Sarah, they’re in the kitchen, and please bring some napkins.”
Jameson held up a hand. “Thanks, Brenda, but we really can’t stay. I’m sorry. Perhaps another time.” They all watched as the packers lifted the crate onto the dolly for transport to the museum. Jameson turned to Brenda. “We’ll let you know when we’re ready to show the painting to the trustees. I hope you’ll be able to join us,” he said with a broad smile. “Your name will be on the plaque along with the Silvers.”
“So this is the painting that the Silvers owned. How did you get it?” demanded Sarah impatiently.
Brenda picked up the story where she had left off. “After Herbert’s death,” she began, “Sylvia gave a lot of thought to what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She was well into her seventies and had no close relatives. What she did have was a house that was far too big for her, rooms full of valuable paintings that she and Herbert had collected during their married life, and more money than she could possibly spend. She decided to sell the house, move to much smaller quarters, take a few of her favourite paintings with her and donate the rest to the art museum. The ones she took with her would go to the museum by bequest upon her death.
“After she settled into her new quarters, Sylvia asked me to visit. She had decided to modify her bequest. At her death, that wonderful Modigliani that the men are about to take away would come to me for the rest of my life, and it would go to the museum after my death.”
Brenda smiled as she recalled Sylvia’s words. “ ‘The museum is where it belongs,’ she said, ‘but they’ll get it eventually.’ The trustees were so pleased to be the recipients of this trove that they could hardly object to one little exception for one painting.”
Brenda took another sip of coffee and continued. “A few years later, Sylvia’s attorney called to tell me that she had passed away and the Modigliani was now mine, but there was to be no public mention of it. The museum insisted on that. We all felt that it was less likely to be stolen if everyone who saw it in my apartment thought it was just a copy. You, my dear, are the only person who has ever asked me about it. When I decided to give up this apartment and move to assisted living, I felt it was time to let the museum have the painting. As you can imagine, they were delighted.”
Having finished her story, Brenda sat back and finished her coffee. Sarah said nothing but considered what she had just heard as she watched the men maneuver the dolly toward the door. Jameson, with the satisfied smile of a man who has finally gotten what he has long wanted, thanked Brenda and, more formal now in his departure than his arrival, shook her hand rather than kissing her cheek, and turned to leave.
Sarah spoke up suddenly as a new thought occurred to her. “What about that small Modigliani in your bedroom, Grandma? What are you going to do with it?”
Jameson stopped in his tracks. His smile vanished. What was that about a small Modigliani? In all the years that he had been coming to check on the condition of the large painting above the fireplace, he had never asked to see the bedroom. Why should he? The only Modigliani identified in Sylvia Silver’s will was the painting that his men were now about to carry off. Uneasily, Jameson looked from grandmother to granddaughter, both of whom ignored him. Whatever was in the bedroom had to be a copy, he told himself. There was no other possible explanation.
“Oh, that thing…” began Brenda breezily with a dismissive gesture and a quick glance at Jameson. Then she smiled at her granddaughter, winked, and said firmly, “That one’s coming with me!”
Phillip Radoff is a retired lawyer who has self-published a collection of short stories (Butterflies and other stories) written over a period of about 25 years. The Modigliani Portrait was written in 2017 and is included in the recently published second edition of the book.
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