Elizabeth Buechner Morris
Photo Credit: Mike Alexander
“Expect to be surprised.”
These were the only words on the postcard I received at my home office, not even a date or a signature. I knew, and she knew I would know, that the card came from Louise Brandt. Expecting a clue, I scrutinized the scene on the front, but it was nothing unusual: a lighthouse on a granite peninsula caught in the first light of dawn, with the overprinted words “Welcome to Maine.”
Miss Brandt and I had corresponded for nearly two years. It was not a balanced communication, as she had written often, and I had replied only twice. My most recent letter to her had indicated that I would squeeze in a visit on my next sales trip. It seemed that Miss Brandt would not take no for an answer; she wheedled away at me the way my fellow alumni do during the annual telethon pledge drives. Just as I begrudgingly give to my alma mater each year, I finally gave in to her and agreed to look at her so-called treasure.
Two years ago I wrote an article for Yankee magazine; apparently that is where she got my name. That article had been an attempt to describe painting techniques, particularly those employed by Northern European artists in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In it, I had used as examples two painters: Aert de Gelder, a pupil of Rembrandt’s, to represent the eighteenth century, and Vincent van Gogh to characterize the nineteenth. The article didn’t mention my amateur status or my current part-time profession that brought me to Maine twice a year, selling ads in the “Directory of Funeral Directors and Morticians” for the American Society for Funeral Service.
I have been an observer of art all my life, a collector of remembered images. I particularly admire certain periods and schools of painting; I am most happy enjoying an afternoon wandering the European collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve never had the wherewithal to be an actual collector, but ever since my astute third grade teacher had the wisdom to take our class to the Metropolitan Museum and set us free, I have reveled in the riches of art. I remember that day. The girls went up the grand stairs to the costume galleries; we boys turned right into the grand armor halls, losing ourselves among the items of gallantry and violence the way today’s boys are transfixed by the dragon slayers, Ninja turtles, and muscle-bound warriors in their computer games. I separated myself from the gang, wandering through collections of snuff boxes from Dresden, massive statues of animals with human heads, pistols, marble coffins, and household items made from pottery, wood, straw, clay and iron. I remember finding my friends again in the sun-filled sculpture gallery, where we giggled with nine-year old fascination and embarrassment at the marble nudes, aghast at anatomical details that many of us had never seen before and had not yet even wondered about.
Here was a world of things made by hand. My father was a brewer in the family business, and the talk in our family was of things made by machine, as was the news on the radio of our country’s industries gearing up for the war effort. Coca Cola, the 20th Century Limited, Hollywood—these are things that framed my young life; suddenly I was introduced to a world where things were made by hand, and that workmanship could be judged on its artistic qualities. At age twelve I was allowed by my parents to go to the Met alone, and since by then it was obvious I was not going to be good at sports, had no interest in hiking or climbing trees, and was often taunted as Four Eyes by my peers, the Met became my weekend hideaway. The guards knew me by name. One always offered me a Chiclet, another called me Fritz, after one of the Katzenjammer kids in the funny papers.
Louise Brandt, however, knew none of this background. On the strength of my sole published article—carefully researched—she believed that I was the technical expert who would confirm the authenticity of a certain canvas in her possession. Authentic what, authentic who, I had no idea.
She used a fountain pen for all her letters to me with a nib so round and soft that I had a mental image of a bedridden old lady with a mauve shawl pinned at her bosom with an antique brooch. She wrote on heavy cream paper, and began each letter with a description of what she saw out her window that day.
“Today a lone great blue heron silently glides to its hunting perch, patiently waits, then, after a quick crouch and a noiseless wing beat, it’s airborne again.” Such spontaneity and careful observation piqued my interest and it had to be rewarded, I thought to myself, and I wrote back saying I would make my visit.
I am on my way to full retirement now, only working a few days each week, three months in the spring and three more in the fall. An uncle had the business before me; it seemed okay to me to take it over when I retired from the Boston Public Library. Such a job would both keep me busy and give me enough free time to visit the museums which were my real passion. The funeral business is a family business, and my customers and prospects don’t change, they just age, and I along with them. I used to stay in local motels around my sales route; now, as often as not, I’m invited to stay with the business proprietors. They know I’ll arrive late in the day with my old leather attaché case in one hand and my canvas duffle bag in the other. They all call me Fred, and they tell me the latest macabre jokes and bizarre inside stories that their industry mostly keeps to itself. They try to shock me, it seems. I live a quiet life, out of choice. Even so, I’m glad for their company and the chance to laugh. The sound of my own laughter surprises me. It’s like my father’s—a brief wry exhalation. Like me, he lived alone, and lonely, much of his life after his divorce from my mother, as I did after my wife’s horrific car crash soon after our one-year anniversary.
When I drove up to Miss Brandt’s house, I had my first surprise. It was not the stately Victorian I expected. It was a modern ranch style house, made of cedar or some similar wood, left to its natural color. It stood in a garden of rocks and boulders and sculptures constructed out of farm tools, outdoor toys, and architectural follies. Grasses of different colors and heights seemed the only living things. I rolled down the car window and was assaulted by the chirr of a million grasshoppers. Miss Brandt heard my car pull up, and opened the door, letting fly a phalanx of large dogs—one was a Weimaraner, the rest unidentifiable—all of whom gave me a quick sniff before bounding off behind the house where I could glimpse a soggy meadow of salt hay.
She was large as well, an inch or two taller than I, and appearing even taller with her hair piled atop her head and fastened in place with immense silver clips studded with turquoise. Her broad shoulders and very long legs might have made her seem manly, but they were offset by her voluptuous lips and large, wide-spaced blue eyes. It was hard to break eye contact with her.
She had tea waiting and with little ceremony poured me a large mug and suggested we tour the house. It was small, cramped by her possessions. There were shelves in every room, revealing tea sets, pearl-handled revolvers, embroidery samples, tin soldiers, and leather-bound books, not all in English. Paintings and drawings, lit by lights on tracks on the ceiling, were above and alongside the shelves. In a spare bedroom, trunks were against every wall as well as at the foot of the immense four-poster. “Silver, china, shards, thimbles,” she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Our whirlwind tour ended at the kitchen table. “Sit,” she demanded, and I did.
“Call me Louise. I’ll call you Fred. Did I tell you that my maiden name was den Houter? It’s important that you know that. I expected someone younger. Oh, well, no matter.”
I didn’t mention that I had expected someone older, calmer, and saner. Her collections seemed to have no theme to them; although, I had so little time seeing them that it was premature to make a judgment. The only thing mauve about Miss Brandt was the tint in one lock of her hair, a slightly paler color than the stripes in her socks.
“I’m looking for someone who specializes in late nineteenth-century Dutch painters—van Gogh, to be specific. Not someone well known, though. Are you a dealer?”
I explained that not only was I not a dealer, but that I was a rank amateur; furthermore, I made my living selling ads in a funeral director’s directory.
“Perfect! Wait here while I get my surprise.”
She disappeared into her bedroom. I had a moment to look around the kitchen. There was a stove, refrigerator, and large soapstone sink, so clearly it was a kitchen; but there were no counters of the usual sort, just tables against the walls and open shelves above. There were herbs growing in small pots on one table, a large mound of bread dough rising on another. Dried flowers and exotic ferns hung from the ceiling. A small easel was in a corner, paint splattered on its three legs, but no painting was displayed. There were two enormous ceramic bowls on the floor, one filled with water—for the dogs, I realized. A window was open and the slight breeze stirred hundreds of small feathers that were tied with monofilament to a curtain rod above. On the windowsill were shells and bits of dried seaweed. There were colorful fish in an aquarium, lazily swimming through their habitat of green sea glass and two ceramic doorknobs. This was nothing like my kitchen—all white, clutterless, easy to clean.
I’d dressed in a suit and tie. Now I realized how inappropriate that was and removed my tie, stuffing it in my pocket. As I hung my suit coat over the back of a kitchen chair, I heard the sound of something being dragged across the floor, then she reappeared, manhandling a wooden crate, perhaps three feet square, tied with twine.
“I haven’t opened it since we began writing to each other. Let’s have a look.”
Deftly she sliced through the bindings with a kitchen knife, took the lid off the crate and peeled back several layers of worn blankets that cradled a painting framed in an intricate gold-leafed frame. The painting had been cleaned amateurishly. I could see streaks across the surface, even without a magnifying glass. It was a beach scene. A woman, sitting in a chair knitting, was the sole figure. Somehow the talent and insight of the artist made it clear to me that she was a skilled knitter. I knew the painting was Dutch from the contrasts of light and dark across the canvas and from the woman’s cap and high-collared dress.
“What do you know about this painting?” I asked.
“I know a bit, but I’m not going to tell you. I’m not trying to be difficult or coy; I’d just like your approach to be completely fresh. I’ve given you one big hint already—my maiden name. I don’t want to influence you in any way. I do want to hire you to tell me everything you can about this work. You can take your time; you can see the painting whenever you want, but you can’t let anyone else see it unless I say it’s okay.”
I asked her a few questions about how she came to have the painting, but she wouldn’t answer. I asked her if she had called in experts, and she answered that I was the only one. I had brought a camera and asked if I could take some photos.
“No photos, at least not now.”
“Well?” she asked.
I knew what she meant. “Yes,” I answered, with inner trepidation, “I’ll take the job.”
I had an appointment in Castine, so I left, promising to be in touch within the week.
During that time, I pulled out my books on van Gogh and concentrated on his beach and seascapes. There were some later ones painted in England, when he was at Ramsgate, but I was sure this painting, if it was a van Gogh, was painted in the Netherlands sometime later than his time in England. The landscape was flat, with a village in the far distance with a church spire and mills. There were known beachscapes painted at Scheveningen, but none with a single figure in the foreground. It was common knowledge that he had stored many of his early paintings with his mother when he left home and joined his brother. His mother had moved several times, and it was often speculated that some of Vincent’s early works had been lost or stolen during those moves.
All week I thought about the painting and wondered how to approach the project. I believed the painting to be unsigned, although I would test that theory when and if I saw it again. Either I could begin with the painting and attempt to discover its artist, or I could begin with van Gogh and try to determine if there was a lost painting that fit this description. Either way, I thought the project much too sophisticated for my talents.
I thought about Miss Brandt too; she intrigued me. I guessed her age to be about forty-five, and I imagined she’d gone to Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, or some such arty college. She had probably lived in Greenwich Village or Berkeley. She dressed in floppy shirts and oddly-draped scarves. As a young man, I would have run from her presence. Probably practices yoga, I thought to myself. I held other fantasies about her in check.
I had gone to Brooklyn College, while living at home. There I studied art history and was able to get my first job in New York in Sotheby’s Catalogue Department. I met my wife there—Caroline. She was a secretary in a new department, British Victorian and Edwardian Art. Later, after Caroline died, I left Sotheby’s, unable to face the walk from the 77th Street subway exit east to the office without her. I was offered a job at the Boston Public Library, researching for the acquisitions arm of the Fine Arts Department. When my father died and left me a bit of money, I no longer had to work full time, and I retired at age sixty from the BPL. Then I went to work for the Society, giving myself the luxury of more time to pursue my real love—the admiration of great art.
I telephoned at the end of the week: “Miss Brandt, I am fascinated with the assignment that you propose, but I am not the person to do it. I know I agreed, but I’m reneging.”
“Louise!” she demanded. “I’m watching a squadron of Canadian geese belly flop on the small pond in the reeds. Come on down this weekend. How’s Sunday?”
I spent Saturday at the Boston Public Library’s Fine Arts Department and on the Internet, and concluded that there was much more about van Gogh’s apparently missing works than I had known. I also realized that without being able to remove the painting from Miss Brandt’s house, I could not analyze it properly. Therefore, if I were to consider her proposal, I would approach it as a historian-detective, not as a pictologist.
Sunday, over homemade lentil soup and thick-crusted Anadama bread, she talked me into devoting my winter “break” from my sales job to The Vincent Project, as we began calling her mission regarding the painting. I felt now that it was my mission too, since I was falling quite in love with the painting. The artist had captured the windy day with scudding clouds and the knitter’s billowing black skirt. He had chosen to divide the painting in half, giving over the upper part to sky and the lower to the ocean, beach and the far-away town. The sea itself was agitated, rendered deftly with broad brush strokes of blue, black and white, with the spray blown back onto the small waves. The sitter was turned to the artist, but her attention was on her work, seemingly quite contentedly. Her hair escaped her cap, and a handkerchief was visible in her sleeve. I asked if I could remove the painting from its frame, explaining in some detail how gently I would proceed.
“Sure! I thought you’d want to. Go ahead. I’m curious too.”
I felt a quickening as I handled the canvas itself. It was so beautiful, so absorbing. There was an aura about the woman in the chair. Despite her black clothing, she glowed with life and keen enthusiasm for her work. Her passion was reflected in the thrill of the day’s weather. Louise caught my eye; clearly she felt the same way.
“Fred, you can’t fool me! You too love this picture as much as I do. Of course you’ll take on the project!”
If my hands hadn’t been otherwise occupied, I might have hugged her, or at least touched her arm. “Yes. It’s a beauty. I’m as captivated and curious as you are. Of course I’ll take it on.”
The area hidden by the frame was not streaked but was duller in color. To our astonishment, we found curled around the stretcher the remains of another painting altogether. On the left edge, we could clearly make out part of a house: half a window, an overhanging roof, and a chimney of brick. On the right, there was a hint of hedge and wall. Although we pored over the canvas with a magnifying glass, we could find no signature on either the front or the back, and no other notation of any kind.
“Well, Fred, what do you make of this revelation—our painter seems to have reused an old canvas?” crowed Miss Brandt later over a biscuit and another mug of tea.
“It could make my detective work a lot easier—more information, after all. On the other hand, it could make it a lot harder. It may never have been catalogued as a beachscape. Of course it may never have been catalogued at all, since you know of no accreditations… or do you have its provenance, after all?”
“No, no provenance follows the painting, more’s the pity, but I do have some hints, some family stories, that sort of thing. Start your search in 1885 when Vincent left Brabant. Maybe like the great transcontinental railroad construction, your research and my anecdotes will meet in the middle.”
We stayed in touch over the fall months. Louise, as I was now comfortable calling her, continued to write notes to me about the scenes out her window: a meditative bullfrog on a log, the moon’s reflection on the small pond, and the first snowflakes of early winter. Now I could picture them myself, having been a guest in that remarkable place. She told me about her dogs, neighbors, and small town politics. She asked about my visits to museums and galleries, but never once asked about The Vincent Project. I knew nothing about her private life; as she had mentioned her maiden name, I assumed she had been married. She didn’t seem like a lonely person, and her notes to me were friendly, but not cloying. My own life, when I was not on the road, was quite solitary, sometimes lonely, and I looked forward to mail from her.
In early December my schedule allowed me to concentrate on our project.
It seems that when Vincent departed for Antwerp and then Paris, he left paintings, watercolors, and drawings behind at his mother’s house. When she and Vincent’s sisters moved to Breda the next year, they hired Janus Schrauwen to move their things, and what would not fit into the new house, they asked Schrauwen to store in his warehouse. She gave a few canvases to a young boy, the son of her landlord, who was keen on drawing. In 1889, three years after moving to Breda, Vincent’s mother moved again, this time to Leiden, leaving many chests and all of Vincent’s things in Schrauwen’s care.
When lying in my bed at night, I envisioned the conditions at Schrauwen’s: an igloo in winter, an oven in summer; rats, mice, and mold. I could imagine a leaking roof and a shutter not quite closed, letting in dust, seeds, wind, rain and snow. How, I wondered, could anything survive such conditions?
I learned that when Vincent and then his brother died in 1890 and ’91, Schrauwen realized that it was unlikely that anyone would ever come for the van Gogh’s belongings, and he gave away some of the paintings to boys in his neighborhood and then called in a secondhand merchant, a rag picker really, to get rid of it all to make space in his warehouse. Schrauwen kept the chests to reuse the wood, and sold all their contents and everything else for one guilder.
Jan Couvreur, the rag picker, quickly burned or gave away all the nudes and the chalk drawings and sold the large canvases to a man who would strip off the paint and reuse the cloth. Couvreur thought the paintings were melancholy rubbish, but he put some of them and several drawings into his handcart and tried to sell them in the weekend flea market in the Butter Hall. After a few years, between selling a few of Vincent’s drawings and paintings for as low a price as three for ten cents and giving some away to his creditors, Couvreur had distributed Vincent’s artwork all over Breda’s walls—in homes, bars, markets, and meeting rooms.
One of Couvreur’s last customers was Kees Mouwen. Mouwen loved the few paintings that he bought, and asked Couvreur to find more for him. Now the tables reversed, and Couvreur began buying Vincent’s artwork back from his Breda neighbors in order to sell them to Mouwen. Couldn’t I just picture Couvreur licking his chops over his profits!
The Christmas holidays interrupted my search, and I went to spend a few days with my mother in her retirement village in northern New Jersey. She would be ninety on her next birthday, and although she had outlived most of her relatives and friends, she was in good health, and, remarkably, quite happy with her life. She never put pressure on me to visit more often, and probably for that reason, our times together were loving, even fun. She was always interested in my art scholarship, and shared my love of genre paintings from the lowlands. While other children of elderly parents in the retirement village gave scarves and candy as Christmas presents, I always gave my mother art books, and her collection was quite extensive.
I told her I had become interested in van Gogh, and together we went to her shelves and found there wonderful reproductions of well-known works. Without mentioning The Vincent Project, I told her the story of the van Gogh paintings and drawings in Breda and how most of them had never been catalogued or even found. She loved the story of Couvreur, and I could imagine her retelling it to friends over dinner.
“Couvreur doesn’t sound Dutch, does it? But, as you know, Fred, my mother’s maiden name was Marÿnissen, and all four of her grandparents came from Holland. It doesn’t sound Dutch either. What do you think?” And then we were off on another of her favorite topics: genealogy.
I got back to work over the New Year’s weekend, a good time to continue my investigative work with no interruptions, since most people would be watching football on TV. Surfing the web, I stumbled upon an eccentric art collector who in 1939 was offered a chest of paintings newly discovered in an attic in Breda—Barend den Houter’s attic. Well, well! Den Houter, Louise Brandt’s maiden name!
Could any of these revelations explain my attraction to the painting?
I followed the lead and found that den Houter’s neighbor, Joop van der Muren had bought the whole lot from den Houter, and he in turn sold some to Jan de Graaf. This lead was weak, as I didn’t know which drawings or paintings had been found, bought, sold, or transferred.
I did find another listing about Jan de Graaf, and it stood out in a particularly startling way: de Graaf owed back taxes and the tax collector at that time was Adrianus Marÿnissen. Well, well! Marÿnissen, my mother’s maiden name!
That night, unable to sleep, my imagination played with two scenarios: Perhaps a painting was given by Vincent’s mother to the son of her landlord, den Houter; and possibly it came down the generations to Louise’s father. Or, perhaps de Graaf bought a painting of Vincent’s from Joop van der Muren who bought it from a descendant of the landlord. Maybe de Graaf gave it to Marÿnissen in lieu of back taxes. In my sleepy state, I preferred the second, and I imagined this painting coming down the generations to my mother’s mother. Now, I needed to imagine the painting itself: a beachscape with a knitter perhaps?
On a cold January afternoon I called Louise and invited myself for tea the next day. I drove down to Maine the next afternoon in my ten-year-old Toyota, bouncing off a snowdrift once on my way to her house.
She greeted me at her door in boots and anorak. “The dogs need a walk. Okay with you?”
Louise wasn’t the kind of person used to hearing “No.”
“Let me get my hat and gloves,” I said.
We skirted the marshy area behind her house and entered a kind of copse. “I saw two turkeys in here yesterday,” she said. And at that moment, two turkeys burst from cover and half-flew, half-ran, half-waddled away from the dogs. Louise laughed and called the dogs and picked up a few gray-and-white feathers from the icy ground for her collection. The dogs seemed to think this walk was a great success and wagged themselves back to the house with us.
“I can’t begin to prove anything,” I told her, “but wait till you hear what I’ve discovered so far.” I told her about Vincent’s mother, Janus Schrauwen the moving man, and about Couvreur, the ragman-turned-art dealer. When I told her that a man named den Houter was Vincent’s mother’s landlord in Breda, she clapped her hands, bringing a roomful of dogs to their feet in a stampede to the front door. I told her that in the early twentieth century there were paintings and drawings of Vincent’s all over Breda, but to this day, most of them were undocumented, unaccredited. She got a little bogged down in all the unfamiliar names but became interested again when I introduced her to Joop van der Muren and the newly-discovered crate of paintings and drawings.
“How many?” she asked.
“Seventy paintings, more than a hundred drawings, all in pretty fair condition, although a few of the canvases had been folded and would be scarred forever.”
“Not our knitter, though!” she said.
I reminded her that we still didn’t know that our knitter was in that treasure trove. I told her I was trying to find some documentation as to the specific contents.
She invited me for dinner—soup made from vegetables stored in her root cellar. Afraid of the hard drive home on icy roads, I declined. On my way, I recalled her menu and wondered and worried all the way home about conditions in her cellar where she might temporarily store a possible van Gogh. She asked me to call when I got home safely, and I did, using that occasion to implore her to keep the painting out of the damp root cellar.
“Oh, Fred! This painting is like our baby, isn’t it! It’s already safe in its crate, under my bed. Actually, I’ve been thinking about getting it insured.”
The next day I located a web site in Dutch about a collection of van Gogh paintings offered to the Stedelÿk Museum in 1948. I couldn’t understand the Dutch text, but to my surprise I saw the name Marÿnissen halfway down the page. I found a translator on the Internet, and through the miracle of modern email, received her translation two days later.
A world famous pictologist, M. M. van Dantzig, had been hired by the Stedelÿk to authenticate the collection being given by Marÿnissen. Van Dantzig called them all fakes. Not a single one was by van Gogh. He attributed every one to an unknown painter copying van Gogh’s style. He singled out one painting, however. It was a streetscape, probably a copy of one known to be an authentic van Gogh, painted in The Hague in 1882. The Internet article ended saying that no one knew how Marÿnissen had disposed of the fakes that the museum had returned to him.
When the mail came that day, there was a postcard—with Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of van Gogh on its front—from Louise, this time with no preamble about the scene from her windows.
“Fred. We haven’t discussed payment,” the letter began. “You’d better come up again, how about next weekend?”
I’d forgotten that I was to be paid for my services; I’d been too engrossed in the hunt and too enamored of the painting to even think about it. And, truthfully, I was also a bit captivated by its owner. Also I was anxious to share my latest findings with her, and to look again at the painting without its frame, so I called and said I’d be there. “But, here’s the deal. No payment. No talk of payment. I’m so enraptured with unraveling the puzzle, and with the canvas itself, I want nothing more.” I read her silence as acquiescence.
This time the roads were clear and the drive easy. Louise met me at the door, dressed for the first time in a skirt and blouse with a cameo at her neck. We misread each other’s signals; as I went to shake her hand, she reached out to give me an embrace.
We shook off that moment of awkwardness, and sat at the table in the kitchen with the pots of herbs. I had drawn a sort of family tree for the painting, trying to map out its provenance. I had the names and dates; the only thing I did not know was how the painting made its journey to this rural town outside Belfast, Maine and under Louise’s bed. Louise was quiet as I explained it all to her. She asked a few questions about my research methods and was particularly interested in den Houter’s descendant in whose attic the 1939 collector found the fourth van Gogh chest.
Checking her own family’s genealogy, which she had from her mother, she found a Barend den Houter, her mother’s first cousin, who never left Holland. All day and evening we conjured stories about the painting. We were both convinced that Louise’s painting was authentic; of course, we wanted it to be the genuine article. I was less sure how she got it. An obvious assumption was that it was left to her mother and hence to her. But, possibly Marÿnissen was involved and managed to sneak it out of the country, knowing it was valuable. If that were the case, my family might have inherited it, we both realized. If so, however, how could it have found its way to Louise Brandt’s?
Louise invited me to spend the night in her extra bedroom, as it was getting quite late and we wanted to continue our conversation. She made us an omelet for dinner, and with it we opened a bottle of wine. Louise had lit several candles in mismatching holders. Some music, vaguely French and decidedly twentieth century, was softly playing from her kitchen iPod speakers. We finished the entire bottle of wine, talking about favorite places, movies, and novels. She had just finished Sons and Lovers, and was in thrall to its passion. I had never read anything by Lawrence, and vowed to myself to get it out of my local library immediately.
“Fred, Fred, Fred!” she chuckled. “I’ve been fibbing to you, but only a little. I haven’t lied, I’ve just omitted an important fact. I found this painting in an antique store in Essex, Massachusetts. I liked it on sight and asked the proprietor what he knew about it. He said he thought the artist’s name was den Houter! How could I resist, that being my maiden name? He saw I liked it, and brought the price down from $300 to $200, and I bought it on the spot, on the strength of the artist’s possibly sharing my family name.
“I know a little about art, about what’s real and what’s beautiful; when I got the painting home and looked it over carefully, I began to wonder if it were something more. I wondered if it was a van Gogh. I’ve wondered for the several years that I’ve owned it. Then I saw your article about oil painting techniques, and I cut it out and stuck it in a cubby in my desk. You know the rest.”
I’m not used to wine, and my head was swimming. I just sat there grinning. Louise reached across the table and took my hand.
“What shall we do now? I know I have to insure it. Then what? Do I keep Vincent safely under my bed or let him out into the air? Shall I hang it on a wall to admire or offer it to a museum? I could sell it. If it’s the real goods, I’ll be rich; I’ll be very, very rich.”
“I have the feeling that being rich isn’t important to you.”
“Can we talk about this tomorrow?” I realized that my usually-orderly mind was not in gear, but I did know we had to consider having the painting cleaned properly and evaluated and appraised by a real expert.
“There’s no hurry, Fred. But there’s another small omission I failed to tell you about.”
“Wait,” I said. “Do you have another bottle of wine? I think I’m going to need it.”
I looked around her candlelit kitchen and realized how comfortable, how at ease, I felt.
When Louise brought another bottle, she dramatically and slowly uncorked it, watching me—seductively, I thought—then poured out a half-inch for me to taste before filling both our glasses and continuing.
“It’s just this: I have another painting under my bed, and this one did come down to me from my mother.”
Elizabeth (Betsy) Buechner Morris lives by the sea in Marblehead, MA; but during the winters she and her husband live on their sloop in Boot Key Harbor, FL Keys. She is a long-distance sailor and her non-fiction often appears in the sailing press. Her recent historic novel, Bitter Passage, was published in the fall of 2011 and its action takes place during the gold rush of 1849. Her short fiction has appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Binnacle, The Evening Street Review, Janus, Slow Trains, WordRiot, PersimmonTree, weber studies, The Hurricane Review, and others. A collection of her short stories will be published soon. Email: elizabethbmorris[at]msn.com