ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


To the Shadow of Aunt Louise


In the attic, some families keep their lunatics. Mother kept her shadows. It was in the attic that I, as a child, caught sight of Aunt Louise. She had been hiding in a stack of Mother's paintings. No sooner had I admired her chic white dress and ruby lipstick than Mother covered her up again with stiff brown paper and propped her against the others—pictures painted before I was born and denied the chance to hang downstairs alongside portraits by the "real" artist in our family—an uncle who was French, Beaux Arts-trained, and professional, while Mother was none of those.

As I was growing up, my aunt remained upstairs unseen. I saw quite a bit of the actual Aunt Louise, who looked exactly like her, though middle-aged by the time she and I met. As I watched her turn fifty, sixty, seventy, I forgot about that ageless shadow upstairs. Then, after the house with its attic was emptied and sold, a snatch of overheard gossip made me go hunting for a portrait "of a flapper" signed with my late mother's maiden name. I found the portrait, recognized the model, and had a good long look. Only then did I realize how superior this painting was to the ones downstairs—Uncle Charles' academic works, including his 1910 double portrait of my mother and grandmother—not nearly as fresh, expressive, or alive as this study of her much-loved relation, seen in three-quarters view, head slightly turned—a 22-year-old woman with a near-smile as flirtatious as the peek-a-boo sleeve of her white organza twenties-style dress. The canvas is dated 1924, the year both painter and model became engaged, and the year my mother quit painting.

The engagements and the quitting are connected.  The two brides-to-be were intimate friends as well as cousins, now about to be sisters-in-law, as the grooms were brothers. The familial bonds that held my mother would now be strengthened in the person of Louise.  I have evidence in letters that it was she who told Mother's future husband that his fiancée, while painting, became peculiar, and ceased to put forth her usual effort to charm her company. In fact, while painting, she paid no attention to anything or anyone except the art, for which she was unbecomingly ambitious.  Helpful Louise may also have told my father that, if the young artist continued painting portraits, she would need models, and those models might not all be clothed in white organza afternoon dresses. They might, at times, not be clothed at all. Did he, as an up and coming Albany businessman, deem such people suitable society for his spouse?

Seventeen years into my parents' marriage, my father wrote from a distant Army hospital where he was recuperating from a heart attack. He told my mother he had come to understand how much satisfaction and pride she might have derived from painting. He regretted depriving her of her art, and implied that she should consider resuming it. Too late. Picking up a brush after nearly twenty years would have involved intolerable missteps and awkwardness. She could avoid them all by confining herself to feats of gardening, home decoration, entertaining. These she performed with apparent effortlessness but without deep satisfaction. I observed her mute discontents, her crippling perfectionism, and, after she died, recognized them as hallmarks of an artist forgoing her art—which is to say a damaged person, troublesome to herself and others.

Meanwhile, the actual Louise led her artless, cushioned life married to my father's prosperous older brother from 1925 until 1957 when he was killed in the crash of a commuter plane returning to New York City from their posh Nantucket estate. Before that terrible event, he kept her in comfort, and made sure their son and daughter had all the benefits of elite schooling and gated environments. My bereaved aunt, briefly remarried and divorced, grew very fat, very alcoholic, and died in Palm Beach of a stroke. But none of that ever happened to the Louise standing easily, resting one hand on her left hip, holding a pink blossom—rose or camellia—entwined with ribbons, pink and white, dangling and curling over the skirt of her organza dress, or rather, over the exuberant brush marks representing it. The artist has allowed her model's velvety brown
eyes to gaze with utter confidence upon a satisfying future.

Happenstance brought her to live with me, her niece, rather than her children or grandchildren. For some reason, Louise didn't keep the portrait for herself. The well-known New York artist, Richard Prince, bought it in an upstate gallery, but he didn't keep it either. He gave it to me when he learned I had no other works by my mother. Nobody knows what became of the canvases I saw wrapped in the attic.  Nor did I ever see Mother with so much as a piece of charcoal, let alone a brush, in her hand.

Now, the portrait on my wall reminds me daily that, though I have the painting, I do not have, never had, the painter, who simply wasn't there. A painter might have watched with some degree of pleasure while I as a kindergartener splashed my own name in huge blue letters on a sheet of newsprint. A painter might have deigned later on to show me how to organize a palette, how to mix a medium, how to choose brushes and clean them. Later still, when a jury refused the work I had submitted for an art school show, a painter might have consoled me, saying she had felt similar stings and survived them.  But no judge had ever refused my mother's pictures because no judge had ever seen them.

I want to acknowledge them anyway, all of them—hidden, lost, or never created. She lived long enough (92 years) to leave hundreds of pictures unpainted, each with a story even if I don't know it. This is the story of Aunt Louise, whom I love on canvas and deplore in real life for the way she posed for a portrait, walked away without it, then made certain the portraitist would paint no others like it. She did that irreparable damage with help from a band of determined art-killers including the artist's husband and the artist herself, who kept a few of her surviving canvases—shadows of an unlived life—emprisoned in the attic.  One of those shadows escaped somehow, whereupon an inquisitive daughter found it, unwrapped it, and let it bewitch her.


Long retired from college French teaching, Sarah White lives in New York City dividing her time between painting and writing. Her most recent collection, to one who bends my time (2017) is available from Deerbrook Editions.

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