by Helena Feder
He’s never told me his real name, but it’s never mattered.
I call him The Gentleman.
About once a week my mother phones and asks me how my love-life is going. I usually reply by asking her a question about her dog, her friends, or her latest Mahjong victory. But what I want to say, what I’ve longed to tell her for years is, “Yes, you’ve got it—I have a love-life alright. My love is a separate life and separate from life.” But how can I tell her that this romance consists of an idolatrous worship of an unavailable and all-too-available man? How do I explain my naked secret, my erotic relationship with a certain sixteenth-century gentleman? A gentleman painted by Antonis Mor, a.k.a. Antonio Moro, circa 1570. Well, Mom, at least he’s prosperous.
For those who want to know, though I must warn you I am a very jealous lover, the Portrait of a Gentleman to which I refer hangs in the North Carolina Museum of Art. There he sits in stately black with perfect, yet relaxed, posture on a cushioned carved chair. The delicate lace trim of his high collar seems another pedestal on his warmly illuminated background, picking up the auburn notes of his hair and beard. Which is to say, everything in this painting lives in service to his remarkable expression: the gently rising line of his half smile, the focus of his slightly furrowed brow, and the strange energy in his eyes.
When he’s feeling playful, he teases me about our love in the afternoon though I always see him in the morning.
I make a point of it. It’s very quiet in the museum when it first opens. Undisturbed, we behave as lovers have always behaved, staring into each other’s depths, losing time. The texture of his garments returns me to my body with a delicious sense of touch—velvet and satin, lace and brocade. But even with my eyes it takes far too long to undress him, to unbutton and unhook the layers of this pleated armor. The rest, though, is easier. When I look at him, I don’t need to see past the man of aspiration, the merchant or minor official who commissioned this portrait to reflect his status. And I’m not stopped in my tracks by the promethean magic of Antonis Mor, sublime as it as. These are garments with which I do not need to wrestle—they recede in the translucence, the dimensionality of the presence of The Gentleman. The smell of his skin, the sound of his laugh, the brush of his beard on my neck.
I do, of course, see the way he looks at other women. So many other women. And so many young, beautiful women. Women who look like they’ve just stepped out of a nearby painting to join him. Especially in the summer. In the summer they walk past him in light linen dresses, with flushed faces, loose tresses. I see them smile coy, inviting smiles, and I see the way he smiles back. The way his eyes reflect the light on their skin.
As I said, I am a very jealous lover. When the museum becomes crowded I’ve stood, more than once, far too close to him to come between him and some woman. And more than once a guard has approached me with a stern “reminder” to keep six inches from the art. The “art”? The “art”? You mean my Gentleman, I mutter to myself, my lover. My beloved. I move back stubbornly and sit, in the middle of the gallery, in cross-legged protest, like a toddler or a Tibetan monk. Is that how this passion will end? With a screaming, shouting, hair-pulling tantrum, then arrest? Or with the more dignified and terrifying spectacle of self-immolation?
Lately, I have been thinking about Browning’s “My Last Duchess”—the dramatic monologue of a jealous duke about the young wife he’s murdered, whose portrait he commands in place of its subject. The lucky man keeps her behind a velvet curtain. I’ve wondered if, in some supernatural reversal, destroying the portrait would cause the flesh and blood Gentleman to emerge. Then again, it might be more like Wilde’s chilling picture of Dorian Gray. Destroying the portrait might obliterate my own green heart.
Such thoughts dissipate with the joys and headaches of the world outside the museum. But when I dream, The Gentleman is there. We live whole lives together from one century to the next. Once, in a dream within a dream, we lived in the museum’s paintings, moving from the overcast palette of a Wyeth winter to a sun-dappled Impressionist garden. We walked through Renaissance market stalls and ate from the tables of so many still lives—citrus and stone fruit, wine and ham and cheese. We gathered their flowers and threw them on the sea at Étretat.We danced with the elements in Baliand slept in Cebolla Church.He loved the dry heat of the desert as only a northern European could. One day we wandered into the strange Dutch Egypt of Jan Steen’s “Worship of the Golden Calf,”full of edibles, instruments, and the ribald comedy of libertines. Or, said The Gentleman with a look of camaraderie, “those who would later be called libertines.” How, I asked, do you know that? To which he replied, “My dear, Ars longa, vita brevis.” Yes, I thought, Ars longa.
Claude Monet, “The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset, 1882–1883.”
Maurice Stern, 1913.
Georgia O’Keefe, 1945.
Helena Feder is Associate Professor of Literature and Environment at ECU and Mellon/ACLS fellow-in-residence at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She is the author of numerous articles, essays, interviews, poems, and two books: one monograph, Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture (2014/2016), and one edited collection, Close Reading the Anthropocene (forthcoming 2021).