“Monsieur Olivier Choppin-Janvry?”
“Yes this is he.”
“Marc Ottavi, I’m waiting downstairs.”
So engrossed had Olivier become with exploring the abandoned apartment he had quite forgotten that the renowned art dealer was to meet him here at the flat. An expert with considerable expertise in art and sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Monsieur Ottavi had been invited to help with the inventory. His role; to establish the authenticity and value of the paintings and sculpture belonging to de Florian estate.
Choppin-Janvry walks to the balcony, leaning over it’s ornate railing, he sees a well dressed man in a dark grey suit. The gentleman’s ensemble is saved from almost funereal sobriety by a silk, canary yellow kerchief, spilling forth from his jacket pocket. He stands patiently at the building’s entrance, a cell phone to his ear.
“The concierge will let you in. I’m on the second floor,” says Choppin-Janvry into his mobile, then, before his colleague can respond he breaks the connection and slips the phone into his trouser pocket.
Returning to the room he is again drawn irrevocably to the portrait. It’s allure impossible to ignore. A beautiful woman by anyone’s standards and if the tilt of her rounded but determined chin is any indication, a willful and deeply passionate one, at that.
Who was she and why – if he was indeed correct in his speculation, the picture was a Boldini – would anyone leave such a valuable painting, seemingly forgotten for seventy years in the decaying grandeur of this lovely old apartment?
Monsieur Coppin-Janvry reluctantly removes his gaze from the portrait. He needs to compose himself, expunge from his fevered mind the ghostly image of the woman in pink mousseline and silk, materializing astonishingly from the confines of the painting and appearing wraithlike before him.
He is convinced he had experienced some sort of sensory overload. The apartment exercised a powerful allure causing him feelings of deep disquiet. It was almost as if he had stumbled into the castle of Sleeping Beauty, a place of glamor, beguilement and mystery. It’s seductive ambience, unleashing disturbing, fanciful and hallucinatory thoughts.
Monsieur Ottavi’s footsteps are heard coming along the passage.
“In here. The door on the right.” calls M Choppin-Janvry. Glancing at the splendid Louis XVI mirror he is appalled by his reflection, hair on end and a streak of grime contrasting darkly against the pallor of his complexion. “I look as if I’ve seen a ghost!”
Quickly setting to rights his appearance, he turns to greet his colleague. “I have something I want to show you. I think it maybe of major interest to you.”
Marc Ottavi moves unhurriedly into the room. He walks as if in a trance. His eyes, huge with wonderment, track slowly around the chamber. The boudoir is gorgeous, it’s faded splendor reflecting the exquisite taste of the era he’s most passionate about, the Belle Époque Period.
So enraptured is he by the room and it’s contents, he doesn’t hear the urgency and excitement in his friend’s voice as Olivier tries, unsuccessfully, to draw his attention to the painting.
It’s only when his colleague takes his elbow and leads him forcibly to the picture does Ottavi begin to focus on the painting. He stands transfixed. Adrenaline immediately courses through his body and with shaking hand he reaches for the painting’s ornately gilded frame, almost as if he needs to reassure himself it’s not an illusion.
With the keen eye of a connoisseur, Ottavi carefully scrutinizes the portrait, eagerly taking in the dashing brush strokes, the vivid use of colour and the voluptuous beauty of the sitter. Breathlessly he searches the painting for the artist’s signature and there in the lower right corner, boldly executed with the confidence of a true master, is the name, Boldini!
“Is it possible? An unknown work by Boldini ?” Ottavi is feeling faint with the enormity of the discovery. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the famous painter’s work, Ottavi is certain the painting has never been exhibited in the public arena or indeed published in any catalogue recording the famous Portraitist’s work. It has most likely, only ever been enjoyed privately, here in this opulent and most intimate of rooms, the lady’s boudoir, seen only by Madame herself or possibly her admirers.
“And the woman ! Who is she?” asks M. Choppin-Janvry, not realizing the rawness and urgency in his voice has revealed the almost palpable fascination he feels for the mysterious beauty.
Marc Ottavi smiles sympathetically, for he too is not impervious to the woman’s allure. “Ah! The lady, if I’m not mistaken, is the beautiful and talented actress, Marthe de Florian. Muse to Boldini and courtesan par excellence to the very rich and famous.
The men stand in contemplative silence gazing at the painting each pursuing a different train of thought. Marc Ottavi’s main concern is to establish the provenance of the portrait. He needs a link tying Boldini to this picture. Taking a notebook and pen from inside his jacket, he records the physical details of the painting – style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions and frame.
That done he then turns the painting to the wall and begins to intently investigate the back of the portrait. He is looking for exhibition marks, gallery labels, dealer stamps in fact, anything that may indicate it’s pedigree.
Meanwhile Olivier has become uncomfortably aware the scent of roses is back in the room. It reminds him of a perfume worn by his grandmother, Guerlains L’Heure Bleue. A zephyr like breeze eddies around the boudoir, agitating the silken curtains framing the French doors and causing the pages of an ancient copy of La Mode Illustree to unfold, almost as if they were being turned by an invisible hand.
Ottavi seemingly impervious to his colleagues uneasiness, steps away from the painting and pockets his notebook. “I have to get back to the office. I’ll make arrangements for the painting to be collected tomorrow. It should be safe here until then.”
Laying a friendly hand on Olivier’s shoulder he continued . “ My apologies for leaving you here but I’m keen to get the research team up and running. We need to establish the portraits provenance. In the meantime, if you would search the flat for anything that may tie Boldini to this painting, a receipt of payment, a business card, anything ! Because without provenance the painting is near worthless. It will be always suspected of being a forgery.”
Olivier understands the importance of establishing provenance. “What does your gut instinct tell you?” he asks his colleague.
Ottavi smiles cautiously, “Oh I think it’s authentic alright. Marthe and he were lovers. It stands to reason he would have painted her at some stage during their affair. She was also a famous beauty, a successful actress and celebrated courtesan. The main reason for concern, there is no record of the painting having ever existed and with an un-catalogued work you’re always behind the eight ball when trying to establish its authenticity.”
The two men shake hands and Marc Ottavi takes his leave, promising to call Olivier first thing in the morning with information regarding the time the painting will be collected.
M. Choppin-Janvry is once again alone in the boudoir. The room looks benign, even cozy with sunshine spilling across the faded, but still beautiful aubusson carpet. The sun’s relentless rays however also cruelly illuminate the decades of inexplicable neglect.
The faint perfume of roses still linger in the air but Olivier barely notices its haunting sweetness. His mind is too much occupied by the monumental task of sifting through the room’s clutter, searching for something that may, or may not exist.
Pulling a Louis chair close to the overflowing bookcase, he ignores the grey cloud of dust that envelops him when his derriere hits the chair’s seat. There is not much point for fastidiousness when the entire room is covered in a pall of powdery dust.
Selecting a book randomly he carefully flicks through it’s pages. It’s not uncommon for people to secret things within the leaves of books but he knows he really is just delaying the inevitable. The enormity of the task that lay ahead, has him seeking distraction.
He chuckles when he sees the books title, Emile Zola’s “Nana”. The classic story of the rise and fall of a celebrated courtesan. An amusing coincidence he supposes.
He begins to read and in moments is lost in the world of gaslight , beautiful women and foolish men. The sunlight retreats and the room begins to fall into deep violet shadow. Its only when he has difficulty seeing the written word does Olivier become aware of time passing.
How long had he been reading? The shadowed room suggests some hours have passed. Consulting his watch he’s appalled to discover its nearing 4.pm He has lost the better part of the afternoon.
Unable to resume his search, for there is no electricity in the apartment to light his way. He decides to pack it in. Calculating an early start tomorrow will make up for the time wasted today. However, while there is still enough light, he needs to secure the apartment.
Placing the book back on its shelf he stands and starts for the French doors only to be overcome by feelings of intense light-headedness. Had he stood too fast causing the blood to rush from his head? Clutching the back of a chair he attempts to steady himself. The room is a blur, he tries to focus, to bring the wavering lines of the room back to their natural, stoic form.
Its then he hears the whisper of silken skirts or is it just the blood coursing through his ears? There is movement near the dressing table, the shadows seemingly alter, their nebulous quality becoming more defined, gradually a recognizable figure materializes out of the penumbra. It’s the woman from the portrait. There is a translucency, a kind of porosity to her form.
She stands with her back to him . “Marthe ?” he whispers uncertainly. She turns slowly, an enigmatic smile seeming to play across her exquisite features. Olivier is calm, although when he speaks his voice is hoarse with emotion. “What do want?” he croaks. The wraith says nothing but simply stands there. Then with languid grace she points to the dressing table draw.
He stumbles toward her, desperately rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. With cleared vision the apparition has suddenly vanished and the room is restored to static normality.
M. Choppin-Janvry slumps against the dressing table he’s acutely conscious of the intoxicating smell of L’heure Bleue filling the room. He feels disoriented and the loss of equilibrium has caused him a slight feeling of nausea.
With fumbling fingers he tries to pry the draw open. Finding it locked he begins searching among the detritus crowding the dressing tabletop. After moments of frustration he finally unearths from under a pile of what look to be lettres d’amour, a key.
It slides effortlessly into the lock and with a satisfying click the draw is open. Inside are calling cards, jewelry,and neatly bound letters, each bundle tied with different coloured ribbon. But the most intriguing item of all is a book. Across the front of it’s beautiful scarlet morocco binding, in embossed gold is the name “Marthe de Florian”
With great care and mounting excitement he opens the book. It is as he had hoped, a most thrilling discovery for there on the first page, written in hand are the words :
“I wasn’t always known as Marthe de Florian. I began life with the far less aristocratic sounding name of Mathilde Heloise Beaugrion. My parents, young, carefree and in the first flush of their love for each other, were ill prepared the for the event of my birth in September, 1864.”
He held in his trembling hands the journal of Marthe de Florian.
to be continued……