What the Renoir saw

David S. Bosley

TITLE: What the Renoir Saw

I’d never felt like this before. His blue eyes pierce my canvas. He’s not looking at me, but through me. He’s a schemer.

A week or so later, he returns. He’s wearing overalls like I’ve seen on the people who do repairs. He’s carrying a ladder in one hand and a toolbox in the other. It’s a slow day at the museum; my guess is that the pelting noise I hear on the roof, has kept some people at home. As such, it’s a perfect day for electrical repairs.

The schemer sets up his ladder below where a ceiling tile has been removed. He opens his toolbox and pulls out a belt of tools, which he wraps around his waist. At the top of the ladder he extracts a small flashlight and pops in into his mouth. He sticks his head into the hole in the ceiling.

A security guard steps lightly into the gallery. I’m not a good judge of time, but his visits seem to come every three to four minutes. The fewer the people, the less frequent the visits. I’ve sometimes wondered what the guards do when they’re not walking back and forth between my gallery and another. I know there’s more out there, but exactly what remains a mystery to me.

I’ve been perched on this wall in the Baltimore Museum of Art for 40 years. I was painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Paris in 1879. The banks of the Seine were my inspiration. I’m small so it didn’t take long. A few days at most, as I recall.

I was purchased by Baltimoreans, Herbert and Saidie May and eventually donated to this museum. Those days in Paris, wealthy American art collectors were everywhere.

The lights have gone out. This is the time when no people are around. The “pelting,” continues on the roof. Hmm, it gets louder as a ceiling tile is pushed aside. The blue-eyed man from before; the schemer; he jumps to the floor.

“Son of a bitch.” I’m not sure what that means, but it must have something to do with his pronounced limp. He stops before me, extracts a tool and removes me from the wall. He pulls a rubbery kind of bag from his tool box and places me inside. We’re moving.

2.

I am leaned against a wall on the floor next to a machine with flickering pictures, till one day hooks and some wire are attached to my frame. I hang over this machine with the flickering pictures, from which long, metal poles stick into me. There is some process involved wherein the schemer moves these poles around while spinning the dials on the machine. I was never sure what that was about.

This is a far noisier place than my last home. One night in particular stays with me.

The young woman who lived in this three-room apartment (I can see them all from my perch) was painting a bowl of cherries, with an apple and a banana alongside.   With no warning, the schemer threw open the front door and stood glaring at the painter. She ran for the third room with the seated white bowl, but wasn’t fast enough. He grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. He kneeled on her chest. She screamed.

He kicked the table with her paints on it to the ground. He ripped off her shirt, slapping away her feeble attempts at defense.

“Did you think I wouldn’t find out? My brother!”

“No. No.”

“Hell yes bitch.”

Brush in one hand and paint in the other, he brushes violent stroke after violent stroke of paint onto her breasts, belly and face.

In another context, I can imagine this could be sexy. Loving. But this was ugly, violent. At last he poured a jar of paint onto her face, kicked her and grabbed me off the wall on his way out of the door.  A thorn from a rose bush gently nicked my frame.

I was learning. Fear, violence, uncertainty; these were new. I preferred hanging on a wall and being stared at.

3.

It seems to me that we, and by “we,” I mean both animate and inanimate objects, are made for a purpose. Mine seems to be the evocation of emotion. I seem to bring enjoyment to humans as many smile lightly when they see me; and yes, I even like the look of concentration so many show when studying me. Your purpose, at least in part, is to make my canvas shine a little brighter.

Not much of this happened in my new home.

The schemer again propped me on the floor against a wall. At first I had this area to myself, but eventually other items joined me. A box on one side, a growing stack of magazines on the other. A fuzzy toy that the four-legged mammal that said, “meow,” liked to play with, often settled against my frame. We weren’t friends per se, but we formed a non-human support group of sorts when the schemer was around.

It was here that my sense of self grew. I always knew I existed, but my place in the world became clearer to me. My sense of others dramatically increased. I was constantly aware of things and people around me.

I also developed the use of other senses. I smelled things. Or more accurately, I sensed what something smelled like. More like the memory of a smell, than the actual smell.

I could always hear and see, but I learned the context of things. I could not touch but could be touched.

You could almost say that I became more human. At least that’s what I imagine. Yes imagination is new too.

The schemer had a new woman who had a very large middle. Apparently there was a baby human in there, as after a three-day leave, she returned thinner and holding something that garnered a lot of attention in a blanket. It never seemed to do much but cry and suck from a glass jar.

The passage of a few months changed the wailing little human into a crawling and wailing little human. It loves to touch me with hands so sticky. It always seems to have something dripping from its nose and mouth. An odd creature I must say.

The little one goes by the name of Theodore. Poor Theodore cries with hurt feelings each time the female slaps his hands and screams in pain when the schemer strikes him.

Little by little he talks more like the big humans and he even laughs a bit. I feel good when I see Theodore laugh.

I remember a day when little Theodore sat in the living room playing with his blocks. I had finally been attached to a wall and could go back to my natural place overlooking things. And not a moment too soon, as the four legged beast that said, “meow,” had clawed me one too many times.

Theodore was in a world of his own when left alone with his blocks. I came to understand that he was building roads, houses, bridges, and even something called a City Hall. All together it was something called a “city.”

The only time I ever sensed that the schemer wasn’t all bad was when he would come home from work and sit with Theodore and help him build his cities.

“We need to get you your own room, so you can build your own bedroom city.”

“Daddy, watch it.”

And just like that, the schemer’s foot hit some part of the city and sent it crumbling down. He rushed to put it back up, but Theodore wasn’t pleased.   They had that in common. Neither seemed to like the other.

But this day was the worst. Theodore threw one of the blocks on the floor.   The schemer’s eyes turned menacing. A look that escaped neither Theodore nor me. Theodore tried to run away, but the schemer simply reached his arm out and tripped him. This time Theodore fought back. He had a block in his hand and slammed it against the schemer’s head, causing a red drop of liquid, much like paint to appear.

The schemer punched Theodore causing the loudest, most painful cry I had ever heard. This brought the mother into the room; yes I’ve picked up a thing or two where that’s concerned. She immediately wrapped Theodore into her arms and left the apartment.

They eventually came back, but Theodore and the schemer barely said two words to each other after that. Theodore’s eyes, when he looked at his father, never turned to love, or even begrudging respect. Hate was the only gift they gave.

I haven’t met that many people, but it’s clear to me that you give off a feeling. I knew from the minute I saw the schemer that he was no good. A black soul. He never did much of anything to change my view of him.

It was little Theodore, later just “Theo,” who I most admired and loved. Behind his anger and frustration, directed solely to the schemer, there was a kindness. You couldn’t miss it.

We moved living locations a couple of times; sometimes to a better place, sometimes not.

Theo went from walking to running, to eating and drinking, to lazing on the sofa I think they called it; to never being home.

One day Theo posed with his Mother wearing a black hat of a sort with a tassel hanging off it. I was the background for the photograph taken with a camera by the schemer.

I hated cameras and I hated those dreadful photographs they produced. A lazy man’s painting if you ask me.   No need to study brush strokes, the nuances of color, how light ever so slightly changes everything. Nope. Just push a button and that machine will do it all for you. But I was happy because Theo looked happy.

Suitcases stand at attention at the front door, which I’ve come to learn that means movement of some kind is at hand. A new place for me to hang. But not this time. This time, Theo hugs his mother, nods to his father, the schemer, and leaves with the suitcases in hand. Is he gone? Am I to be left alone with these two? He the violent drunk and she the willing victim? Theo was always the shock absorber. There will be no stopping them now. Free to be who they are. All instinct.

Noise, trash, tension and bile gathered like items in a tornado. Spinning with no direction. The end result being the destruction of everything in its path. They beat each other almost every day. Yes, she has learned to fight back.

The temperature grew cooler which I could feel and see. They wore bulkier clothing and shut the door with vigor. I rather liked the cold drafts as they rushed past my canvas.  I could almost feel the tickle they must provide the you.

Food smells bombard me. This was just one more oddity in a day that had already featured the schemer and his wife, Athena, (sorry, I don’t think I had previously shared that,) come downstairs clean and smelling of perfumes.

She was anchored in the kitchen and he was planted in front of the machine with the flickering pictures. Like a photograph, but worse.   She had placed some floral plants in the center of the table along with lots of human eating tools. It looked happy.

Another cold brush of air and surprise, Theo is here. I was elated. Athena rushed to hug him; holding him as if she would never let go. The schemer apparently wasn’t as happy as he never got up from his chair.

“Hey Dad.”

“Son.”

She leads him towards the smells.

“Come into the kitchen, let me show you what we’ve got cooking.”

“When did ‘we’ start cooking?”

“Oh honey.”

Some time later, Theo sat in the living room with his father.

After a time, “I want things to be better.”

“Why’s that Dad?”

“You’re my son. We haven’t been as close as I would like. This is hard for me. Meet me halfway.”

“I see you. You think you hide, but you don’t. But, if you want to pretend when the three of us are together, sure, why not?”

“Just like I thought. All that education and you forget where you come from; who brought you into this world. You were a spoiled kid and you’re no better as an adult.”

“Well so much for being closer.”

Theo got up and went into the kitchen. The schemer reached into a bucket of sorts next to his chair, picked out a can, opened it and took a very big drink. He never took his eyes off Theo. I’d seen this before. I became worried.

It happened rather quickly; at least I think so. Loud voices, lots of “fucks, many “pleases,” and some smashed eating disks.

Theo rose to leave, but the schemer would have none of it. He pushed Theo back into his chair.

Theo pushed his father’s hands off him, and then pushed him back into his chair. The schemer tried to stand, but Theo pushed him back down.

“Give it up old man. Sorry Mama, but I’ve had my fill. Do yourself a favor and get out.”

Theo gathered his suitcase and moved out. Or left, or whatever it was he accomplished by slamming the door.

Nighttime forced its way in, as it does this time of year. In the hot months, nighttime creeps up, almost kissing the setting sun, but in the cold months, it’s just the opposite. It rudely says, “my turn.”

There’d been several hours of dark when I hear a click in the front door and a man gently enters. He approaches me. What does he want with me?   Oh, it’s you.

“He doesn’t deserve you.”

And with that Theo takes me from the wall and exits his parents’ house.

I never knew what you humans did when they weren’t in the same room as me; particularly at night. I saw some things over the years and overheard some things too, but I didn’t really know.

It seems that you lie in a non-speaking state for a great deal of the day. I learned of this because Theo hung me on the wall of a room where he also entered this non-speaking state. It was a bright room. A large opening in the wall allowed warm brightness into the room. In the afternoon a strong streak of light landed just to my right. I tried communicating my displeasure but the movements and noises I make are not apparently discernable to you.

“So what should I call you?”

Theo stood before me.

“Rosalita? No. Lauren. No. Let’s see you’re as lovely as a day in May. Wait, that’s it. From now on you will be May. ”

He stroked my frame in a very gentle way. “May.”

“Well May, I’m off to the races. You’ve probably never seen a horse race. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.”

The new room I called home was stuffed full of things. I take it in, bit by bit. Teet-coverings with laces, a couple of clothes-carrying devices, books, lots of books, clothes stacked on the floor, a box that made noise; it had a dial and one of those metal things that poked me in the last house, but had no pictures; some old discs which Theo ate off of, a tall light producing stand and some assorted furniture.

“May! May! I won, I won. A hundred and fifty bucks May.”

If only I knew what a buck was.

“But that’s not all. May’s, she beautiful. She had on the most stylish hat that did its best to hide her magnificent blue eyes, but not a chance.   Those eyes May. Imagine a light bulb in an ice cube. Brilliant. ” He jumped.

Her name is Elizabeth. She really is quite lovely if I’m any judge. But it’s hard to tell with all that hair she carries on her head. I’ve seen her a few times now and she often has to move her long blonde hair from her face. She’s a fun dresser, I’d say. Lots of colors, pants that fan out at the bottom; a very new style of dress compared to what I used to see in the museum.

Theo was right. Her eyes were something to behold. I struggle to gather my thoughts about them; one minute, caring, compassionate and the next hiding from something. She had a habit of turning from Theo and looking at me.   Asking me to share a secret of hers. I refused.

Theo had a fair number of acquaintances, “friends,” I think they referred to themselves. They got together in the evenings to inhale from a thin white roll of some sort, and then exhale a copious amount of smoke. It seemed to make them all laugh and eat a lot.

The music of this time was loud and squeally. It made me wish I had legs.

#6

But in a way I did. Theo took me off the wall one more time and we moved to larger place. The old, assorted furniture was replaced with new that required the removal of plastic. The clothes-carrying devices were replaced with tables and lamps and the clothes were no longer stacked on the floor.

Elizabeth came with the new apartment as well. I don’t know the human word for it, but I didn’t like her around. I found myself wishing she’d go the way of the schemer.

The plastic removed from the furniture was used to cover the floor and Theo and Elizabeth painted the room a lovely pale blue. I didn’t like the smell at all. I wonder, “is that what I smell like?”

Much time went by when one day Theo and Elizabeth dressed up in what looked to be purposeful uniforms. Hers a plain, but stylish off-white dress that reached to the floor and his a perfect fitting black suit with a whimsical “Mickey Mouse” tie. At least that’s what they said.

Some days later some strangers dropped off many boxes covered in silver and white paper. There were four of them and when they put the boxes down, they seemed to want to get into a staring contest with me. I always win those. Two of them touched me too, but their hands got slapped away. I liked that kind of attention again, not the touching, but the looking.

Theo and Elizabeth came back a few days after that much darker than when they left. They laughed a lot and ran around with no clothes on, on numerous occasions.

It wasn’t long before there were little ones running around just like Theo used to be. Charlotte was first, followed by Richard. Apparently there was a singer who went by the name of Little Richard” and that caused alternating degrees of hilarity and chagrin. They were noisy, but I liked them.

Every few years I was packed up and moved with the family to a new setting, finally landing in a very bright, spacious house. The amount of light caused Theo to be concerned about my welfare, so he hung me in a dark hallway on the upper floor.

“May, its for your own good. I don’t want you fading. You’re too valuable.   And beautiful.”

I hated it. The upper floor provided me few visitors, save for a night of entertainment and showing me off. It was also a far less happy place than the lower floors I’d previously occupied.  Did all humans act poorly when no one could see them?

Theo and Elizabeth spoke in loud, animated ways to one another. And poor Charlotte was made miserable by little Richard. Stealing toys or acting like the “boogeyman,” whoever he is; he was constantly tormenting her. It was a house filled with nervous silence and angry verbal sparring. Rarely was there anything else.

It was around this time, that the concept of time beyond the current moment or past moments made its first impression on me. I can’t define it, I don’t know the human word for it, but I wanted my existence to be better in time ahead than it was right now. I wanted to go home. Home to the museum.

#7

I never knew why Theo did not return me to the museum. Maybe he was afraid. Maybe he didn’t know where I came from. I preferred to think that he cared for me and wanted me around. Maybe I was some kind of strange reminder of the life he left behind. Maybe he didn’t want to forget.

I never saw his older caretakers again. I don’t know if he did. I had watched Theo play the roles of strong-willed child, concentrated young adult, fun-loving adult, loving caretaker and now sad, aging, tired man.

I felt a sadness I could not explain. The others hadn’t observed Theo as long as I had. They just saw a man that they knew was not going anywhere. This led them to increasingly bad forms of behavior. I’ve seen all of Theo’s life and know that he is much more than the man they mostly choose to ignore.

Charlotte left one Saturday wearing the same dress her Mother had worn some many years prior. Theo looked so proud. As she was getting ready to leave they met in the hallway in front of me and she kissed Theo on the cheek. He shed a tear; she did not. They walked down the stairs and I never saw her again.

Little Richard morphed into Big Richard who reminded me of the schemer. He wore his hair long and messy. He had a hairy face. He was bigger than Theo and liked to use that. He would stand up straight and walk into his father. I didn’t understand it, except to understand that it was a sign of aggression.

Elizabeth by this time would leave every morning and come home carrying bags. She carried most into the room she shared with Theo, but sometimes left a few in Richard’s room. One day I was quite surprised to be the topic of their conversation.

“Ma, is it really true that this painting is valuable?”

“That’s what your father says. He says he has parents too, but I’ve never met them.”

“I figured. Who’s getting the painting?”

“What do you mean dear?”

“When you’re gone. Me or Charlotte?”

“Talk to your father, I’ve always hated the stupid thing.”

That was the first time I knew for sure that Richard had his eye on me. There was little about him as he grew older that I wanted to look upon. The time beyond the present did not look positive. Or safe.

#8

Richard remained with Theo and Elizabeth, which did not please Theo. Apparently he expected Richard to “get a job, keep it, and create a positive a life for himself.” There were many times in the dark part of the day when Richard would stagger and trip up the stairs. Sometimes he had a female companion with him. Sometimes the wall holding me up would vibrate from the noise below. Theo looked heavier each passing day.

“Look at yourself Richard. You’re a drunk. A drug addict too I’m guessing. How do I get through to you? I love you, please tell me.”

“Big loser son for big shot Dad. Bet you don’t talk about me at the club anymore. Don’t worry Dad, I’ve got a job starting tomorrow.”

Then a door slammed. I shook a little. Poor Theo…sandwiched between two less than worthy humans.

Only a short time later history repeated itself. I was once again stolen in the middle of the night. This time it was Richard. He tossed me in the back of a moving machine where I stayed for some number of hours. I was getting a little better at understanding the thing they called time.

Richard carried me into a number of interior places. Each time I hoped he was taking me back home. To the museum or to Theo. At last, he took me into a dark, smelly building with criss-cross wire bolted in front of a bunch of stuff. After some period in conversation, I apparently was sold for 28 bucks. I at long last learned what a “buck” was.

#9

I was purchased by two men with dark skin. They reminded me of Theo and Elizabeth in time past. They provided me a prominent position in their home and I came to like it quite a bit. I tried to tell them that my name was May, but they couldn’t hear me. I missed Theo and wondered why he wouldn’t come and get me.

I liked my time with the two dark skinned men, although it did not last long. They laughed a lot and smoked those tubes that produced the smoke, much like Theo and Elizabeth used to do. They frequently had other men over to the house and they would sit at a table and toss paper projectiles at each other. I heard the words “hearts” and “clubs,” but I didn’t know what the whole procedure meant.

One night they removed the coverings that humans wear and went about eating and stabbing each other. It certainly was intense, then they all fell asleep.

“I knew it would be like that.”

It was afternoon the next day.

“Like what?

“You’re were all over him. It’s him you want. Him you want to fuck.”

“And I knew you’d be like this. Insecure and needy.”

“I see you’re not denying it.”

“Please queen, either go out for a while and come back as an adult or just get out and stay out.”

And so it was time to move again. I was with a series of different humans and living spaces. I never got comfortable. This went on for a long time. I was desperate to be adored again.

#10

My dream was about to come true. My latest caretakers were a nice couple with few years. Unfortunately they were moving to a place called Akron, Ohio. I don’t know where that is, but it’s apparently far away. To help with the moving expenses, they are selling some of their possessions in the out of doors and thus on this lovely Saturday morning, I rest on a towel in grass.

The beautiful blue sky was occasionally obscured by humans leaning over me. You look strange when you lean over like that. Some people pick me up, and one time, a child nearly stepped on me, compelling the humans to move me onto a table.

My next visitors are two suited men. Their eyes are quick moving, but not exactly shifty. They pull shiny metal medallions out of their pockets and show them to my humans. There is some commotion and then the two men take me away.

I am taken to a sterile, non-living type of room. Humans wearing white robes and masks conduct tests on me. Many other humans stop by, all referencing me.

“Can you believe it?  A Renoir at a yard sale.”

It was a stressful time, I reflect as I look back on it from my perch back in the Baltimore Museum of Art. But it was so much more. My view will never be the same. I see humans differently and I look at my fellow paintings differently. The paintings seem so clean to me now. Maybe inexperienced is a better human word.

When I was hanging in a humans’ home, I experienced an intimacy that I had never felt before. Not even with my creator. I saw how humans behaved in the private places. In the museum I am among others like me. Except they’re not like me anymore.

I’m happy to be back home in the museum. I’m most happy to be the center of attention again. But I’m not happy.

I’m not the same Renoir I was. I have feelings now. Jealousy, fear, happiness, pride and hate. These are now as much a part of me as my canvas. I know now that when humans look at me, they are thinking of things other than my beauty. What they don’t know is that I am too.

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What the Renoir saw

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