Dear Mr. Clemens,
I am writing to ask if you will lend your considerable influence as one of society’s leading doyen in sponsoring a talented young artist I have taken a liking to.
Miss Laura Cappleman, you may have heard, made a successful debut in the Season of 1814, but the events after that time have been largely tragic.
You might think it quite selfish of me to make light of the poor girl’s misfortune, but it seems to have quite the unexpected outcome.
You see, her experience has made her art one of a kind. When she paints scenes of the Oriental marketplaces of Africa or of life inside the Ottoman harem, one is utterly transported.
One can feel the beating heat of the sun, smell the pungent aroma of the spices, shudder the menace of the large eunuchs and their scimitars, be awe-struck by the opulence inside these pleasure palaces.
Miss Cappleman knows these places first hand. If her name didn’t ring a bell when I first mentioned it, I’m sure you remember hearing about her abduction in August of 1814 at the hands of white slavers. It was covered in The Times.
The story of her rescue two years later is one of the most remarkable tales I’ve heard. I’m trying to persuade her to draw on her experience more to create great art for the world to see.
The Royal Academy summer exhibition is the perfect opportunity for this young lady to make a debut of another sort – a launch into the artworld which is her due.
A word in the ear of the Royal Academy directors and sponsors to consider this impressive young artist would be considered a personal favour.
Revenge of the Corsairs
Madame Vigée-Le Brun stood in front of the still life. She pulled a small pince-nez from her reticule to take a close look. After a minute or two, the great French artist left that painting without comment and examined the portrait of Victoria.
Pull yourself together, Laura! If she were to enter the Royal Academy’s exhibition, her works would be judged worthy or wanting in a heartbeat. If she were to exhibit at all, many people would be staring at her work. Yet this somehow, seemed different.
After a length of time, the French woman looked up from the portrait and spoke. “I understand from your sister-in-law that you have returned to England only recently.”
“Yes. I spent time abroad.”
“Did you do anything? Did you see anything?”
Laura’s mouth dried. “I, ah, I mean, I spent time in Sicily and…”
The artist removed the glasses. “And you experienced nothing?”
“I beg your pardon?”
The older woman let out a long, put-upon sigh. “All I see is practiced technique, adequate color choice, and a schoolgirl’s sensibilities.”
Laura couldn’t help the gasp that escaped her mouth.
“I’m sure you are a delight to your friends and family, who no doubt praise you endlessly, but I am not here to coddle or to give you false flattery. I do not see the soul of an artist in these paintings.”
Laura fought a trembling of shame, and fear, and disappointment. It was a small miracle she was able to reply, “Then I am sorry to have wasted your time, Madame.”
The woman shrugged. “I said I would look at your works and I will.”
The third painting, she studied for a few seconds; the fourth, the landscape, received nothing more than a cursory glance. “I spent three years in Rome, I was inducted into the Accademia di San Luca,” she continued conversationally, either unaware or unconcerned Laura’s hope had turned to dust.
“How very nice for you,” replied Laura, bitterness dripping from each word.
“What I am trying to say to you, ma fille, is your work seems utterly unmarked by your time abroad. That, I fear, makes you a dabbler, someone who pretends to be an artist. If you can live on La Méditerranée and not be influenced by such histoire, people, and surroundings, then I’m afraid you will be nothing more than a very little talent.”
Laura looked down. Her knuckles were white, but her face, she was sure, was puce. Her disappointment of a few moments ago was now a rage. How dare that woman say she was unmarked!
“How dare you?” she repeated out loud, unaware Madame Vigée-Le Brun had approached her final painting.
“You have no idea what happened to me there. No idea! I have been scarred to the depths of my soul. I was seized and imprisoned for nearly two years in an Ottoman harem. I was violated repeatedly by a man who had the power of life and death over me. The only good thing I have left is painting. Can you blame me for not wanting it tainted?”
When she looked up, Madame Vigée-Le Brun was not looking at her; she peered instead at the last painting, the Tunisian market scene. “La! That is it – c’est de cela que je parlais!”
Her face animated, the woman turned the easel around so the canvas faced them both. Laura could feel the desert heat of its colors from where she stood.
“You are afraid of this beast that is locked in your breast? Let it out, my dear! You cannot hide from it! I see hints of it in this painting here. In this work, I begin to see the world as you see it.”
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