She sat on a cold marble bench across from James Tissot’s 1876 painting, The Picnic. A blissful smile graced her wrinkled face.
“May I join you?” 4th grade art student field trips wear me out. I needed a moment to rest while the children plunked down their money in the gallery gift shop.
“Of course, my dear.” She continued to look in wonderment at the painting across from us.
“Do you know Tissot?” Her tiny hands pulled her sweater close.
“Victorian realist, a contemporary of Degas, Monet, and Whistler, he was famous for his biblical paintings. This piece is typical with a country tea party, nature, high fashion.” I rattled off my substitute art teacher knowledge in a sterile tone.
“Oh, but this one is so much more than that,” she said, grasping my arm. “Please, let me tell you about it.” Her eyes became blue stars as she stood up, her arm in mine. We walked to the painting.
“Nine people grace the scene. Three lounge on soft blue and white linens. See the young woman on the right, gazing over her teacup? Her hair is the color of shining black molasses.” She reached up as if to stroke the painted woman’s hair.
“See how forlorn and listless she appears? Her name is Ophelia. Her shawl is wrapped tightly around her shoulders and her skirt is flounced with black and white checks. She is very beautiful.” The old woman whispered in enthralled awe.
“Her brother, Francoise, reclines next to her. He suffers from a headache. His jaunty striped hat and cream colored suit are unwrinkled as he holds his teacup for his wife, Marie.” She closed her eyes and held up her hand, as holding a cup.
She’s really into this. Yes, he’s been holding that teacup for over a hundred and thirty years. I’d have a headache too. This lady must really know her art history. I’d never heard there was a story behind this painting.
“Ophelia’s grandmother chaperones the affair. She pretends to doze with her tea, but in reality, she and the vicar whisper and conspire.”
“Conspire what?” I leaned closer to the painting, pulled into her reverie.
“Ah, Marie’s brother Jean Claude leans against the tree on the far left. He pines for Ophelia. The grandmother and the vicar plan how to arrange a courtship between them.”
“Were they successful?” The words spilled out before I could stop them. The old woman did not laugh at me, but lay her head on my shoulder.
“The couple standing behind the columns gossip about the quarrel they witnessed between Ophelia and Jean Claude.” She shook her head and clucked as though the couple should mind their own business.
The painting came alive for me as the old woman talked about the cascading golden leaves, the elfish dancing of the pond water, and the fragrance of strong tea. My mouth watered as she described the nut cake that sat on the linen cloth. I could hear Marie singing Le Marseilles.
“Ma’am, I only see eight people in the painting. Where is the ninth?” I looked closer.
“Don’t you see me? I sit on the other side of the pond, dangling my bare feet in the cool water. In a moment I splash Ophelia. She will laugh and stand to her feet. Jean Claude will rush to her and propose. Francoise’ headache will disappear. The grandmother and the vicar will pretend indignation, but will be secretly pleased.” She spoke with childlike laughter in her voice.
“Excuse me?” I looked at this tiny old woman with questioning eyes. I hadn’t noticed the distinguished old gentleman standing behind us. He put his hands on her slight shoulders.
“Ready to go home, my love?” He held out his arm for her. She looked confused.
“You’ll take me home?” She took his arm.
He whispered in my direction. “The painting hung on her wall as a child. She used to gaze at it for hours and make up stories about it. It’s the only thing that she can remember anymore.” He tipped his cap good bye and led the woman away.
I turned toward the painting, still held captive by the tale. I saw her. A slight blonde child with eyes the color of blue stars splashed her bare feet in the water. I stood beside her, holding her shoes.
*James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836-1902.
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