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[from Part II – ‘In Paradise’ –

The Woman Who Brought Matisse Back from the Dead]

Paris, 1950

His bed, from where he sometimes worked, was surrounded by the usual clutter of china crockery, bolts of colored cloth, some rolled, others half-unrolled. There were scraps and curls of colored paper at this feet; azure, chestnut, indigo, amber. An opulent fur-lined pink silk Chinese robe with a high collar made of white fur lay across a chair. He called to Lydia, asked who was booked to sit that morning. The housekeeper answered.

“Madam Lydia is out, Monsieur.”

He splashed a few drops of eau de cologne on his neck. His cat leapt up onto his lap and he stroked its thick coat.

The work in progress hung opposite his bed so that he could meditate on it during bouts with insomnia. The background of the painting was not yet right – strontium yellow and cadmium yellow middle no. 3. He had said to Lydia when he backed away to study what he was doing: “A little yellow must more skillfully be incorporated into colors of the body. More yellow on the left buttock until there’s a hint of greenish-gray. Remind me of this tomorrow after my model leaves and I’ll work some more.”

He heard the front door open and close.

“Who’s booked this morning!”

Lydia’s voice answered.

“A new one.”

“Where did you get her?”

“Pablo recommended her.”

“Why isn’t he using her?”

“She’s not his type.”

“Eh bien.”

Though he had mixed feelings about Pablo, he trusted his judgment on models. He liked and did not like the man. He liked him enough to give him a brace of white pigeons, but had heard the gossip that, while having soup with Mademoiselle Françoise, on seeing a hair floating on the surface of the soup, Pablo had commented, “It looks like a line drawing by Henri.” It was ridiculous that such coarseness, such petty jealousy, could rankle him, but the tiny Spaniard was skilled with his little peccadilloes.

He heard the sounds of the arrival of his model and, as it had for his entire working life, a flush of blood coursed through his arteries. Once more there was the possibility of a coup de foudre, a thunderclap. He strained to stand in order to properly greet the woman with the small body and deep black eyes whom Lydia showed into the room; but could not garner the strength, so he greeted her from the wheelchair. He gathered materials while the model went behind the Chinese screen to undress. When she emerged, he looked, thought, looked. He abandoned the idea of the Chinese robe. He took in the mismatched, small breasts, the bony hips, the glistening lick of public hair.

He told Lydia to drape a Turkish fabric across her thighs. Behind her he wanted the great standby, the azure and white-dotted vase. There was something about this model’s dour but sweet face that reminded him of Camille. After an initial ripple of pleasure at the reminder of Camille, an ache of remorse bit him. Poor Camille. What a disaster. He would not let the remembrance upset him. What a sad life she had had. The doves cooed. Lydia brought materials, moved into and out of the room. Time had not diluted his gratitude for Lydia’s efficiency, indispensability. Not once had he looked at Lydia with complacency.

He wondered if he should rearrange the girl’s pose from sitting to lying on a perch of cloth? He craved a cigar. He called Lydia.

“Please remove the vase of flowers, it has lost its freshness.”

He instructed the model to lie on her side, hip arched, to curl her arm over the protruding hipbone so that her hand limply hung down. She obeyed his instructions. Her weak, bony hand dangled, the fingertips touched a curled pubic hair. Again, he was not sure about whether to keep or change the pose. He asked Lydia for the Congolese tapestry that never tired him as a backdrop, then turned the page of his drawing book and started a fresh drawing. Despite swollen feet and the reminder of Camille, if this was the last day of his life, it was a fine one. His fingertips were young when he held the chalk; the awaited penetration came.

After an hour he noticed that the model had goose bumps. Discarding the nub of chalk, he called Lydia.

“Please light the stove.”

Because he was no longer allowed to drink coffee, he called for the cook to bring tea and, while they waited, the model covered herself. Thoroughly pregnant with inspiration, impatient to begin again, he rolled the wheelchair over to the window to admire the view, not bothered that the birds were cooing loudly. Again he craved a good cigar. When the model had gone, he told Lydia not to hire her again. One Camille was enough for a lifetime.

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Remembering Claude Boot who modeled for Henri Matisse from 1950-1954 on her birthday – today, 16 December. She is the central character in The Woman Who Brought Matisse Back from the Dead available on Amazon as a book or as a kindle

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