The Treachery of Images
Lucy Gregg Muir
Sandra first saw one of John Henry Bascomb’s paintings at a gallery in SoHo. She was with her then-lover, Patrick, a man who was perfect in so many ways and never hesitated to remind her of it. But when she stood in front of The Lady Waits, a painting the size of a large envelope, and Patrick continued to jabber on about his newest acquisition, an abstract called Birth and Rebirth, which was nothing more than blue lines over red splotches, Sandra simply said, “Get lost, Patrick.” And he did.
Sandra got lost in Bascomb’s painting. A woman lying in bed, nude, full figured, flawed, but beautiful. Her lover lay over her, his stomach resting on hers. The colors were muted, their lips burnished, their cheeks flushed. He held one of her arms above her head, a glint in his dark eyes, the other hand gently cupping her breast. His smile teased. Her eyes were pleading, locked with his. It’s the eyes, thought Sandra.
But it wasn’t the eyes. It wasn’t one thing. It was the painting in its entirety. Sandra was pulled into the scene by the simple shading beneath the touch of a hand, a slight crease drawn under an eye, a tiny wrinkle telling the story of a life lived. It was art at its most powerful, a painting that stopped hearts.
Sandra looked around the gallery at the other three small Bascomb’s hanging there. A quiet group of women stood before each one. One woman sat on the ground in front of The Lady’s Pleasure, staring up at the spent couple in the painting, the Lady’s back close against her lover´s chest, his arm wrapped around her, holding her tightly, his chin resting on her wild hair, a hand again on her breast. Trust was the word that came to Sandra’s mind.
My Lady’s Laughter almost brought Sandra to tears. The couple, in a state of haphazard undress, sat on the floor in front of a fire, a deck of cards splayed out in front of them, the Lady laughing. She was holding up a card, showing it to her lover who had his hand on the button of his pants and feigned a look of playful alarm.
It was nothing deep. Nothing dramatic. Just … joy.
What was odd, Sandra thought, was that each of Bascomb´s ladies was different from the others, strikingly different. It wasn’t like Andrew Wyeth’s Helga, or Dali’s Gala. Bascomb’s ladies were numerous. Perhaps that was why so many women were attracted to his paintings -- whoever you were, whatever you looked like, you could see yourself in one of Bascomb´s works.
Sandra had first heard about Bascomb from a friend, an artist in Maine. “Be prepared,” she had said. “His paintings are small, but there’s a lot more there than meets the eye.”
And that was it. Bascomb’s paintings were more than their subjects. If Sandra were to put it into words, she might say that what she was looking at was love in its purest form. But it was more than that. What she saw caused a visceral reaction; her heart slowed, her breathing deepened, she was overcome with both an incredible calm and an intense desire. When Sandra looked at a Bascomb, she suddenly wanted more. She wanted what Bascomb’s ladies had.
What Sandra saw in the Bascombs was indescribable, and that was a problem. Her job as a writer for The Journal was to describe it.
She went to her editor and friend, Marilyn, and had asked if she could write a profile of Bascomb. Marilyn had already known about his work. As the art editor, it was her job to know before everyone else who or what was the next big thing.
Marilyn had considered sending a more seasoned writer to interview him, but she hadn’t gotten to the top of her profession by ignoring the fact that if a writer isn’t passionate about their subject, the piece would be flat. The minute Sandra began talking about John Henry Bascomb, Marilyn knew the piece belonged to her. At this point in her career, Marilyn was supposed to assign articles, not write them. But if Sandra hadn’t asked to write the profile, Marilyn might have considered doing it herself. She, too, had seen the Bascombs.
Finding John Henry Bascomb was a problem. The brochure at the gallery was vague about where he lived, saying only that he “resides quietly among the beautiful rolling hills of New Jersey.” The gallery owner in SoHo told Sandra that Bascomb was not in charge of his affairs, and that “his family has made it pretty clear they don’t want publicity. If they get word I told you anything about him, they’ll pull his paintings.”
Marilyn pulled rank and called the gallery owner herself, promising free publicity for his gallery. He coughed up the number for the law firm that handled the sale of Bascomb’s paintings. Marilyn contacted the attorney. “Talk to his wife. She’s the one in charge,” he told Marilyn. “He’s at Gray Manor,” he said. “He’s been there a while. Three years.”
Gray Manor was known for the people who checked in to recover from the vagaries of life. Writers and rock stars, the famous and the infamous. “That’s a long time to be at Gray Manor,” Marilyn had said to Sandra as she handed her Bascomb’s wife’s telephone number. “Bascomb must have passed the point of no return.”
“But he still paints.” Sandra knew his most recent work, The Lady’s Gifts, the most erotic of the paintings of which she was aware, had been painted only a few months earlier.
“Evidently,” Marilyn sighed.
“There is something about his paintings, isn’t there?”
Marilyn had raised her eyebrows and nodded.
Bascomb’s wife was receptive to the idea of Sandra writing the profile as long as she could approve the piece before it was published. It also didn’t hurt to suggest that there could be a jump in the price of his paintings. "It will help pay his expenses," Bascomb’s wife rationalized. Sandra arranged to meet her at Gray Manor to facilitate the interview. “You know he doesn’t speak,” Mrs. Bascomb said to Sandra. “He says only one thing.”
“What does he say?”
“Oh, I’ll let you find out when you meet him.”
John Henry Bascomb sat in front of an easel in the solarium on the ground floor of Gray Manor’s main building. Sandra was surprised by his appearance; she thought a man capable of such emotion would be more … dramatic. Late middle aged, average height, average build, glasses. No, thought Sandra, he was not dramatic in the least.
“We’ve set up a corner for him,” his doctor said, “with his easel and paints.”
Doctor Henderson was a striking woman, tall, mid-fifties, long gray hair pulled back in a wide barrette. She walked with Sandra to where Bascomb sat contemplating a blank canvas.
“He sits here for hours, sometimes just staring at the canvas, holding his paintbrush in his mouth. But then he’ll paint. He’ll be so engrossed he notices nothing around him. We know not to bring him his meal, not to rouse him, until he’s finished.”
Doctor Henderson turned and pointed to a door. “And this is where we store his work.”
She unlocked the door to a large closet and turned on a light. Hundreds of Bascomb’s small paintings were stacked vertically on metal shelves, a piece of masking tape underneath each section marked with a range of dates. “August to November 2011.” “September 2012.” “October 2013.”
“Wow.” Sandra walked into the closet. “These are all Bascomb’s?”
Doctor Henderson nodded.
“These are worth a fortune.” Sandra did quick calculations in her head, and even though math wasn’t her strong suit, she knew the paintings were probably worth a half million dollars.
“His family feels they are as safe here as anywhere.” Doctor Henderson looked over at Bascomb. “Once in a while he comes into the closet, takes a painting, and just sits with it.”
Sandra reached for a painting, then stopped. “May I?”
“Of course.” The doctor picked a painting from October 2013 and handed it to Sandra. “This one is remarkable, don’t you think?”
The painting was smaller than the others, not much larger than Sandra’s iPhone. But the image was clear. A man and a woman standing on a city street at night, snow swirling around them, locked in an embrace that made it difficult to tell where one body ended and the other began. The woman’s face was buried in the man’s chest, his arms holding her so tightly one could see the stretch of cloth over the tightened muscles in his arm. Again, as in the The Lady’s Pleasure, his chin rested on her head, his eyes were closed. Bascomb’s art was in the smallest of details. But this time, the feeling wasn’t of pleasure; it was pain, sadness, a sense of ending.
“Pretty powerful stuff. I’ve looked at this again and again.” Doctor Henderson laughed. “I’m almost addicted to it."
“It seems so sad,” Sandra said, “but at the same time … I don’t know. The word that keeps coming to mind is ‘real.’”
“I’m sorry I’m late.” A small woman approached them. She was dressed in a simple blue sweater and form-fitting jeans, and her dark unruly hair was caught in a burnt orange ribbon at the base of her neck.
“Mrs. Bascomb. This is Ms. Miller, the reporter.” Although Doctor Henderson’s introduction was formal, there was an underlying warmth, an understanding between the two women.
Mrs. Bascomb smiled. Sandra held out her hand. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”
“As long as you hold to our agreement, Ms. Miller, I have no problem with the interview.” Mrs. Bascomb reminded Sandra of someone, but she couldn´t place who it was.
“Would you like me to stay, Mrs. Bascomb?” Doctor Henderson asked.
“I would like it if you could,” Sandra interjected. “I might have some questions that need a medical explanation. If you have the time?”
Mrs. Bascomb nodded her agreement. “Fine with me.”
Doctor Henderson led them to a small sitting area on the side of the solarium opposite Bascomb’s corner. She motioned for them to sit. “We’ll be able to watch him as he paints, but we’ll be out of earshot.”
The three women were quiet for a moment as Sandra opened the cover to her iPad.
“Mrs. Bascomb, your husband’s paintings seem to have a deep emotional impact on people. Has he always painted?”
“No. He only started painting about fifteen years ago.”
“Why did he start painting?”
“Ms. Miller,” Mrs. Bascomb said. “My husband has been in and out of psychiatric therapy his entire adult life. He’s always been … unhappy.”
“What happened to him, Mrs. Bascomb? Why was he admitted to Gray Manor?”
Mrs. Bascomb smiled oddly, as if she expected Sandra would find what she was about to say funny. “He was found naked on the Amtrak between Baltimore and New York. Mumbling.” Her voice was flat, emotionless. But she continued to smile.
Sandra looked at her iPad, thinking she should write something. “Was there any indication before this that something was wrong?”
Doctor Henderson looked at Mrs. Bascomb and spoke. “Other than bouts of severe depression, his clinical history was fairly normal up to that point,” she said. “He was married, had children, he was highly respected in his career. He functioned at a very high level.”
“He only had one problem.” Mrs. Bascomb looked over at her husband.
“You don’t have to mention this,” Doctor Henderson said to her.
“I think it’s important for Ms. Miller to know. It might provide insight.” Mrs. Bascomb twisted the ring on her finger. “And depending on how well she writes the article, this information may or may not see the light of day. Right?” She looked at Sandra.
“Ms. Miller, my husband was a notorious womanizer,” she said. "He had affairs, many, many affairs.”
“Many?” Sandra wasn’t sure what that meant. Three? Ten?
“Many,” was all Mrs. Bascomb would say.
“And you knew about this?” Sandra was incredulous.
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I knew quite a bit about each and every one.” Mrs. Bascomb emphasized the each and every. “And there were … this is off the record?”
“Hundreds?” Sandra could feel her face turning red.
Mrs. Bascomb looked down at her hands and twisted her wedding ring again.
The image Sandra had of Bascomb was suddenly altered. She was angry. Bascomb’s paintings were not simply pretty pictures. They had become personal to Sandra. They were personal to everyone who saw them. But now, there was a treachery in the images.
“Mrs. Bascomb, how could a man capable of painting such … emotion … be such a….” Although the term douchebag came to mind, Sandra had enough presence of mind to know it would be best not to say it. “What do you think he was looking for in these women?”
“You’ve seen his paintings, Ms. Miller. What do you think he was looking for?”
Sandra hadn’t thought much of what drove Bascomb’s art; all she knew was that when she looked at one of them, she felt alive, she felt passion. She felt what it must be like to be in love, and be loved.
“He was looking for what he was painting,” Sandra said after a moment. “He was looking for love?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Bascomb bit her lower lip. “I think that’s it.”
“I don’t buy that.” Sandra was losing perspective. It was no longer about his paintings; it was about the man, the emotion his paintings evoked in Sandra, and now she was confronted with the possibility that it was all a sham. “That’s what we’re all looking for. Why would he be somehow special in his search for love?”
Mrs. Bascomb looked at her husband. “Yes, why was he special?”
Doctor Henderson’s cell phone chirped, she checked it and stuffed it back in her pocket. “If you’ll excuse me?” She got up and left Sandra and Mrs. Bascomb alone.
Mrs. Bascomb turned back to Sandra. “At one point in his life,” she said, “he met a woman, and he fell in love….” Her voice trailed off.
“And?” Sandra assumed Bascomb’s presence at Gray Manor suggested his love story hadn’t had a happy ending. “What happened?”
“Here.” Mrs. Bascomb stood up suddenly. “Let me introduce you to him.”
They walked over to where Bascomb was painting.
Mrs. Bascomb put a finger under his chin and tilted his face toward hers. “Hello, John.” She kissed him lightly on his forehead, holding her lips there for a moment. Pulling away, she smiled at her husband. “Ms. Miller is here about your paintings,” she said, her finger lingering under his chin, her eyes locked with his.
The two women sat near Bascomb. He took the paintbrush out of his mouth, set the blank canvas on his knees and smiled at his wife. He turned to Sandra and sighed. “She broke my heart,” he said, his forehead creasing, his lips in a frown. He put his hand on Sandra’s knee. “She broke my heart,” he said again, staring deep into Sandra’s eyes.
The pain in his expression was haunting. Sandra held his look, feeling like a mother with a hurting child. Sandra put her hand over his. “I’m sorry,” was all she could think of to say.
Bascomb smiled at Sandra and pulled his hand from hers. He set the blank canvas on the easel, dipped his brush in a small jar of blue, and painted a thin line. “She broke my heart.” He tilted his head to one side, dipped his brush in red, adding another line.
“Who broke his heart?” Sandra spoke softly to Mrs. Bascomb.
Mrs. Bascomb was silent. Sandra sensed she had crossed some line. “I would like to understand what brought him here,” Sandra said. “What causes a man like him to –“
“Go mad?” Mrs. Bascomb looked at Sandra without expression. “Ms. Miller, my husband is as passionate as he is brilliant. He wants to believe that love exists. But, love and passion are emotions. They can’t be dissected. They aren’t rational. And ….” She hesitated and looked at her husband. “You can’t manipulate love.”
Only those you love, thought Sandra.
“Love can’t survive in a purely rational mind. There is a war going on inside my husband, Ms. Miller. It’s been quite a battle,” she said, “and he’s losing.
“He paints the ideal,” she continued, “even though he doesn’t believe it exists...anymore.
“Have you ever had someone put you on a pedestal, Ms. Miller? Has someone ever thought so highly of you it was impossible to live up to their expectations?”
Sandra shook her head. “No.”
Mrs. Bascomb smiled. “Lucky you. The air up there is rarefied. One doesn’t last long on a pedestal.”
“His perfect love fell off the pedestal?”
Mrs. Bascomb sighed. “It’s worse than that.” She was quiet for a moment.
Doctor Henderson returned with three bottles of water and handed one each to Sandra and Mrs. Bascomb. Sandra unscrewed the cap but held the bottle in her hand.
“He became angry,” Mrs. Bascomb continued. “He pushed her away. After all," she said, "any woman who would want him probably wasn´t good enough for him. You know the idea, you wouldn’t want to join a club who would have you as a member.”
"That´s rather convoluted," Sandra said flatly.
“Convoluted. Yes.” Mrs. Bascomb said.
“Then what did he do?”
"He continued his search for the ideal.”
“What did she do, this woman he put on a pedestal?”
“What would you do, Ms. Miller?”
Sandra was still holding the small painting of the sad couple in the snow. “I don’t know. I’ve never been on a pedestal.” Sandra put the painting down. “Why does he say she broke his heart if he is the one who pushed her away?”
John Henry Bascomb cleared his throat, leaned close to his painting and wiped his brush on a cloth.
“Looks like he’s almost finished,” said Doctor Henderson.
“Dr. Henderson,” Sandra said. “You see what’s in his paintings. It’s more than talent, more than the ability to capture form and light.”
“Yes,” she said. She took the painting of the couple from Sandra.
“There have been other artists whose work has a similar impact. When you read about them, the word ‘genius’ comes up. Is it genius?”
“It might be.” Doctor Henderson laughed. “What is genius, anyway? Great scientists, great thinkers, are great because they look at the world differently. Bascomb sees things in a way that most of us don’t, or can’t. His genius, if you want to call it that, is being able to express emotions, feelings …” she paused for a moment. “People connect to what he paints. What he does for us, Ms. Miller, is he gets us to feel.”
Sandra wondered what pain, what resolution, if any, Bascomb could find at the end of his paintbrush.
Mrs. Bascomb watched as her husband rubbed a cloth around the edges of his intricate painting. She turned to Sandra. “I ask you again. What would you do, Ms. Miller, if the man you loved had that kind of emotion within him?” She looked at her husband. “But loving him came at a high cost?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
Mrs. Bascomb smiled.
“You said that when he was found on the train, he was carrying a painting.”
“What painting was he holding when he was on the train?”
Mrs. Bascomb raised her eyebrows and took a deep breath. “It’s in the closet?” she asked Doctor Henderson.
Doctor Henderson went to the closet, and returned, handing a painting to Sandra.
Bascomb had painted himself into the scene, only he was smiling, dancing, his arms around the Lady, her back arched, her head tilted back, face to the sky, laughing. The Lady´s hands were lightly draped around his neck. She was barefoot, her long skirt caught in mid-twirl. His foot was off the ground, toes bent back ready to step down, while the other turned out awkwardly in that moment critical to a perfect dance step. The background was blurred; the couple was in sharp focus.
“I don’t understand,” Sandra said finally. “This is beautiful. They look so happy. Why would he have this with him when he….” Sandra hesitated. “This is such a hopeful painting.”
“That’s what he doesn’t have, Ms. Miller.” Mrs. Bascomb watched her husband clean his brush. “When he was in Baltimore, when he was with yet another of his ideal ladies who fell from the heights, I think he must have realized.... He doesn’t have hope, Ms. Miller.”
“Mrs. Bascomb, who broke his heart?” Sandra felt this was the key to understanding what drove Bascomb mad.
Mrs. Bascomb smiled. “Ms. Miller,” she said. “Look closely at the picture you have in your hand.”
Sandra looked again at the delicate painting, at the joy on John Henry Bascomb’s face, and at the face of the Lady. And then Sandra looked at Mrs. Bascomb. “It’s you.”
Mrs. Bascomb raised her eyebrows and nodded.
"Oh." It’s the eyes. "And The Lady Waits?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Bascomb.
"But the other paintings? The other women?"
"We all break his heart, Ms. Miller." Mrs. Bascomb twisted the top off her bottle of water. “The pedestal he puts us on is too high. Too cold.” She twisted the cap on the bottle back and forth. “Too lonely.”
Bascomb scratched his forehead with the handle of his paintbrush. “She broke my heart,” he said, leaning close and scratching a thin line in the painting with the handle.
“I’m having trouble, Mrs. Bascomb, coming to terms with this man, this artist, whose paintings stir such emotion in me, and yet …”
“…and yet….” Mrs. Bascomb’s voice trailed off as she watched her husband clean his brush.
“…and yet you stayed married to him.” Sandra was angry. “He cheated on you -- I don’t care how many reasons or explanations you can come up with –-“
“He didn’t cheat on you, Ms. Miller.” Mrs. Bascomb’s words cut straight to the core of Sandra’s anger.
Sandra closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Opening her eyes again, she said, “You didn’t leave him.”
“Oh, but I did leave him, Ms. Miller. Perhaps not physically. But I could no longer be one of his ladies. You see, Ms. Miller,” she said, "my heart was broken, too.”
Bascomb dropped his paintbrush on the floor. "Ahh." He leaned over, once more wiped it on the cloth, and placed it neatly on the table beside him.
“Then why didn’t you leave him? Why do you stay?”
“Look at his paintings, Ms. Miller. What do you see?”
Sandra didn’t need to look at the Bascomb she was holding; she kept her eyes on Mrs. Bascomb. “Love.”
Mrs. Bascomb smiled. “So, I ask you again, what would you have done if you were me?”
John Henry Bascomb stood up and walked over to Sandra, handing her the small painting she had watched him create.
Sandra’s laptop was open and the painting Mr. Bascomb had painted while she had watched that day, and that Mrs. Bascomb had given her, sat in a small frame on her desk. She touched her finger to the Lady’s face, her face. Bascomb had captured their moment together, Sandra seated next to him at his easel, his hand on her knee, her hand placed over his, her mouth shaped as if she was speaking. I’m sorry, she had said to him. But Sandra’s Bascomb was unfinished. Where Sandra was blues and greens, Bascomb was an outline, an empty figure, devoid of color.
John Henry Bascomb paints hope when he has none himself. He paints the passion that eludes him. And, he paints love….