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The Faun of Rome: A Romance

by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nate Maturin

Nate Maturin, Author

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Chapter 3: Miriam's Art

For days together, it is true, Miriam’s model occasionally vanished, although never, or so it seemed, in response to rough treatment from that benefactor. He always reappeared, gliding after her through the narrow streets, or climbing the ninety-three steps of her staircase and waiting at her threshold until admitted to her studio. So often was his application successful that he left his features, or some trace of them, in many of her sketches and pictures. That seemingly inescapable resemblance so influenced the moral atmosphere of those productions, that rival painters pronounced it a hopeless mannerism, which would destroy all Miriam’s prospects of true excellence in art unless she could rid herself of its influence. 

The singularity of her mendicant’s appearances was, perhaps, exacerbated by Miriam’s own peculiarities. She had a certain ambiguity which, though in no way implying anything wrong, would have gone against her reception in society anywhere but in Rome. Many stories about her origin and former associations flowed in free circulation. It was said, for example, that she was the niece and sole heiress of a great Jewish banker, but had fled from his circle to escape an arranged union with the heir of another of that faith. By another account—although one that Kenyon sought to quash whenever he heard it—she was the lady of an English nobleman, and out of mere love for her art had thrown aside the splendour of her rank and come to seek a subsistence by her brush in a Roman studio. A further tale supposed that she might be a German princess, whom, for reasons of state, it was proposed to give in marriage either to a decrepit sovereign—none in particular could be identified—or a prince still in his cradle—a category wherein there were rather more candidates. A still different assertion followed that theme; she was the off-spring of a South American plantation owner who had given her an elaborate education and endowed her with his wealth, but the single burning drop of African blood in her veins so affected her with a sense of ignominy that she had relinquished all and fled her country. Such fables drew upon her noble bearing and a certain rich Oriental character in her face, and the generous and bounteous impression which she invariably made, which left her acquaintances in little doubt of some good breeding and estimable education in her youth.

Whatever deprivations Miriam underwent, society assumed, must needs be voluntary. The corollary that such deprivations were for the sake of her art established her as highly relatable, for Rome—and Ravenna, and Florence, and Venice—was full of the world’s well-to-do who had taken up brushes or chisels. There was no question that she might have taken to supporting herself by the pencil as the daughter of a wealthy man, ruined in a great commercial crisis. Her spirit too prevented her from appearing to be enveloped in the shroud of mystery that might whisper of evil goings on; a beautiful and attractive woman, her generosity, kindliness, and native truth of character prevented any flaws of character beyond wilfulness being attributed to Miriam.

Yet the truth was that nobody knew anything about Miriam, her former life or her family connections, and she herself offered little by way of any personal history to compensate for this gap in society’s knowledge. She had made her appearance in the city without introduction; taking a studio, she put her card above the door and showed very considerable talent as a painter in oils. Far from evincing any acute feeling regarding the unusual nature of her arrival in Rome’s society, Miriam’s manners made it easy to become acquainted with her, and indeed to develop casual acquaintance towards intimacy. Or such was the impression which she made, upon brief contact. Her nature had a great deal of colour, and in accordance with it, so had her pictures. Miriam’s pictures met with good acceptance among the patrons of modern art, and her nature with warm attention from their little circles. It is true that her fellow professors of the brush showered abundant critiques and comments upon her pictures, allowing them to be well enough for the idle half-efforts of an amateur, but lacking both the trained skill and the practice that might distinguish the works of a true artist. Yet, whatever technical merit they might have lacked was more than remedied by a warmth and passion that she had the faculty of putting into her productions, and which made itself felt to all the art-world of Rome.

Those who really sought to know her reached a somewhat different ultimate conclusion regarding Miriam’s character. So free and affable was her deportment towards those who came into her sphere, that possibly they might never be conscious of the fact that they did not get on, and were seldom any further advanced into her intimate circle today than yesterday. For Miriam’s warmth and passion concealed a subtle skill that kept people at a distance without as much as suggesting that they were so excluded. Her company resembled one of those paintings of pristine accuracy that seem to offer the real object there before us, only an arm’s length beyond our grasp, but when we advance, we find it more out of reach than it was before.

However, there were two persons with whom she entered into friendship in the truest sense of the word. Kenyon was a young English sculptor of high promise and rapidly increasing celebrity. Not unconscious of the strong, yearning grasp with which Miriam held him in her esteem, felt towards her a manly regard that was, nevertheless, keenly aware of Miriam’s position as an unmarried and solitary woman. Hilda, an American girl, a painter, but of a widely different sort of art to that which Miriam practised. Hilda’s warm and practical nature gave freely of itself, and the two developed an easy society and friendship that gave them both the pleasure of exchanging artistic feelings with a like-minded soul without developing anything of the competitive nature to which other friendships between painters have given rise. The interposition of Hilda between Miriam and Kenyon, and Kenyon between Miriam and Hilda, held those relations in a careful suspense, giving rise to nothing of the fervency of friendship to the exclusion of all others that almost inevitably leads to a sorry, nor the improper Bohemian relations that are seen as a moral hazard for young artistic people alone on the continent. This sort of intimacy having grown up between three individuals, a fourth inevitably was drawn to join them; a young Italian who, casually visiting the capital, had found himself drawn by the beauty of their simple and artistic friendships. Upon being admitted to their acquaintance, a boon which a more artful character might have failed to obtain, Donatello’s many agreeable characteristics won him the kindly regard of Kenyon and Hilda, though being anything but intellectually brilliant or inclined towards sculpture as his namesake, and the kindly but half-contemptuous regard of Miriam.

With that same regard, she treated her model. Yet the doggedness of that Spectre’s haunting encouraged talk amongst the Forestieri, and the story made its way even into Italian circles. Thence, much enhanced by a potent spirit of superstition, it returned to the Anglo-Saxons and was communicated to the Germanists, who in turn so richly supplied it with romantic ornament, after their fashion, that it became a fable worthy of Heine or Hoffmann. Miriam, with her chosen friends, Kenyon and the gentle copyist, often laughed at the monstrous fictions that went abroad regarding her adventure in the catacombs, and those two had not failed to ask an explanation of the mystery, since undeniably a mystery there was, sufficiently perplexing without any adornment. 

Responding with her characteristically melancholy sort of playfulness, Miriam often let run her fancy, which returned with wilder fables than any which German ingenuity or Italian superstition might contrive. With a strange air of seriousness over all her face, she averred that the spectre was an acquaintance of her very old, ancient family, from which she had sought anonymity and refuge in the artistic quarters of Rome; which acquaintance, exercising a peculiar power over her, sought to persuade her to return to her old home and the intended marriage that awaited her there. Or, if her friends still solicited a more sober account of her fateful meeting with that shade, with a laughing gleam in her dark eyes, she would reply that he, an artist in his mortal lifetime, had promised to teach her a long-lost, but invaluable secret of old Roman fresco painting, the knowledge of which would place her at the head of modern art. The sole condition for that knowledge being that she should return with him into his sightless gloom, after enriching a certain extent of stuccoed wall with the most brilliant and lovely designs. And what true votary of art would not purchase unrivalled excellence, be soever high the sacrifice?

It did not go unremarked by her dear friends that all her romantic fantasies arrived at such a dreary termination. It appeared impossible for her even to imagine any other than a disastrous result from her connection with that ill-omened attendant. Such a singular characteristic might have signified nothing, however, had it not suggested a despondent state of mind, which was corroborated by many other tokens. If ever she were gay, it was seldom with a healthy cheerfulness. Miriam’s confidants, for such they were under ordinary circumstances, had no difficulty in perceiving that, in one way or another, her happiness was very seriously compromised. Although her painting continued, her spirits were often depressed into deep melancholy.

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