Van Dyke was so overburdened with commissions for portraits that he [. . .]
had a number of assistants who painted the costumes of his sitters arranged
on dolls, and he did not always paint even the whole of the head.
—E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art
She’s practically drowning in tippets.
The windrowed stoles seize her torso
like a startled invertebrate
she’d dragged up from the seafloor
to nurse. Somewhere beneath the chemise
hides a head strangely sucking at her salt.
Her face has too many bones.
Her skin is a decadence of blue.
She has the look of someone born
to live under glass, tagged with Latin.
Something has been sketched against her elbow
to keep her from tilting out
of the frame. It is not important
whether it is a fishbowl or a tambour.
There’s a bit of red in the picture where
someone’s pried her stitches open.
We might peel her off in layers
and find another subject
entirely beneath the thick duff
of oil and lacquer. That sitter might even
be historical, the creature at her neck
a proper familiar after all.
There may even be scapular or habit
enough for us to see the touch of God
luminating her like a tasteful maquillage.
For now, it is impossible to say
if the likeness is good—everyone
who could have known her is dead.
A chip of white sits in the coffer
of her right eye, deliberate as a chess piece.
Her feet have been a mystery for centuries.