Sign up for our free newsletter
I stride past the drawings and barely pause at the sculptures. I’m looking for the paintings, one in particular. Then I see it. There, in one of the last rooms of the Phillips Collection’s current retrospective of works by Amedeo Modigliani, is the 1919 portrait of his red-haired lover, Jeanne Hébuterne. She wears a light shift and looks out from the painting with one finger pressed to her cheek.
Modigliani once said, “To paint a woman is to possess her.” With a confident tilt of her head, Hébuterne seems to be saying that to be so painted is to possess the artist. I stand as close as I dare to the portrait and peer at her eyes. I have a hunch about this painting: I’m looking for a slight shift of color, a gradation so subtle that it hasn’t showed up in any of the reproductions that I’ve seen. I stand back from the painting and then move closer. I rock from side to side.
After a minute, I find it: Though both of Hébuterne’s eyes are an empty aqua, one is shaded with a slight lavender hue. I squelch the urge to punch the air while shouting, “Yes! I knew it!” Instead I give a triumphant smile to the gallery guard, who by now is watching me with a worried expression on her face.
My search for these mismatched eyes started with a portrait that hangs in my bedroom. The picture has followed me from apartment to apartment, city to city, love to love, these past 20 years. The woman in it is 26 years old. She’s a lawyer in a large New York law firm. This is her first real job, and she’s terrified. She’s scared of the job, scared of the city, scared of just about everything—even of the revolving doors that spin like the blades of a fan and block her entrance to the skyscraper that houses her office.
I am that woman, but in the painting my face is narrow, longer than in life. My eyes are also elongated, more almond-shaped than they should be. The coloring, however, is dead-on: strawberry-blond hair, flushed complexion, blue-green eyes. The first time a friend saw the painting after I had sheepishly hung it up, she exclaimed, “It looks like Modigliani painted that.”
And it does.
But my portrait painter was no Modigliani. He was just Bernie, the man who day in and day out threw the lever and opened the doors in the old elevator of my Chelsea apartment building. In return for operating the elevator, he got a break on his rent. So Bernie also lived in my building.
Bernie usually kept his conversation with riders to a bare minimum. But one day, he turned to me and asked, “Could I paint your portrait some day?” As if I might not have understood, he added, “I’m also a painter.” In my surprise, I sputtered a response that somehow came to be understood by Bernie as a yes. Yes, I would allow him to paint my portrait. Yes, I would come to his apartment some floors below mine to sit for him once, maybe twice.
As I stepped from the elevator into the wilds of New York, I realized that I now had something new to fear. How long had Bernie been planning this moment? Had he watched my comings and goings while waiting for a day when I was alone with him so he could make his pitch? I suddenly felt frightened of my elevator man, of his silent stares and possible plotting. Even scarier, he knew exactly where I lived.
The day before my first sitting, Bernie gave me precise instructions. He recited them as the elevator descended from the 18th floor, where I lived, down to the lobby. I was to wear a white blouse and dark skirt. I could bring office work to do or a book to read. I should expect to stay in his apartment for five or so hours. I listened and wondered how I could extract myself from this commitment. Get sick? Move? Neither seemed like a great option.
And so on the appointed day at the appointed hour, I stood outside Bernie’s apartment wearing my white blouse and dark skirt. I carried a complicated draft loan agreement in one hand and a pencil in the other.
Bernie was waiting. His apartment was smaller than mine. Paintings covered nearly all the walls. Many were nudes. Most looked amateurish, at least to my untrained eye. Some figures were outlined in black, like pictures taken from a child’s coloring book. A small sofa was positioned at one end of the room. In front of the sofa stood an easel, an oilcloth spread underneath. Tubes of oil paint were lined up on a nearby table. Bernie was ready. Was I?
We didn’t say much that day. Bernie painted, and I read my loan agreement. From time to time, he would ask me to look up. Otherwise, we both worked in silence. When I stood up for a break, Bernie told me that he once had been a senior executive with Pan American Airlines. He explained that he had had something to do with scheduling flights in and out of one of New York’s airports. But, he said, he had given up the money and prestige of that job for his art. Now he just painted and operated our building’s elevator.
I couldn’t tell you how old Bernie was, other than that he was older than I by a decade or two. He was a slight man with large, dark-framed eyeglasses and black hair speckled with gray. He had two modes of interacting with those who rode his elevator: He would either stare unblinking at the passengers or turn his back. Rarely would he say more than a brusque “What floor?”
Most of my dates got the stare-down treatment. When they came to visit me, they would say things like “Who’s that crazy guy operating the elevator? Boy, did he give me the evil eye when I asked to be taken up to your floor.” Bernie, I realize now, was my self-appointed personal bodyguard, sizing up my dates and, when he could, scaring them off.
One night, a man whom I had smiled at on the street followed me into the lobby of my building. I assumed that he was visiting someone else, so I didn’t pay much attention when he stepped into the open elevator after me. Bernie was in his usual place, sitting on a stool just inside the elevator door. The man looked a bit surprised when he saw Bernie sitting there.
No one said anything. But when I got off at my floor, I heard Bernie ask, “So, mister, where’re you headed?” The man sounded flustered, saying, “Um, I think I’m in the wrong building.” It wasn’t until I stepped into my apartment that I thought to be afraid. I slept the next few nights with a can of mace at my bedside, just in case Bernie went off duty.
At the end of my first portrait sitting, Bernie asked me to return for one more session. “It won’t be as long,” he promised. “Maybe two or three hours at most. We can do it when you get off work some evening.” When I walked past the easel to the door of his apartment that night, Bernie draped a cloth over the painting so I couldn’t see what he had done.
I returned a week later. This time the painting was uncovered, but it was upside-down on the easel. “For a painting to make compositional sense,” Bernie told me, “I think it needs to make sense upside-down as well as right-side-up.”
I didn’t question him. I wasn’t the painter. I was merely a small-town Indiana girl masquerading as a street-savvy lawyer in New York. I sat down again on the sofa and took out another draft loan agreement. This time, however, Bernie asked me to look up at him. “I’m doing your eyes tonight,” he said. So I put the document away and spent most of the next couple of hours staring at him and at the apartment I was sitting in.
Finished and unfinished canvases were everywhere. They climbed up walls, spilled over doorways, and leaned against furniture. I tried hard not to stare too obviously at the nudes that, with unclothed limbs askew, seemed to be multiplying in his tiny apartment.
At the end of our session, Bernie cleared his throat as if he were about to give a speech. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “This is one of the best paintings I’ve ever done, but I’ll give it to you for free if you do one thing more for me.”
My hands began to sweat. I knew this had been a stupid thing to do. Only naive kids like me would find themselves sitting for hours in a stranger’s apartment in New York. Paralyzed by fear and Midwestern politeness, I sat stupid and silent, waiting for Bernie to make his proposition.
“You see,” he began. Now Bernie was the one who was looking uncomfortable. He started again. “You see, I don’t know anyone like you. And I don’t want to offend you. It’s just that I would like to paint another portrait of you. But next time…” He paused.
So I was not to be raped, at least not yet. My heart slowed a beat or two. But what if he asks me to pose nude? I looked again at the mass of paintings taking over his apartment. Oh God, I prayed, please, please don’t let him ask me to take off my clothes.
Bernie continued. “Next time, for the next painting, I’d like you to dress in a business suit, like that gray one that you have. And could you bring your briefcase? Oh, and please wear those gray pumps you own. I’ve never painted a picture of a real yuppie before.”
Relief washed over me, and I started to laugh, harrumphing so hard that I had to wipe tears from my eyes. Bernie smiled back at me, but he clearly didn’t understand what I was finding so funny. “Sure,” I gasped between laughs. “Sure, I can do that.”
The portrait Bernie gave me, I must admit, wasn’t what I expected. The girl in the picture looked sad, maybe even sullen. The corners of her mouth turned down. Do I really look like that when I ride the elevator each morning to go to work? Is this my New York City face?
And after three hours of doing my eyes, all Bernie had done was paint one a turquoise blue and the other a turquoise blue clouded over with purple. There were no pupils, no whites. Just washes of color. This? It took him hours to paint these mismatched eyes? Confusion must have shown on my face, because Bernie tried to explain the picture to me.
“I really had to work to get the eyes just right,” he said. “I see you as a girl who’s not quite sure yet about who she is or where she’s going. So one eye is clear and the other’s not.”
I took the portrait to a nearby gallery to be framed. When I returned several weeks later to retrieve it, the owner of the gallery looked at me a bit oddly. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to cover up the back of the painting,” he said.
“The back of the painting?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “You know, where the dedication’s written.”
“Where the dedication’s written?” I echoed.
“Here, take a look.” The man pushed the painting toward me back side up. There, on the back of my portrait, Bernie had painted an inscription: “A delight to the eye and the ear.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I said. I looked at Bernie’s words. “Go ahead. Cover them up.”
Today, 20 years later, the girl in my Modigliani still watches over me, one eye clear and one clouded, the younger, uncertain sister of Jeanne Hébuterne.CP