by Murray Andrew Pura
He was the greatest painter in the land. And he took for his subject the very least person he could find. “I would like you to sit for a portrait,” the painter said to the beggar when he found him on the street. “Please come with me to my studio.” Befuddled, the man walked beside the famous painter up one avenue and down another. His clothes were in rags. His teeth were black and crooked. His hair hung like weeds down past his shoulders. Leprosy had rotted out his nose and made stumps of his fingers. One eye was white with a cataract. The other often rolled back up into his head. Sores broke and bled over his skin. And his skin was as rough and grey as the bark of an elm. Nevertheless, once they arrived at the studio, the painter sat the man down in a chair of golden oak and spread a backdrop of blue velvet cloth behind him. Then he brought out his palette and sable brushes, propped up a white canvas on his wooden easel, and began to paint.
It took several weeks. At night the painter gave the man his bed to sleep in and curled up on the floor. They shared soup and bread and cheese together and pot after pot of strong hot tea. Colours worked themselves under the painter’s fingernails and over his ebony skin. He chewed the ends of his brushes when he was trying to think. On sunny days he opened all the shutters and let light blaze over teacups and saucers and the man’s face. If it was overcast he kept the shutters closed and lit one or two candles. Once he asked the beggar to sit in the chair until four in the morning. The man could barely keep his eyes open. But the painter rewarded them both with a bar of Belgian chocolate as long as his arm.
Finally the portrait was done. “Come and look,” the great painter invited the man. When the beggar limped over to see his portrait he was stunned. “But this is not me!” he protested. The man in the portrait had hair that was washed and combed and that gleamed like silver. His skin was clean and whole. His nose sat strong and straight in the centre of his face. His eyes were rich and brown. The hands folded in his lap had fingers that were long and delicate. His lips curled in a small smile that hinted at the sturdy white teeth behind. The painter put an arm around the man’s shoulders. “Everything I have painted,” he said, “I found in your face.”
Once the canvas was perfectly dry the painter placed it within a gilt frame and gave it to the man. “Cover it with a rag,” he said. “But show the portrait to everyone who puts a coin in your cup. Tell them it is a painting done by the Master. Word will get around soon enough.” The man did as the painter told him. At first very few people would pay to have the rag removed though many asked what the rag concealed. “A portrait done by the Master,” the man would tell them. “Nonsense,” he was told. But the mayor of the city finally came and asked for the rag to be removed and placed a large coin in the man’s cup. When he saw the portrait the mayor was astounded. “I had heard rumours that this was in fact a great painting,” he said, “but now I can see for myself it is a masterpiece. It could be hung in any gallery in Europe and command attention.” Soon the mayor’s words spread from one end of the city to the other. Hundreds and thousands came to place a coin in the man’s cup and then wait to see the rag removed.
The man used the money to buy better food to eat and white soap to scrub his hair and skin with. He paid a doctor to remove his cataract and straighten his crooked teeth. A nun found him and cleaned and bandaged his sores. A woman who owned a clothing shop came and placed soft deerskin gloves on his hands. A man brought a glistening burgundy scarf to wind over the hole in the centre of his face. As the coins spilled over the top of the man’s cup he bought food and clothing for the other beggars on the street.
Many people asked the man to sell them the painting. But he would not. He slept with the painting in his arms and he carried it with him wherever he went. But an old beggar who befriended him stole the painting one afternoon while the man was napping in the warm yellow light. When he awoke he cried out and limped through the city looking for the portrait. But he never found it. Soon enough his money ran out and no one came to place coins in his cup anymore. His hair grew scraggly again and his skin thickened with dirt. The gloves rotted from his fingers and the scarf became a black rag. In a few months the leprosy took both his eyes and ate away his entire face. He died and his body was scooped up into a cart with the other street dead and carried outside of the city to be burned. By the time the master painter heard of the man’s plight it was too late.
The portrait passed through many hands and many countries. After several centuries it grew dark with dust and grime and, as the great painter who had done the portrait was no longer in vogue, it was placed in storage in the basement of a museum behind rows and rows of other old paintings and forgotten. Yet the memory of the portrait was not quite forgotten. When the great painter became fashionable once again people hunted throughout the world for his painting called Portrait of a Leper. Its worth was estimated in the hundreds of millions. But no one ever found it.
One year a restorer of paintings was looking through the storage area of a museum for paintings that deserved to be reintroduced to the public. For months he ignored the dark painting every time he worked his way down its row. However one morning he paused to consider it. He felt its restoration would be something of a challenge and who knew what the removal of the grime and darkness would reveal? He set to work on it at once.
He carefully cleansed the canvas. Matched faded colours and reapplied them. Removed flaking and painstakingly rebrushed the area. A cheerful face slowly revealed itself. “Why, this is marvelous,” the restorer said to himself, “but whose face is this and what is the name of the artist who painted it?” When he finally reached the lower right hand corner the name of the great painter emerged. He brought the painting immediately into the office of the museum’s curator. “This is the work of the artist who painted Portrait of a Leper,” he announced.
A special show was arranged around the unveiling of the restored portrait. Thousands of art critics and connoisseurs descended upon the museum. When at last the face was revealed everyone was astonished. “This is a painting of his that was never known,” they declared. “It is a new masterpiece.” When one critic wondered aloud whether it might not indeed be the missing Portrait of a Leper he was scorned from New York to Paris to Rome. “Take a look at that face,” the others demanded. “Is that the face of a man ravaged by leprosy? Look at how beautiful his features are.” So it was decided that the restored painting should be named Portrait of a Great Soul.