Study Abroad | Student Stories
Her Body’s a Landscape
by Maggie Blaha
Desdemona started posing in the nude for her husband ten years ago, in 1983. Every morning she enters his studio—the large annex space in their country cottage in Rodmell—at eight and waits for her husband, Toby, to relay his vision and instruct her to pose in a certain manner in a certain part of the house. The most recent portrait of Desdemona hangs over the fireplace of the south parlor and features her sitting in a loveseat and reading in front of a bookshelf in a Victorian-cluttered drawing room. Her left leg is curled under the right one that rests on the floor and a white sheet flows loosely from her waist and over her right hip, just covering her pelvis and pubic triangle. Her torso is turned toward the back of the sofa, and she holds some book in front of her and appears charmed by its contents, as her lips hold the slight curve of a smile. “I’ll call this one, Naked Woman Reading in her Sitting Room,” Toby declared proudly, as usual. When titles for his paintings strike him, he feels the need to herald them as though he were claiming a country.
The first nude portrait he ever painted of Desdemona was a cliché variation of the Odalisque. He hung a thick, red velvet curtain to hide the wallpaper of this studio and had her pose on a divan so that her backside was facing him. She turned her head so that she was looking at Toby over her shoulder, only she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at some of the framed landscapes hanging on the wall that Toby had painted so many years ago when his eyesight allowed him to paint without much strain. Toby claimed that painting her nude helped his vision. It was good practice for him to try and capture the lines and contours of her naked body, the contrast of her skin and hair against the red velvet curtain with his oils on canvas. Desdemona suddenly felt like a mountain. She felt as though she was part of the English landscape her husband was quite famous for rendering in his art.
Desdemona had been self-conscious of her naked wrinkled body at first, despite Toby’s assertion that she was just as beautiful as the day he met her, almost fifty-four years ago. In the first few portraits he did, which were all Odalisque-style but in different rooms of the house, he allowed her to cover the lower half of her body with a sheet so that only a hint of the crack of her bottom was revealed, and to wear her long, gray-white hair down so that it covered the part of her back that was most wrinkled, fat, and speckled with moles and sun spots.
It was six months before Desdemona was able to bare her breasts for Toby to paint. When he grew tired of painting his wife’s backside—she was eventually able to pose without the sheet covering her body and to tie her hair up in a bun—he decided he wanted her to pose as Eve in their gated, heavily shrouded, backyard Garden of Eden. In his first few renderings he allowed his wife to curtain her sagging breasts with her long hair, and he only painted her from the belly button up.
Toby couldn’t understand why his wife was so self-conscious about her body. It was not like the Desdemona he thought he knew. Certainly she was older—much older—than the fearless twenty-one year-old woman he married fifty-four years ago who was an aspiring painter herself (she dabbled in watercolors), but it wasn’t as though he was going to sell these nude portraits of his wife or put them in a gallery exhibition.
These paintings were for them. For their marriage. Toby had devoted his life to his painting, and Desdemona devoted herself to Toby. Toby believed in his art, and his wife believed in him as an artist. She supported him, cared for him, helped him to continue to paint in spite of his worsening vision. She guided him through colors and lines and contours. These paintings symbolized the artist he had become because he was supported by the woman he loved.
Toby had troubled vision since he was a young man. He was unable to enlist in the British army during the Great War like his baby brother (killed at Passchendaele) and fellow countrymen. His relatively poor vision did not affect his ability to mix and blend colors, to render the stone beaches of Brighton, the waves pulling away and throwing themselves at the shore, the sun racing across the tall grass of the fields, the trim grass of the bowling greens, the sunlight drying the country houses that stood proudly on the Sussex countryside after a rainstorm.
He bought himself a Breton shirt and decided to devote himself to his passion for painting. He began teaching and taking classes at the Royal Academy of Art, where he was surrounded by like-minded people, by people who were not able to devote themselves to the war effort for one reason or another. Many of the artists he met were not prevented from enlisting in the army due to medical conditions, but rather because of their personal convictions, some brand of pacifism. These men who were devoting themselves to their art never even considered enlisting.
Toby was not particularly dismayed by the fact that he was unfit for combat. He was only enlisting because his father expected him to. “It’ll be a great adventure, my boy. You’re an Englishman; you’ve got to defend England.” Toby’s father wanted him and his brother to experience the excitement of war, to learn discipline and gain a sense of honor from participating in the army.
Toby had never seen his father look more disappointed in him than the day he told him that he was unfit to enlist in the British army because of his eyesight, and would therefore join the Royal Academy to paint. His father was grateful that he had at least one brave and honorable son to be proud of, but he was angered when one day a boy on a bicycle delivered a telegram from the war office, relaying the tragic news that his young son, his baby boy, was killed at Passchendaele. Toby’s poor mother cried herself to sleep at night because her dear boy perished in a war her husband wanted him to fight in, and his father bewailed the fact that his son would not return a decorated war hero.
Toby’s subject had always been landscapes. He began teaching a class on finding inspiration in landscape in 1927, nine years after the war, because he had already made a name for himself, hosting some small exhibitions and auctioning off some of his paintings of the valleys and mountains of North Wales, where he usually spends his summer holiday to this very day. It was in this class that he met Desdemona.
She was seven years his younger. She always wore a Breton or man’s button-down shirt cinched at the waist with a thick belt, khaki trousers, and boat shoes. Her deep brown hair was shaped like a bowl around her ears, and her hands and forearms were always noticeable splattered with paint. In her attire, the way she stood, the way she sat, anyone would have mistaken her for a man had she not had a pre-Raphaelite female figure and a beautiful face so unlike any other woman’s Toby had ever seen. Her cheekbones were high, she had a long razor-thin nose that grew thick and plump about the nostrils, freckles that dotted around her forehead and eyes like a raccoon, and eyes that were really nothing special—brown, almond-shaped—but seemed mysterious, entrancing because of the freckles that formed a mask around them.
Toby was attracted to her, he supposed, but his first impression of Desdemona was that she was like the handful of other women who managed to save enough money to take one or two professional art classes. They took these classes with the hope of expanding the skills they learned in drawing lessons they received as part of their female education into a career.
They all came in dressed like Lily Briscoe, hoping to shape lives for themselves where they didn’t need to find husbands and become housewives. But after they found that a successful career as an artist required them to do more than paint vases and table settings and trace silhouettes, when they found that they actually didn’t have any talent, they dropped the classes, became upset that their money couldn’t be refunded, and went out into London society to find husbands. Perhaps some of them managed to try their luck in other lines of work.
When Toby first saw Desdemona at the canvas in the front right corner, he classified her as just another Lily Briscoe imposter. He knew that within two weeks’ time she would find that she had no real talent and decide to start dressing like a woman so she could find a husband and become a housewife. Or, perhaps, find some other line of work.
As the class went on, he discovered that Desdemona had a vision of her own. While he didn’t care for her art—it was not to his personal taste, nor did it take the direction he wanted to see art take—he could not deny that she was a skilled painter. Well, he couldn’t deny it to himself, anyway, but he could certainly lie to her if he wanted to. She used watercolors, a common feminine medium, to render landscapes as reduced shapes. Mountains looked like triangles; valleys looked like rectangles; trees were lines with circles or diamonds for leaves, but she skillfully placed them, skillfully used colors. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was of the Post-Impressionist school of art, without even knowing it, which sought to convey the general sense and idea behind things rather than actually trying to render reality, actual forms. But she would never classify herself as belonging to such a school; Toby did that for her. She simply just painted. She painted things as she saw them and sensed them.
Toby didn’t like her painting or the school of thought he believed she belonged to, but he was intrigued by them. He was intrigued by her and even found that she had never read To the Lighthouse or anything else by Woolf. She was not deadest against marriage like the other women who tried to take his class. She had no opinion on marriage. She wasn’t painting because she didn’t want a husband, but because she loved it. Because she had a vision she needed to convey. She didn’t just have an opinion because she was told to have one. Desdemona was the only genuine woman Toby had ever met.
He found himself always thinking about Desdemona, always wanted to be around her just so he could take in her scent. She always smelt like she had run through a field on a warm summer’s day. She always smelt like flowers. Like elderflowers. She made him crave elderflower cordial. She made him crave her.
During class, Toby would spend more time with Desdemona, discussing her work, than with any other student, trying to make the men believe it was because she needed a great deal of guidance. He would always find ways to touch her, to allow his fingertips to brush over her shoulder, between her shoulder blades, or the small of her back. He found himself engrossed in the explanations she provided for her work, but he grew to hate it more and more. As her work became more detestable to him, Desdemona became more attractive.
Desdemona was convinced that her marriage to Toby was a marriage of minds. They were two artists who could work together and sleep together and live together and support each other’s artistic visions. She loved that Toby invested interest in her art, and, of course, she thought he was brilliant. There is something majestic about his paintings, she thought, the way he’s able to paint fog atop the hills on a gray cloudy day. Anyone would want to hang his paintings in a gallery, over a mantelpiece, in a grand hotel. But Desdemona just couldn’t create the same way Toby could. She didn’t have that same vision. Her paintings would probably never be hung anywhere, but she couldn’t just paint in a fashion she thought would please other people; she had to paint her vision no matter what other people thought.
“You just haven’t acquired the skill to create like I do. You just need to learn the basics, which I will teach you, and practice them. Then you will no longer be afraid to take risks, to paint more sophisticated forms,” Toby wanted to be reassuring to the woman he loved and wanted to take her under his wing.
Of course, she thought, I probably just have a basic vision; a vision that needs refinement. She thought she unconsciously wanted to achieve Toby’s greatness, to have her painting rival his. Toby made her realize what her work could be. I am afraid, she thought, I am afraid to even try to convey the world in its actual, realistic form, and so I reduce reality to shapes.
Their marriage began as a union of two artists’ careers, but it soon turned into a marriage of two artists focusing only on Toby’s career. Desdemona not only had duties as an artist, but also duties as a wife. In her marriage to Toby, the sense of duty she once felt toward her art no longer seemed as important at the sense of duty she had for her husband.
Toby’s painting compelled him to go out walking for long periods of time, to lock himself in his studio for hours on end. His absolute devotion to his art left little room to think about anything else. He was absent-minded, prone to melancholy, and incapable of really doing anything for himself.
Desdemona respected her husband and believed in the importance of his work, so she did everything she could to provide for him. The only time she ever really saw her husband was when he returned from his walks or came out of his studio for meals, which he expected his wife to have prepared. While he was at work, Desdemona would tend to the house and ensure that life was comfortable, peaceful, and conducive for Toby’s creativity.
Toby’s eyesight started to decline more and more each year following their marriage, and he relied on Desdemona to help him paint. He mostly mixed up colors and needed her to differentiate between them, and he sometimes needed her to help him make out different shapes in the landscape that appeared blurry and unclear. He asked Desdemona to pose nude for him when he found himself straining to make out different forms in the landscape on a regular basis. He thought creating these nude portraits would keep his mind sharp. Toby needed Desdemona to be willing to help him keep painting.
Desdemona agreed even though she was an old woman and uncomfortable with doing something her younger self, whom she lost long ago, would do more readily. But she was no longer an artist who painted for love or dressed in men’s clothing or wore her hair shore because she didn’t see much distinction between men and women; she was a dutiful wife. Desdemona recognized the change within her, but she saw it as growth in a different direction.
Not once did she ever feel she was oppressed. (Not consciously, anyway.) She was helping her husband create his art, which she believed was the same as creating her own. She never thought she was giving up her art so her husband could become a great artist, but rather she realized there are more important things in life to work toward. Desdemona and Toby’s marriage simply fell into place. Their roles within the marriage were imperceptible to one another.
Desdemona became comfortable with being the subject of Toby’s paintings. Over the course of ten years she became bolder and more willing to pose for him in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the parlor, on the roof; in the library, in the garden, in a tree, on a mailbox. It wasn’t so much confidence that she gained, but practice.
Every morning for the past ten years, Desdemona has disrobed for her husband. Not just for her husband, but for his art. Sitting before him in the nude, feeling his eyes on her as though she were a mountain in North Wales, became something she did naturally, unconsciously. Instead of creating her own art she was held in place by the gaze of an artist.
From time to time, Toby allows Desdemona to strike her own pose as long as it suits the overall vision he has for his portrait. This is the only freedom she has to create something of her own. Sometimes she is allowed to have her own vision as long as it doesn’t stray too far from her husband’s art.