Cristoph’s Salomé

Salomé: A study in shadows was the talk of the 1895 Salon de Paris. Spectators said it had an uneasy, implicative quality to it, critics called it an overblown mess. The painting was a figure study executed in Post-impressionist style. A female nude reclined in deep shadow, gold highlights just barely picking out her facial features. She appeared to be laughing. If viewed very closely, for what is assumed to be a very lengthy amount of time, spectators are supposed to be able to pick individual shapes from the shadows, turning the woman’s face into something resembling a bed of writhing worms.

The artist known only as Cristoph had come practically out of nowhere. Of the few semi-concrete details of his life, it was known that he was Austrian-born, of poor lineage, and lived in the bohemian areas of Paris. Oddly enough, he was not well-liked by his peers, societal outcasts that even Gauguin refused to drink with.

Cristoph had been experimenting with dark-on-black painting, what he dubbed “shadowlight.” As light struck from a prism created a rainbow, a similar palette, he reasoned, must continue in the other direction. Not content with simple shades, he sought to revolutionize the artist’s concept of of hue and value. He sent away for strange minerals and plants to grind as pigments. The artist was hospitalized, twice for mercuric poisoning, once for a mysterious rash, yet continued to apply himself with scholarly(some say suicidal) dedication. Cobalts and coals, oxides and fugitive dyes were mixed in the pursuit of absolute black. Though he had achieved a small degree of success in his earlier paintings, Cristoph still sought after a pigment that would absorb all light. By achieving this, he theorized, a painter could thereupon work backwards to create an entire spectrum of shadow.

As to where he got the funds for such experimentation, whispers abounded that he had a private patron and that Salomé was not only a study, but a portrait.

Cristoph’s reputation grew when Salomé was purchased by banker Piers Vallet, who subsequently squandered his life and fortune on an attempt to locate the model in the picture. Cristoph remained reticent abut her identity in the face of scandal.

Thought Cristoph continued to work heavily, Salomé was the last finished painting to show in a gallery. All paintings that followed after were either sketches or works-in-progress, though the layperson may be forgiven for mistaking them for completed works as they lack only Cristoph’s signature “shadowlight” objects.

A month after Vallet’s suicide, the artist announced he would undertake his most ambitious project to date: painting his own shadow. The piece would be done on the wall of his own small studio, which had already been prepped with a special black gesso. Five days after the announcement, his landlord admitted himself with his own key to complain about Cristoph’s cat, which had been bothering other tenants for food. The studio was empty. No trace of the artist was ever found.

If one visits the studio space in Montmartre(and indeed, guided tours are still available) one may view the last known location of the artist. Cristoph’s palette lies before the wall as if set down only a moment before, a packet of Job rolling papers lie on the stool he used for long nights at the easel. And before them, the semblance of a human shadow painted masterfully onto the wall. Critics of the time called it an exceptional example of Trompe l’oeil, from core to penumbra it resembled hyper-realistically its intended subject.  Its most notable feature went undiscovered for decades afterwards. For it is said that a mute face is just barely visible on the head of the shadow, revealed not by illuminating the wall further, but by extinguishing all light.

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