I'm writing a short story about Clara Peeters, one of the first female still life painters of record. The story is set in Antwerp and this particular bit is about her nemesis, Paulo.
Paulo looked up at the big clock on the cathedral tower as it struck the quarter hour. He’d lingered too long in the sailor’s tavern and was late again! Osais would soon remind him that tardiness was inexcusable to the Dutch. Could he tolerate another demeaning scolding for his undisciplined Italian ways? With his collar up and his hands shoved in his pockets, Paulo rushed along the icy walk to the studio, slipping and sliding as he went.
It was late November in icy Antwerp and by four o’clock in the afternoon, the narrow streets were dark and gloomy. The sun sank quickly in the north as did Paulo’s mood. Even though he’d been warned about the harsh climate and the aloof Dutch, nothing could dissuade him from accepting the apprenticeship with the Osais Workshop. The legendary Antwerp studio practically invented the modern still life and was famous for teaching technique and detail.
When he won the apprenticeship competition, Paulo was ecstatic and had immediately begun learning Dutch. As would any Italian man, he was careful to first learn the “love” words in Dutch, then the jargon of the painters. He had rarely slept alone in Florence—admiring girls and women were eager to share his bed. In Antwerp, lonely, homesick and depressed, he could only dream about the buxom, blond women to whom he seemed invisible. At the “Pay in Monkey’s” bar on the wharf, where the sailors coming home from Indonesia really did pay their bar bills with a monkey, he found some relief from the dour Dutch atmosphere. He gossiped with the seafaring Italians and watched the antics of the acrobatic monkeys with whom he felt an odd kinship, both being fish out of water.
As he approached the studio door, he peered through the soot-streaked panes and saw twelve-year-old Clara, perched on her stool, painting tiny hairs on the legs of a beetle with her finest brush. Her silvery hair hung in plaits down her straight back. Contained and calm, she leaned in to apply a crucial spot on the beetle carapace, then stretched back to the check the speck from every angle.
Many of the apprentices thought she must be a witch, for the child painted anatomically accurate insects which looked alive. Prospective buyers in the studio had been seen trying to swipe a fly off a painting, then leaning in closer and realizing with astonishment, that the insect was painted into the scene.
Just then Osais opened the door.“Ah, Senor Paulo,” he said sarcastically. “You have found time for us today?”