Painted Women

Poem by Michael Cantor


The first one was the Botticelli girl

pre-Raphaelite, a Venus Lite whose ropes

of golden hair drew sparrows from the rooftops

when she glided down East Second Street;

and heblack leather cap, black coat, black beard,

small body twisted like a question mark

appeared to stumble in her wake, appended

and dependent, yet somehow in charge.


And soon we saw her in the canvases

that lined his loft, and filled a gallery:

she rose up from a taxicab in one,

a Hudson River clamshell in another;

a hand half-hid her naked, perfect breasts.

The paintings were unframed: no glitz, no gilt;

just stretchers, staples, gesso and acrylic


and herthe light brown eyes, that realm of hair.


His work sold quickly, then she disappeared

from studios, from Second Street, from life.

She left no baggage; no one knew her name.

Word got around from time to time that he

was spotted uptown somewhere, maybe Chelsea,

with a darker, yet familiar face.



He reappeared, in time, beside a darker

yet familiar face, whose oval shape


head cocked, brows plucked and arched above pursed lips


was perched and angled on a neck so long

its very length became irrational.

We climbed four flights to reach his sublet loft

and poked around while she looked past our stares;

at ease and naked as she posed for him.


Modigliani Ronnie we anointed her,

we inbred elders of the neighborhood;

and watched, and shook our heads as, once again,

a stream of portraits of his newest love  

thin waist, broad hips, suggestive tufts of hair

beneath her outstretched and columnar arms;   

or clothed and in a chairengulfed our side-street

framing shops and filled the Avenues.   


And when this batch was sold, then Ronnie too

had had her moment, had her flash of life,

and was not seen again.  A thick Botero

girl with massive thighs moved in next year;

a Renoir, then a Balthus, then some more.

The gossip had it that his beard turned gray.



His beard turned gray, then white, the story went.

Now he found his models on the street

and focused on an inch or two of skin.

He wore thick glasses as he stabbed on paint

throughout the progress of an afternoon,

and moved in closer, squinting through a lens;

the model, dozing, sprawled across a chair,

reduced to pixilated dots and dabs

as he enlarged each pore, each untweezed hair

that curled and wandered near an areole,

until the canvas spread to fill the room.


Until he was consumed in its enormity,

until their presence drained the room of air,

the folds and crush of belly, breast and flank

embracing, crushing and devouring him. 

Or so the theory went when he had vanished,

when nothing could be found within the loft

except the paintings, stretched from wall to wall

and to the ceiling, of flesh and flesh and flesh,

so magnified and moist it seemed to breathe;

and stacks of massive rolls of canvases

that, unrolled, hinted of his tortured frame.



He had evaporated, evanesced,

the tortured frame a memory at best.

The painter and his many works and models

melted from the art scene and the Village.

But, yes, the waitress in this coffee shop

does have a Gaugin kind of look and style,

and the couple that just walked in holding hands,

and trade small kisses as they take a table,

bring Ronnie and the Botticelli girl

to mind. And is it just the low-cut dress

that makes that blonde barrista Rubenesque?


You see them drifting through the narrow streets

and in the markets and the laundromats,

these curiously familiar, striking women.

Some claim that if you try an angled glance 

you may, at times, catch just the flicker

of a leather cap, a coat, a beard,

a body twisted like a question mark.