Portrait of a Lady

from Looking at Pictures; translated by Lydia Davis

A young lady, a girl of perhaps twenty, is sitting in a chair and reading a book. Or she has just been diligently reading, and now she is reflecting on what she has read. This often happens, that someone who is reading must pause, because all sorts of ideas having to do with the book keenly engage him. The reader is dreaming; perhaps she is comparing the subject matter of the book to her own experiences hitherto; she is thinking about the hero of the book, while she fancies herself almost its heroine. But now to the picture, to the way it is painted. The picture is strange, and the painting in it is delicate and subtle, because the painter, in a mood of beautiful audacity, has crossed the boundaries of the usual and has thrust his way through a biased reality out to freedom. In painting the portrait of the young lady, he is also painting her amiable secret reveries, her thoughts and daydreams, her lovely, happy imagination, since, directly above the reader’s head, or brain, in a softer, more delicate distance, as though it were the construction of a fantasy, he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do. The shepherd is wearing a dark blue jacket, and around this contented loafer graze the lambs and the sheep, while overhead in the summer morning air, swallows fly across the cloudless sky. Looming up from the opulent, rounded tops of the leafy trees, one can glimpse the wispy tips of a few firs. The green of the meadow is rich and warm, and speaks a romantic and adventurous language, and the whole cloudless picture inspires observant, quiet contemplation. The shepherd off in the distance on his painted green meadow is undoubtedly happy. Will the girl who is reading the book also be happy? She certainly would deserve to be. Every creature and every living thing in the world should be happy. No one should be unhappy.

Excerpted from Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser, translated by Lydia Davis. Used with permission of New Directions. Copyright © Robert Walser, 2015. All rights reserved.

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