“I hate Sargent, I hate Sargent, I hate Sargent…”
Startled, I turned around and discreetly observed the old man pacing Gallery 771. Of average height, wearing a long overcoat with large lapels that had seen better days, the disheveled white-haired man was walking back and forth, head low and shoulders slumped. He only stopped in front of the portrait of Madam X, as if he knew instinctively where the painting was. As if he could feel it. He then looked up at the young socialite painted by the greatest American portraitist and repeated “I hate Sargent.” Only then did he resume his methodical and relentless pacing. Head low and shoulders slumped.
Intrigued, I checked around me. Was the old man talking to someone? But there was no one else, except the security guard, nonchalantly leaning on the doorframe between Galleries 771 and 758. He was checking his phone. Mondays at the Metropolitan Museum were usually quiet.
Under normal circumstances, I would have minded my own business, but I was intrigued by the desperate urgency in this man’s behavior. I couldn’t help it. I walked up to him and softly asked him if he needed help.
“Why would I need your help? Do you hate him too?”
I didn’t expect that. No, I didn’t hate Sargent, on the contrary, he was my favorite portraitist. The old man stopped pacing and looked through me with his red-rimmed eyes. What I saw in those eyes made me shiver.
“No, I don’t hate Sargent, I actually…”
“Then you can’t help me,” he snapped louder and resumed pacing. The security guard gave me a questioning look. I smiled back and indicated everything was fine. I sat on the bench and observed the old man, who was again staring at the delicate head in profile.
“This was the love of my life,” he whispered. He turned towards me. “Do you know where I can find him?”
“Sargent? He died in 1925. He’s buried in England.”
“The old bastard died before me then? Am I too late? What year is this?”
I was getting uncomfortable. “2019.”
This didn’t seem to frazzle the old man who took out a pocket watch. I recognized the model, my grand father owned one. A beautiful pre-war model, from the 1920’s.
Before I could add anything, the old man had vanished. I sat in stunned silence. When I finally stood to leave, a face on a nearby portrait caught my attention. I stared in disbelief at the rugged face, the slightly younger version of the man who had just disappeared. I went closer.
The portrait The Tramp was completed by John Singer Sargent in 1904.
This story is dedicated to my friend and author Arthur Davis. You know why.