A laurel wreath of gold encircling his head, Napoleon holds aloft a bejeweled crown for her, for Josephine, who kneels three shallow steps below him. We who know scarcely a living soul in the gallery know who they are, that pair in matching regalia (crimson velvet busy with golden bees and ermine-plush) and snap salutes with our smartphones. Those others who dwarf us? A card on the wall depicts them in outline, each of them boasting a number that goes to a name on a list. If only one could worm his way through this too solid throng … though who among us will not swear in a foreign tongue that he’s melting?
You turn, and she, whose name you read, Madame Récamier reclines on a sofa. White muslin tumbling from her crossed ankles lures the eye to her feet, while the see-through sleeve invites … Her stare defies you to run your gaze along that bare forearm to those bare feet. A black hair band … restrains you say to yourself as though the curls were writhing. Nesting rather. Sets them off—as does this other’s red hair ribbon. Red too the sash around her waist. White sleeveless gown (a peplos, yes?) baring a shoulder, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun enfolds in long, white arms her nine-year-old Julie, whose arms, in blue short sleeves, encircle her mother’s bare, white neck. Faces with names that turn your way, whose stares you return—you aim your phone. Each time I do,
she’s there, an older woman, her brown hair yielding to gray at the temples—one my age. All right, whoever you are in your black skinny jeans, white poet blouse, I’ll snap you too. A glance my way, a nod, and off she scoots. At whatever paint-fixed face I aim because its look has caught her eye, at whatever face with a name, away she shies.
A distant gallery offers lunch on a shiny salver, a herring, which eyes me, a roll on the wooden table, Rhine wine in a tall, thin flute (and an earthenware pitcher). Now there’s a snack with ham, rolls too and … are they bagels? and sliced brown bread, a wheel of yellow cheese and one of white, the carved cold joint in a clove-studded jacket of fat arranged on a wooden table, on creased white linen, from which a knife extends to me its pewter handle. After all, how could I not be hungry? I’m hungry for real.