by Vickie Tern

Inspired by the painting "La Charmeuse" (1868) by Charles Gleyre, as it inspired Mat Twassel to ask people to write about it.

The story will be more meaningful if you first look at the painting, though that's not crucial. It's a full-figure nude woman seen from the rear. If that gives offense, or anything else in this story gives offense, your remedy is obvious. Stop reading, and gradually, over the years, try to forget.

by Vickie Tern

In those days paintings were often stillpoints in time, illustrated moments implying whole narratives, tableaus suggesting how things got that way and what might happen next. Mostly they portrayed the sad or sentimental evidence of lost possibilities, characters forever caught in an unalterable predicament for the viewer to contemplate. In those days paintings required viewers with imaginative sympathy. Even faith, because such paintings present the evidence of things not seen.

For instance, Arthur Hughes's "The Long Engagement" merely pictures a man and a woman in the woods, an impoverished, threadbare Curate and a modestly but but respectably dressed member of his parish. They are holding hands tightly while they both together stare yearning at initials inside a pierced heart once carved into the bark of a young tree, but now seen on a trunk now almost overgrown with ivy and moss. That's all we see. But as we read the narrative implied by the painting's title we notice things. Small lines in their faces declare that the hopefulness and bloom of their first love are gone, to be replaced only by unrelieved yearning.. The picture portrays for the viewer an intensely dramatic moment, the pitiable waste of erotic desire frustrated by respectability.

I myself think Hughes went over the top with it. It's a hoot. I've never let respectability interfere with my own pleasures. But then, I'm no penniless Curate. I'm rich, and I go wherever desire takes me.

Even so, I can feel what that painting wants me to feel. The characters in those narrative paintings are always recognizable, drawn from our own world. We surmise their predicaments and we feel for them and with them. We become them in fact, in an act of empathic identification no paintings these days require. In those days that's what paintings were for, whether of Rossetti's entrapping tangles of women's hair or Holman Hunt's sun-struck but still- garlanded sacrificial "Scapegoat." Such paintings bind a spectator into the events implied as the people portrayed, and as themselves observant, feeling what they feel. They can become whole worlds possessed by the viewer, possessing the viewer.

At first, when what looked like an Irish colleen answered Gleyre's advertisement for a model, I thought he'd reject her out of hand. She was short -- he wanted someone tall and willowy. She was red-headed -- he wanted black hair, to imply passionate intensity, or silvery blonde, to imply virginal innocence. His commission was from some new-rich manufacturing magnate, to create a "Nymph Seduced by Satyrs" to hang in a dining room of his mansion, to embarrass his too-proper wife and to inflame the appetites of lustful friends. Gleyre explained this to me as we went through a bottle of his best sherry while awaiting her arrival at his studio. Then another. She was late.

"I want to do an Odalisque this time," he said. "A woman with impossibly long legs and thin curved hips, and tits that offer themselves to your mouth eagerly uplifted, like wine glasses filled to the brim with drugged wine you can't resist." He glanced at our second empty wine bottle, then at me. "You know many such women I suppose."

I pride myself I've known a few, among the thousands of women I've seduced. My fortune was inherited, and ample, and that is what I chose to do with it, Bring women to bed for my own gratification. I nodded.

"Wouldn't that be a little racy for middle class tastes, a seductive nude in a dining room?" I asked him? "This Iron and Steel Baron wants to part with all that money in order to look at dirty pictures while he chokes on his roast beef?"

"No, nouveau riche industrialists will accept scenes even of the most vile brothel activities, as long as we painters can present them as classical mythology or allegories. That's what Titian and Giorgione and Botticelli taught us when they painted all those nudes to hang in the chambers of all those horny Italian bankers. Call a picture of a raw fucking 'Truth Seduced by Error' and it's no longer salacious, it's educational and uplifting. If you know what I mean."

I did. I'd stopped by his studio for only a moment, on my way to an assignation in the park, my third that morning. But Gleyre had urged me to stay at least long enough to help him interview this new model he was expecting. "I know nothing about models," I'd told him. But he explained that the only questions asked would be by our eyes, and the only answers provided would be by the woman's naked body. "I'll want to see how you respond to her nudity," he said. "If that's not too great a sacrifice to make for a friend." So I stayed.

The young woman arrived apologizing about horse carriages running late even while unpinning her hat and setting it on a divan on the corner of the studio. "Or will you want me to lie down on that thing? It's a little ratty. Are you sure there are no fleas in it? I bathed before coming, you know! At least this place is warm!" Her apologies sounded defiant, as if she were merely filling the air with words while there was something more substantial on her mind.

"Yes, I'm sure," Gleyre said. He glanced at the note in his hand, "Ahhh, yes, Miss Circe. I'm pleased that your flesh tones will be unsullied, flesh colored, so please don't feel the bath was wasted. For this I'll want you unclothed and standing up. You'll represent a nymph attracting satyrs out of the woods, ready to be ravished."

"I don't do being ravished," she said. She stared steadily at her potential employer, but then her eyes flicked onto me. It was electrifying, that glance from those eyes! It seemed so casual, yet so powerful! "Not even by satyrs, though there's something to be said for them!" she added, this time directly to me. Then she added, "You're M. Teste, aren't you?"

Did I know her? She may have heard something of my reputation. At the last Social Cotillion the women's gossip had voted me 'Most likely to Succeed" in my seductions of other women -- understandibly, since I'd already seduced most of them, and they'd not one of them found reason to complain until afterward. Except to me about their husbands.

"Guilty," I replied gallantly.

"So I've heard," she replied. She was as strangely cool as she was intense. "Shall we begin?"

"This is only an interview, Miss Circe," Gleyre said. "To see if you're suitable for the painting I have in mind."

"Oh, I'm suitable for what I have in mind," she said somewhat enigmatically. "Look!"

We couldn't either of us not look. She unbuttoned her blouse, then pulled it off with her chemise, then stood confronting us with a slight smile.

Her breasts were disappointing. Small. Chaste. Pink- tipped Obviously she wouldn't do. I waited for Gleyre to tell her to clothe herself again and move on elsewhere somewhere.

He didn't. He merely waited while she unbuttoned her skirt and let it collapse like a waterfall at her feet, then her overskirt, then her hoop, then her pantaloons, and finally she stepped out of her slippers.

Now the effect was quite different. She stood stark naked before us, feet apart, elbows upraised, her breasts spread up and wide apart as she reached behind her head to undo her hair. It tumbled freely down her back. She grasped that honey-red mane and twisted it into a single knot. I realized that not once had she stopped looking at me.

"You're a dancer, aren't you?" Gleyre said into the silence. "I see you stand comfortably in first position. A little less extreme please."

She responded by going splay-footed. She stood like a kitchen maid. Yet the effect was unspeakably fetching. I glanced at Gleyre, and caught him studying not the model but my reaction to her!

My eyes began to swallow this woman. I was impressed. She was no Odalisque. Her legs were relatively short and her hips large and elongated to a high, narrow waist. The effect was of massive weight belied by the smallness of her breasts and her face. Above the waist she was a delicate creature, a young girl. Below she was a mature woman. She looked mature enough, fit enough to take on and screw a battalion of Guards, in fact, even to bear all of their children simultaneously. Her long, powerful haunches framed a honey-red triangular patch of hair at her crotch. I found I couldn't look away from it.

"Look up, please." I became aware that she'd said it to me. "Look at my eyes." I did.

I heard Gleyre's voice. "A real woman, Teste, wouldn't you say so?"

My mouth, I realized, was dry. I tried to say "Undeniably!" but nothing came out. Because her eyes now seemed to be swallowing me. I was getting lost in them.

"I think we're ready," Gleyre said to her. "Why don't you stand over by that theatrical flat, in the sun fron that skylight. By the painted tree trunk. Drape your blouse on your left shoulder, to emphasize that you aren't merely nude, a classical figure of a woman, you're undressed, naked, a real woman. I don't want the spectator of this painting ever to forget that. Then turn and face into the painted woods on that flat."

For an out-of-work model she was arrogant! "First," she said, "give me something to do besides look at this blurred and blotted painting you seem to think represents woods."

She had me transfixed. And she knew it. She no longer looked at me, but now through me, as if I were a table or chair sharing the room with her, furniture of no interest. Gleyre handed her some pan pipes of sorts. "Here, pretend to play these. Pretend to entice some satyrs from that background painting."

"I've got the satyr I want," she said. "You do your part. Never mind about me."

She turned, and the sunlight gleamed off her shoulders, then onto her back. As her rear came into full sunlight, I suddenly felt clubbed! Blinded! Unawares, I fell to my knees! "Oh, God!" I cried out. "Heavenly God!"

There in the sun's divine radiance shone those perfect globes, her buttocks, plump, gorgeous, tender, ravishing, glowing with a brilliant inner lumininescence! I felt an overwhelming urge to abase myself before them, worship them, shower them with kisses!

"God!" I cried out again. I was amazed now to find I was indeed on my knees. But I couldn't stand up again!

She looked over her shoulder at me. "You'd love to kiss my ass right now, wouldn't you?" she said.

Incredible! She knew?

"Yes!" I cried out. Tears sprang out of my eyes and diffused the effulgent reflected light pouring from her naked derriere. Rich tones of color I wanted to eat! I tried hobbling forward on my knees.

"Stay where you are!" she said commandingly. "Gleyre, do what you said you'd do!"

Now I couldn't see at all clearly. The light glowing from the globes of her buttocks glistened through my tears, from God's sun to her divinely curved ass into the center of my brain. But I did as she asked me. Inexpressible ecstasy overwhelmed me! Behind me, Gleyre began sketching and painting furiously. I sensed dimly that he was completing from life a painting he'd earlier begun from memory, in a way. But he was now in his own inspired frenzy!

Ms. Circe held up the pan pipes, if that's what they were, and pretended to play. "You must be wondering what's happening now, M. Teste, and I'm inclined now to tell you. Whatever I say, you'll adore it, won't you. It will make you the happiest man on earth, won't it?"

"Oh, yes! Yes, yes!"

"Do you still feel an irresistible urge, my dear?"

"Yes, please!"

"You may tell me about it."

"Please! Let me worship your precious rear! Those ripe melons! I want to make love to them. To bury my face in them and never rise up from my knees ever again! Please!"

"I know, honey! That's what I want you to want. That's why you want it."

I've often felt a desire to make love to women, to plunge into their variouis openings and bring them shrieking to a state of rapturous devotion to me, and then when they want more, to require that they perform some humiliating act in token of my superiority over them. Many women have swallowed their pride and kissed my ass, or worse, in order to enjoy my embraces one more time. Then they resent what they've had to do, but by then I couldn't care less. I move on to others.

Now I was myself enslaved by desire! I was the one now being humiliated! Worse, I knew that I'd want to perform any act this woman requested! It would bring me transcendant joy! I was eager to kiss her ass! There was no knowing what more I'd be willing to do if she'd let me!

This was not normal for me.

She looked back over her shoulder at me, now amused. "I can see by the bewilderment on your face that you've suddenly come aware that you don't usually want to kiss every woman's ass, nor any at all, but that you would die to kiss mine if I asked you to. Shall I?"

"Please! I beg you!"

"No, sweetheart. I have something better for you to do. To live to want to kiss my ass! You're wondering how I do this? You haven't noticed? Gleyre, explain me to my new slave."

Gleyre's brush was working feverishly. Like all academy artists, he was well trained to paint the human figure in the manner of many of his predecessors, all the way back to the Greeks. Like many of them he preferred the classical hip shot position, all body weight thrusting up from one leg while the other leg curves down in submission, the human figure seen to be dynamic yet yielding. His own small originality was in his defects, an uncertain palate and too little technique to attempt chiarescuro. But such is fashion that some lamentable younger painters thought his smeared colors brilliantly original, even inspirational. There was no accounting for the overpraise young men like Monet and Degas had lavished on him.

He was doing his usual mediocre daubing here. But so concentratedly he seemed half mad!

"Teste," he said. "I deceived you. You know I paint classical subjects, allegories, myths, and so on, in modern dress, using models because I'm not very good at imagining them. But you should know. In this case I am painting Circe herself, the mythical Enchantress Ulysses encountered in Homer, the woman with a strange power to convert men into pigs. Into the pigs they already are. Or into anything else they may wish to become in order to satisfy her. I prayed to paint her from the life just once, and she answered my prayer. But she demanded in return that I produce you and then paint you in a rapt, eternal longing for her. For her ass. To kiss her ass! As an implied part of her portrait. As her eternal spectator. That is what I am now doing. It seems that when you surpassed the numbers of both Casanova's and Don Juan's seductions of women taken together you offended something very deep in all women, and many prayed for you to get your comeuppance. Circe heard, and this moment is the result. There, I'm done!"

He turned the portrait toward me. There she was, the colors, brushwork, and hipshot pose as inept as ever, but with a delicacy and yet corporeal grossness caught from the life! There was that glorious glowing ass yet again! I hungered after this woman in his painting, and leaned far forward to kiss her.

"No!" Circe said. "What I wish is that you will wish eternally to kiss my ass, and spend eternity on your knees in front of this painting, staring at it, devoted, desiring, forever frustrated. You are already the spirit of an ideal spectator for this painting. Gleyre has painted your desire perfectly, even your angle of vision on your knees as you gaze up at a desireable rear end you will never ever touch with your lips in the flesh."

I was bewildered. "Where?" I asked.

"You are the spectator constructed by the image itself, the viewer for whom this painting was created. You are now in the picture, an implication of the picture, and you will never escape this fate as long as the portrait exists."

"What?" I asked. All this was then beyond me. I am not an art theorist, only a spectacular seducer of women. But she was right in one respect. My eyes were transfixed by that portrait!

Gleyre spoke gently but firmly. "I have now painted you out of existence except as the implied, devoted viewer of this portrait of Circe. The man who would love to kiss ass, and has never been allowed. The seducer of women become now their ultimate brown noser."

"What?" I repeated, stupefied even as I looked to find Miss Circe again, and found only her portrait, and yet felt this terrible urge to kiss her buttocks on paint that wasn't even yet dry."

"She's gone," Gleyre assured me. "She comes and goes in men's imaginations. I can tell you though that there's one additional way you may relieve yourself of this compulsion. A little. By doing what all spectators of narrative paintings do. By imagining yourself into the scene as its chief character. By exercising your sympathies, for once. Imagine yourself this innocent maiden piping into a dark wilderness to see what she may call out of it. Or imagine yourself to be Circe herself, piping into the woods as if a mere nymph seeking a satyr's fucking, all to seduce you as you've seduced so many others."

The desire to embrace the woman in the painting and press my lips to her lower cheeks was now overwhelming. I tried to imagine myself that frail flower of a woman, the most powerful sex goddess on earth, and failed. I had never felt sympathy for a woman. I tried again. This time I felt some of the fragility of those fingers. A timid hesitancy. It was a beginning. And this was how I was now doomed to spend eternity?

"But before you disappear into the painting, as its viewer or it's subject," said Gleyre, "I must warn you!"

Warn me? Still, now, better late than never!

"What?" I said, my eyes intent upon that naked woman, eager to be absorbed into her.

"Even if you do succeed in achieving full sypathetic identity with the woman in this painting, even if you become that woman, you will still feel the same urge as before."

"What?" I asked. 'What urge?' is what I meant to say, but I wanted to concentrate on this new identity, to feel the woman's fingertips as my own, to become that which I so devoutly desired and so relieve myself of that desire, to achieve a perfect union with that woman portrayed in the painting. Gleyre understood me even so.

"Then, my friend, you will feel a desire to kiss your own ass. If that is your bent, and I suspect that it is. And then the portrait will change. The woman in it will then seem to be a self-absorbed lesbian eager to kiss her own ass. As she is not now."

I nodded. Rapt, I no longer cared.

All this occurred long ago, on the day the portrait was painted. Decades have replaced each other, and now a millenium is ending, and I am still implied by that painting, and I still seek to read its states of mind and feeling as my own. Study the painting closely yourself. Does the young woman in it seem to be someone who wishes to be raped by satyrs? To kiss her own ass? What is she really doing? Seducing you? Is she you?

But be careful, because while feeling your way through this labyrinth, you will certainly feel an uncontrollable urge to become like me a voyeur in love with his own imagined desires. And then like me, as me, you will be unable to tear your eyes away. Circe can enchant anyone, of any sex or gender. Her body is the most powerfully seductive, the most potent in the world. No one possesses it.

© 1999 by Vickie Tern