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"Unfixed Portrait of the Duchess of South Flanders"

San Quentin Marsalys

Like so many of the portraitists of his time, Marsalys found it difficult to get paid once his work was completed. In spite of the wealth of his royal clientele, it always seemed that he had to petition endlessly for payment, and if there was a power shift in the interim he oftentimes stood no chance of getting paid at all. 

Marsalys solved the problem by recalling what happened when the great Leonardo used raw walnut oil as the vehicle for one of his paintings: the paint never dried, and the painting was distorted horribly as gravity did its work. 

From then on Marsalys was careful to add tiny amounts of walnut oil to his portraits, especially of the women of the Flemish court. At the presentation of the completed painting, he would announce loudly to the assembled spectators that the work required a final application of a special fixative, which he would administer immediately upon payment.

The portrait shown here was the first to undergo the walnut oil treatment. In real life Roxanne, Duchess of South Flanders, was considered quite a beauty. Marsalys carefully applied his oil treatment to the face and bosom, a tiny time bomb within what was otherwise hailed as masterpiece. 

In typical fashion the Duke postponed payment again and again, and the painting was covered with protective drapes throughout the long, hot Flanders summer. At the first grand ball of the autumn season, with all the royalty and their guests present, the painting was uncovered by the Duke with a great flourish. It has been faithfully reported that there was not a dry set of breeches in the palace that night, and the Duchess was mortified to the point of taking the veil and living in a sequestered nunnery for the rest of her days.

Marsalys, on the other hand, was paid promptly thereafter. Very often in advance.


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