Girl in Blue Dress (1881) by Sunil Patel

Her dress is composed of blues from ultramarine to cerulean, a cascade of hues resolving into one. She stands askew, her expression unreadable, her mouth a blur. The colors in her dress have not faded but her name has. He asked for it, once, but he did not write it down.

The nebulous background of azure and cobalt threatens to envelop her and she can feel herself dissolving, her dress atomizing into its component colors and joining the larger canvas. For over a century she has fought to keep hold of her blue dress: she has no body underneath. She floats in paints, far from the rigid rectangle of the frame that confines her entire world.

She floats, and she waits for the night.

He said he would immortalize her, that everyone would remember her. But only his name remains, in the bottom right by her feet. To all others she is simply a girl in a blue dress, a nameless female in colored clothing, indistinguishable from her neighbors on the gallery wall, woman in red blouse and young girl in white apron.

He said he would capture her beauty, yet he only captured an impression of her, her edges undefined, her body almost uncaged. Flecks of blue from the sky fall into her face. Is she beautiful like the sky? Is that the message he is trying to convey? What is he trying to say, they must think.

What is she trying to say, they must not think, as she cannot say anything.

That summer day he called to her as she was walking through the field on her way home from the patisserie. In days past she had seen him absorbed in his canvas, head darting up to take in the landscape. Had he noticed her? Pretty girl, he said, I’m an artist. Let me paint you. She assented, wiping the crumbs from her face. No one had ever asked to paint her before. She felt worthy of being transformed into oils, but the artist did not mention the extent of the transformation.

He spoke occasionally while painting, asking her to move her head to one side or the other, to change the reflection of the sunlight. Some golden brushstrokes remained on her cheek. His hands flew wildly on the canvas, the brush attacking it like a mad bird. After the first hour, he stepped back and put a hand to his bearded chin. Then a return to the canvas, the brush swirling all around, the artist now with his eyes closed, humming softly.

She felt herself fading, then saw her hand become translucent in the sunlight. The duplicitous wretch! Through her hand she saw his mouth curl into a smile. She opened her mouth to malign him but then she was gone.

From her new position she looked directly into his eyes as he admired his work. Her eyes could never close again.

Now so many eyes are upon her each day, scrutinizing her every curve. Her body is fully covered but she still feels exposed.

She never said goodbye to her sister, her mother. Of the many things he took away from her, the loss of her family angers her most. Did they look for her? Did they follow her as she was shuffled from patron to patron, collection to collection? Captured, bought, collected, displayed. A butterfly caught.

Every day she hears them speculate as they gaze at her. His sister, his daughter? His lover? Their words and eyes leave a patina, as if preserving her paints in a layer of lies. They do not know her; they merely know her image. All that remains of her is her immortal beauty. She has no name, no history, no life.

He retains his name, however. By her feet he has marked the canvas with it, tagged and branded her world. Her mother, now lost to time, told her fairy tales to illustrate justice, and as a little girl she believed in it. As a young girl, she can have it. By day, observed, she is still life, but by night, the enchantment loosens its hold on her.

The museum is silent as the space between centuries, the incessant chatter quieted until morning.

She wiggles her big toe. Barefoot in the grass, he asked for her. Such lovely feet, he said. Now with her lovely feet she kicks at the letters with all her might, chipping the paint away. Letter by letter, she will erase him as he has erased her, reducing him to nothing more than man with paintbrush.