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Le Fanu's Schalken the Painter: A Summary and Full Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story

Godfried Schalcken (1643 - 1706) was a Dutch master painter who studied under one of Rembrandt’s greatest pupils, attached himself to the court of William III, and was well-known for his temper, rudeness, and misanthropy. He was also the perfect visual compliment to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s literary corpus. Both Schalcken (SHOLL-kin) and Le Fanu crafted a dusky, chiaroscuro aesthetic dominated by impregnable darkness which frames and restrains pockets of gleaming, vulnerable light; both men consistently blended eroticism with violence, lust with death, and youth with corruption; both men were fascinated by the multifaceted nature of beautiful women (who could be innocent while sexualized, virtuous while corruptible, and sensual while sinister); both men implied far, far more than they showed; both men relied on the imaginations of their readers/viewers to actively engage their work – to infer the contents and meaning of the darkness; and both men promoted a powerful romanticism that was emotionally complex, aesthetically sublime, immediately sensual, but gradually insidious. Schalcken’s most famous works (including his portrait of the Protestant usurper of the Catholic James II, King William III, who has been referenced in many Le Fanu tales) are twilight studies done by candlelight – as crepuscular and visually subdued as any of Le Fanu’s dusky stories.

 

And among these works, his most commented upon and remarkable subjects are women painted by candlelight. They are shrouded in darkness, but warmed by the velvety breath of candlelight on their faces and hands. The glimmering subjects peer coyly out of their black worlds, simultaneously seeming to emerge, and to submerge – are they coming forth into our world of light and definition, or – with their seductive smirks, bedroom eyes, and beckoning hands – are they leading us into their dark universe? Like Le Fanu’s stories, Schalcken’s subjects begin in a light of attractive romance and beauty, but the longer we gaze, the more unsettling they are.

 

There is something carnal and lascivious about these torch bearing sirens with their come hither faces and their glistening jewelry. Le Fanu employed such subjects in “Ultor de Lacy,” “Carmilla,” and “Laura Silver Bell” – femme fatales, victims of the supernatural, who leer out of the darkness with just enough attention (light) cast onto their beauty the lure us towards the darkness that engulfs them. But none of these stories contains quite the potency or indecent revulsion as the tale that bears Schalcken’s name. It remains one of Le Fanu’s four most well regarded, well known, thoroughly analyzed ghost stories, and is the only supernatural tale of his – other than “Carmilla” of course – which attracted enough intrigue to merit a film adaptation (and a tremendously powerful and atmospheric adaptation to boot). Today, “Schalken the Painter” is highly regarded as a moving, unsettling fable of the influence that greed has in preserving the ability of the powerful to sin with immunity.

 

Abuses of power and privilege dominate the Victorian ghost story. Gender, class, parentage, age, race, wealth, education, and nationality all factored into a person’s ability to defend themselves from those with greater power and opportunity. When Shakespeare chose to critique the flaws in English society, he chose the distance of time and country to allow his commentary to shock and offend and sink in without warranting the dismissal of patriots or the censorship of government (hence the times and settings of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest). Le Fanu chose the Golden Age of Netherlandish culture and civilization as the setting for this, one of his most acidic critiques of human nature, greed, and sexism. It is both erotic and macabre, tender and cold. Throughout the plot juxtapositions clash and clang – beauty and repugnance, love and selfishness, purity and corruption.

 

It is perhaps fitting that the protagonist – Le Fanu’s favorite artist – was renowned for his paintings which mixed swathes of barren darkness with patches of pregnant light, and interspersed coquettishness with suspicion, clarity with concealment, and romance with mystery. That is why we open on a portrait of a woman whose dominating feature is a twisted smile: one which simultaneously suggests playful affability, erotic ideation, and sinister machinations.

 

II.

 

Le Fanu begins by musing on the historic Schalken’s life: that he was a Dutch painter who was closely associated with the court of King William (the Dutch prince who helped overthrow his father-in-law in 1688 – beloved by Irish Protestants like the Le Fanus but viewed as an opportunistic oppressor by most Irishmen, as Le Fanu well understood). Schalken, he muses was remembered as a moody, haunted man known for his foul manners and ambiguous portraiture: chiaroscuro paintings which often blended the amorous with the sinister.

 

His subjects were frequently women surrounded by shadow, their hands and faces dimly illuminated by the candles they carry, eyes speaking wryly of unspoken thoughts, smiles twisted into suggestive grins. They are simultaneously gentle and alluring – a velvet blend of innocence and innuendo. Money -- and its relationship to sex -- prominently feature in these paintings where men tempt blushing girls with necklaces and coins in dark chambers lit only by flickering candles. Prostitution is the subtext of many of these pictures, and the tangled, complex psychology of money and sex are ubiquitous throughout his work.

 

The narrator explains that a friend of his owns just such a painting – a strange painting. In it we see a beautiful girl holding a brass, antique lamp aloft and gazing intriguingly at the viewer (who takes the place of the true subject of her leer), her mouth twisted into an arch smile. She is wearing a strange white robe and her head is draped in a habit or veil. Perhaps most bizarre, in the background – dimly lit by a coal fire – we see a self-portrait of Schalken staring agape over the woman’s shoulder. His hand is on his sword and his attitude one of defensive attack. The painting is so mesmerizing that the narrator insisted on knowing its subject and was told the following story by his friend, who had it passed onto him from the his great-grandfather, who heard it from the painter’s own lips.

 

As a young man Schalken apprenticed under the master painter Gerard Douw (or "Gerrit Dou" (1613 - 1675), himself a famous student of Rembrandt). Douw, like Schalken, would be remembered for his use of shadow and light, and as his best pupil, Schalken was devoted to his master. Even more so, it would seem, he was devoted to his beautiful, sixteen-year-old niece and ward, Rose. The student and ward shared a romantic understanding, but Schalken’s great insecurity was his lack of fortune, and rather than ruin his chances (romantically and professionally) by marrying the girl without an established career, the two pined for each other while he worked for her uncle hoping to make a break.

 

One day, in the late afternoon, Schalken was the only student left in the studio where he struggled over a painting of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Finding it difficult to make heads or tails of it in the ruddy light, he “damned” the subject, the saint, and the devil with a grumbling oath, only to realize that he was not alone – or at least had ceased to be as soon as he uttered the curse. There, in the gloom, a large, old man in a luxurious cloak and hat was standing, gathered up in the murk just a few feet behind him. While Schalken could not see his face, he could hear his message: he -- the illustrious Mynheer Vanderhausen of Rotterdam -- requested an audience with Douw – at the same time and place the following evening – concerning "matters of weight".  Before he can reply, Vanderhausen turns around and -- with "quick but silent steps" -- disappears. The apprentice goes to the window to watch the grandee exit the door and walk down street, but he has vanished.

 

...

 

Douw was notoriously cheap, and although he is suspicious of a prank, he agrees to partake in what he assumes to be a commission. When the three men meet, however – with Schalken acting as Douw’s assistant – the true nature is revealed to be an offer of marriage to young Rose. The enigmatic Vanderhausen seems to have caught a glimpse of her at the cathedral in Rotterdam and has fallen in love. He is offering a staggering sum of gold for her hand -- an amount which he has brought with him in a moldy, worm-eaten chest. Douw is shocked at the idea that his niece marry a stranger without any say, but the gold calls to him, and only asks for a short time to consider. Vanderhausen refuses: "not one hour." Schalken, who had been sent away to have the coins appraised before Rose was even mentioned, is not aware of Vanderhausen's romantic intentions until it is too late. 

 

Vanderhausen's massive dowry for the girl is very unusual. Ordinarily the guardian delivered the dowry to the couple as the woman’s inheritance (making the transaction much less like prostitution than Vanderhausen’s arrangement). This is a big selling point and Douw is convinced of his merit as a provider for Rose (something Schalken could never hope to be). For six thousand rijks dollars, Douw signs a contract and hands Rose over the grim stranger. Vanderhausen – who has managed to remain hidden among the shadows of the room, leaving his face still unseen – departs and vanishes from view. Schalken is brokenhearted: he wishes he could speak up for Rose, but his financial insecurity unmans him into submissive silence.

 

Rose, also, is crushed, but is too dutiful to either defy her uncle or expose her lover’s secret, and agrees to meet the bridegroom at dinner. The three are sitting at a table when Vanderhausen enters and are immediately horrorstruck: his bulging, unblinking eyes are fixed in a sightless stare – saucer-like and muddy white. His cadaverous, blue skin, carefully covered throat, and wrenched mouth remind them of a hanged corpse, with his twisted black lips barely cover two wolfish, yellow fangs. Douw notes that his chest does not rise and that his motions are stiff and unnatural ("as if the limbs were guided and directed by a spirit unused to the management of bodily machinery"), and his expression is violently insane, as Le Fanu gravely notes: "The character of the face was malignant, even satanic, to the last degree; and, indeed, such a combination of horror could hardly be accounted for, except by supposing the corpse of some atrocious malefactor, which had long hung blackening upon the gibbet, to have at length become the habitation of a demon—the frightful sport of Satanic possession." Rose is reminded of a frightening statue she once saw at the cathedral in Rotterdam. All three are certain that he cannot be a living man, and after a half hour of near silence (during which he never blinks or breathes), the old man bids them good evening.

 

Despite all three’s reservations, the wedding proceeds: Schalken is too embarrassed of his poverty, Rose too submissive to the men in her life, and Douw too afraid of offending his new benefactor. They drive off in a carriage bound for Rotterdam, but just before arrives at the city, it is stopped by a party of strange men in old-fashioned clothes carrying a litter. The bridal couple leave the carriage and enter the litter which the odd-looking servants carry off into the dark. Inside the coachmen find a sack of gold for their troubles.

 

...

 

Rose is not seen again for months. In the meantime, Schalken’s career booms (partly buoyed by his increasingly erotic style), and Douw’s moods worsen. The two console one another their shared loss, and are doing so one dark night when the door bursts open and Rose stands before them – in the flesh. She is wearing a strange white robe (reminiscent of a burial shroud), and is pathetically haggard and worn. She begs for three things emphatically: food, wine, and a parson, crying out that her soul’s salvation depends on eating food, drinking wine, and speaking with a minister. Over and over she mutters that “the dead and the living can never become one – God has forbidden it,” and makes strange allusions to blasphemy and the grave. When given food, she ravenously wolfs it down like a starving dog, tearing at the meat with her bony hands, and sloppily gulping down wine.

 

As they wait for the minister, Schalken escorts his beloved to a bedroom where he hopes she will rest. She is frightened of the deep shadows, however, sensing Vanderhausen in the oppressive gloom which only worsens when the candle blows out. Rose begs for more light and not to be left alone. Schalken ignores half of the request by stepping out to get a lamp, and the door slams shut behind him. Rose’s heart-rending wails shake the house and culminate in a loud splash. By the time Schalken can force the door open, he finds the room empty, the window open, and rings of water spreading in the canal below, as if some ponderous weight had been dropped into it...

 

Years later Schalken is a successful maestro of the brush with money and fame but no love in his life. He finds himself roaming the cathedral in Rotterdam one dreary afternoon following his father’s funeral there, becoming lost in the building’s labyrinthine basements. Overcome by melancholy, he falls asleep, but is awoken by a light tap on his shoulder. Looking up, he sees Rose – dressed in a white robe and veil, holding an antique lamp (which illuminates her mischievous smile), and beckoning him to follow her. More curious than afraid, he follows the figure through silent hallways, down stairs -- deeper into the basement -- and at last into a gloomy stone room where a four-poster bed stands front and center with its funereal, black curtains drawn.

 

Flashing him a twisted smile, Rose pulls the curtain back and stares at the bed where Vanderhausen sits – unblinking, unbreathing, bolt upright – waiting for her. Schalken faints at the sight and awakens the next morning in a stone vault with a large, black coffin front and center. He returns home a shaken, haunted man, and immediately paints the picture owned by the narrator’s great-grandfather. For the rest of his life, motifs of love, money, lust, and lechery would dominate his paintings – often through the symbolism of a girl gazing through candlelight with a mischievous smirk and knowing eyes…

 

III.

 

The question that most people appear to have wanted answered about this enigmatic story is one about definitions and purposes: who or what exactly IS Vanderhausen, and why does he abduct Rose, and what is her ultimate, literal fate? Before we get far into our anaylsis of this story, I believe that this basic mystery merits a serious consideration. What we know about Vanderhausen is this: he does not appear to breathe or blink (the 1880 version earlier suggests that his eyes may be painted on over the shut lids); he is pressed for time and constantly seems to be in a hurry; he has access to wealth, though he presents a chest whose condition suggests that it may have been buried with a corpse (as it is moldy and covered in decay); his face is ghoulish – corpse-blue skin, black lips, muddy-white bulging eyes, yellow fangs, and cadaverous thinness; he resembles a wooden statue at the church where he claims to have first seen Rose (she recalls this statue’s terrifying effect on her), although we aren’t sure if this is a funerary statue or some carved demon/gargoyle/biblical character; he conspicuously hides his throat with an awkward and dated ruff (as if covering the ligature mark of a noose, I have argued); he has (undead?) servants who bear him away in a funereal litter on his wedding night; his power over Rose is maintained by withholding wine, food, and the clergy; and his climactic appearance is sitting bolt upright in a bed later shown to be in the room where Schalken’s father’s corpse is deposited.

 

Two immediate readings are obvious: one is that Vanderhausen is a reanimated corpse of some hanged criminal which has become possessed by a demon (Le Fanu’s 1880 edition supports this reading, seeing in Vanderhausen “the corpse of some atrocious malefactor, which had long hung blackening upon the gibbet, to have at length become the habitation of a demon”), or a painted statue undergone the same process (one radio adaptation from the ‘50s actually retitled the work “The Wooden Ghost” and determined that the abductor was a “Man-Size in Marble”-esque villain whose funerary statue was brought to life by violent lust).

 

Others have argued that “Schalken the Painter” is Le Fanu’s first vampire story (that the aristocratic Vanderhausen with his fangs, unholy gold, charismatic power of persuasion, possessiveness over beautiful virgins, and erotic symbolism, is more of a precursor to Dracula than even Carmilla), while some read it as a straightforward ghost story: Vanderhausen is the apparition of a grandee who was buried in that church and whose statue denotes him to be a powerful donor to the church (more corruption).

 

Whether possessed corpse, vampire, ghost, walking statue, or – as it certainly could be! – corrupt and creepy-looking (but very much living) aristocrat, Vanderhausen represents one of the most terrifying tropes of classic horror: the Demon Lover, a satanic incubus (almost always taking the shape of a wealthy dandy) who spirits away a virtuous woman due to the moral weakness of her male guardians. Dickens employed the Demon Lover in “To Be Read at Dusk,” Broughton did so in “The Man with the Nose,” E. F. Benson in “The Face,” Fitz-James O’Brien in “The Demon of the Gibbet,” and Le Fanu himself did so in “Laura Silver Bell,” “Ultor de Lacy,” and “Ghost Stories of Lough Guir.” While the trope may seem sexist (the woman is a defenseless pawn of sexual and financial capital, after all), most of these stories are subversive, critiquing the Victorian patriarchy which was will to look past character flaws if they came well-financed, selling off pretty daughter to middle-aged men with syphilis, sex addictions, and notorious fetishes (this is not off the top of my head; such cases were common).

 

Vanderhausen is, in effect, a Bluebeard, except that in “Bluebeard” the distraught young wife is rescued by her caring, suspicious brothers. In “Schalken,” Rose – who lives in a society founded, funded, and sold off by men – is abandoned by her star-struck guardian (too flabbergasted by Vanderhausen’s wealth to deny his desires) and – perhaps most damningly – by her submissive beau who denies the opportunity to steal her away out of fear of offending his patron. Rose is not so much a damsel in distress as she is a woman thrown to the wolves by inept, weak-willed men.

 

IV.

 

Commentators have noted that a favorite trope of Le Fanu’s is the absent, negligent, abusive, or murderous father. “Schalken” is haunted by the loss of father figures – Douw, Cornelius Schalken, and even the “liberal” Vanderhausen – who all fail Schalken in his journey from youth to manhood. There is a lack of male authority, masculine virtue, and manly heroism in “Schalken,” leaving a vacuum (one vacated by the weak and irresolute Douw) in which Vanderhausen is free to run amok with abusive male abuses, masculine violence and villainy.

 

Rose’s final appearance is an elegant, powerfully arranged indictment of her fiancé (we must wonder if Douw ever encountered her, for surely he deserved to): she manifests in a robe and veil which simultaneously suggest a wedding dress, burial shroud, and nun’s habit. This vision alone would underscore her position as one who suffers living-death in eternal worship to a spirit who chose her as his devotee – as a vestal concubine to his personal religion.

 

But Rose wants Schalken to understand it explicitly, so she lures him deeper and deeper down with that coquettish, twisted grin (is it sexual or sinister or both?), intently guiding him step by step. It is almost as though she is checking to make sure Schalken is paying attention; she wants to be sure to witness his reaction to her little “trick,” and as we read between the lines, we begin to understand – if only darkly – what has happened. To quote Dr. Watson, we “begin to see dimly what [Le Fanu is] hinting at.”

 

Rose coaxes Schalken to a bed, and there is no mistaking the intended meaning here – at least until the big reveal. Schalken watches her move to the bed, pulling back the curtains as if inviting him to join her for the sexual intimacy that he promised her, but which was denied them. And perhaps the invitation is a genuine one, but it is not “her” bed that she offers him, but “theirs” – and a ghastly menage-a-trois between the dead, the living, and the living-dead is the concept that finally robs Schalken of his consciousness – the hideousness is too much to bear. And this is not a modern reading of an innocent text: the imagery – especially for the 1830s – is horrifically erotic.

 

The readership understood what married persons do in bed, and without being too graphic, Le Fanu – famous for his subtle and unnerving employment of sexuality in horror – aggressively implies that the corpse has been (to use the only term appropriate to the gravity of the situation) molesting Rose in their macabre bedchamber. This is a sexual relationship, and sexuality – in the culture of Victorian Britain – was seen as an act of spiritual unification: to make love was to become one spirit, and when one makes love to a possessed corpse, one becomes part and parcel of a spirit that one may loathe and revile.

 

In the 1979 film adaptation, Schalcken the Painter, the eroticism is explicitly depicted: Rose, upon unveiling the bedded Vanderhausen, pulls her suggestively drooping nightgown over her head, exposing herself, climbs on top of a clearly naked Vanderhausen, and begins vigorously humping the unblinking cadaver. And it is Schalken whom she blames, Schalken whom she confronts, and Schalken whom she beckons into her charnel marriage bed.

 

Rose, like many of Le Fanu’s fictional victims, is swept up by merciless forces that leech on the unsuspecting and torment the innocent. Vanderhausen – whom we may reasonably take for a reanimated corpse: either a lustful ghost or a convenient vessel for a prowling albeit incorporeal demon – represents more than a simple supernatural intruder: he is the embodiment of human want and insensitivity, a rapacious, consuming dominator whose obvious corruption and sinister mystique can be excused on account of his wealth.

 

Virtue, Le Fanu suggests, has often been prostituted for the sake of material gain, and purity has been bartered without the guidance of conscience or love, even when the seller is an overall loving and compassionate person. Douw cared deeply for Rose – he was not an archetypal callous guardian, fixated on wealth and devoid of humanity – and that makes his bargain all the more loathsome and disturbing, and the moral message all the more ambiguous. Power can excuse wickedness and wealth can cause the most intangible and spiritual elements of our lives – love, purity, family – to become material commodities. Rose is objectified by Vanderhausen’s offer, and is whored out without inquiry or objection.

 

Le Fanu’s atmospheric prose frequently mulls over clashing juxtapositions – wealth and poverty, virtue and vice, the sanctity of a church and the carnality of wedding bed – and it is ultimately Rose’s marriage to Vanderhausen (between purity and corruption, life and death) that dominates the reader’s memory. This binding ownership of goodness by evil, a paradox of love, is permitted by materialism and the confident respect which we often assign to wealth. Society’s worship of power and wealth can lead us to stifle the objections of instinct and conscience, until our true treasures – character, truth, and virtue – are irrecoverably lost. Le Fanu leaves us with a candlelit phantom fading into shadow, and its disquietingly twisted smile – erotic and macabre, alluring and menacing – before the scene blackens and we are left in darkness.

 

You can read the original story HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Le Fanu's best ghost stories HERE!

 

AND you can watch the slow-burning, atmospheric 1979 adaptation of "Schalken the Painter" HERE!

 

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