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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