Ben Fitts


“Sorry, can I help you?” asked the oil painting.

“No, I’m all good,” I replied sheepishly.

“Then why are you staring at me?” demanded the painting.

“Well,” I answered, wringing my hands, “You are on display.”

The oil painting looked around at the world outside his canvas, his big wig wiggling on his scalp. He tried to crane his neck to peer outside the confines of his two dimensional reality, but gave up when it clearly wasn’t going to work. I’m unsure of how much of the gallery he was able to take in from the effort, although he certainly couldn’t have seen the plaque labeling himself as a portrait of the Revolutionary War general Charles Lee.

I don’t know if he managed to spot the yuppies dressed for the occasion as if their presence tonight was a validation of the modern aristocratic lifestyle they desperately wanted to be living and I don’t know if he spotted the throngs of misbehaved children whom should never have been allowed here in the first place or all the other works of art adorning the walls, but evidently he saw enough to make him change his tone.

“I am?” he inquired at last.

“Yes, I’m honestly surprised you didn’t know. I paid twelve dollars to see you,” I answered, waving my ticket to the event. The painting snorted.

“Twelve dollars! What a waste, for that much one could purchase himself a small apple orchard and you spend such a handsome sum just to come and gawk and at me in my canvas?”

“Right,” I said. “Well it was nice to meet you, but if you don’t mind I think I’m going to go look at some other paintings now.”

“Good luck,” called the portrait of Charles Lee after me. “None of them are as personable nor as pleasant as I!”

I shuffled away, still dazed by my interaction with the painting. The gallery tonight was celebrating the work of John Saltsman, a late 18th century American painter whose work is considered a major precursor to and influence on the hyperrealism art movement that would develop nearly two centuries later. John Saltsman’s art was known for its extreme lifelike qualities, but I had not expected the paintings to be lifelike to the point the of possessing cognitive development.

Feeling like maybe not knowing this made me not as good of an art history student as I had fancied myself to be, I examined the next painting on the wall. It depicted an unsaddled, paper white stallion drinking from a stream.

The painted horse was lapping up the water vigorously, the clear liquid dripping down its muzzle and rough tongue. A drop of water splashed out of the canvas and onto my forehead. I wiped it off, realizing that the stream was much murkier and more unpleasant than it appeared in the painting. The stallion sneezed as some of the water went up its nose and it instantly sported a massive equine erection. Remembering that the horse was able to splash water on me, I hurried away from the painting before the possibility of anything any more unseamly could happened.

I carefully peered at the plaque for the next painting before I approached it closely. For all I knew, I could have depicted cattle in a state of perpetual mid-slaughter or something nasty like that. I was wearing my favorite plain black t-shirt for the occasion, and I really didn’t need it splattered with bovine blood. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the next painting was of something rather tame that would be unlikely to get any fluids on me whatsoever.

“Hello, and welcome to my gallery,” greeted the self-portrait of John Saltsman, smiling broadly.

John Saltsman portrayed himself as a pale, hooked nosed man wearing a wide brimmed hat. He had been painted as being in the act of painting itself, and was currently working on an idyllic countryside. Each brushstroke he made added both to the real painting and to the painting within the painting. The painting within the painting was mostly calm, its only movement being a flock of geese gently cruising through the almost finishes skies, although the actual painting was a rush of activity as the self-portrait of John Saltsman worked.

“Is this really your gallery?” I asked the painting of John Saltsman.

“Of course it is! Why wouldn’t it be? I painted everything in here.”

“But you didn’t,” I reasoned. “The real John Saltsman did. You’re just another thing he painted, albeit himself.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed the self-portrait of John Saltsman. “I painted me, and here I am! I am John Saltsman, in the oil if not in the flesh. Just as this is John Saltsman as well,” he added, digging around the edges of his canvas at objects I could not see.

The self-portrait of John Saltsman returned, holding another painting of a painting up to me.

“Hello!” said the self-portrait painted by the self-portrait of John Saltsman.

“See! We’re both John Saltsman,” said the self-portrait of John Saltsman, putting the canvas away again. “Just like if I painted you, young lady, then there would be two of you.”

“Please don’t,” I begged, but the self-portrait was already pulling a new blank canvas onto his easel.

“My my, you do wear an awful lot of black,” he mused, as he dipped a painting of a paint brush into a painting of a palette. “And why are your spectacles so large and square? That seems highly unnecessary, since the lenses only need to cover your pupils in order to function.”

“Ok, I think I’ve seen enough paintings for now,” I said.

“But I’m almost finished!” declared the self-portrait of John Saltsman.

“Wow, you work quickly,” I mumbled to myself.

“And, there! Finished!”

The self-portrait lifted up the canvas to show me a painting of a painting of myself.

“Hi there,” said the painting of a painting of me to me, waving.


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