Perhaps you will see the painting one day. Long lost, suddenly resurfaced—all the museums will want to display it. By now, Karl Schwind is one of the most famous and expensive painters in the world. When he turned seventy, I saw him in every paper, on every channel. Still, I had to look a long time before I recognized the young man in the old.
The painting, I recognized immediately. I walked into the last court of the Art Gallery and there it hung. It moved me as it had when I entered the parlour of Gundlach’s villa, and saw it for the first time.
A woman descends a staircase. The right foot lands on the lower tread, the left grazes the upper, but is on the verge of its next step. The woman is naked, her body pale; her hair is blonde, above and below; the crown of her head gleams with light. Nude, pale and blonde—against a gray-green backdrop of blurred stairs and walls, the woman moves lightly, as if floating, towards the viewer. And yet her long legs, ample hips, and full breasts give her a sensual weight.
I approached the painting slowly. I felt awkward, just as I had back then. Then, it was because the woman who, a day before, had sat in my office in jeans, blouse, and jacket approached me in the painting naked. Now I felt awkward because the painting brought up what happened back then, what I’d gotten myself into, and what I had soon banished from memory. Woman on Staircase,
the label read. The painting was on loan. I found the curator and asked him who had lent the painting. He said he couldn’t disclose the name. I told him I knew the woman in the painting, and the owner of the painting, and that its ownership would likely be contested. He furrowed his brow, but again said he couldn’t tell me the name.
Copyright © 2017 by Bernhard Schlink. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.