- First published:
- Also known as:
- According to Joyce Carol Oates, “the portrait painter of “Nunc Dimittis” would seem to have been modeled upon Gustav Klimt, known to have painted his female subjects nude before clothing them in their elaborate fin-de-siècle finery.”
- Magazine publications:
This is one of my favorite Dahl stories, and the one with (I think) the most potent twist in the tail of all. It’s not until the very last sentence that you understand the true story.
Spoiler warning! Lionel Lampson is a wealthy older gentleman who enjoys fine art and the company of the upper classes. One night he escorts a vulgar woman named Gladys Ponsonby home from a dinner party. Gladys, who is a little drunk, shows off a new portrait of herself that she had commissioned. She tells Lionel a secret – the artist, John Royden, paints all his subjects first in the nude, then in their underwear, and lastly in their clothes. He is shocked and correctly deduces that this is why all the wealthy women in town are rushing to have their portraits painted by him. Gladys then changes the subject and asks Lionel about his relationship with a young beauty named Janet de Pelagia. Lionel is embarrassed until Gladys relates that earlier that afternoon Janet had called him a “crashing bore”. Lionel is outraged and forces Gladys to repeat the entire conversation. He is so upset to hear what Janet thinks about him that he swoons. The next day he wakes and vows revenge. He hits upon the perfect plan and calls up this artist Royden. He tells him that he’d like a picture of Janet, but doesn’t want her to know about it. He pays Royden a handsome amount for his services, and then goes off to Italy for four months. By the time Lionel returns, Royden has finished the painting and it’s the talk of the Royal Academy. Royden delivers it to Lionel, who can’t wait to move on to the second part of his plan. He is an expert cleaner and restorer of paintings, and very carefully he begins to remove the top layer (the clothing) of the painting. By the time he has finished, Janet de Pelagia is standing before him almost life-size in nothing but her underclothes. Lionel then invites Janet and all the top members of society to his home for a dinner party. He keeps the dining room dark and they eat by candlelight. At the very end, he has the maid turn on the light. As he slips from the room, he has the pleasure of seeing on Janet’s face the “surprised, not-quite-understanding look of a person who precisely one second before has been shot dead, right through the heart”. As the outraged guests begin to exclaim over the painting, Lionel gets into his car and speeds off to his other house. Two days later, he receives a phone call from Gladys Ponsonby that kills his good mood. She tells him that all his old friends are against him and have sworn never to speak to him again. Lionel begins to feel quite bad. Then, in the post arrives a letter from Janet forgiving him and saying that she knew it was a joke and that she’s always loved him. She also sends him a jar of his favorite food, caviare. As the story ends, Lionel mentions that he might have eaten too much of it, as he isn’t feeling too well right now. In fact, he says, “come to think of it, I really do feel rather ill all of a sudden.”
(If you don’t get it, she sent him poisoned caviare as her revenge.)
- Elsewhere on the web: