She stands on a step to be painted, except there is no step, it is a fictional step, one that the artist has put in the picture he is painting. The duchess – she is thought of as holding this title although she never thinks of herself in these terms – tries to keep her sons still by singing to them and declaiming poetry for children. When she runs out of ditties about goats and horses and knights, she turns to the poems that she herself loves, and the passion in her voice rivets them and keeps them quiet better than their favorite rhymes about animals and battles did.
The duke is perfectly posed, because he has a book held in front of him by a servant and he is reading from it. The duchess, who isn’t in the foreground, cannot have such a luxury, for any servant who would stand in front of her would block her exquisite dress, as well as the little boys. She doesn’t resent the duke this one privilege. There are plenty of other reasons to resent him.
She is much taller than the duke, which is unseemly, of course, as she is the female, the producer of children, the keeper of the house; it doesn’t matter that she saved him from financial ruin, she is still shamefully tall. It’s bad enough having guests with her across the table. At least the later generations who see their portrait needn’t know quite how huge she was. So in the family portrait that will hang for posterity in the halls of the great castle, the duchess will stand on a step, as the artist is painting her now, and will seem tall only because of this small geographical change in their whereabouts.
Her smaller son leans against her, tired of fidgeting. The dog has lain down on his feet and is warming his toes. She knows she mustn’t choose favorites, but her youngest is her beloved one, because the elder is, inevitably, his father’s boy. They ride together often, and she feels him growing colder to her. He has begun to use rude words despite his tender age, an influence that is surely his father’s. The younger, though, is frightened of his father. Though his mother is so much larger, it is his male parents girth that bothers him. He despises roughness of any kind and prefers his mother’s soft skin to any other surface on earth.
She knows she will lose her influence on him, too, one day, but she enjoys it while she can. She moves, eliciting a cough from the artist, puts her hand on her littlest boy’s cheek, and holds it there, perfectly still, committing the moment to memory.