The Fortune-Tellers

The Fables of La Fontaine
by Jean de La Fontaine

Book VII.—No. 15

Reputations may be made by the merest chances, and yet reputations control the fashions. That is a little prologue that would fit the case of all sorts of people. Everywhere around one sees prejudices, scheming, and obtuseness; but little or no justice. Nothing can be done to stem this torrent of evil. It must run its course. It always has been and always will be.

A woman in Paris once made it her profession to tell fortunes. She became very popular and had great success. Did anybody lose a bit of finery; had any one a sweetheart; had any wife a husband she was tired of; any husband a jealous wife, to the prophetess such would run simply to be told the thing that it was comforting to hear.

The stock-in-trade of this fortune-teller consisted merely of a convincing manner, a few words of scientific jargon, a great deal of impudence, and much good luck. All these things together so impressed the people that as often as not they would cry, “Miraculous!” In short, although the woman’s ignorance was quite twenty-three carat she passed for a veritable oracle.

Notwithstanding the fact that this oracle only lived in a garret, she found so many ready to pay her well for her shams that she soon grew rich enough to improve the position of her husband, to rent an office, and buy a house.

The garret being left empty was shortly tenanted by another woman to whom all the town—women, girls, valets, fine gentlemen—everybody in fact swarmed, as before, to consult their destiny. The former tenant had built up such a reputation that the garret was still a sibyl’s den, in spite of the fact that quite a different creature dwelt in it. “I tell fortunes? Surely you’re joking! Why, gentlemen, I cannot read, and as for writing, I never learnt more than to make my mark.” But these disclaimers were useless. People insisted on having their fortunes told, and she had to do it. In consequence, she put by plenty of money, being able to earn, in spite of herself, quite as much as two lawyers could. The poverty of her home was a help rather than a hindrance. Four broken chairs and a broom-handle savoured of a witch’s frolic.

If this woman had told the truth in a room well-furnished she would have been scorned. The fashion for a garret had set in, and garret it must be.

In her new chambers the first fortune-teller waited in vain; for it was the outward sign alone that brought customers, and the sign was poverty.

I have seen in a palace a robe worn awry win much distinction and success, such crowds of followers and adherents did it draw. You may well ask me why!

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Caravaggio’s  The Fortune Teller,  1597. (Source:  Wikipedia )

Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller, 1597. (Source: Wikipedia)

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A Side Note

The painting is
Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller, 1594.

Here are some interesting facts I found about it. 

The Fortune Teller is believed to be one of the earlier Caravaggio’s paintings. There are two versions of this painting.

The first one is at the very top of the page. Caravaggio painted it when he left the workshop of the Giuseppe Cesari determined to make his own living selling paintings. He sold it for pennies on the open market. The second version of the painting is just above the text here. It was commissioned by Cardinal del Monte (Caravaggio’s first important patron) and is currently at Louvre.

As you can see in a painting, a young gypsy girl is gracefully reading the palm of a young wealthy boy. The boy is believed to be Caravaggio’s companion, the Sicilian painter Mario Minniti. If you look closer you will see that the girl is removing the boy’s ring while gently stroking his hand. The boy is in trouble !

“Contemporary sources say that Caravaggio even went so far as to invite a gypsy girl from the street into his studio to pose as his model, a practice unheard of at that time. The artist was famous for preferring to work from nature and drawing inspiration from every day events to studying the masters.” – artble.