Based on Robert Nathan’s novel, a painter meets a girl only he can see and loves her as she grows up, giving his life meaning and inspiration to paint her portrait.
In New York City in 1934 the artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) believes his courage had run out. He asks Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) to buy one of his paintings, but he does not find one he wants. Matthews introduces his partner Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), and she looks at them more carefully while talking with Eben. She sees no love in them and says he needs to care deeply about something. She buys one of flowers for $12.50 and has Matthews pay him. Eben says he has more of flowers at home. He leaves, and she tells Matthews that she bought it for herself.
Eben walks home in the snow and finds a parcel on a park bench. Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) says it belongs to her. She refers to Hammerstein’s that he says was torn down years ago. She says she was just there. She looks at one of his pictures and says she does not like black water. She suggests that he paint people instead of places. She talks about her playmate Cecily Brown and the Kaiser in Germany. They walk together, and she sings her song. She tells him about her wishing game. She wishes for her to grow up so that they can always be together. She says she can’t talk to him anymore and walks off.
Eben starts to walk up the stairs to his room, but the landlady Mrs. Jekes (Florence Bates) comes out of her room. He offers her $5 toward the rent, and she accepts it. She declines a painting. She goes back into her room, and another lady says he is a handsome man. Mrs. Jekes says he is a gentleman and does not paint nude women.
In his room Eben plays a small accordion and thinks about Jennie and waiting for her to grow up. He sketches her face.
Outside Eben speaks to Gus O’Toole (David Wayne) who is working in a garage. Gus offers him lunch, but Eben says he has money and can treat Gus. They agree to go out. Gus respects Eben for doing what he likes, painting pictures. He wonders if he might be missing something.
Gus takes Eben to a restaurant, and Gus looks at a newspaper. He says Sarah Bernhardt is coming to America on a tour. Eben sees it is dated 1910 and says he got it from the girl in the park. He sees her name Appleton in an announcement. Eben says she is real, and he can draw her. Mr. Moore (Albert Sharp) asks them if everything is all right. Gus says he may start eating at Nick’s for a change. Moore talks about loyalty, and Gus complains it is dark in there. Moore says he could hang a picture or two. Gus suggests painting a wall, and Eben says the wall could use a mural. Gus says Eben could do it. Moore puts up a sign for St. Patrick’s Day. Gus suggests a painting of Mick Collins over the bar. They shout, “Up the rebels!” and drink a toast together.
Matthews and Spinney look at the sketch of Jennie and like it. Matthews gives him $25 for it, and Eben is happy. She offers him a cup of tea.
In her room Eben asks her why he should believe he is a good artist. She says he appeals to her and calls herself a “frustrated old maid.” He asks what he should do. She suggests he follow his inspiration, the girl in the park.
Eben goes ice-skating in the park. Jennie says hello and skates with him. He says she has grown, and she reminds him of her wish. She is now “her age.” She skates faster with him, and he falls down. He gives her the scarf from the parcel, and she asks him to keep it for her until she grows up. He says he sold her sketch. He says he should paint portraits. She hopes it will be her. She told her friend Emily that he would paint her. He asks about Cecily, and she says she moved away to Boston three years ago. She says she has to go soon, and he buys her some hot chocolate. He asks where she lives so he can visit her. She says he cannot visit her yet. She asks when he will start her portrait. She is still at Hammerstein’s. He would like to see her tricks, and he asks if they can go there together. She says she can get him in free and will try to meet him at the bench at 2 o’clock on Saturday. She says she has to go and walks off. Spinney comes up to him, and he realizes that she did not see Jennie.
Eben paints at the restaurant as Spinney watches.
On Saturday he goes to the park, but Jennie is not there. He tries to find Hammerstein’s, but it is not there anymore. He asks a policeman about the Appletons. He is advised to ask an older man inside, and Pete (Felix Bressart) remembers Mike and Pet Appleton who sang in 1905. Eben asks about 1910. Pete says he does not always remember well. He says Clara Morgan knew them. Eben asks where she lives, and he gives him an address.
Clara Morgan (Maude Simmons) shows Eben a scrap book with acts by Mary and Frank Appleton. Eben turns over a picture which is their daughter Jennie. He asks if she could be their granddaughter. Clara says she knew her backstage, but she lost track of her after her parents were killed on the trapeze years ago. He asks what happened to her, and Clara says her aunt wanted to put her in a convent. He thanks her, and she hopes he will find dear Jennie.
Eben walks to the bench at night and feels a change of time. He hears a girl sobbing and finds Jennie crying on the bench. She says she knew it would happen, and he tries to console her for her parents’ death which she believes happened that night. She says they told her not to be unhappy if something happened to them both at the same time. She realizes she should not cry for them, but she is crying for herself. She will not be lonely for long because her aunt is sending her to a convent. He does not understand how she changes and talks about things that happened long ago. She thinks she will know why someday, and he will too. She asks him to give her more time. She tells him to listen to the stars. He looks around, and she is gone.
Eben sits on the bench amid the snow. Matthews follows his dog to Eben. Matthews says his dog may have sensed he was in trouble. Eben admits painters want recognition. Matthews suspects something is bothering him.
At a concert with Spinney he contemplates his life.
In the spring in a carriage he tells Spinney that he is going to paint a portrait of Jennie. Spinney realizes how much he needs her, but she does not know whether he created her for inspiration.
Gus comes into Eben’s room as he prepares a canvass for a portrait. Gus reminds him he has not finished the painting over the bar. Eben says he will finish it.
A banner announces the new painting of Michael Collins, and inside Eben unveils the painting. Irish men sing and drink beer as Eben walks out.
Eben walks home thinking the mural and he are worthless. He sees his door open and finds Jennie sitting on the floor in a white dress. She says she could not come sooner. She is in her first year of college at the convent. They go out on the balcony, and she says she thought of him much. She searched and believes they will be together always. She wonders when he will marry her, and he laughs. She looks at a sketch of Radio City and a painting of a lighthouse at land’s end. He says it is Cape Cod. He puts up the blank canvass for her portrait, and she sits down to pose. She asks him to promise not to forget her.
At the convent Eben watches the girls parade by him. He hears her voice, and Jennie comes running to him. He was afraid she would not be there. She hurries him inside for the ceremony. They enter the sanctuary as the girls sing. They look down from a balcony. She points out those who are taking the veil and her teachers. Sister Mary of Mercy (Lillian Gish) is her favorite. She says she will come to understand.
At sunset Jennie and Eben look at the river scene. He reminds her of the song she sang to him in the park. She says God knows everything.
Eben shows his place to Matthews and Spinney. They look at the portrait and are impressed. She says he found what he was looking for. Matthews calls it a great picture because it has something eternal in her face. Eben says it is not finished.
Eben continues to work on the portrait and feels enchanted by love.
At night Jennie comes to Eben in the park, and they embrace. She says they have to wait while she goes away for the summer. She is leaving tomorrow and came to say goodbye. He says he will be lost without her. She does not want both of them to be lost. She asks about the New Jersey hills they see. He feels a distance between yesterday and tomorrow that frightens him. She says there is a bridge and tells him to have faith. They walk to the street, and they realize how still it is while people are sleeping. They stand on a bridge and talk. She says they were meant for each other. She wants him to finish her portrait.
She poses as he paints. She speaks of feeling sad about things that never happened but may happen. She closes her eyes and falls asleep. He wakes her up and shows her the finished painting. She asks if it is really her, and she says it will be seen in a museum by people from all over. She tells him to sign it, and he does. She embraces him, and he says he will paint her again and again. She wants him to paint all the beautiful things in the world. The other paintings make her heart stop. He admits he studied in Paris, and she would like to go there. He kisses her and wonders about love in other times. She says you must love just one, and they kiss again. She says she has to go, but they will meet after summer. She asks him to say he is sure, and he does. She notices the scarf, and he gives it to her, mentioning that he has been saving it since they met in the park. Suddenly he realizes she is gone. He looks at the rain outside.
In the fall Eben is still waiting for Jennie to return. Gus plays the harp and sings about his sweetheart of long ago. He asks Eben about the load he is carrying. He asks what he will do if she never comes back. Eben says Gus does not believe in her, but he knows. Gus suggests he contact the convent and offers to drive him there in the morning.
Eben watches the girls parade by and asks Mary of Mercy about Jennie. She remembers her well even though she was not of their faith. She saw a sadness in her. Eben asks where she is, and Mary says she died years ago. Eben says that could not be the same person. Mary says her aunt brought her to them after her parents died. Her aunt took her away during summer. She reads Jennie’s last letter to her about returning soon at the end of summer and how the world is beautiful. Jennie feels love will not be complete for her. Mary says a tide on October 5 hit the New England coast. Jennie liked to sail to a lighthouse, and on one trip she never came back. No one ever found her. Eben says he wants her back. Mary asks him to have faith. He says today is October 1, and so he has four days; but she says that was years ago. He says he has known her since then and is part of her life. He has faith in that and says he must hurry. Mary prays.
Spinney sees Eben come in, and he brought the portrait to sell them. Eben asks Matthew for an advance of $100, and Spinney tells him to pay Eben. He does so, and Spinney warns him to be careful of the ocean. Eben leaves.
Eben takes a train at night. On October 4 he asks the elderly Captain Cobb (Clem Bevans) about a hurricane coming up, and he remembers the hurricane on October 5 in the 1920s. Eben wants to charter a boat to land’s end lighthouse. Another old man says he has one but won’t rent it. Captain Cobb tells him to go to the jetty.
Eben rents a boat at night, and the man wonders how he will go out without wind. Eben asks about the great wave in the hurricane. The man remembers, and Eben asks him if he knew Jennie Appleton. He says he rented his boat to her, and she had big sad eyes. Eben asks what happened when the wave struck. He says he found what was left of the boat tied up. Eben asks if he made it to the lighthouse, and the man says she did not .
Eben sails the small boat in the fog. Then the wind comes up, and lightning strikes. Clouds churn in the sky, and waves surround the lighthouse. Eben’s boat is near the lighthouse and crashes on the rocks. He crawls on to a rock.
Captain Cobb reads from a book about the storm and that the Lord was not in the wind.
Eben is laying on his back as the waves break over him. He gets up and sees a window shutter moving. He climbs from the rocks to the lighthouse and goes inside. He calls Jennie and looks up. He goes up the stairs and comes out on a balcony, still calling her name. Suddenly the wind dies down, and he sees a small boat sailing toward him. He goes down to the rocks and calls to her. He hears her calling his name, and they run toward each other and embrace. He says he wants her, not just dreams. She says time made an error, and they are just beginning. She says there is no death. The storm rages again as he leads her toward the lighthouse. He holds her hand; but she says goodbye and is washed away by a wave.
Captain Cobb is taking care of Eben who is laying in bed. Spinney says she came up there to help him. Eben asks about her boat, but Captain Cobb says there was no other boat. Spinney realizes that he saw Jennie again. He cries that he lost her to the wave. He is glad that she believes he saw her again. She says his believing it is all that matters. He sees the scarf on her lap and asks where she got it. She says it was near him when they found him on the beach. He says it was Jennie’s. He says everything is all right.
A book about Eben Adams refers to his great “Portrait of Jennie.” Children admire the painting and wonder if she was real. The voice of Jennie is heard that the portrait will be seen by people from all over the world.
This fantasy depicts a painter who needs inspiration for his work to excel. He finds this in a beautiful girl who becomes the love of his life even though he sees her only a few times. She brings him a spiritual message of eternal love beyond death and assures him they will always be together in that spiritual reality.