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It’s all about the dress

A work of subversively stylized artifice

Worcester Art MuseumM

Vivienne Westwood once said “You have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes.’’ It’s an attractive formulation, not least because it reverses a prejudice we might otherwise bring to the matter - the assumption, that is, that you get to wear impressive clothes only if you have a much better life.

This painting, in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum, has something similarly subversive about it. We don’t know who painted it, but we do know that whoever did was good. (At least one proposed attribution has been rejected on the grounds that this picture is too fine to be by the same hand).

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It shows a young, unknown and meltingly beautiful Spanish noblewoman. Her face - unlike her dress, which is stiff and stylized to the point of abstraction - is sensitively modeled: It is pale and bright, but with just enough shadow encroaching on one side to set off a high cheekbone and dramatize her dark, self-possessed but vulnerable-looking eyes.

But soulful eyes be damned: This picture is, let’s face it, all about the dress. I can’t think of a single painting with a more beautiful and audacious dress, more scintillating colors, anywhere.

The picture itself - like any good party gown - is an exercise in artifice. The artifice (which is reinforced by its sturdy decorative frame) is there in the clean lines, the strong symmetries, and the evenly applied colors that stylize rather than describe (in optically faithful terms) the dress’s watered silk fabric in blushing rose, its wide swaths of trimmed gold braid.

We are not, in other words, looking at Velázquez (a painter who was hitting his stride in the same city - Madrid - at the same time).

Yet something about the picture convinces you instantly. And the credit must surely go to the dress’s dominant color harmony of rich rose and burnt-caramel gold. It’s astonishing.

Note, too, when your eyes adjust to this onslaught of pleasure, the sliver of green on the table cover and the charcoal grey of the lady’s ruff and cuffs: Both colors help rein in the vibrant hum of the two warmer hues.

There’s also an exciting tension between the geometric patterns of the dress’s gold braid (did Frank Stella ever see this picture?) and the looping curves and arcs that recur elsewhere.

One fun thing to know (passed on to me by WAM’s director Jim Welu): This picture was once owned by Rita Lydig, the New York socialite who was painted by Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent, photographed by Edward Steichen, admired by Isabella Stewart Gardner, and friendly with Tolstoy, Rodin, Debussy, and Bernhardt.

Lydig’s collection of very impressive clothes became the basis for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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