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Frame by Frame

Finding the wit in ‘Shopping for Furs’

Some jokes are purely pictorial. They don’t require cartoon captions. Explaining them in words would be like dousing a dancing flame.

This picture is just such a joke. It’s also some kind of masterpiece.

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Called “Shopping for Furs,’’ it’s by Polly Thayer, a Boston native who died at the age of 101 in 2006. It was acquired this spring by the Boston Athenaeum.

Just look at this marvelous dame! Thick-set but well-kept, she sits slumped in a brightly upholstered chair, her lemon top zinging in harmony with the chair’s pink, mulberry-stain stripes.

She’s never going to let herself go, this girl — you can tell as much from her fastidiously rouged cheeks, the jaunty placement of her hat, and her perfectly manicured nails. Also, the decorous way her right hand rests on her thigh.

But even as she announces her membership in society, her ability to meet and surpass the expected standards, her body conveys a deep and ironic fatigue with the whole business of civilization. Beneath all the trappings — the shopping, the furs, the makeup, the stockings, the hat — there’s a bored animal twitching to cut loose.

She’s on the big side, this broad, no question — just look at the way the seat of her chair bends under the strain. But there’s something fantastically sensual about the way her body has come to rest in its temporary perch. It’s like Manet’s more famous “Repose — Portrait of Berthe Morisot’’ (Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art), but with an added dollop of indolence and two extra helpings of feminine disillusionment.

Actually, the bored, dispirited face of Thayer’s anonymous sitter is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in art: self-possession, deep exhaustion, and a longing for release all rolled into one. I like the way the tired, almost hooded eye on one side of her face is given a twist by the up-curling kick of her lips on the opposite side, completely upending the symmetry promised by her straight nose and neatly arched eyebrows. The jaunty hat and dangling left hand, meanwhile, communicate splendid insouciance.

The fur, with its striped markings, is brilliantly painted. And — further proof of Thayer’s visual wit — note the doubled outlines of the hat and shoulders, suggesting the presence of a mirror at her back. Also, the half-inch of bared skin between the top of her stockings and the hem of her skirt.

What a surprising painting. It could be depressing, but in fact it’s full of joy and twinkling wit.

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