SPRINGFIELD — Girls of a certain age often spend a lot of time gazing into mirrors. “They will try out charm on anything,” wrote Alice Munro, in her great book “The Beggar Maid” – “on dogs or cats or their own faces in the mirror.”
Since gazing into mirrors is associated with narcissism, parents tend to frown on the practice, and will sometimes (I’m guilty of this myself) try to embarrass their daughters into ceasing.
I’m no psychologist, but my instinct is that, on this one (as on so much else), the grown-ups are entirely wrong. Mirrors, for little people, are fascinating, and fun. They provide a perfect place to learn about oneself, to explore the full repertoire of things one might be, and do, and try on.
Before I saw it in the flesh a few weeks ago, I had heard rumors about this very special painting for more than a year. It hangs in the marvelous Michele and Donald d’Amour Museum of Fine Arts (which is part of the Springfield Museums complex), and it’s by the under-appreciated Swiss-French artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-89).
The son of a jeweler, Liotard received excellent training. He traveled widely, and quickly developed into a wonderful portraitist. He had a particular knack for pastels; he produced some of the most vivid and virtuosic works of all time in this medium. He was also a collector and dealer in old master paintings.
He went to Istanbul in 1738, and, since he continued to wear Turkish costume upon his return to Europe, he soon became known as “the Turkish painter.” (He understood, you feel, how interesting it can be to try on different clothes.)
Now look at this painting. It’s mesmerizing, is it not? It’s hard to know if the pearls the girl wears around her neck and the fabric she clutches in her right hand belong to her or her mother. I’m guessing her mother. But if you want an example of youthful self-possession and confident, full-throated projection, you could scarcely do better.
Liotard’s colors are warm and bright — almost the same palette as his better-known pastels. But notice how the large central block of rich black in the lower part of the painting anchors the image. The composition — those cascading fabrics at lower left and right, the diagonals of her torso and the tilted mirror, the contrary angle of her reflected head — feels impeccably taut.
But what finally moves you is picture’s human subject. To me, Liotard conveys something quite at odds with the sickly attenuations of narcissism. Instead, he expresses a sincerity, a joy, and a lack of self-censure that are altogether remarkable. And in so doing, he does great honor to this young girl’s gorgeous and enviable fullness of firstname.lastname@example.org.