THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
FRAME BY FRAME

Revelations on fragile youth, femininity

Guillaume Guillon Lethière had made his name as a history painter by the time this girl agreed to pose for him. Guillaume Guillon Lethière had made his name as a history painter by the time this girl agreed to pose for him. (Worcester Art Museum)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 6, 2010

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Fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano get many of their best ideas from old master paintings. Is it the same with great hairdressers? I’ve often wondered. Certainly this do — and I’ve no idea how to describe it (who does one consult: a coiffographer? A coiffologist?) — is something special.

So is the portrait itself. “Girl With Portfolio’’ was painted in France around 1799 by Guillaume Guillon Lethière, and it hangs in the Worcester Art Museum. Lethière had made his name as a history painter by the time this girl agreed to pose for him. But even greater days were ahead of him: He accompanied Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, to Spain and, after helping him finagle a terrific collection of Spanish pictures, was rewarded with the directorship of the French Academy in Rome.

Such success was not hindered, it seems, by the fact that Lethière was the bastard son of a white colonial official in Guadeloupe and a freed black slave called Marie-Françoise, or Pepeÿe.

If you want a visual incarnation of fragility — not just the fragility of youth or of femininity, but of an individual caught in the headlights of history — you need look no further than the porcelain face, exquisitely framed by curling tendrils of hair, of this attractive but not quite beautiful girl (an aspiring artist, it seems, because she holds an artist’s portfolio and a “porte-crayon,’’ or chalk holder, in her hands).

Just imagine how different she would appear if she’d been painted a few decades earlier by Boucher or Fragonard, those pleasure-loving stalwarts of the old regime: Pink cheeks, powdered hair, pastel colors — possibly a frolicking poodle, too. In Lethière’s picture, barely 10 years after the heady days of 1789, it’s clear that a whole new idea of portraiture has taken hold. A new idea of femininity, too.

The girl’s gaze is piercingly direct. Apart from her painter’s accessories, there’s nothing else in the picture to distract us. Until Lethière thought better of it and painted them out, she wore a red ribbon in her hair and hoop earrings. (The visible traces of red on her head were exposed by a later restoration).

The paint itself is smooth as glass. The colors are conspicuously sober — not a hint of pink or yellow. And she wears a fashionable spencer — a short, boyish jacket — that conjures up the romance of masculine austerity like a good, sharp cologne.

Despite all this, how vulnerable she seems!

Delicate-featured girls in boyish clothes are always somehow poignant — perhaps that’s part of it. The spreading spiderweb of background craquelure — a sign of the picture’s age — only heightens the impression of fragility.

But I’m bewitched, too, by the tension — which you find in so many of these neo-classical portraits from the French Revolutionary period — between the sobriety, composure, and lucidity of the picture itself and everything we know about the chaotic cut and thrust of political events at the time. Behind this girl’s delicate head you feel the silent, invisible roar of history.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

GIRL WITH PORTFOLIO

By Guillaume Guillon Lethière

At: Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org