The painter is unknown, but it is probable that the tiny subject is the Dauphine Louise-Louise, oldest daughter of Francis I. In a time heavy with symbolism, little sense can be made of the work. It is a portrait of a young girl, a child not yet grown out of her childish fat; the laces of her bodice strained across her chest. The ribbon of her kerchief disappears beneath her chin – laces and ribbons trying to force a child into a woman’s shape.
Possibly this is a posthumous work, for the little girl died at the age of two, convulsing uncontrollably in front of her dismayed parents and doctors. This would explain the background of funereal black, so unlike other children’s portraits from the 16th century: no furniture, no books, no toys. No memento mori symbols of a brief and risky life unfettered by hygiene; no baskets of fruit presenting the child as the fruit of a sacred union; no cat to symbolize lust or dog to imply loyalty. There is nothing to soothe a little girl’s loneliness.
The only other object in the painting is in the girl’s hands. It is a dead sparrow. Death has loosened its muscles: the beak gapes open, the neck extended, the wings limp. This might be a thought for the vanity of life – all must die, including small birds – but the girl’s expression is not accepting, or knowledgeable, or serene as would be expected. Instead, she is startled: her blue eyes seem to pale with amazement. The diminutive corners of her mouth twist downward. Whomever this painter was, he or she has made a subtle and intuitive study of a child on the verge of tears.
She will cry out of grief and confusion. She will cry because she does not understand why her beloved pet is so quiet and acquiescent, why its throat does not flutter with sound. Its eyes are dull; the opaque lids have turned them away from her, far from her girlish affection.
The girl holds the sparrow in the gentle bowl of her hands, her fingers searching for the quick heartbeat, the thin, complex pulse of her little pet. She holds the creature as gently as a hunting dog – retrieving its prey with its soft mouth; careful not to press with tooth or tongue the still surface of its broken prize. Both are careful not to harm it, though it be dead.