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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.

Louise of France. Oldest daughter of Frances I and Claude of France. Died aged two, of convulsions. Engaged to Infante Charles of Castile from birth to death.


The Girl With A Red Hat

A portrait that molds color and shadow:  it is a vision that shifts and trembles with the vagaries of light and trembles on the precipice of change.  

The light is as thick and rich as cream.  It pours in brilliant skeins across the girl’s shoulders and neck, forming streams and rivers – a cartography of chaste color.  The artist’s brush was heavy with paint, dripping with illumination:  when it touched the canvas, she came to life in a sculpture of incandescence and dusk. 

Girl With A Red Hat

Highlights glide down the slope of her nose, to mold a generous, blushing silhouette.  Glistening daubs contour her lower lip into a seductive, endearing curve.    A single spot of light rests in her eye like a distant sun.  It glimmers dimly beneath the lid, on the outskirts of the dark iris.    Free of outline’s curse, she grows out of the hothouse air like an orchid.

The baubles that hang from her ears seem to glow internally, seething with white-hot galaxies.  Her cloak is thick and modeled, cut deeply into shadow, like blue snowdrifts.  Her red hat stretches over her like an exotic awning, its flush echoed in her cheeks and mouth.  It casts a shadow over her face, a seamless puzzle of planes and depths. 

No one can be sure if this lady existed.  It is possible that the artist caught a glimpse of her,  the fleeting, dissolving mesh of light, the parted, expectant mouth – the impossible red hat.  Or perhaps he imagined her, a feminine equation who waited in a humid and bronzed room, warm with clinging illumination.

She is a masterpiece of color and light – warm and dimensional, melting yet sculptural, a soft design of texture and pattern.     She is a sum of radiant molecules suspended in ether, where a sudden breath – a shattering of air – will forever alter her, or cause her to disappear completely.

The Charmer

Dappled with color, a japonesque puzzle of light and shadow, the bodice pushes and curves into an alluring landscape.   Smooth as enamel, complex with embroidery, intricate with embellishment, it invites affection, an exploring grasp around a tiny, artificial waist.

The lady has been asleep in her brocaded room, nestled in a soft atmosphere of flowers and opium.  The couch is as lush and indulgent as she is…a forgiving support for flesh that is white and ethereal,  like meringue. 

But a voice has awoken her:  diminutive and sweet; verdant and bright.  A sparrow perched on her finger, with a world of stories to tell, so eager to share them that it could not wait for her to wake up.  It sang of trees huddled in the blue mist, of twilight skies that ruptured into a hail of stars and planets, of a sun that brought the flowers to life in the spring and then killed them in the summer. It sang stories of love:  romantic vignettes played out in the privacy of the forest.

So, in appreciation of the sparrow’s earthy narratives, the lady’s mouth began a lengthy and languid journey towards a smile; her laudanum eyes opened.   Roused out of a blithe sleep, her face was a whisper – a soft communication of femininity, of swooning temptations.

 The painter of this portrait has not left us with her name.  Perhaps he felt that generations later her identity would be irrelevant, a pretty footnote to a decorative age.   But he has left a hint of her personality, an idea of what it must have been like to have shared a room with her.  He named her:   ‘La Charmeuse’.

Lady In Waiting

A Joyous Color

I found her in a darkened hallway of a museum that was new to me.  There was no marquee of adoring lights to surround her.  Yet she glowed with a froth of color that mocked like the sun frolicking across the ocean's surface, picking out the jeweled lights on Neptune's brow.

There were no benches placed before her; those that would visit her, proclaim their ardor and admiration, would have to stand, as they would before a princess.  But her glance, full of shallow youth and pride, would have to insist:  You will stay, and you will wait.  Her coral smile, a faint dimpling on soft, dangerous country, added:  And you will enjoy it.

There was nothing coy about the mischievous creature I found in the shadows.  She was lush and bold.  Pearls, translucent marbles that rolled from the mouths of oysters, wrapped around her neck and cascaded down her breast.  The thick, nacreous ropes were arranged with careful abandon over skin that was white and suffocating with arsenic.  Her hair melted into auburn coils, its henna exuberance held back by a pink ribbon which happily admitted its silken defeat.

Liquid colors flowed about her, swift-moving pastel rivers of blue, white and pink.  The currents of a spring sky – delicate, willful prisms – rushed through the fabric of her gown and gave it stormy life.  Her sapphire plumage was matched only by the parrot balanced on her lithe fingers, cautiously pulling her gown open.

Who was she?  I read the portrait's title:  'Young Lady With A Parrot'.  Frustrating!  She would have to remain a mystery – her dainty secrets locked away.  She might have been a lady-in-waiting, a royal daughter or a courtier's sin.  All I had was her beguiling light and joyous color.

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