13 November 2009

The Girl in the Man's Coat

On the back of the painting it says

In 1506 on June 1 this was painted by the hand of master Zorzi from Castelfranco, colleague of master Vicenzo Catena, on request from master Giocomo.
Zorzi is made respectable as Giorgione, and sometimes the girl is called Laura, though that is not necessarily her name. Sometimes she is "Portrait of a Young Bride" which makes her undress respectable.

She is a little thing, private, only 41 by 33.6 cm, not as wide as my computer screen. An essay from the National Gallery of Art explores how she was painted. At an early stage, there was blue sky and much more laurel to the right. Some of her belly was exposed before Giorgione painted the fur under her breast. The laurel on the left was added on late, as was the wisp of veiling. In the 18th century the painting -- canvas glued to a fir panel -- was cut to make an oval, and later on it was reshaped with the addition of ten pieces of oak.

Her portrait is said to have freed Venetian artists to paint all those drowningly lovely nudes with skin like cream, and mirrors, furs and pearls and splendid hair. When you look at contemporary portraits like this one by master Vicenzo mentioned on the back of Laura, you see that this is a new attitude in looking at women -- expectations for dress and class and symbol are overturned and you are left trying to figure out what to do with this naked woman with her hair falling down. She is not from a class that has portraits. Like the girl with the pearl earring, there is no background into which she can retreat, or that can provide the viewer with a clue.

She is young -- perhaps sixteen. There is a touch of belligerence in her manner -- she is cold, she needs the money, the baby needs nursing, she doesn't like master Giacomo looking at her undressed, they are expecting her in the kitchen and she will hear about this, the red wool scratches, she would like to wear a good dress and fix her hair if she is to be painted, she is really really tired of not moving, and Zorzi has said "not much longer" about four hundred times.
The painting generates speculation.

And vocabulary. People do produce vocabulary about this painting. This is a "poetic image." She shows her breast "in a grave, thoughtful way," she "embodied the erotic dreams of the Venetians," and sometimes there seems confusion about what painting is under discussion: "the white lace that flutters around her like an airy snake gives this painting a mythic feeling." (I see fine-wove linen, possibly silk, here: there is no lace.) She is wearing a "gendered garment." Her right hand "is in the midst of an uncompleted gesture which, we might say, is not rhetorical but transitive." Or we might not.

She is "a response to the developing phenomenon of the courtesan and a parallel exploration of the unrecognized middle ground between . . . lady and whore, that the courtesan had just begun to map out for herself."
She is a chaste bride whose sexuality is for her husband (with women, laurel represents chastity). She is a poet (with men, laurel represents the poet -- and she is wearing a man's robe). She is concealing herself. She is revealing herself. She is a response to the tradition of romantic Lauras inspired by Petrarch. She is Daphne becoming the laurel tree.

Like Daphne, the girl become tree, the girl whose name might not be Laura is forever fixed because of the way a man saw her.

Suppose she is the girl the painter was sleeping with. She got out of bed on a cold morning to go to the small room on the staircase. It was very cold and she grabbed the robe closest to the bed. . The painter said, "Hold still like that while I do a sketch," or "I want a picture of you like that."
She had grains of sleep in her eyes, her breath was off, her hair was falling down. She needed to go but she held still for the sketch. Later master Giacomo was visiting Zorzi's studio, saw the sketch, asked for a complete painting.

But the girl was not important enough to be mentioned in the inscription on the back.

The image at this link can be enlarged to about four times the size of the original which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

1 comment:

  1. Some will be interested in this additional information about the painting:


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