Sunday, March 08, 2009

Your Sunday Fantasie

Fosco loathes this half of the time change dyad. "Losing" the hour plays too much hell with Fosco's sleep schedule. I wish we could live in a world where we always "fall back" one hour in the fall, but never "spring forward" the next spring. Of course, this would eventually result in darkness at noon and other unpleasantnesses. Alas.

So to ease your bleary eyes this time-change Sunday, Fosco offers a gorgeous painting. This painting caught Fosco's eye several years ago as he was speed-walking through the "Americans in Paris" exhibit at the Met Museum. It took my breath away.

The painting is by Charles Sprague Pearce (1851-1914) (no relation to Charles Sanders Peirce, although they were contemporaries). Pearce was born in Boston, but lived and worked in France after 1885. In his work, he was something of an Orientalist (ya think?), so naturally he received the French Légion d'honneur. This painting, titled Fantasie was finished circa 1883 and resides in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

There is not a lot of academic work that Fosco can locate on Charles Sprague Pearce, but interestingly enough, there appears to be something of a disagreement about this painting. The Americans in Paris 1860-1900 catalogue essay for this painting identifies the subject as a boy. However, Aisla Boyd, writing in the Journal of Victorian Culture, disagrees:

Strangely Charles Sprague Pearce's Fantasie is identified in the catalogue and labelled as a young boy wearing a woman's kimono, but is more obviously a woman. Her cupid's bow mouth, hint of bosom under the beautiful silk, smooth skin and hair drawn back like a bob, contrast most dramatically with the firmly held samurai sword--the fantasy is that of the femme fatale rather than cross-dressing.
I think this is a faulty reading of the portrait.

Of course, the only way to resolve the question of the sex of the portrait subject would seem to be finding some sort of historical evidence that establishes the sex of Pearce's model (like a letter or journal entry). However, even that type of evidence would still leave open the question of the sexual ambiguity of the subject--regardless of whether or not said subject is "actually" a boy or a woman. After all, Boyd sees "obviously" a woman, while others see a boy. Clearly, this painting is not meant to evoke a stable representation of sex (either male or female). If there is one thing that's obvious about this painting to me, it's that the sex of the subject is not obvious.

Consequently, I want to read this painting as a queer painting. Think about it: either way, this painting is attempting to mess with sex roles. If it's a boy (and I think it probably is), why is he so feminized? Why is he wearing a woman's kimono? If it's a woman, why is she masculinized as a samurai? (I'm sorry, there is nothing of a femme fatale here--I think that's a ludicrous reading.) Either way, this painting is about some aspect of cross-dressing (which is its fantasie, right?). Boyd's reading of the painting tries too hard, I think, to unqueer a very queer painting--to establish a conventional alibi for what is a sexually subversive work of art.

If you are interested in the catalogue for this exhibition, you can purchase it here:


Anonymous said...

In his work, he was something of an Orientalist (ya think?), so naturally he received the French Légion d'honneur.


The BeeMaster

Jill said...

Fantasie is a perfect title. The subject can be whatever you desire. I adore the detail of the kimono. It's a beautiful, ethereal painting. I can see why it caught your eye. There is one here at our local museum that is similar that I love. I'll see if I can find a photo online and post it.

Jeremy said...

I saw a girl at first, then a boy (because of the face mainly). I don't know enough about nineteenth-century hair styles to make sense of the cut. The kimono throws things off too, even though it's not exclusively a female dress. I wouldn't dismiss the femme fatale so totally, though it's a juvenile femme fatale produced by a male desire.

Your reading seems right to me, though I wonder how subversive the painting can really be. The oriental as figure for sexual ambiguity ain't too uncommon, in the nineteenth century or today....

Thanks for this.

FOSCO said...

@BeeMaster: The French essentially invented Orientalism in the 18th century. It's a central theme in French culture up through the mid 20C.

@Jill: Oooh, I look forward to seeing that pic if you can find it!

@lboom: Yeah, subversive is a bit of an overstatement here. Sometimes I get caught up in my rhetoric...

Anonymous said...

Ah, thanks. Learn something new every day...