Through a Glass Darkly

Balthus: Thérèse Dreaming, 1938

I came to the Met to see Thérèse—Thérèse Blanchard, Balthus’s model and muse. The museum owns two of the eleven paintings Balthus made of the girl between 1936 and 1939, when she turned fourteen, including Thérèse Dreaming, the object of recent #MeToo-related controversy and an online petition, signed by thousands, requesting that the painting either be removed from view or displayed differently. The Met has so far declined to do so.

To my surprise, it is the smaller of the two canvases, titled simply Thérèse, that I find the more immediately arresting. The girl is pushed to the extreme foreground of the composition and cropped rather dramatically at the legs and feet, as though Balthus was zooming in on her with a lens. The effect is jarring and claustrophobic and serves to amplify Thérèse’s striking presence. The picture, though less conspicuously erotic than Thérèse Dreaming, is charged by a tension between its subject’s childishly remote gaze—a mix of dreamy inwardness and pouty disaffection—and her red-jacketed, seductively reclining figure. It is not the pose of a mere child. The tension, if anything, is augmented by Balthus’s awkward depiction of the legs, which defy anatomical logic.

A few galleries away is Thérèse Dreaming. Here she has been placed in a dark cave-like interior and offset by a still life with a crumpled cloth that seems lifted out of a Cézanne painting. As with the other picture, there is a certain jaggedness in Balthus’s articulation of the anatomical form, especially his modeling of the girl’s face. Thérèse’s nose is painted in a way that gives her a strangely harsh quality (harsher than I remember from reproductions), which appears at odds with the refined coolness of the painting. That coolness contains and masks the suggestive core of the picture: the exposure of the dreaming girl’s underwear (apparently unacknowledged by her, visible to us).

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend, a successful painter of highly realistic portraits and figures. He complained of the awkwardness of Balthus’s people: they aren’t real or alive. They look like mannequins. I understood what my friend was saying but tried my best to defend Balthus on the grounds that he was not striving for total naturalism or verisimilitude. His figures weren’t meant to be imitations of real life; they were mysterious emanations from a powerfully subjective vision. Any awkwardness in the paintings, then, was in some part deliberate. Still, I find myself wondering: Had Balthus been a more accurate painter, at least according to my friend’s lights, would he have been a lesser artist?

Mia Merrill, the author of the petition addressing Thérèse Dreaming, writes that “given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally,…

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