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Youth in a time of revolt

Girodet’s portrait captures age’s tumult

The painting captures the precarious, passionate intensity, the volatile sensuality of adolescence. The painting captures the precarious, passionate intensity, the volatile sensuality of adolescence.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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What was early adolescence like in post-Revolutionary France? One associates the period in general with Rousseau’s idealized vision of childhood. But it’s easy to imagine that in the maelstrom of life during the Directory (1795-99), life for many youngsters was comparable to Berlin in the 1930s or, who knows, Baghdad in 2003: Youths, both rich and poor, taking full advantage of a wider social upheaval, imitating the violent pastimes of their elders, running in gangs, disrupting the patterns of a more settled social existence. Living by their wits.

This picture, my favorite anywhere in New England, was painted by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson around 1796-1800. It evokes not just the tumult of Girodet’s age, but the precarious, passionate intensity, the volatile sensuality of adolescence.

When the Smith College Museum of Art bought the painting in 1931, they thought it was by Theodore Géricault. In the absence of conclusive evidence, you can understand the confusion. Both artists straddled the post-Revolutionary era when the severe and frigid virility of the neoclassical style was giving way to the more provisional, agitated, and stormy outlook of Romanticism.

Full-blown Romanticism was a despairing reaction to the collapse of the Napoleonic enterprise. But when Girodet supposedly painted this portrait — an almost textbook case of Romanticism (compare it, for instance, to Delacroix’s 1824 “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery’’ in the Louvre) — that enterprise had not even kicked off.

What does that tell us? Just that political history can never entirely explain shifts in mood and zeitgeist. Something was in the air, and Girodet had the antennae to pick it up.

Unlike the cool, level gazes of the subjects in the neoclassical portraits of Girodet’s teacher, Jacques-Louis David, this young boy’s liquid eyes are directed up and to the side. They register fear, but also a brooding resolve. You cannot say which of the two prevails. But either way, there’s a degree of conscious awareness in this boy’s expression that sears itself into your memory.

Note the white, open-collared shirt: A dazzling display of painting in itself, it does much to augment the absolute conviction behind Girodet’s depiction. The boy’s haircut, too, is worth commenting on — not just the insouciant cowlick at the back, but the long, tousled locks that have been brushed forward around his ears. The style, as the art historian Margaret A. Oppenheimer has noted, was popular in those post-Revolutionary days: It was known as “oreilles de chien’’ (dog’s ears) because it called to mind the floppy ears of spaniels. The exposed neck was also chic — morbidly so in the wake of the Terror, when guillotines had seen so much use.

Attempts to identify the sitter have not borne fruit, although there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest it may have been Pierre-Eugène Brouet, the stepson of the man who later adopted the adult Girodet. The boy died when he was 13.

But identifying him doesn’t finally matter. People tend to overemphasize the importance of knowing the subjects of great portraits and who their relations were. Great portraits are no different, in this sense, from any other great painting. If you believe them — if they radiate conviction, specificity, intensity — it’s enough. It’s hard to imagine, anyway, that this boy really cared whose stepson or third cousin he may have been.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

PORTRAIT OF A YOUTH

By Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson

At: Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton. 413-585-2760, www.smith.edu/artmuseum