(Link to Girl in a Red Dress by Paula Mondersohn-Becker in the Harvard Art Museums archive)
Sometimes a work of art finds its own context within us. Some paintings are felt so deeply and so personally that any sort of discussion about them as objects seems almost beside the point. I suspect that this is one way that many people experience paintings. They find something in the work that resonates inside them. It might be a color, a shape, or some aspect of the image itself, maybe even the subject of the work. A relationship is formed. There’s the potential for the painting to become a friend.
Paula Modersohn-Becker’s painting Girl in a Red Dress at the Harvard Art Museums has that kind of feeling for me. This painting of a small girl in a simplified northern landscape recalls something from my own childhood in Wisconsin. There are the birch trees. A solid trunk rises like a rough Greek column next to the seated child, while a wispy, leafless specimen in the background indicates that the season is not summer. The girl in the red dress sits passively with her pawlike hands resting on her lap. Her gray eyes are like two round holes punched into her head. She does not smile but seems very serious, as if the sheer weight of the life she must live is already pushing down on her.
The painting says a lot about that life. The child appears to be more resigned than expectant. In the paintings of Mary Cassatt or John Singer Sargent, little girls from well-off nineteenth-century families are cradled by young and beautiful mothers or dressed in white pinafores to be depicted in richly furnished rooms with Chinese vases and patterned Oriental rugs. They seem cared for, delighted in, loved. There is none of that sense with this painting. This image calls to mind the work of Käthe Kollwitz. It is a homely picture, a homily about a life that may not be lived all that well because of circumstances that are less than propitious.
That’s the incongruity in the painting. In a perfect world, children are not supposed to be hungry, alone, work-weary, or neglected, but that’s the feeling here. The outdoor scene lacks even the potential of a blue sky. Instead, the overcast sky is whitish, dense, opaque, and enclosed. Even the child’s “red” dress is more faded than cheerful. All is earth-toned, immanent, and scorched.
The painting feels purposely crudely done, just as the child’s life is and will be crudely made and perhaps crudely lived. The girl can’t be more than two or three years old. I empathize with the image because somehow I was that child and still am her on the inside—mute, dumb, and waiting. There might be a world beyond the picture frame, but it’s not clear whether she will ever come to know that place. The painting is about despair. It is a painting about growing up without money or advantage or joy in a northern rural landscape. There’s a sense of sheer resignation, isolation, and desolation. It is a very sad work, and yet, somehow, I return to look at it again and again as if I’m finding a truth that I require in order to know and remember something crucial and necessary. I could live with the painting and enjoy it every day for its honesty about a life that is just as it is with nothing put on for show. It is not a beautiful or a romantic picture. And that’s exactly why it moves me so much.
Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, Germany