Reading the Greuze Girl: The Daughter's Seduction

Emma Barker
2012 Representations  
Traveling through New England in January 1781, the chevalier de Chastellux spent a night at Mr. Dewy's inn in Sheffield, Massachusetts. "My inn gave me pleasure the moment I entered it," he reported, "the master and mistress of the house appeared polite and well-educated, but I admired above all a girl of twelve years old, who had all the beauty of her age, and whom Greuze would have been happy to have taken for a model, when he painted his charming picture of the young girl crying for the loss
more » ... of her canary bird." 1 A few days later, Chastellux returned to Dorrance's tavern, in Voluntown, Connecticut, where he had stayed the previous July shortly after his arrival with the French expeditionary force sent to fight the British. He observed that twenty-year-old Miss Dorrance, who, at the time of his earlier visit, had been pregnant by a young man who had vanished after promising to marry her, had since given birth. Her noble and commanding countenance seemed more changed by misfortune than by suffering; yet every body about her was employed in consoling and taking care of her; her mother, seated by her, held in her arms the infant, smiling at it, and caressing it; but, as for her, her eyes were sorrowfully fixed upon the little innocent, eying it with interest, but without pleasure. . . . Never did a more interesting or more moral picture exercise the pencil of a Greuze, or the pen of a tender poet. May that man be banished from the bosom of society who could be so barbarous as to leave this amiable girl a prey to the misfortune that it is in his power to repair. 2 When Chastellux's account of his travels was published in France, he suppressed the name of Dorrance and added a footnote justifying himself for having identified the family in the original edition printed in the United States. 3 What those who had criticized him for exposing the girl's shame failed to appreciate was that he had only wanted to "give an idea of American manners, a b s t r ac t This essay challenges the generally accepted interpretation of Greuze's Young Girl Weeping over Her Dead Bird (1765) as an allegory of lost virginity by considering the painting in relation to eighteenth-century representations of the young girl in a range of discourses. The central contention is that the implied spectator to whom the picture is addressed is a quasi-paternal figure who disavows his own desire for the girl whilst nevertheless enjoying an eroticized intimacy with her. In thereby raising the specter of incest even as it represses it, the painting exemplifies deep-seated tensions within later eighteenth-century French culture. R e p r e s e n tat i o n s 117. Winter 2012
doi:10.1525/rep.2012.117.1.86 fatcat:qrzhsu7gmvhjxijc2nrcrexwb4