The Painting Behind the Story
By Beth Ain
In 1776 Paris, when Jean-Honore Fragonard sat down to paint the portrait he would call Portrait of a Young Girl Reading, I’m betting it never crossed his mind that sometime in the year 2008 in New York City, a writer would come upon his painting and feel inspired to write a book about a girl he spent about one hour painting. No, the artist probably thought he had done just about all there was to be done with the work. And of course, he had. It is a lovely portrait.
And I might have left that painting alone, too, if it weren’t for one burning question I had. What was that young girl reading? I had to figure it out. What I learned, though, was that Portrait of a Young Girl Reading was not painted at a traditional portrait sitting. More likely, it was one of Fragonard’s “fantasy portraits,” portraits that came from somewhere inside of him, someone he’d observed or wondered about. I took Fragonard’s affection for conjuring paintings out of his own imagination as my cue. I don’t know who that girl was to Fragonard. I couldn’t possibly know. But I could figure out who she was to me.
So why would that girl be there and what was she reading and why was she reading a book during a portrait sitting at all? Well, it had to be that this young girl was like so many young girls throughout time—she had to have angst! So, I looked at her face and thought that she probably had to go and sit for her portrait because her overbearing, social climbing mother made her go. And she had to have been nervous and her body would not be able to settle. So what would the artist have done? I think he might have thought to hand her something to hold onto, something like a book, a battered copy of Candide to still her fidgety hands. And I think his idea would have worked. Her body would have settled, but a spark would have been ignited that would have turned her own revolutionary rumblings into little earthquakes.
And all of a sudden, she would see everything differently. At a time when the world was changing in ways that would re-shape history, she would want to participate in it and not be a pretty picture at all. She would want to feel what love feels like and what dinner with thinking and acting people feels like. And she would want to meet, have to meet, that Benjamin Franklin, whose presence in Paris meant swooning for most aristocratic Frenchwomen, but for her it meant something more.
She was changed. The girl in the painting would have become someone who wanted her life to mean something and who would find a way to make it happen at any cost. And that was that. My story was born. Out of a painting by a man who painted so many young women in his lifetime—young women who swung on swings, played games, held babies close. But only one was holding a book, so only one could be Sabine.
IMAGE:Young Girl Reading, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1770. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.