Little Girl Lost

There’s a little girl lost in the Getty. You may not have noticed her, tucked as she is among water lilies, bowls of fruit, and portraits of more important grown-ups. Her name is Jeanne Kéfer, and she quietly beckons your attention.

Jeanne does not live in your world. Hers is the confused and vulnerable state of childhood, that universal homeland where, as Victor Herbert writes in “Toyland,” once you cross its borders, you can never return again.

Jeanne was captured in 1885 by Fernand Khnopff, the Belgian Symbolist best known for his atmospheric tableaux and erotic fascination with his sister, who sat for many of his paintings and embodied the artist’s feminine ideal. “Beautiful red hair of a barbarian,” said poet Emile Verhaeren in describing Khnopff; “upright posture, neatly dressed, a simple person who had a horror of appearing dishevelled; a clergyman in the process of becoming a dandy.” spoke with Getty assistant curator Scott Allan, whose first duty at the museum, coincidentally, was to provide the audio guide for the painting. Allan shares his thoughts about the painting’s mysterious allure and the relatively unknown artist who created it.

FALA: When was “Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer” acquired?

SA: In 1997. Throughout the late ’80s and much of the ’90s, a lot of the 19th-century collecting at the Getty was looking beyond just canononical, modern French masters. We were acquiring a lot of things from Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium and England, trying to break the box of received notions of 19th-century art history. Compared to some French artists, Khnopff is certainly less known: There are far fewer of his paintings in North American collections. But as far as Belgian and Symbolist art, he’s one of the giants and had an international reputation in his lifetime in avant-garde circles.

FALA: Where was it acquired and how much was paid?

SA: Well I won’t tell you how much was paid. It was acquired at Christie’s from a private collection.

I did a check on Artnet covering the past 10-15 years, and the most significant works by Khnopff that came up were given estimates by the auction houses in the $1 million to $1.5 million range; in one case, though, the picture only went for something in the $800,000s. Most of the relatively important pictures fell anywhere in the $100,000 to $700,000 range, while a number of more minor things were listed with five figures.

The market is so volatile and inflated right now, that if a picture like this came up today it would probably get a radically different price than it did in 1997.

FALA: Is this the Getty’s only work by the artist?khnopff-studio.jpg

SA: We may have a drawing, but it’s certainly the only painting.

FALA: Tell us what you make of the work.

SA: Part of what I really like about it is that it has this really uncanny photographic naturalism. It’s an incredibly precise realistic image. There’s this whole academic side to him, and yet he manages to convey this incredibly compelling, mysterious, suggestive, weirdly daydream-like picture. It’s got this strange, slightly disturbing atmosphere, and despite the photographic realism, the level of artifice and pictorial calculation is quite astounding.

It’s a fairly flat image, a balanced arrangement of rectangular and geometric forms, and the little girl’s scale is carefully calibrated against the underlying geometric grid. The top of the bottom-most molding on the door lines up perfectly with the bottom edge of her coat; her shoulders line up perfectly with another molding higher above; and the molding at the bottom of the window on the door lines up where you imagine the crown of her head to be.

Then the picture does really werid things with space, proximity and distance. The top of the frame bisects these doors. So for an adult that suggests an incredible closeness to the little girl, but then there’s the expanse of these floorboards coming out at the bottom that pushes you back a distance.

Then when you look at the perspective construction, with the angled procession of the floorboards, you imagine the vanishing point to be behind her eyes. So within the universe of the picture, everything is focused on her, and for an adult viewer you get a strange subjective sense of what a child’s experience of an adult’s world is.

Then the palette is very subtle with these color harmonies and very cool silvery tones. And the characterization of the little girl: She’s very charming and whatnot, yet there’s also something strangely rigid and hieratic.

FALA: You can almost imagine her turning demonic in one of the “Omen” films.

SA: Absolutely. She is standing sentinel at the door. But at the same time you can imagine a kid dressed up and standing stiff for an artist in a portrait studio, not sure what to do. So there’s this winsome quality to her, but also this slightly disturbing aspect to her with this penetrating stare.

When we acquired the painting it was x-rayed, and originally she was holding a little bunch of flowers in her left hand. So that’s the one major change Khnopff made, and I think that [getting rid of the flowers] makes the focus just on her eyes, and makes the intensity of her gaze that much more compelling without that distracting detail which might have some sort of obvious symbolic quality.

FALA: In regards to the subtle color palette, it reminds me of those lines of Verlaine, “Car nous voulons la nuance encore/Pas la couleur/Rien que la nuance!” which was a sort of rallying cry for the Symbolists.

SA: Certainly for many Symbolist painters that’s true. The palette doesn’t really connote daylight and outside — it’s something more dreamy, with a strange, milky, glaucous quality.

It’s worth mentioning that the Getty had Khnopff expert Michel Draguet write a whole study about this painting, so there’s a lot of historical context there.

“Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer” courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust. Order the poster here. Michel Draguet’s study of the painting can be ordered here.


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