Paula Rego: Girls, Dogs and Subverted Fairy Tales

(Last Updated On July 9, 2022)

Born and raised in Portugal during the Salazar era, Rego’s art is informed by her political views as well as her childhood memories of the time period. Her work is ultimately a feminist critique of reality, with its subversion of gender roles in both familial scenes and the fairy tales she loved as a child. Her girls and women, far from being meek and submissive in most cases, are often strong, sexually aggressive, predatory, even cruel. Perhaps, Rego hints, it is the world of men that makes them this way, but not always. Her constant references to military men gives us insight into Rego’s understanding of masculinity, and yet time after time in her work the females gain the upper hand. Her girls are tough, sinewy, hard-angled–in a word: masculinized.

At first this image appears deceptively homey, but a closer examination reveals scenes which are less than innocent.  The couple in the foreground is clearly in a mode of sexual transgression.  The girl is young, her exposed breast only just budding.  Other scenes of men and small girls at the edges of the picture are more vague, but the central figures set the tone:


Paula Rego – Title Unknown (1)

Another work that tackles the issue of sexual abuse is “Celestina’s House.” In Spanish literature Celestina is a procuress who brings together forbidden lovers, only to have them meet a tragic end. Here she is a metaphor for a different sort of tragedy.  Note the old plump woman in red and the child on her lap:


Paula Rego – Celestine’s House


Paula Rego – Crivelli’s Garden (Panel 2) (1991)


Paula Rego – Olga


Paula Rego – Title Unknown (2)


Paula Rego – Polly Put the Kettle On

Girls’ cruelty frequently takes place in the form of mistreatment of dogs:


Paula Rego – Two Girls and a Dog (1987)


Paula Rego – Young Predators (1987)

About the meaning of this painting Rego is flirtatious, even though on the surface it suggests a sexual assault of the patriarch of the family by his wife and daughters (note the placement of the nearest daughter between the man’s legs):


Paula Rego – The Family (1988)

Another scene of sexual subversion and transgression. Here the adolescent daughter’s satisfaction and familiarity with her father’s “trophy,” along with the pathetic figure of her mother in the background, suggests the older female has been replaced in the affections of the father, a state the daughter quite openly relishes:


Paula Rego – Snow White Playing with Her Father’s Trophies (1995)


Paula Rego – The Policeman’s Daughter (1987)


Paula Rego – The Dance (1988)


An excellent article about Rego and her work:

The Telegraph: Paula Rego interview

Artist’s profile at Saatchi Gallery (with more info about selected works):

Saatchi Gallery: Paula Rego

Wikipedia: Paula Rego

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