To Be Fair (Mirror, Mirror) – Pt. 1

Lord George Lyttlelton wrote, in Advice to a Lady: “What is your sex’s earliest, latest care, Your heart’s supreme ambition? To be fair.”

Feminists complain that the culture we live in is, in the words of Dr. Mary Pipher, “girl poisoning”–in essence, that our cultural preoccupation with rigid standards of beauty teaches girls from a young age to fret obsessively about their appearance to the point that their self-esteem is damaged. I agree to an extent. The media certainly tends to emphasize sexuality in teens above other qualities. However, at the same time the current cultural zeitgeist in fact denies the holistic beauty of youth, claiming that young people are asexual or even in fact poisoned by sexuality itself, and the strongest advocates of that position are the selfsame feminists who lament our narrow definitions of beauty. Girls themselves are at the center of a cultural tug-of-war over youth, beauty, and sexuality.

How is a young girl meant to take these conflicting messages, then? It appears to me self-evident that Lyttleton was correct, and not only that–throughout history beauty has always been a concern for girls, and that a rather slim definition of feminine beauty, while changing over time and from culture to culture, has been around as long as girls themselves. Thus, one cannot fully blame modern Western culture for this obsession; it is in our genes. Even the lowliest animals driven by instinct seek healthy mates–the problem, it seems, is in how we define healthy. Is Kate Moss a healthy human female specimen? Some people think so; others find her woefully thin.

In a society where young girls are simultaneously expected to be themselves and to maintain a healthy body, where they are both expected to be attractive and denied their attractiveness because of the overriding panic of sexual exploitation and abuse, where eating disorders and body dysmorphia are striking younger and younger girls, what is it that a young girl sees when she looks into the mirror? Is it a beautiful face and form that beams back at her, or a hideously ugly thing which forever haunts her thoughts?


Eugène Durenne – La toilette


Unknown – Mirror, Mirror (1920s)


Pierre Breyne-Marcel – La toilette enfantine


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (1)


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (2)


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (3)


Agathe Röstel – Young Girl Combing Her Hair


Jacques-Émile Blanche – Reflections


Paul Peel – A Venetian Bather (1889)


Titti Garelli – Mirror, Mirror


Jules Marie Auguste Leroux – The Mirror (1871)


Norman Rockwell – Girl at the Mirror


Polixeni Papapetrou – Little Vanity


Guy Bourdin – Girl in Mirror


Ruth Gikow – The Kitchen (1960)

Fr. Wikipedia: Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Poultier (Site is in French.)

Wikipedia: Jacques-Émile Blanche

Wikipedia: Paul Peel

Titti Garelli Official Site

Wikipedia: Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell museum

Polixeni Papapetrou

Wikipedia: Guy Bourdin

Louise Alexander Gallery: Guy Bourdin

Jewish Women’s Archive: Ruth Gikow

The Body: Report Examines Girls’ Struggles With Sexuality, Peer Pressure, and Body Image

Amazon: Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality (Sounds like an interesting book, though I confess I haven’t read it.)

Deflowered: Loss of Virginity in Art

Prior to the twentieth century sexuality in art was rarely expressed openly but was instead couched in symbolic terms or merely hinted at in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the wrong people, namely church leaders and conservative secular powers. So it was with the theme of lost virginity. Pre-Victorian girls generally were married off, and consequently surrendered their sexual innocence, not long after they reached puberty (it was only around the nineteenth century that the concept of adolescence as an extended period of childhood really took hold—before this puberty meant adulthood and everything that went with it.)Thus, when loss of virginity was dealt with in pre-Victorian and Victorian art, it was framed symbolically, and the girls are frequently represented as quite young.

One of the most common symbols of this theme was the girl dipping her toe into or wading in water, in essence testing the sexual waters. Perhaps the earliest painted example (if we do not count the various paintings of Susanna, who was already married by the time of her bathing scene and so cannot be counted as virginal) is Joseph-Désiré Court’s Young Girl at the Scamander River, painted in 1824. In it we can see that the girl is barely pubescent, her breasts just beginning to bud, and she is being helped into the water by a muscular youth, who already has one foot in the water himself:

Joseph-Désiré Court - Young Girl at the Scamander River (Nymph and Faun Bathing) (1824)

Joseph-Désiré Court – Young Girl at the Scamander River (Nymph and Faun Bathing) (1824)

Wikipedia: Joseph-Désiré Court

Before Court’s painting came Étienne Maurice Falconet’s sculpture Bather; the girl is older here but still quite youthful:

Étienne-Maurice Falconet - Bather (1757)

Étienne Maurice Falconet – Bather (1757)

Wikipedia: Étienne Maurice Falconet

The trend continued into the Victorian era:

Paul Peel – The Little Shepherdess (1892)

Paul Peel – The Little Shepherdess (1892)

Wikipedia: Paul Peel

Jules Joseph Lefebvre - Chloe (1875)

Jules Joseph Lefebvre – Chloe (1875)

Jules Joseph Lefebvre: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Jules Joseph Lefebvre

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - La gue (The Ford) (1895)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Le Gué (The Ford) (1895)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: William-Adolphe Bouguereau

A few artists even extended the theme to even younger girls:

Georges Jacquot - Jeune nymphe descendant dans l'eau

Georges Jacquot – Jeune nymphe descendant dans l’eau

Wikipedia: Georges Jacquot

Paul Émile Chabas – The Bather

Wikipedia: Paul Émile Chabas

Within this symbolic artistic dialogue about virginity we could also include Thomas Couture’s painting The Little Bather, who is so young that, not only has she not yet stepped into the water, no water is even visible around her. Other symbols of her innocence reinforce the concept, including an uneaten green apple (an allusion to the Garden of Eden), the white frock she’s sitting on and a crucifix:

Thomas Couture - The Little Bather (1849)

Thomas Couture – The Little Bather (1849)

Wikipedia: Thomas Couture

Another major symbol of virginity lost was the broken water vessel, which had its roots in the late Renaissance. This tradition was exemplified by Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s The Broken Pitcher. There are a handful of cues here that the girl has just come from her first sexual tryst. The most overt is the nipple which coyly peeks from the top of her dress. There is also the fact that, as per Robert Herrick’s poem, she has “gathered her rosebuds”—that is, she is making use of the advantages of her youth. But, of course, it is the titular broken pitcher itself that signalled her lost innocence most effectively to the viewer.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - The Broken Pitcher (1849) (1)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Broken Pitcher (1849) (1)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - The Broken Pitcher (1849) (2)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Broken Pitcher (1849) (2)

Wikipedia: Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Bouguereau continued the trend with his painting of the same name, but unlike Greuze’s sweet and content girl, Bouguereau’s girl appears to be saddened by the loss. Freud would not have missed the phallic implications of the spigot in this painting either:

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The Broken Pitcher (1891)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – The Broken Pitcher (1891)

Ramon Casas i Carbó depicted deflowering slightly more literally in his Flores Deshojadas, where the girl lies amidst a floor strewn with shed flower petals:

Ramon Casas i Carbó – Flores Deshojadas (1894)

Wikipedia: Ramon Casas i Carbó

One of the most blatant examples of the lost virginity theme in art is also one of the most famous, Paul Gauguin’s The Loss of Virginity. The piece, with its bright modernist blocks of color and its in-your-face context, seems to be the final artistic statement on the matter:

Paul Gauguin - The Loss of Virginity (1890-91)

Paul Gauguin – The Loss of Virginity (1890-91)

Paul Gauguin: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Paul Gauguin

Indeed, artistically I suppose all that can be said about young girls’ loss of virginity (in our increasingly self-conscious and paranoid postmodern world) that won’t cast suspicion on the artist must be filtered through the lens of satire:

Mike Cockrill - Broken Pitcher (2007)

Mike Cockrill – Broken Pitcher (2007)

Mike Cockrill (Official Site)