Portrait of a Youth

Tag writer: Taiga Ermansons, Program Planner, Smith College Museum of Art

I immediately knew this face. I have seen it for nearly six decades in American film. Is this 200 year-old portrait (that predates Byron) the origin of the anguished and alienated romantic image of modern youth?

The artist and date of the painting are uncertain. Historians date the boy’s hairstyle called oreilles de chien (dog’s ears) to the late 1790’s in France. It shares the exposed nape of another hairstyle of the period called coiffure la Titus that directly referenced the cutting of hair in preparation for the guillotine. In Paris, the boy would have been a witness to the Reign of Terror in 1794 and the public beheading of tens of thousands of aristocrats in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

We can only guess the cause of his tears; what happened before and after this moment. His solitariness leads me to believe we are seeing a searing moment of transformation when he must look within himself to brave an un-tethered world. And in doing so, he becomes an iconic image of modernity.

Image Information: Attributed to Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson, French (1767- 1824). Portrait of a Youth, possibly ca. 1795.  Oil on canvas. 18 3/8 x 15 in. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased.

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