An irony is surely at play in calling this remarkable painting of a young girl seated at a desk ‘Mauvais Sujet’. Who or what does the title refer to? Usually translated as ‘bad lot’, it also means simply ‘bad subject’. So perhaps it’s alluding to the lesson at hand – the lesson she’s not focusing on. She seems to have been instructed to write lines, possibly as punishment for other words she’s written, such as those she may have engraved on the desk. Is one of those words her name? Is it Mary? Yet, despite her virgin’s name and that feather in her hand suggestive of an angel about to take wing, all other signs in the picture tell us that the bad subject is just as likely her, for this girl is patently a descendant of Eve as much as of Mary, not only with regard to that bitten apple held dreamily in her other hand, but also in terms of those subtle hints of deviance in her dress, her unkempt hair, and her distracted, elsewhere eyes.
Actually, it’s that look of distraction on her face, as if she were utterly impervious to the male and moralising gaze of the painter she’s entranced – a painter who knows that the most archetypal bad subject, the bad girl, has always been a particularly good subject for art – that tells us who the really bad subject is here: not this girl, but her viewer. That includes us all. Bewitched by the sight of a young girl who is no stranger to punishment but has not yet lost a sense of her own imagination or desires, we are nudged into a recognition of the way in which we continue, to this day, to conspire against the freedoms of girls such as this one. So what is it about her that so reliably provokes the furies? Maybe it’s that she still has what we must somewhere lack: a capacity for enjoyment completely unconcerned with what it is that others want from us.
Mauvais Sujet was purchased in 1917.
Devorah Baum is Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Southampton and is co-editing with Josh Appignanesi Granta 146, a special issue on ‘The Politics of Feeling’, published in February.