Eugene Carriere's 'Arsene Carriere' commands from above

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 5:24 PM

Every day this week, art critic Blake Gopnik is discussing a work from the Mantel Room at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.


So far, in my week at the Corcoran, I've taken it easy on myself, looking at works by famous artists hung near eye height where they're easy to see.

It's time I take in something more esoteric, "skied" up near the ceiling of the salon-hung Mantel Room.

Eugene Carriere's canvas called "Arsene Carriere" (formerly known only as "Baby") ought to fit the bill. It was painted close to the turn of the 20th century by an almost forgotten artist of the juste milieu, a Parisian semi-avant-garde that abandoned the tight brushwork of the French Academy for the freedom of impressionism, but used that freedom to render more traditional subjects.

But is Carriere's subject as traditional as all that? It is "just" his new daughter, Arsene, who ought to be a standard vehicle for treacly Victorian sentiment. But little Arsene manages to beckon from the very farthest corner of the Corcoran's grand gallery, against competition that includes rushing horses, a femme fatale and a roaring lion. Her portrait seems to have channeled a real infant's ability to get the notice of adults - including her 50-year-old dad.

Thanks to that dad and his skills as a painter, "little" Arsene seems almost to overflow her frame, as though she's too great a force to be contained by mere gilding. Her baby clothes waft around her and out of the picture like an aura of power. The extravagant brushwork that renders them seems more suited to the clouds in an "Apotheosis" or "Assumption" than to a standard baby picture. That brushwork is part of what allows this painting to compete, even from 15 feet up on the wall.

The painting also profits, I think, from art-historical links to the tradition of the grotesque and caricature. Arsene's portrait has more than a bit in common with Leonardo's great drawings of the human oddities he met on the streets of Florence and Milan, or with their descendants in Daumier's cartooning of the freaks of human nature.

Carriere (senior) didn't make any effort to tamp down his daughter's presence in the world, to make her "just" a baby. Babyhood isn't sugarcoated in this painting; there's no petroleum jelly on the lens. If anything, Carriere seems to leave lenses - and 19th-century baby photos - behind altogether, in favor of an almost symbolist approach to painting his offspring. His portrait of this "innocent" has whiffs of the self-described "decadent" art of fin de siecle France.

"Arsene looks every bit the happy, well-fed child," wrote one recent art historian - but she sure doesn't to me. I've overheard Corcoran staff referring to her as the Demon Baby, and that seems much nearer the mark. The rattle she grasps so tightly could as easily be a succubus's amulet as a tot's plaything.

Little Arsene is all dressed up like your standard malleable baby, assigned roles and behaviors by the adults around her. That's how babies had always appeared in art. But there's also a sense, in Carriere's portrait, of the new ideas of infancy and childhood that his little girl was born into. Freud's "Studies in Hysteria," with its claims about infant sexuality and trauma, was four years old already when she came into the world.

By 1900, babies weren't untainted blank slates for grown-ups to write on. They had become powerful creatures who could shape and torment the adults they would later become.

Arsene's dad truly captured his daughter's potential.

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