Christine Ferrouge
by Betty Ann Brown, PHD
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"Painting children must be difficult," asserts art critic Leanne Shapton in The New York Times. "Avoiding cliché and idealization in portraits of children must be comparable to trying to un-cutely depict a panda, or a puppy." Oakland painter Christine Ferrouge accomplishes this difficult task with alacrity. Here are three examples.
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*Two little girls stand in a kitchen. One wears a lacey white "princess" dress and carries a baby doll. The other is her older sister, wearing a Wonder Woman costume. She leans over to stir the soup warming on the stove. The red of her blouse matches the red enamel of the pot. Another flash of crimson highlights her cheeks. And there are lines of paler red snaking through her hair as it escapes from the super-heroine's crown. The brush strokes vary from thin color lightly scrubbed across the textured canvas to heavy impastos that glisten above the pictorial surface. Wonder Woman Is Making My Lunch, 2017
*The Wonder Woman child reappears with her father, both seated on a family couch. Her father wears a Superman T-shirt and stares blankly out at the viewer. His daughter pouts in apparent boredom, her arms akimbo. The pink, blue, yellow, and white used to build her rounded face shimmer like oily liquid. Superman Is My Sidekick, 2017
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*Five young girls gather in secret embrace. We see glossy highlights in the hair of three of them who are turned away from the viewer and a fragment of the white face of a fourth. The fifth figure turns to stare outward disconcertingly, her large black eyes hypnotic in their (accusatory?) intensity. Huddle, 2015.
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Christine Ferrouge paints images of her family: herself, her husband, and, especially, her three young daughters. She does so with thick, lush brushstrokes, and a remarkable sense of color. She demonstrates scrupulous restraint in leaving some areas of the canvas white, others simply crossed by calligraphic lines. Because of the large "negatives spaces" in her compositions, Ferrouge’s canvases may appear "sketchy" or "unfinished" to the casual viewer. Nonetheless, they present evocative narratives about children, their imaginary worlds, and their (often fantastical) role models.
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The criticism of being "unfinished" was similarly leveled at Diego Velazquez and Edouard Manet--two of the Western world's greatest painters--who also created powerful and visually spectacular images of children. Velazquez's Las Meninas (1656) centers on a five-year-old Spanish princess. And Manet's Fifer (1866), created a year after the artist's trip to Madrid to see Velazquez's masterpiece in person, presents a young boy in military uniform lifting the flute to his lips. Both of these works are critically acclaimed and--in the patriarchal way of art history--valued more than, say, Mary Cassatt's many mother and child portrayals. Male depictions of children have been seen as inherently more valuable than women's depictions.
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Critical judgment of female portrayals of their children is complicated in the work of American Sally Mann, who famously photographed her three children, sometimes totally nude. Mann, who refused to idealize or "prettify" her offspring, has spoken of "the potential for serious imagery in the family." One black and white from 1989, "The New Mothers," portrays two of her daughters staring at the camera with marked distain. The right-hand figure wears black-lensed sunglasses and carries a rag doll; the left one pushes a baby carriage and lifts a (fake?) cigarette to her pouting lips. These are not "sweet young things." Instead, they are girls on the way to adulthood mimicking what they have seen in "grownup" behavior. Ferrouge presents her daughters with the same gravitas. She portrays complex humans, not cute, one-dimensional beings; her paintings are seriously insightful images of a family.
Velazquez and Manet are important historical precedents for Ferrouge's expressive, painterly style. And Mann is a contemporary, a "fellow traveler" exploring the same resistance to idealizing and "prettifying" images of children. But Ferrouge is very much an independent, deploying gorgeous painting to counteract stereotypes of childhood, motherhood, and the mythical "perfect" family.
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Ferrouge's Ties and Capes (2018) portrays two of the artist's daughters playing dress-up. Both wear men's hats and neckties, with blankets tied around their shoulders as makeshift capes. One of the girls stares out at the viewers with happy confidence; the other straightens her hat, staring off to the left, and lifting her chin in a pout. Neither smiles in the sentimental way of so many conventional images of children. Instead, we see their complex personalities and their playful exploration of gendered clothing. This is important work as it countermands misconceptions with seductive, painterly beauty.