I toured the museum last week with a group of 10th grade students. This painting was our final stop. Recently, I’ve been giving my tours in reverse, beginning with pieces in the modern and contemporary galleries first, and then finishing up in the European galleries. More on the reasons for that change later.
When we stopped at this portrait, a few of the students voiced observations. The comments went something like this: “She looks poor, but the artist painted her as if she were important.”
I let them look a while longer and asked, “As if she were important? That implies she was not really important. Why do you say that?” They thought about that for a moment.
I sometimes see humor in situations like this. I imagine this young woman in the painting remarking dryly, “Yes. I’d love to hear what you think about me, especially when you know nothing about me and little about the time in which I lived.”
I’ve read that Ceruti acquired the nickname “little beggar” (pitochetto) precisely because of paintings like this one. He painted peasants young and old. He painted the tattered hems and the torn sleeves of the poor with their eyes looking directly at us. From this example and others I’ve seen, Ceruti’s “beggars” do not beg, but he does insist we look at them as equals, face to face.
With her jet black hair, full face, and rosy cheeks, she looks young and robust. She has not missed any meals. We look again.
“Why do you think the artist left the background plain?” I asked them.
Their answers vary:
“He ran out of other colors.”
“To match her eyes.”
“To make us look more closely at her.”
She sits at a three quarter turn in the style of nobility. And as we notice the sparkle of the wine bottle our eyes move to the sparkle on her hand….a ring!
The ring is important. It may be her only treasure and is prominently positioned so we will not miss it.
While looking at the ring on her finger I smile and suggest, “Well, she was obviously important enough for someone to pledge their life to her in marriage.” They look puzzled. I mention that wearing the wedding ring on the left hand is primarily a western tradition but some European cultures don their rings on the right hand.
“Does it make a difference when you think of her as a “Mrs.” instead of a “Miss?” They said it did, but they couldn’t explain why.
Not all of Ceruti’s peasants look happy, but this woman does. She has limited resources, but she has someone to care for, and someone to look after her.
“Can you be poor and happy?” I asked them. That question sparked a lot of discussion! The students then began to offer many thoughts on this and their class teacher seemed pleased that they were engaged with the work. The overall consensus was “yes”.
She is not wealthy, but neither is she out laboring in the fields. Her uncalloused hands speak of freedom from arduous and monotonous toil, that kind of drudgery that crushes the spirit. Life may be hard, but there is joy enough to pour the wine and toast the future!
The students remarked on the tear in her sleeve and the odd choker around her neck. They noticed she had small earrings on, as well. There was more to this woman than they had initially realized.
“Do you create art about things you don’t consider important?” There were murmurs at this question, some jokes about only being able to create work what the teacher assigned, etc..
As the tour came to a close, I asked them to think about all the choices Ceruti had. So many people in town to choose from. Perhaps he did not paint her as if she were important, but actually held her to be important. And we can strive to value others in this way, despite economic status or appearance. It’s an age old lesson that Ceruti continues to teach us today.
Young Peasant Girl with Wine Flask by Giacomo Ceruti, (1738)
Currently owned by the Blanton Museum of Art.