Selina's New Dress

Selina is my daughter, but this painting was not intended as a portrait; it is a painting about the dress. On her seventh birthday her grandmother sent her this beautiful dress from Puerto Rico. Selina loves clothes. To this day she plans her next day's wardrobe with the care and attention to detail as a Dior on a Paris fashion show. And, she has great taste -well, she is my daughter.

This was 1993 and I was completing my last year at Cleveland State University (I had returned to college after a ten year haitus). I needed a painting for a studio class and this was the result. That same year I entered the work at a show at the CSU Art Gallery and won first prize in the painting category. Later it became a part of my admission portfolio into the MFA in Visual Arts at Vermont College. The painting was done in oils on a smooth masonite panel 20 inches by 38.

Now, to think that I would pick this subject for a painting just because I admire a dress is a monumental folly. I never do anything unless there is a stronger reason behind it. While observing her mother taking great delight in dressing Selina in her new dress, it occurred to me that grownups dress their children as if they were dolls. I think this practice is universal.

In fact, from time immemorial, and for generations, an entire industry was created around paper dolls. Books of various themes were printed for children to cut out and dress dolls with interchangeable cut-out paper outfits -which today are collector items for adults. These were the Barbie dolls before there was a Barbie.

We have many visual references to the fact. Simply by reviewing a brief catalogue of historical paintings you will find this custom of dressing up children like dolls throughout every period of history. One of such paintings is Diego Velazquez's masterpiece 'Las Meninas', where the little princess and her dwalf attendants look like miniature dolls.

So my painting of Selina's New Dress is actually a commentary on this custom. All the clues are there to see within the painting. First, notice the expression on Selina. She is not exactly happy to be posing; she is displaying the stiffness and awkwardness of someone forced to pose. The foreground lighting is as harsh as a spotlight.

Notice next how flat the background is; look at the plant and the pot; they are as flat as a paper cut-out. The back-lighting adds movement but mostly it further emphasizes the flatness. However, the area surrounding the subject is kept several values lower to isolate the subject from the background and make it stand out even more. Furthermore, the composition is arranged like an "X" that centres on the dress (how could you miss it?).

The dress is indeed beautiful -and in case you were wondering, it is a one-piece. In the painting, it is richly coloured and modelled with thin glazes of tinted oils until you can almost reach in and pull it off, leaving only the doll behind. The dress looks so precious that it would be a shame to waste it on a child -lest it may get ruined. Better leave it on display over her night stand.

The shoes, socks, the little purse, and the ribbon on her hair are all perfectly matched. But really, how many children carry purses -well, unless they are Selina (where she saved her collection of colour rocks, some candy and a small water pistol). Still, it was all her mother's doing -not that I'm criticising (she does look darling); I'm simply making the observation.

Selina's New Dress is the only painting I keep at my house other than my self-portrait. When she marries (which I hope is not too soon) I plan to give it to her as a memento. For now I will continue to enjoy it.


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