Young Girl with a Dead Bird, Anonymous, South Netherlandish School, Oil on panel, 36.7 x 29.8 cm (14.4 x 11.7 inches), Circa 1500-1525
I first came across her in a book I checked out from the library, probably around 2005. I was an undergraduate painting student and just beginning my exploration of the history of childhood, contemporary childhood, and how images of children have changed over time to reflect the culture. In the decade or so that I have been making paintings about children, ‘Young Girl with a Dead Bird’ is an image I have come back to again and again.
Her eyes are haunting – the pupils eerily small. Perhaps simply a response to bright light, but it seems more a reflection of her emotional state. Pupils dilate when we are happy and contract when we are sad. Inky dilated pupils are attractive, which is why most portraits depict their sitter with sparkling black saucers. Surely, the artist made this unusual choice deliberately. The girl stares past us, her gaze cutting straight through the atmosphere like a dagger. Her eyes are focused simultaneously on the nothingness of distance and in towards her mind.
How old is she? She looks like she could be anywhere between the ages of 2 and 5. Her proportions aren’t quite right – her left shoulder appears dislocated, and her nose and mouth don’t line up with the center of her eyes. In many paintings, idiosyncrasies like this would annoy me, but not here. They do not detract from the power of the painting in the slightest, nor do I think the anonymous artist any less skilled. The white paint throughout the work has become translucent over time, which gives her skin an even more haunting pallor today.
The painting is unique for its time. At first glance, it seems right at home among other Netherlandish portraits of the era: the pose, composition, and costume are familiar. Upon noticing the dead bird, one might assume the painting is meant to function as a memento mori or vanitas in addition to being a likeness of a specific child. However, as explained in Pride and Joy, the book in which I first found her, there doesn’t seem to be any art historical or contemporaneous iconography involving dead birds or other pets. It is not until centuries later that we see paintings of a girl or young woman with a dead bird, most notably by Greuze and Reynolds.
Certainly, there are 16th and 17th century Netherlandish portraits of children holding objects; there are attributes with allegorical significance, and objects of daily life or nature, such as toys and fruit. Often the objects work alongside the costume to denote power or status, gender, and age. It seems likely, then, that this painting was meant to be symbolic. But in what way?
I now own a copy of the book and have littered its pages with sticky tabs and notes. Pride and Joy: Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500-1700, edited by Jan Baptist Bedaux and Rudi Ekkart (Abrams 2000) is the exhibition catalog for a show of the same name at The Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem in 2000 and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp in 2001. The entire show looks phenomenal; I wish I could have seen it. The eighty-five portraits chosen are visually stunning in their detail and specificity, as Netherlandish portraits usually are. Equally interesting, though, are the art historical, iconographical, and cultural elements that are explored through the curation and explained in the catalog’s essays.
I have visited the painting where she lives at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Belgium. Like the Mona Lisa, she is even lovelier in person, smaller than imagined, and encased in walls of glass. Far unlike the experience of viewing the more famous painting, she and I were completely alone in the gallery.
This unknown girl of unknown symbolism by an unknown artist has inspired six of my own paintings directly. I call the series “Technological Memento Mori” because the children I paint are reacting, not to dead pets, but to devices that have ceased to work. I, too, have painted them with tiny pupils and the distant yet-inward focused gaze of a child mourning something loved and lost.
Katie Miller, Young Girl with a Dead Phone, 2013, Oil on panel, 16 x 12 inches
Katie Miller is a painter based in Maryland. She is currently working on a series of highly detailed oil paintings about the hyperreality of themed environments. Miller earned her BFA from MICA in 2007, and MFA from Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA in 2011. Miller has had two solo exhibitions at Connersmith in Washington, DC and her work is represented in public and private collections internationally, including The Rubell Family Collection and 21C Museum Hotels.