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Communicating Melancholia / Sad Young Men and Portrait of a Lady in Pink

By Tyler French
  • 28984

William Merritt Chase
American, 1849-1916
Portrait of a Lady in Pink, ca. 1888–1889
Oil on canvas
178.4 x 102.2 cm (70 1/4 x 40 1/4 inches)
Gift of Isaac C. Bates 94.010

to sit for a portrait

I soften my focus on William Merritt Chase’s Portrait of a Lady in Pink. If the sitter were to look out at me now, across temporal, spatial (and representational) gulfs, she would see my profile as I encounter her own. I set my head high at the end of my neck as if suspended by a wire above and let my chin dip slightly. My nose does not slope as smoothly as hers, but it is about the same length to look down.

When I look back, I notice more. I had not given the ends of my lips nor my shoulders to gravity as freely as she does. The wrists were right: they slide off her forearms and release into her lap, her hands cupping a fan (I am, unfortunately, fan-less). Either my chair was too short or my legs too long, but I couldn’t approximate the distance between her feet and the ground.

in a frothy pink dress

Along with those who have previously recorded their looking at Portrait of a Lady in Pink, I focused first on the dress, admiring Chase’s expertise in modeling fabrics with brushwork at once precise and spontaneous. The dress hasn’t settled. Its fabrics fold upon each other to create opacities which are reconfigured as soon as they are set. They are almost always ready to again be moved by the figure wearing them. Multiple previous interpretations refer to the dress as being “frothy”1.

Such attention is paid to Chase’s skill in painting the dress, the sitter who wears it becomes little more than a dress form. An exhibit catalogue entry for Portrait of a Lady in Pink goes as far to say, “There is no interest in the psychological presence of the sitter; rather, the emphasis is all placed on her exterior shell.”2 What would it mean to make a claim for the interiority of the sitter against the grain of previous writing about Portrait of a Lady in Pink, not as a way to know more specifically the sitter herself, but to interrogate the suppositions of feminine exteriority as it relates to my own identifications with this portrait and portraits of similar subjects? What problems does the portrait sitter’s interior excessiveness pose for looking at these kinds of portraits as well as my own identifications with them? Why is taking on their denied interiority so desirable?

trace her silhouette

I return to the lady in pink at the shadow under her left foot. I hadn’t considered her physicality until I noticed that small shadow, a space between her foot and the ground. Tracing from her foot, under the dress, up legs, hips, a stomach, rounding her dripping shoulders, I am caught at her one visible eye, her gaze slightly downcast. I recognize a melancholia in Portrait of a Lady in Pink, a melancholia I have previously recognized in similar portraits of female sitters (other “Ladies in … “). Their melancholia is betrayed by feet hovering just above the carpet, a curved spine, an inward rotation of the shoulders, or limp wrists. I find myself drawn to these portraits for reasons I cannot fully articulate. Their indirect gaze stops me in gallery spaces, where I see myself seeing them. They are suddenly close, a closeness that is discomforting yet completely familiar. It is as if I’ve caught something in them, something they’ve caught in me.

This closeness I perform in trying on the pose of this lady in pink. Her pose sits easily on my bones. I can imagine I feel what she feels, all but the horribly itchy fabric. I do not witness its movement at my movement (perhaps the swinging of my legs, brushing the rust-colored carpet … ) just as the sitter does not seem to witness it. I do not hear it either. In softening my gaze, I am not here. The gap in subjectivity the gaze is said to represent widens. In this gap, I begin to tease out identifications with these “Ladies in … ” portraits and the ways in which they may touch me across time. Looking at the lady in pink, my own identifications are potentially threatened by this desire and performed embodiment3. The gaps, both spatially and temporally opened up by softening my gaze and touching across time, reveal the contingency of how I might be seen sitting for a portrait, here and now.

My own interpretive investment with these kinds of portraits in general, and with Portrait of a Lady in Pink in particular, is based on a recognition of the contingency of our various identifications as well as the very real structures, privileges, and disadvantages such identity positions historically (dis)allow. Perhaps I am interested in untangling the denied interiority of the sitter for Portrait of a Lady in Pink because I recognize similar structures in the diagnoses of homosexual identifications. In the developmental logic of “Western” aesthetics (also contingent), the proper subject, of which the artist is the exemplar, has a rich inner life. Their fully formed interiority is in constant free play between imagination and understanding4. Our melancholy upsets this notion of interiority. I see a glimmer of recognition in the way the lady in pink sits for her portrait, the previous writing about which denies her any interiority and thus proper subjecthood. Am I drawn to these portraits to see inwardness turned outward again?

and catch her looking

The sitter for Portrait of a Lady in Pink was one of Chase’s students, Marietta Benedict Cotton5. As I see myself sitting in Cotton’s pose and taking on her melancholia, I am also performing the stereotype of the sad young gay man. Richard Dyer traces this stereotype through multiple representational locations in which “to be homosexual was both irremediably sad and overwhelmingly desirable.6” By identifying with the sitter in Portrait of a Lady in Pink, I am, at first looking (unknowingly), then with this writing (knowingly) engaging with (relishing in!) this stereotype which Dyer defines as an image of otherness that is complex, intense, and contradictory. The lineage of the sad young man is multiple, with sites in Christian representations, the image of the Romantic poet, the Bildungsroman, the third-sex theory of sexuality, Freudianism, the invention of adolescence, and urbanism7.

The sad young man, as formed by the pulp, noir, and romance novels Dyer surveys, is often found in his text at a point of decision. The sadness is a result of the proposed position homosexual identification may afford him, particularly in novels from the 1950s and ’60s. These novels propose melancholy as a cusp on which the sad young man is poised before knowing that he “is” or is “becoming” queer8. He may turn away from or give into his homosexuality. We sit in our party dresses not sure whether we should return to the party. The party’s music is muffled just enough to allow us to hear the fabrics’ froth. While my, as well as Dyer’s, melancholia differ from these narratives of sad young men, we both identify with this cusp of possibility. Melancholy is the holding pattern on the way to “proper” (in the case of the sad young men narrative, white) masculinity.

When resolved, the narratives of the sad young man deliver a reassurance of the fixity of sexual (gendered and racial) identifications. “The world before that sad young man offers four resolutions: death, normality, becoming a dreadful old queen, or finding ‘someone like oneself’ with whom one can settle down.9” Normality is secured in the “proper” heterosexual relations with a woman. I am troubling these sites of representation and locating my own melancholic proclivities with the Portrait of a Lady in Pink to claim precisely what is denied these sad young men as well as feminized subjects: a legitimate subject position removed from narratives of uplift, progress, or errancy10. Melancholy, through these foggy windows separating myself from the lady in pink, could be understood then as an affective attachment. Through spending time with Portrait of a Lady in Pink and looking at the rift this affective attachment opens up, I can come to think melancholy not as a psychological failure, but rather as a site of publicity. We can possibly take off our pink dresses. Although it is expertly represented in Portrait of a Lady in Pink, the potentiality of the portrait lies not in its aesthetic finery and surface, but rather in its ability as an art object to open outward beyond limited notions of identification. In performing a touch across time and space, I am in effect giving the present back to myself.

looking where I cannot

Chase models Cotton’s form and skin in what has been described as an academic fashion. Her solid gray-green arms and face stand in direct contrast to the widely varied and fluid pinks of the dress. Chase later painted Cotton in Portrait of Lady in Black. In black, Cotton stands with her head cocked, looking straight out from the canvas. Although facing outward, she twists away and spirals her body to her left. Her wrists bend as her hands rest on the arms of a chair. Here Cotton has made a decision. She pulls back into the shallow pictorial space, torqueing away from me. Can melancholy be comprised of these gestures of release and denial? As the hands are let off the end of wrists, the shoulders hang off the spine, and eyes are let loose to be elsewhere. It is in this elsewhere I think I am interested.

find the light in this gallery
Dyer reproduces the covers of the sad young man novels to visually demonstrate their melancholic mood. The lighting on the covers and the portraits carves out jawlines: the young men’s soften as Cotton’s becomes more distinct. The points on their bodies furthest from the light bend toward the background. Cheekbones are made cliff-faces, and eye sockets deep-set valleys. They are stilled in this light, posed and poised, on a cusp of indecision.

stand in that spot

While the majority of the covers feature sad young men in singles or pairs, they occasionally also depict female figures. As characters in the narratives of the sad young men, women are often posited as a (“correct”) sexual alternative for the burgeoning homosexual. Through proper relations with this figure, the sad young man is able to demonstrate he is capable of heterosexual relations. Through this relation, the sad young man is no longer sad. Dyer also claims the sad young man may be desirable to the female heterosexual character.

I am imagining Portrait of a Lady in Pink as a cover for a novel about a sad young man. Might he be wearing that dress? Or would we have to add him in the frame, expand the stretched canvas to allow them to share the shallow pictorial plane without touching? How might we rewrite this stereotypical narrative to allow them to touch without the proposition of “correct” relations? Is there a time, now or at the painting of this portrait, in which this narrative could conceivably exist? Has it not yet arrived?

wait for our eyes to meet.

I stand in the spot where I imagine Cotton to be looking. I look back at her, back at the pigment in oil, off of Chase’s brush. I revel in what Dyer terms “delicious melancholia” here with Portrait of a Lady in Pink. I am proposing an optimistic mode of attachment in the repetition of our melancholia in writing about it. I am attempting repetition of this affect situated around a proposed lack.

Perhaps the trick to performing this touch requires another viewer. Perhaps you can shift around the gallery as I situate myself in the vicinity of Cotton’s gaze. You can find the location at which Cotton and myself approximate touch. You can close one eye and flatten your perspective. You can imagine what Cotton and I may share with each other across space and time. You can watch me mirror Cotton’s pose and try on her dress. Maybe your own wrists will go limp, your gaze soften, eyes slide down the bridge of your nose, as if melancholy were communicable. You wouldn’t notice it until later, until you’ve moved on from seeing me see Portrait of a Lady in Pink: a cold you’ll never be able to shake; a cold you’ll never desire to be rid of.


1 . RISD Museum, Portrait of a Lady in Pink, http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/ 896_portrait_of_a_lady_in_pink (Mar. 3, 2016).
2 . RISD Museum Catalogue, 122.
3 . Amelia Jones, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identifications and the Visual Arts (Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 2012), 9.
4 . Jones, 31.
5 . RISD Museum Catalogue, 124.
6. Richard Dyer, The Culture of Queers (New York: Routledge, 2002), 116–36.
7 . Dyer, 117–18. 8 . Dyer, 128–29. 9 . Dyer, 131. 10 . Lauren Berlant, “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture,” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004): 451.






Tyler French
Brown University, MA 2017, Public Humanities