ESSAY: Of Gazes and Spaces: Balthus and "Young Girl Asleep (Frédérique)"

(Author's Note: This essay was my final paper for my art history class in Spring 2014.  I also wrote a Close Visual Analysis of Bathus' Young Girl Asleep (Frédérique) here.  Enjoy!)


A girl is asleep.  Located in a loosely articulated interior space, she rests on one arm on a table in front of her, her free arm dangling.  The composition has a rhythmic quality enhanced by the echoing curving patterns created by the line of the girl’s back and the arch of the tablecloth pattern; the painting has a slightly unreal, dreamlike quality emphasized by the way the girl seems to float on and off her chair.  The space on the right of the girl’s head, as well as the top fourth of the painting, is left nearly untouched, the canvas seeming raw and unpainted, suggesting the blankness of the mind that occurs during a dream. 

Young Girl Asleep (Frédérique) [figure 1], painted by Balthus in 1955, is a curious painting for the contexts in which I aim to situate it.  What is Frédérique dreaming about, and how can we use the tradition of the image of the woman asleep as well as Balthus’s own history with similar subject matter to decipher the meaning of this work?
Figure 1.  Balthus, Young Girl Asleep, 1955.

In this essay I situate Young Girl Asleep within interpretations of how the woman asleep has been read[1] and discuss the implications of the male gaze as it relates to this archetype of women’s dreams and women’s sexuality.  I then trace the controversy surrounding Balthus’s portrayals of young women and girls, and attempt to place Young Girl Asleep within Balthus’s paintings of this subject.

Motifs that accompany the sleeping woman have been interpreted as being an extension of the subject matter of the sleeping figure’s dreams.  I use the example demonstrated by Vermeer’s 1656-7 A Maid Asleep [figure 2] to argue that Balthus uses the blank space around his female figure in Young Girl Asleep in a similarly symbolic way.  Balthus was, and is, a highly controversial artist due to the perceived sexuality and exploitation of the young girls he made his subjects.
Figure 2.  Vermeer, A Maid Asleep, 1656-7.

In this essay, I argue that Balthus’s use of black space to complement his female figure is his attempt to play a joke on the critics who have seen his work as pedophilic—that he aims to turn the responsibility of the male gaze, and the sexual reading of Young Girl Asleep, back onto the viewer and critic.

Analyzing Young Girl Asleep: A First Glance

Young Girl Asleep addresses the relationship between adolescence and dreams through its use of rhythm and pattern, its contrasting degrees of finish, its use of color, and its compositional elements that include the viewer in the world of the painting.   In this work, Balthus blurs the lines between the world of adolescence and the world of dreams using a divergent technique from his usual style.

The lack of finish of the painting itself, as well as the repeated rhythm of circular forms throughout the work, produces a portrait of a young girl caught in a dream, in a state of in-between-ness.  The contrast among the various degrees of finish in the painting also suggests being in a stage between childhood and adulthood.  The former is represented by the simpler colorings and renderings, while the more detailed elements demonstrate maturity.  These elements combine to create a picture of a young girl caught in a dream, completely overtaken by deep slumber, as she dreams the space around her, symbolized by the contrast between the rendered setting and the empty, blank canvas at the edges of the painting.  The empty whiteness symbolizes the haze of the dream and of adolescence; this young girl is not only caught in a dream, but she is caught in adolescence, in a place between childhood and adulthood.  His approach to this work in particular, in contrast with his other works that appear more finished, lends itself thematically to this in-between-ness.

In this work, the viewer is a voyeur of her dream and of the girl herself, and our mere presence in the room with this vulnerable girl, our gaze onto her body, creates a decidedly sinister air.  The way the edge of the table appears to jut past the boundary of the painting into the viewers’ space is a sign of our inclusion in this scene.

It is particularly instructive to compare this work to Thérèse Dreaming (1938) [figure 3], a painting more typical of Balthus’s style of a similar subject matter.  His work is usually characterized by a high degree of stillness, quietude and finish, and Thérèse Dreaming, unlike Young Girl Asleep, exemplifies his usual style.  In Thérèse Dreaming, Balthus’s painting technique is cool and polished.  The young girl sits upright in an articulated interior space, cast in strong contrasting light and shadow.  Where Young Girl Asleep is characterized by curved shapes, Thérèse sits upright and tense, as if troubled by the presence of the viewer even in her slumber.  In contrast to Young Girl Asleep, where the young girl is given more articulation and finish than the hazy, unfinished other compositional elements of the work, the subject of Thérèse Dreaming is given the same treatment, and the same degree of polish and finish, as the other compositional elements of the painting, thus positioning her as the equivalent of a mere object to be viewed.
Figure 3.  Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming, 1938.

Young Girl Asleep stands in additional contrast to other works of young girls by Balthus due to the lack of explicit or implicit exploitation of the subject’s form. The girl is not posed for our benefit, and she is fully clothed.  In contrast to Thérèse Dreaming, who has been read as an eroticized figure, with her underwear revealed to the viewer and the cat lapping from a saucer beside her, kept at a distance from the viewer, there is a strong feeling of intimacy, of closeness, and protectiveness, perhaps stemming from the relationship between artist and muse in Young Girl Asleep.

When I first approached the work, I was able to draw the conclusion that Balthus’s Young Girl Asleep uses sleep and the idea of dreams as a metaphor for adolescence.  While it differs in style from his other works, it must be stated that this work plays into conceptions of the gaze, using the viewer as proxy for the male gaze.  However, after researching Balthus and his oeuvre further, the connection I am making between dreams, adolescence and sexuality has taken a different turn: namely, that the unfinished quality of this painting and its of blank space creates a dialogue between past works and between the viewer and the work. Young Girl Asleep, and its lack of finish, can be read as a challenge to his critics who had decried his work as explicit and troublingly sexualized.

The Woman Asleep in Art

For an analysis of the meanings and readings of this archetypal image, that of the woman asleep, I first must briefly present the theory of the male gaze.  First described by Lara Mulvey in her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she olds the look, plays to and signifies male desire […] there are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.[2]

Essentially, this theory posits that in works of art or film created by men, the depiction of women is sexualized, presented as an object for the consumption of the male viewer with whom the creator is synonymous.   In this reading, the way a heterosexual male viewer sees a woman is presented as the standard and as the lens through which the audience sees her as well; Margaret Olin discusses how this theory, first posited toward the discipline of film, can also apply to visual arts; again, the male artist creates a direct line with the ostensibly male viewer by presenting the female body the way a heterosexual male viewer would see such a body: as an object made for desire and control. “The woman is taken as an object, subjected to a controlling and curious gaze of the man”.[3]

Udo Kultermann’s “Woman Asleep and the Artist” discusses the relationship between the male gaze and the woman asleep in great historical and thematic detail. The essay shows that this subject has been a predominantly male-dominated field; the image of the woman asleep in art is traditionally created by a male artist, and thus this image has often been interpreted as being particularly subject to the male gaze.[4]  As Kultermann writes, readings of this archetype (the woman asleep) highlight several key points: namely, that the female who is asleep is passive, unable to control who is gazing upon her; she is being presented for male consumption, often by a male artist; and, most contentiously, the composition surrounding this image will often allude to the woman’s inherent desirability, suggesting that it is the desirable body of the woman causes the male onlooker to forget his bearings and gaze upon her.

Additionally, as suggested by Madlyn Miller Kahr in her essay “Vermeer’s ‘Girl Asleep’: A Moral Emblem,” what the artist chooses to include in the composition of the woman asleep often imbues the work with another layer of meaning.  For example, consider the English painting Summer Slumber [figure 4], by J.D. Miller after Lord Leighton (c. 1898).  This work depicts a young woman asleep by a fountain, with a small dog curled up asleep at her feet.  The icon of the dog has been read as symbolizing marital fidelity, when taken in conjunction with the female figure.[5]
Figure 4. J.D. Miller after Lord Leighton, Summer Slumber, 1898.

This symbol of the dog symbolizing marital fidelity has also be elaborated on in works as early as Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), thus making it a potent and useful symbol for reading meaning into Summer Slumber[6] Thus, taking the image of the woman itself and what we can interpret as the iconographic symbol of the dog, and we could argue, that Miller’s woman in Summer Slumber is dreaming about marriage or marital fidelity. 

This principle of the power of the objects accompanying the sleeping woman is explicitly articulated in Madlyn Miller Kahr’s anaylsis of A Maid Asleep, which I will then use to provide an interpretation of Balthus’s Young Girl Asleep as it concerns the dreams of the girl depicted and how she can be understood and interpreted by the viewer.

As I turn to Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep, I find that one of the most convincing interpretations of this painting is that of a “moral emblem” (Kahr, 115). As Kahr writes of A Maid Asleep, “the young woman personifies Sloth, the vice that opens the gate to all the other vices, symbols of which surround her.”   This interpretation is supported by the objects Vermeer chose to paint in the composition, which include wine, a symbol of “lechery”[7] as well as the apples and fruits on the table, which “attributes of Aphrodite, goddess of love, as are the pearl earrings the girl wears. The apples refer also to the Fall of Man and Original Sin”.[8]

Kahr’s last point, about how this seemingly simple image of a young girl asleep can have implications all the way back to the greatest sin, Original Sin, and the fall of man, ties into a deeper reading of this image.  Because, as Kahr writes, Sloth and Lust are closely related, it is possible to interpret A Maid Asleep as a condemnation of sexual desire and lust in women.  While this woman sleeps, she cannot be industrious or contribute her work to the running of the household.  The symbols accompanying this woman: the wine, fruit and pearl earring, serve a double purpose: not only can they provide a clue as to what the young girl is dreaming of­––lechery, or lustful thoughts––but serve as the explanation of the work, as how the viewer should view this sleeping woman.  Thus Kahr’s interpretation of the painting as a “moral emblem” is particularly salient: this painting is being used to condemn female sexual desire as contrary to the governing Dutch Protestant values of hard work and productivity.

But if the woman of this image is asleep, how can she possess sexual desire?  Herein lies the next turn of this analysis: this projection and subsequent condemnation of sexual desire in the sleeping woman can be read as an extension of the male gaze and control of the female image as he tries to control the woman even while she sleeps.  This assertion is grounded by Kahr’s analysis of the Vermeer A Maid Asleep.  

Tying this expression back to Kultermann, it presents a dichotomy of how male lust and female lust have been read and presented.  The male lust Kultermann writes of, while connected with negativity, has been presented and read as positive, creative, and artistic in his article, with the sleeping woman serving as a muse to the male artist.  For example, Dionysus’ observing of Ariadne sleeping portends his love for her and their eventual matrimony; Kultermann cites this archetype in his analysis of Giorgione’s 1510 Sleeping Venus [figure 5].  Kultermann also references Kahr’s description of a sleeping Ariadne with similarities to the Giorgione painting, which has been interpreted as inviting male lust and desire:

She lay on her right side, her right arm bent, with hand under cheek to support her head. Her other arm was stretched out on her leg to the middle of her plump thigh. From the virginal nipples of her breast flowed water, a stream of cold water from the right, hot water from the left. The right breast was placed at such height that the thirsty could suck and drink from it.[9] 
Figure 5.  Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, 1510.

In this instance, the male lust is presented as not only positive, but understandable within the context of the myth, and leads to a happy conclusion for both Dionysus and his bride.  In a similar vein, Kultermann also cites Picasso’s 1931 painting of his mistress Marie-Thèrese sleeping, Woman with Yellow Hair [figure 6], as an example of the male gaze and male lust as not sinful or exploitative, but benevolent: “In most of Picasso's works in which one partner watches the other, the watcher is never seen as an intruder, but rather as a guardian of the sleeping partner.”[10]
Figure 6. Picasso, Woman with Yellow Hair, 1931. 

Kahr, conversely, reads the Vermeer as a condemnation of female lust as unproductive and even harmful. A certain kind of unconscious sexuality is being projected onto her without her knowledge and without her consent, and she is meant to be judged by the painting’s educated intended audience for this imagined lust.

When we take the contexts the Young Girl Asleep is situated in, regarding not only the sexualized nature of Balthus’s typical compositions of young women and girls, but the potent image of the woman asleep which has taken on sexual readings, a new potential interpretation of Young Girl Asleep arises.  While Vermeer’s similar A Maid Asleep uses symbolic objects, allowing the viewer to read meaning and insight into the nature of the subject’s dreams, Balthus’s composition is void of objects, focusing solely on the subject and the blank space above and around her head.  This blank space is incredibly important, and provides the turn of my analysis of what Balthus meant to accomplish with this painting.

Balthus and His Context

As far as images of women and girls, either asleep or awake, go, there are few artists that have attracted as much recent controversy and scrutiny as Balthus.  In many of Balthus’ paintings of adolescent girls, the girl sits alone in a dimly lit room, leaning at an odd, awkward angle and spreading her legs apart, allowing her skirt to hike up her legs.  Balthus also often portrayed his young female subjects engaged in the company of cats, providing a rather unsubtle joke using the vernacular of both felines and female genitalia.   As Sabine Rewald notes, “In Thérèse Dreaming, young Thérèse, lost in reverie with her hands folded above her head, a rapt expression on her face, and her legs uncovered, becomes the epitome of dormant adolescent sexuality. With the gray cat lapping milk from a saucer Balthus adds yet another erotic metaphor. The picture presents a haunting description of that stage in life that veers between lassitude and exuberance, innocence and sexual fantasies, reality and dream.” His 1934 Guitar Lesson [figure 7], which depicts a heavily stylized sexual assault during a music lesson, has been cited as Balthus at his most exploitative.
Figure 7.  Balthus, The Guitar Lesson, 1934.

Today, any exhibit of Balthus’ works of young girls is met with some degree of heated discussion and controversy.  His work has been called “pedophilia”;[11] in 1980, Timothy Hyman wrote of Balthus’ canon: “The problem with Balthus’ children hinges on our own response.  Are we to be titillated and shocked? Is it an amusing or charming piece of erotica?  Or else the confessions of a Bluebeard?”[12] The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibit, Balthus: Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations, inspired a series of reviews and think pieces calling into question how we should consider Balthus’ work with a contemporary lens, while an exhibit of Balthus’ polaroid photographs of his young female subjects, scheduled for the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, was canceled, “spurred by public insinuations in Germany that the work is pedophilic; a December article in the major newspaper Die Zeit called the images, which depict a model named Anna from ages eight to 16, ‘documents of pedophile greed.’”[13]

In response to these allegations, Balthus, for the most part, attempted to turn the tables on those asking him these sorts of questions and inquire after their own predilictions and motivations.  “[He] felt compelled to feign surprise and astonishment when asked about their erotic charge.  Not only did he refuse to acknowledge any eroticism and insist he only cared about formal structure, he implied it was the viewers who were the ‘impure’ ones.”[14]

Yet conceptions of his work were far from easily convinced by his protestations; indeed his 1937 Girl with a Cat [figure 8] was used to illustrate an edition of Nabokov’s Lolita, giving the association between Bathus and his depictions of girls as erotic Lolitas a more concrete context. In his eighties, he later elaborated in response:

I really don’t understand why people see the paintings of girls as Lolitas… You know why I paint little girls?  Because women, even my own daughter, already belong to this present world, to fashion.  Little girls are the only creatures today who can be little Poussins.  My little model is absolutely untouchable to me… Some American journalist said he found my work pornographic.  What does he mean?  Everything now is pornographic.  Advertising is pornographic.  You see a young woman putting on some beauty product who looks like she’s having an orgasm.  I have never made anything pornographic… Except perhaps ‘The Guitar Lesson.’[15]
Figure 8.  Balthus, Girl with a Cat, 1937.

While this quotation post-dates the creation of Young Girl Asleep, it also post-dates the painting of Thérèse Dreaming and other works considered to be highly problematic.  In this quotation, Balthus provides an interpretation of his works and attempts to justify his own depictions of girls.  He argues that his paintings of little girls belong to the realm art, rather than something as base as fashion or advertising, and that the way he paints them are thus intended to be wholly different from the hypersexualized “pornographic” qualities of the latter media. These iterations of sexuality for women and girls already exists in society, he seems to argue, and so the way he paints young girls, polished, frozen in time, is not inherently sexual. 

Balthus seems to claim that the sexual readings of his works come from critics used to seeing sexuality and pornography in fashion and advertising, from eyes drowned in explicit imagery where nothing is innocent.  While he truly believed was he was saying regarding the highly potent images he was creating is another matter entirely.  Perhaps Balthus could have referenced Young Girl Asleep, considering its wholly different execution and atmosphere from works such as Thérèse Dreaming, in his own defense in statements like this one.

What is also important to note is that depending on what the viewer knows of Balthus’s own personal and professional history with these types of paintings, the meaning we derive from Young Girl Asleep can vary vastly.  When I first observed the work, I was familiar with neither Balthus’s typical oeuvre nor the sorts of implications scholars and critics have found in his work, and I was able to come away with an interpretation born solely of the work itself: that this work was merely an exploration of the similarities between dreaming and adolescence.  Yet after researching Balthus and readings of the image of the woman asleep, the interpretation I now come away with is quite different because I am placing it within both of its historical contexts.  Can this painting still be read for its own merits?

I argue that with this blank space, Balthus can be interpreted as responding to the critics who have called his work pedophilic and exploitative in a way reminiscent of his own statements on the matter. When confronted with accusations of pornography, Balthus was known to respond that any impropriety was on the part of the viewer projecting sexuality onto the painting.  Therefore, I argue that the blank space can be interpreted as a little joke towards those who condemned his work: the blank space invites interpretation, and thus any sexual reading of this particular painting, Balthus seems to say, comes from the viewer’s own imagination and from nothing that is actually explicitly painted.  While the Vermeer painting uses the objects depicted with the female subject to provide a jumping-off point which to interpret the work, Balthus’s painting leaves any interpretation of the subject’s dreams up to the viewer; if the viewer sees the image as sexualized, Balthus then reserves the right to place the blame back onto the viewer and away from himself, as he was wont to do when discussing his works.


Balthus’s Young Girl Asleep sits at the crossroads of two traditions in art —a grander archetype, spanning continents and centuries, of the woman asleep, and the personal oeuvre of one artist’s depiction of women.  The subject of this painting is lost in sleep, her dreams completely subject to our interpretation.  In earlier paintings depicting a woman sleeping, there is often a clue to what the subject is dreaming of, leading to a clear moral message or reading of the painting.  For example, Summer Slumber’s use of a dog has been read as symbolizing the desire of the subject for marriage and fidelity, while A Maid Asleep’s use of a pearl earring, wine and fruit hint at a certain lust of the sleeping woman, projected onto the woman by the male artist and by the viewer. 

Yet the Balthus painting manages to keep us guessing through the use of blank space as Balthus coyly challenges his reputation as a pedophilic painter of young girls’ sexuality.  If we see any sexuality in Young Girl Asleep, he seems to say, it is entirely our doing as the viewers, not his, as the artist.  

Whether this perceived intention is successful remains to be seen; this work lacks the controversy surrounding his more provocative pieces, and the artist’s history of painting similar subject matter makes it difficult to approach this painting with an unbiased eye. Balthus attempts to displace the male gaze from his creation of the image onto the viewer perceiving and evaluating the image.  Having considered both the context of what the icon of the sleeping girl has meant in the past, and this particular girl’s place within Balthus’s repertory, I am inclined to interpret this image as the artist attempting to play a joke on his critics and his denouncers, who proclaim innocence when discussing the perceived smut of Balthus’s oeuvre.  Whether this act of cheekiness is successful remains to be seen—this painting has been little discussed, and popular opinion of Balthus’s works has only shifted towards a more condemning consensus in recent years[16].

Works Cited
 Hall, James.  Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Heddaya, Mostafa.  “Balthus Exhibition Canceled Amid Accusations of Pedophilia.” Hyperallergic.  February 6, 2014.

Jacobsson, Eva-Maria.  “A Female Gaze?” Royal Institute of Technology.  May, 1999. 5-27.

Kahr, Madlyn Millner, “Vermeer’s ‘Girl Asleep’: A Moral Emblem,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 6 (1972): 115-132.

Kultermann, Udo, “Woman Asleep and the Artist,” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 11, No. 22 (1990): 129-161.

Olin, Margaret, “Gaze,” in Nelson, Robert S., and Shiff, Richard, Critical Terms for Art History.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 208-218.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

Rewald, Sabine, “Balthus’s Thérèses,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 33 (1998): 305-314.

Rewald, Sabine, Cats and Girls.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Rewald, Sabine, “Some Notes on Balthus’s Nonmusical ‘Guitar Lesson’”, Source Notes in the History of Art, Vol. 11, No. 3/4, Essays in Honor of Gert Schiff (Spring/Summer 1992): 59-64.

Soby, James Thrall, “Balthus,” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Vol. 24, No. 3, 3-36 (selected pages).

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, “Venus of Urbino by Titian.” 

[1] For an excellent survey of this topic, see Kultermann’s “The Woman Asleep in Art.”
[2] Lara Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”   4-5, 9.
[3] Eva-Maria Jacobsson, “A Female Gaze?” 8.
[4] Kultermann also writes about female artists reclaiming this archetype in the 20th and 21st centuries through video and performance art.  Since female artists have generally been prevented from reaching the same success and recognition as their male peers, they do not feature prominently in discussions of this subject matter prior to the 20th century.   
[5] The icon of the dog is explained in James Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art.
[6] This idea is touched upon by the Uffizi Gallery’s discussion of the painting.
[7] Madlyn Millner Kahr, ““Vermeer’s ‘Girl Asleep’: A Moral Emblem,” 128.
[8] Kahr, 127. 
[9] Kahr in Udo Kultermann, “Woman Asleep and the Artist,” 138.
[10] Kultermann, 145. 
[11] Schjedahl, 1984 in Sabine Rewald, Cats and Girls, 2013, 34.
[12] Hyman in Rewald, 35. 
[13] Heddaya, in Hyperallergic.
[14] Rewald, 35. 
[15] Balthus in Rewald, 37-39.


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