Largely forgotten today, François Barraud was a self-taught Swiss painter known for his realism, deeply melancholic, contemplative portraits and nudes. He was influenced by The New Objectivity movement, which also included Christian Schad and Cagnaccio di San Pietro. The movement emphasized the realism of everyday life, without much context being offered: the very identity of the subjects was being questioned. It is why, perhaps, Barraud’s paintings can be so haunting. There is an inherent mystery to his art, a pull that makes you curious to find out more about the background story of his paintings.
Having suffered from health problems throughout his life, this could be the reason why the Swiss artist may have preferred painting a very limited number of people, usually within closed environments. His favorite muse was his wife, Marie, who appears in tens of his artworks. You can see Marie as the blonde woman placed to the right of the kitchen table in La Tailleuse de Soupe.
The title literally translates as The Soup Cutter, from the old French expression tailler (le pain de) la soupe, which refers to the act of slicing bread to dip it into soup. A better translation would be The Bread Cutter, indicating Marie’s role in the painting. With a smile on her face that reveals her contentment, she may be the main subject according to the title, but it is the brunette adolescent to the left of the table that leaves us most perplexed. Dressed in the flapper style of the 1920s with her bare arms and the bow in her hair, the girl is clearly looking upset, even defiant, her gaze turned away from the table and directed at us.
At first glance, we might be witnessing a familiar scene, the fraught mother and daughter relationship when the hormones of adolescence kick in and the daughter yearns for emancipation and more self-expression. However, it is the girl’s intense blush that I find most puzzling. Is that in relation to what she just said to her mother, something she’s now embarrassed about? Is it something she’s thinking – that she ought not to? Or is it because her gaze is locked in with the painter’s and she’s feeling exposed?
You see, the mysterious girl-woman appears in at least two other of Barraud’s paintings, both of them nudes: The Painting Session (1933), where she is portrayed as a woman and The Hollow Dreams (1933), where she looks more adolescent. In other words, in 1933 Barraud painted the girl at least three times and her age seems to differ each time. Lacking more models, it’s possible that the Swiss aged her or infantilized her, as his necessity and art scenes demanded. And so, the mystery remains.
What do you think? Why is the girl blushing?