Born into an affluent, artistic family, British painter Meredith Frampton is known today for his highly polished, neoclassical portraits. His attention to detail was extraordinary, both a blessing and a curse, as he would often spend a whole year working on a single painting.
In 1928 Frampton depicted the 1920s woman in the person of Marguerite Kelsey. Kelsey was a well known model then, praised for her ability to pose for long intervals of time, as well as for her grace and poise. It’s funny, but when you think of the Roaring Twenties, what comes to mind is the nightlife extravaganza, with the Charleston dances and the revealing dresses, the smokey eyes and strident lipstick, the short haircuts and strings of pearls. All very ostentatious, it was a mix of androgyny – women embracing a more boyish style – and seduction.
We may be surprised when comparing our impression of the 1920s with what Frampton is depicting in Marguerite Kelsey. There is a quiet neutrality to the painting, not least because of the subdued color palette used. The paleness of the woman’s skin is exaggerated by the creamy color of her dress which, as it turns out, Frampton picked out himself. The painter also chose the low-heeled, red shoes she is wearing, a deep shade which manages to pull us out of our inertia.
With her lack of accessories and the plainness of her dress, Kelsey is mirroring the simplicity of the white flowers on the table next to her. It is a rather cold portrayal, as she looks unapproachable and lost in a reverie. But it’s this distance between the viewer and the sitter that makes her intriguing, leaving us wondering what she’s thinking. And while her full-length dress would look unflattering were she standing, hiding the shape of her body, in this reclined position on the sofa we are able to notice the lines of her legs and her knees. There’s also a perky surprise in store, with her right nipple subtly showing through the material of the dress. With the restrained use of color and the smooth folds of the dress, Frampton is suggesting that beneath the icy exterior, life and passion are simmering.