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“The Stolen Kiss”: depicting violence against women

The Stolen Kiss
Is she really having such a good time?

Do you ever read a critique of a painting that you don’t agree with? Of course we all do. A recent review of The Stolen Kiss by Jean Honore Fragonard in the UK’s Independent bothered me.

So, The Stolen Kiss: I think not.

The painter is trapped within the ways of his time and produced infantile paintings designed to delight. But in historical context, they reveal attitudes of mind in play at the time.  Observing the behaviours of his time, this painting depicts a forceful male act against an unwilling woman disguised in the coded social language of the day.

It is his kiss, not hers, and by stolen in the (English) title, clearly not something he is entitled to.

Her posture is clear: she is off balance, not balanced, find her left foot, and it seems she is actually being pulled. Indeed, he has obviously stepped into the room as she opened the door or moved in his direction, since his left foot is stepping on her hem. More evidence of control? I suspect her right leg is bent and braced against his pull.

She has also been interrupted in what she was doing as she has not let go of her handiwork and apparently intends not to, which one would have done if one were going to greet the visitor willingly — he is a known person, but an intruder nonetheless.

Her right arm suggests she is searching for a place to put it, to steady herself against his force as he is gripping this arm with both his hands; more control.

Her mouth is pursed and eyes are averted — I don’t think she is having any fun.

There are people in the other room but she is not part of that crowd, preferring to sit quietly in a separate room  — perhaps they are discussing whether she should be matched with the man, gossip around the card table and he, emboldened by the discussion,  has decided to invade her private space.

She is hardly heroic. There is no sexual furnace in the middle of this painting only the flash of male fantasy, of hidden delights and the need to use force over persuasion.

She just wishes he’d be gone. There is no moral ambiguity here.