The Met Says ‘Suggestive’ Balthus Painting Will Stay After Petition for Its Removal Is Signed by Thousands

The Met says this moment is an "opportunity for conversation."

Balthus, Thérese Dreaming (1938). © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
BalthusThérese Dreaming (1938) sparked a petition demanding its removal at the Met. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art says it will not remove a painting of a young girl by BalthusThérèse Dreaming (1938), that has been targeted by an online petition.

The petition—which has garnered more than 8,700 signatures in five days—states that the Met should not “proudly display” an image that “romanticizes the sexualization of a child.”

A spokesman for the Met called the controversy “an opportunity for a conversation” about the “continuing evolution of existing culture.”

Mia Merrill, a New York City resident, launched the petition on Care 2 on November 30. Since then, it has nearly reached its goal of 9,000 signatures. The petition is headlined: “Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus’s Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming.”

Merrill recounts how she was “shocked” to see the painting depicting a young girl “in a sexually suggestive pose… Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.”

In response to the petition, a spokesman for the Met provided the following statement to artnet News:

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mission is to ‘…collect, study, conserve, and present significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.’ Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present, and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression.”

According to the Met’s description of the work, it depicts Balthus’s neighbor Thérèse Blanchard, who was about 12 or 13 at the time.

Merrill notes that when the painting was included in the 2013 Met show “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations,” a plaque at the entrance warned viewers that they might find some works “disturbing.”

After calling for removal of the painting in the initial petition, Merrill seems to have toned down her language, writing in a Twitter message to artnet News today: “I am not asking the Met to destroy the work. I’m asking them to be more conscientious in how they contextualize pieces. This can be accomplished by either removing the piece from this gallery or by providing more context in the painting’s description. I would consider this petition a success if the Met included a message as brief as, ‘Some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’s artistic infatuation with young girls.'”

In a 2013 review of the Balthus show in The New Republic, critic Jed Perl called Balthus the “last of the mystics who transformed twentieth-century art.” Perl said mystics are “by turns revered, reviled, demonized, and ignored—and at one point or another in his very long career Balthus was regarded in all of those ways.”

Perl added that Balthus’s paintings of girls “have stood in the way of a full appreciation of his achievement.” He wrote that these works “can be properly appreciated only when we accept them as unabashedly mystical, the flesh a symbol of the spirit, the girl’s dawning self-awareness an emblem of the artist’s engagement with the world.”

Thérèse Dreaming hails from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, which was donated to the Met in 1998. The Met website provides extensive detail about the painting’s ownership and exhibition history. The work was originally purchased from the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York the same year it was painted for $438.40. The Gelmans acquired it in 1979.

The painting has appeared in nearly two dozen gallery and museum shows throughout the US, as well as in London, Cologne, Marseilles, Mexico City, Paris, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

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