The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

Jiayi LiaoJuly 22, 2020Fun and CreativityAwesome Moments
The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

Artwork by J. W. Waterhouse, 1875

There she sat, in the tender caress of dawn. A flaxen waterfall falling gently over her shoulder. Each stroke I added was a touch of sunlight on her hair. Hope and memory in her eyes, her lips speaking the unspoken.

As I painted a copy of oil painting Little Irene by Pierre Auguste Renoir, I knew I had finally found the girl with the flaxen hair.

I first came to know her in my piano class three years ago. La fille aux cheveux de lin, translated to “the Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, is a famous piano piece from the first book of Preludes by 20th century French composer Claude Debussy. My piano teacher Mrs. Lyu regarded it as one of her favorite pieces, passionately describing this girl of pure beauty she saw in music. I was attracted but confused: how can you “see” something (or even someone!) in something that’s heard? Back then, for me, sight and hearing were in separate worlds.

My performance of the piece was fluent and skilled, but Mrs. Lyu told me the girl of the flaxen hair was not there. I was yet to find the soul of the music. Frustrated and confused, I did some research in the hope to “see” the girl in the music.

To my surprise, after I typed the title into my search engine, an oil painting popped up beside Debussy’s piano piece. The moment I saw it, I felt it was an ideal visualization of the girl with the flaxen hair. It was named Little Irene, painted in 1880 by famous French impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir as a portrait of Banker Cahen D'Anvers’s 8 year old daughter. Irene, with flaxen hair, sits in a garden in serenity, wearing a white dress with a sky-blue hue. Her skin is fair and her lips are cherry. Her eyes look forward into somewhere no one but her knows. That’s the girl I’d love to see in my music.

I tried hard to keep the image in mind as my fingers moved on the piano keys, but I still found the connection vague and abstract. How could what you hear relate to what you see, when one is constantly flowing whereas the other is frozen? I could tell the girl I saw in Renoir’s painting was not in my music, though I had no idea how I could possibly find her. I almost gave up with the piece until I got to paint a copy of Little Irene in the summer, several months after I came to know it.

Painted by numerous swift and broken strokes without any distinct lines, Little Irene was representative of impressionistic style, which sought to capture the instant fluidity of light and air in the imperceptible elapses time. I re-experienced the process of Renoir’s creation of Irene as I added each stroke to the canvas. Suddenly, she was not sitting still but moving with life. I could feel sunlight dancing on her flaxen hair with each stroke of brush. As I lit up her eyes with a dip of bright paint on the brush, a light of innocence and hope unique to a little girl glittered in her eyes.

Then I suddenly understood why Debussy was known as the founder of Impressionism in music. Wasn’t the process of the painting just like the procession of the music? Notes in Debussy’s music, overlapped and interweaved on the palette of music, were just like strokes in Renoir’s painting. Both Debussy’s piano piece and Renoir’s oil painting vividly depicted the girl with the flaxen hair and captured the fluidity of light, which was the essence of Impressionism.

I finally understood the very true old saying, “music is the flowing art, art is the frozen music.” Music is in time while art is in space. Sight and hearing are separable but not separated. Both are ways in which we approach, perceive, and express the world. When I played the piece again, the girl in the painting and the girl in the music were one.

Recently, I learnt that Debussy was deeply fond of art and poetry. He once used some impressionistic paintings for covers of his music albums. In fact, his lovely prelude The Girl with the Flaxen Hair was inspired by a poem with the same title by a French poet Charles-Marie René Leconte de Lisle. Here is the first stanza of the poem:

“On the grass, sitting in flowers
Who sings since the fresh morning?
It is the maiden with the flaxen hair
The lovely one with lips like cherries.”

The poem painted a vivid image that left me with a similar impression as Little Irene. The girl with “the flaxen hair” and “lips like cherries” walked out from the lines. No wonders people call poetry “the art of words." As I read through the poem, painted Little Irene, and played the music piece, I felt an innocent beauty that transcended all forms. The girl with the flaxen hair was really alive in both worlds of sight and hearing. After all, the two worlds are in fact one world, the one we live in. Music, painting, poetry, and more. All come from life and can bring the same idea back to life.

Jiayi Liao is a 17 year old jigsaw puzzle player from Beijing, China. She's an explorer of the connection between different art forms and cultures. She believes in building bridges of understanding through writing.