This hauntingly pensive portrait of early adolescence depicts Thérèse Blanchard, the daughter of one of Balthus' neighbors in the Cour de Rohan, near the Place de l'Odéon in Paris, where the artist lived and painted during the pre-war years. Sabine Rewald has written that "The painter's finest portrayals of adolescents are his series of paintings from 1936 to 1939 for which young Thérèse Blanchard served as model" (in "Balthus's Thérèses," Metropolitan Museum Journal, New York, vol. 33, 1998, p. 305). Thérèse appeared alone and occasionally with her cat in eleven paintings, and together with her younger brother Hubert in three others. The series ended with the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, when the artist was called up for military service and left Paris, and did not return until the end of the conflict, in which both Thérèse and Hubert sadly perished.
Several of the Thérèse paintings are very well known, especially Thérèse rêvant, and established the artist's reputation as a portrayer of dreaming and languid young girls, in which the viewer is often treated to a discrete but nonetheless highly suggestive hint of dormant adolescent sexuality. Another painting is Thérèse, 1938 (Monnier and Clair, no. P 113; also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which Balthus's young model is seated in a chair with her bare legs drawn up. In Les enfants Blanchard, 1937 (M. & C., P100; owned by Pablo Picasso and presently in the Musée Picasso, Paris) she appears leaning on the floor reading, while her brother bends over a table, staring into space.
The most poignant aspect of the present portrait is the seriousness of Thérèse's expression, which seems more akin to that of an adult than a child. Sabine Rewald has observed that "One looks in vain for playful children in Balthus's work. Balthus's children, when awake, never smile. They remain remote, withdrawn, and self-absorbed. Often they are pensive and float in daydreams" (in ibid.). Indeed, these qualities contribute an indefinable and enigmatic dimension to the artist's portrayal of these young people, and call attention to the delicate ambiguities that suffuse Balthus' work, in which strangely unexpected and ambivalent emotions are often present. Such images draw the viewer back into childhood and its imagined paradise, but never in any complacent or sentimental manner. Balthus wrote, "[My work] was always about approaching the mystery of childhood, its languid grace at ill-defined borders. I sought to paint the soul's secrets, the obscure and luminous tension of their partially blooming matrix. I might say it's about the crossing. The uncertain worrisome time when innocence is total and will soon give way to another age, more determinedly social" (in Vanished Spendors, a Memoir, New York, 2002, pp. 157-158).