Man Ray derived the composition of La fille du bois, 1949, from the wood grain of the panel on which it is painted, carefully delineating its organic forms in black paint. Historically, the panel has been reserved for religious icons, but in 1929, Man Ray utilized the Surrealist technique of automatism to squeeze paints directly onto silver- and gold-leaf panels. In these earlier works, Elizabeth Hutton Turner explained that his "irreverence toward the precious panels...represented the latest volley in an ongoing battle waged by the European avant-garde against La belle peinture... Man Ray... glorif[ied] the surface with inviolate gold-leaf... trivializing the painter's action upon it. As the title of Man Ray's Tableau ton gout I wryly suggested, the issue had really become "a matter of taste" (E. H. Turner, "Transatlantic," Perpetual Motif, the Art of Man Ray, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 166).
In La fille du bois, the painter's touch combines a respect for the panel itself with a dream-like visionary presence. Like Pablo Picasso and George Braque often did in their Cubist still lifes, Man Ray mimics the natural pattern of wood with paint; but in the present work, this is not an attempt to achieve a tromp-l'oeil effect. Instead of natural earth shades, the artist colors the organic forms with brilliant hues. This is not the case with two other wood grain works from this period. In the seascape La mare, 1949, he primarily uses shades of brown to emphasize the horizontal movements of the grain, and in the three-panel folding screen La fort dore de Man Ray, 1950, he abstracts this pattern to create the effect of "sunlight streaming through a redwood forest."
In the present work, Man Ray accentuates the vertical flame-like outlines of the wood grain pattern with orange-yellow and red shapes that rise from the bottom edge of the panel. This dynamic contrast of fire and wood creates an exciting, mysterious tension between danger and vulnerability. The candle's flame at the center of the composition continues this theme, while the small flickering light reveals a sinewy female torso emerging from the darkness at the right. This elegant, lithe figure is reminiscent of the artist's wife Juliet Browner.
Like many of his fellow Surrealists, Man Ray fled to the United States from France during World War II. He met Juliet shortly after his arrival in California in 1940. She "soon proved a rejuvenating influence. Young and vivacious, she was the model-inspiration, a role that previously been held by, among others, his first wife, Adon Lacroix, then Kik [de Montparnasse] and Lee Miller in the twenties and thirties (M. Foresta, "Exile in Paradise: Man Ray in Hollywood," Perpetual Motif, the Art of Man Ray, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 294). She had studied modern dance under Martha Graham and was a professional dancer. Six years later, they married in Beverly Hills in a double ceremony with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Man Ray's fascination with Juliet's serpentine moves is evident in the more representational painting Celeste est l'est de l'ouest, also from 1949. Here, she is playfully portrayed in the guise of a Spanish dancer wearing an orange scarf tied around her head and a red skirt; and Man Ray captures the movement of dance with the curve of her body and placement of one hand raised and the other on her hip. In the photograph Portrait of Juliet, c. 1950, her pose directly echoes that of the figure in La fille du bois.