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“Preparing the Girl” by Mary Simpson at Kent Place Gallery

“Preparing the Girl” by Mary Simpson at Kent Place Gallery

Kent Place Gallery will present the solo exhibition Preparing the Girl by artist Mary Simpson from Thursday, November 30–Thursday, December 21, 2023.  There will be a reception for the artist from 5:00–7:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 30. 

At the Metropolitan Museum’s Gustave Courbet retrospective in 2008, Mary Simpson saw an artwork that stopped her in her tracks. The painting, unfinished but dated to the 1850s, depicts a room filled with young women surrounding an adolescent girl slumped in a chair. 

In the 1920s the painting was purchased by Smith College with the title Preparing the Bride. Five decades later, however, art historians uncovered a letter in which Courbet used the title Preparing the Girl for Her Wake. Smith College X-rayed the painting and concluded that, indeed, the central figure was originally painted naked with her head slumped forward. Only later did Courbet add the white dress and reposition the head.  

Although some art historians dispute the new title (most prominently Linda Nochlin), Simpson’s own research corroborates that the painting’s original subject was the ritual preparation of a corpse. But what has made the painting stick with her for fifteen years is neither the corpse nor the bride. It’s the difficulty in distinguishing between the two.

Images of young women are too often idealized as sex objects or property or, in the context of true-crime podcasts and Law & Order: SVU, fetishized as gruesome victims. The duality of this painting shows the art historical legacy of this phenomenon and speaks to how it continues to resonate. 

A full scale, high-resolution reproduction of Courbet’s painting covers the back wall of the gallery. On the surrounding walls, a suite of abstract paintings by Simpson grapple with messages that Courbet’s work seems to send. These oil paintings on wood panels contain expressive, gestural marks that contest and play against their internal geometries and their outer frames.

Gallery Director Ken Weathersby says about this exhibition, “This is a show that is both conceptually meaningful and full of visual poetry. Simpson locates an intense and poignant area for thought in her response to the Courbet work. Her interest in creating this show for us was especially energized by her understanding of the context Kent Place School and the identities of the students who will see the show and live with the exhibition.”

Simpson says, “I would love to have a conversation with interested students about the painting, the mystery within its legacy, a bit about Courbet and his critical significance to the transition of French romanticism to realism, and about how often women in classical paintings are either depicted as beautiful, like bridal subjects, or inert, either dead or sleeping. I’m also interested in the fact that all fourteen girls in this painting are adolescents, the same age as the group of students I would meet with.”

Mary Simpson has exhibited widely, with solo and two-person shows in New York and across the U.S., as well as internationally. She holds an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University, was part of the Whitney Independent Study Program, and is the recipient of many awards and residencies. She has taught visual art at Columbia University, Cooper Union, and George Washington University, among others. She was born in Anchorage, Alaska.

Kent Place Gallery is on the campus of Kent Place School, 42 Norwood Avenue, Summit, NJ.  Gallery hours are school days, Monday–Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Visitors please check in at the CFI Main Entrance reception desk. 

For an appointment to visit with the Gallery Director, email weathersbyk@kentplace.org 

For more information call (908) 273-0900, or visit www.kentplace.org.