Little Miss Perfect

Scrolling through TV channels the other day, Little Miss Perfect caught my eye. I’d never heard of this program before, but was hooked in minutes. The show follows moms and daughters stopping at nothing to win a pageant crown, in regional, state and national competitions. Small girls (some as young as three or four) get dolled up by Mom, then hit the stage in false lashes, sheer stockings and kitten heels. They compete in a series of rounds, like “Wow Wear” (themed costumes, booty shaking), “Beauty” (evening dresses, stiff smiles) and “Interview” (“what would you do with $1m?”). The show’s pageant expert says that girls in the pageant process make friends, learn communication and self-confidence and practise losing (or ‘not winning’) with grace. But it doesn’t take much footage of stressed out Moms and crying contestants to tell a whole other story.

I think I might have spotted a little pageant princess in the NGA. Her name is María Teresa de Borbón y Vallabriga (later Condesa de Chinchón) and she was painted in 1783 by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828). Goya was an outstanding painter of the Romantic movement who conjured up memorable, ambitious images of the human soul and war. But in fact, Goya first made his name as a portraitist, increasingly in demand from the 1780s. In 1783 he was called to the royal residence by the Infante Don Luis, brother of Charles III, to paint a family portrait. He ended up painting individual portraits too: this one shows Don Luis’s daughter.

Maria, a future countess, is shown aged three or four. She’s decked out in the fashionable attire of an adult lady of the Spanish court. See how her waist is cinched in by the sky-blue bodice and how the white lace froths over her little form, shimmying at her neckline and dancing over her skirts. She’s adopted a mature stance at the edge of a terrace she’s standing on. Goya may have diminished the scale of the wall behind her to make her appear larger. The mini dog at her feet – made faintly ridiculous by the mop of hair in his eyes – reminds me of the props that Little Miss Perfect Moms make for their daughters.

Maria was a member of a royal family and as such accustomed to official and state portraits. Nonetheless, what’s ever-so-slightly unsettling about this picture is the way she’s gazing out at the viewer. There’s a bright-eyed innocence glowing in her face that’s very much at odds with the clothes she’s dressed up in and the setting she’s shown in. Her cheeks look flushed beneath her bulbous headdress. Those large lucent eyes, capped by her fashionably fine brows, seem to question the viewer. And might her little rosebud mouth be poised for protest?

Goya went on to paint Maria three more times during her life and the two built up a sympathetic relationship. This little girl later became one of the most tragic figures at the court of Charles IV, trapped in a humiliating marriage to the King’s minister, arranged by the Queen for her own duplicitous purposes. There’s no way Goya could have known all that the future held in store for Maria. Still, he’s caught an edge of discomfort and sadness here that might act as a warning for pageant Moms today.