Marie-Denise Villers

Marie-Denise Villers
I used to think this was my favorite painting by Jacques-Louis David. I was mistaken.

But then, so were art scholars who for years had attributed it incorrectly to David and subsequently decided that it was the work of Marie-Denise Villers, a French portrait painter about whom little is known.

We tend to think of art history as immutable, set in stone, perhaps literally. But history, while not exactly a science, is like science in that new evidence, and sometimes just new thinking about existing facts, can change things overnight.

Prior to the change in attribution of this work, not much attention was focused on Villers and I haven’t had much success in searching her out on the web, other than to find dozens of references to this particular painting. We know that she was a student of Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, called Girodet, who was in turn a pupil of David’s. You might add that Villers was a very talented student, given that her work had been mistaken for that of David by art historians.

She painted for a while under her maiden name of Lemoine and later took the name of her husabnd, architecture student Michel-Jean-Maximilien Villers. Her portraits apparently attracted favorable attention when she exhibited in the Salon as a student of Girodet. She carved a niche for herself with paintings that combined some of the characteristics of portraits and genre paintings, which she called “studies of women”.

You will still find this painting in books listed as a portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by David. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has the painting in its permanent collection, now attributes it to Villers and lists it as simply “Young Woman Drawing“.

The painting is striking. It’s large, 63 x 50 in. (161 x 128 cm), and when you enter the gallery in which it hangs, the painting is facing you on the opposite wall. It’s hard not to be struck by the luminous figure of this beautiful young woman, drawing board in hand, the folds of her white dress bathed in the soft light from the window behind her, who is gazing directly at you, as though you were the subject of her drawing.

Not knowing anything about the painting, I had made an assumption that here was a student of David’s, drawing the master as he, in turn, painted her. It now seems more likely that the painting is actually a self portrait, an idea that just feels “right” when you look at the painting with that in mind.

Artists’ faces often have a certain look to them in self portraits, due, I believe, to a shift in consciousness into a mode of perception associated with artistic seeing (see my post on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain). The woman might have that look whether she was drawing herself or another, but the semi-hidden position of her drawing hand and other elements just make it feel like a self portrait now that the idea of attribution to David is removed.

I certainly hope the Met doesn’t move this striking painting now that it’s assigned to a “lesser” artist. I think we need to supplement our art history with some literature and remember Shakespeare’s lesson that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, and a beautiful painting by another artist’s name is still a beautiful painting.

Addendum: I’ve come back and added what resources I could find on Villers as of November 2009 to the list below, and replaced the smaller image I had here with a new version from the Met’s updated site. There is also now a zoomable image of the painting. I’ve also written a new post about Marie-Denise VIllers.

 
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15 Replies to “Marie-Denise Villers”

  1. I did a small reproduction of this in grade 11 as an art project. When I saw this painting in one of my art books, pages had been ripped out, I had no idea what it was called or who it was by. Then just this year when I was in New York, lost in the Met, I just turned around and there it was! At its full scale, my jaw just dropped. It was amazing. I really agree with you about its positioning in the museum.

  2. Hi, my name is Eugenie Muminova, I’m from Tashkent, Uzbekistan (formerly part of USSR). Thank you for this posting, i was very pleased to see this painting again. Ten years ago I looked very much like the girl in the picture – it could have been mistaken for my portrait painted in the old manner. Unfortunately the book with the portrait was stolen from me and I couldn’t find the reproduction abywhere. Could you be so kind as to email me a larger scan of the picture if you have it? i would be immensely grateful! Of course i would just keep it to myself.

    In any case, thank you and a happy New Year to you!

    Best regards,
    Eugenie

  3. hey i love this piece of art because it inspired me to do my art project on it guess what i got an A+! immeadiatly as soon as i saw it i was like “Wow there could be so many stories behind this!” my art teacher likes it too.

  4. Do you know how, when or why this painting got re-attributed to Villers after it was attributed (from David) to Constance Blondelu Charpentier by Charles Sterling in 1951?

  5. thank you so much for the Villers bio link! I am trying to do some research on this picture for my grad class and your site is the only place I’ve seen this link.

  6. I love you so much right now. I’ve been searching the internet for info about Villers for an art project and you’re the first website that has actually been helpful. siefar.org took down their bio page on her though so right now you’re pretty much my only resource. You wouldn’t happen to know another website with a bio on her, would you? It would help me sooooooo much. I have to write a paper on the artist I choose for my project and I really want to do her. Once I saw the painting I knew it was the one I wanted to use.

  7. Your comment piqued my curiosity as to whether many resources had appeared on the web in the three years since I wrote the original post. There are a few more scattered sources, and I’ve added them to the post; but unfortunately, I think there is just very little known about this artist.

  8. I see no-one has commented on this in a long while! I saw this painting in person when it was on dispaly in San Francisco in the 1980s. It was on an easel, if I remember correctly and I will never forget the impression it immiediately made on me. Luminous is exactly what it is. I am probably moved more by this painting than any other I’ve ever seen in person. After so many years I still recall that look out of the painting and the life in it. Truly a masterpiece, but it can only be properly viewed in person.

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