A question from a reader prompted me to revisit my 2006 post on Marie-Denise Villers, a talented but little known French portrait painter whose “one-hit-wonder” claim to fame was that her painting, now called Young Woman Drawing (detail, above), was for some time attributed to Neo-classical master Jaques-Louis David (also here).
The painting, which I believe is a self-portrait, shows a beautiful and intensely focused young woman staring directly at the viewer and drawing in a portfolio sheaf in her lap. Through an enigmatically cracked window pane behind her, what may be a pair of lovers confers on a railed walkway atop a wall. The painting is beautiful and striking when you see it in person, and it seemed unfortunate that there was little information on the artist or her other works at the time I was writing.
As the art resources on the Web are constantly being added to, I went looking to see if more information on Villers had cropped up in the three years since my post. The bad news is that there isn’t much more available on her. Apparently there just isn’t much information about her in general; though I did manage to find some links that I’ve added to the original post and listed below.
The good news is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has the painting in its collection, has added a larger, more color-accurate image to their listing, as well as a zoomable version of the image, which makes is possible to see the painting in more detail if you can’t make it to the Met to see it in person. I’ve used it to show the detail image above; for a view of the entire painting, and more of my comments on it, see my previous post on Marie-Denise Villers.
The Met has also added the painting to their Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History and makes mention of Villers and her sister, Marie-Victoire Lemoine, who was also a painter, in their related article on Eighteenth-Century Women Painters in France.
I also found a few other tidbits, including a painting in a past auction from Sotheby’s, A Young Woman Seated by a Window, which also has a zoomable image; though this work seems less accomplished than the piece in the Met. (I don’t know how long this auction image will remain available.)
5 Replies to “Marie-Denise Villers (update)”
Thanks so much for posting info about this artist and painting. Saw this at the Met and have been haunted by it ever since b/c I look just like her. So much so, that strangers were asking if I had posed for the painting. I have wanted to know more about it for a long time. It’s good to know that it is accepted as a self portrait by a talented female artist, as I suspected from that day I saw it at the Met.
When the painting was sold in 1897, the seller (mistakenly) believed an old family story that it was a portrait of his grandmother (Charlotte val d’Ognes) by David. This attribution followed the work into the Met’s collection in 1917. In the 40?s and 50?s the attribution was first questioned and then refuted on stylistic grounds by art historians but no firm re-attribution was made. The connection to M-D Villers was firmly established by M.A Oppenheimer in a PhD thesis (NYU-unpublished as far as I know) in 1996.
The (still not firm) identification of the woman as Villers herself comes from other paintings for which Villers was known to be the model. There is a good piece summarizing this in the Gazette des Beaux Arts in April 1996 and in the catalogue of an exhibition at the Smith Art Gallery which hung in 2005.
Thanks, David. I appreciate the additional background information. (Sorry for the delay in your comment appearing, my spam filter can be overly aggressive at times.)
My own opinion of the painting as a self-portrait, unscientific and unacademic to be sure, comes from the similarity I see in the gaze of the young woman to a “look” that I’ve noticed in the eyes of numerous self-portraits by other artists.
This is a freehand portrait oil painting. The painter through the young woman in the eyes of people see that she seems to have feelings. Thank the authors for providing us with so many related news. I can be collected for my website update if the author permits.
Ever since I visited the Met as a teen (I am now in my late-30s), this painting has enchanted me. No matter where I move – I have lived in Washington State, California, and now Toronto (again), I always make certain the postcard of it I purchased in the gift shop is with me. Thank you so much for all the background information. It makes the painting (and its story) that much more intriguing and wonderful.
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