Young Woman Drawing, Marie-Denise Villers
In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When I first encountered this painting, it was hanging in a gallery at the Met in such a way that those entering the gallery were immediately confronted with it, and couldn’t help but be struck by its presence.
The painting is relatively large, roughly 63 x 50 inches (161 x 129 cm), or just over 5 feet high. It’s difficult not to be entranced by the angelic face of this young woman, who seems to be gazing directly at the viewer as she pauses while drawing on the board propped in her lap, apparently drawing you as you stand before the painting.
As of this writing, the Met lists the tile of this work as Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, which indicates it is a portrait of that individual.
I will insist this is incorrect.
I believe that title/subject is just as wrong as their historically incorrect attribution of the work to Jacques Louis David.
That attribution was later called into question when a Louve curator and advisor to the Met insisted that it was the work of one of David’s students, Constance Marie Charpentier.
That was never fully accepted, and the attribution was finally changed again to the current assignment to Marie-Denise Villers, who was a student of one of David’s other students, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, called Girodet.
The Met also retitled the piece as Young Woman Drawing (most historical painting titles are assigned after the fact, not by the original artists).
Now, for reasons that are lost on me, they’ve reverted to the original title, used when the painting was assigned to David. Though I’m not an art historian or curator, I’m certain that’s just wrong.
As soon as the attribution to David was removed, I was immediately convinced that this is a self-portrait. Nothing I’ve read or seen, including subsequent visits to the painting, has convinced me otherwise.
Not only does the painting have the appearance of an artist looking into a mirror (giving the viewer the impression that the young artist is drawing them), the work has other classic hallmarks of self-portraits — the drawing hand half-hidden so it could be repositioned without the artist having it for reference in the mirror, and most importantly to me, that “look” in the eyes that I notice in so many acknowledged self-portraits by other artists.
There is look that I see in the eyes of an artist that is drawing or painting I think comes from a shift in state of mind that happens when an artist is looking at their subject. It’s a kind of focused but not quite focused set to the eyes — a dreamy but present look that’s difficult to explain.
I believe it indicative of a slightly altered state of consciousness — a kind of meditative state — or, if you will, a shift from “left-brain” to “right-brain” thinking (or more accurately, from an analytical to perceptual mode of thought) that is a function of the act of drawing.
(It is this same look in the eyes that makes me think that this drawing by Leonardo is a self-portrait.)
That, and the other factors, have me convinced that this is a self-portrait of Villers, calmly enrapt in capturing her own appearance in a mirror.
There are other elements of interest in the painting, the somewhat enigmatic glimpse of a couple seen through the broken pane of glass, but I don’t know if there is any reliable information on the meaning of the background — perhaps reference to an event of personal significance to the artist.
At any rate, it is a stunningly beautiful painting, not to be missed if you have a chance to visit the Met.