Lines and Colors art blog

Eye Candy for Today: Marie-Denise Villers portrait

Young Woman Drawing, Marie-Denise Villers
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.


5 responses to “Eye Candy for Today: Marie-Denise Villers portrait”

  1. ælle Avatar

    `I believe that title/subject is just as wrong as their historically incorrect attribution of the work to Jacques Louis David.`
    It was recognised only in 1996!
    Villers´ teacher was Anne Louis Giradet de Roussy Trioson, a pupil of
    J.L. David.

  2. I agree. Ever since you first posted the painting and its provenance, I have found it compelling.
    I would add another argument: the pose. I can’t think of any portraits by another artist that I have seen where the pose is that of an artist drawing. The body, the gaze, the angle of drawing surface, all indicate to the viewer that this is a self-portrait similar to many by artists who choose to include their tools in their pose.

  3. ælle Avatar

    Marie Denise was born (née) Lemoine, aka Nisa. Her siblings were Marie Victoire and Marie Elisabeth, also portraitists. They painted in the genre of Jeanne Elisabeth Chaudet. The family lived at the Rue Traversiere – Saint -Honoré, near the Royal Palace. In 1794 Nisa married student architecture Michel Jean Maximilien Villers.
    At her first appearance In the 1799 Salon de l’An VII Villers exhibited three paintings and won 1500 francs which she unfortunately never received.

  4. Elona Avatar

    Thank you so much for writing about the less well-know works of art available at the greatest museums. I’m no art historian, but I have seen this portrait at the Met and have wondered about it. Recently, one of my art teachers, who studied at a classical atelier, took us to the Met to see several works from the Renaissance to the 19th Century to specifically discuss lighting and its depiction in paint.
    This work is a great example of rim lighting. The light is coming apparently from the very large window behind the painter, creating a halo-like illumination of the edges of her hair and dress, and casting her face in gentle shadow. Since we the viewers (or the painter of this work) are in her shadow, the light on her face must come from the reflected light of the room, which is painted with medium dark walls.
    If she were in front of a large full length mirror, there would be so much reflected light that this halo effect could be lost. Also the reflections in her pupils do not seem to register a bright reflection of a large window, but two vague light objects (a figure’s head and drawing board?)
    Now many times artist take care to make sure that their drawing instruments end up in the “right” hand in the finished work , but nothing announces self-portrait to the world than a truly reversed image, where the instruments are held in the left hand (assuming a right-handed world.)
    I don’t pretend to know who painted this stunning portrait, but it probably is the work of two artists who decided to paint or draw each other. I would say our artist had the harder job, given the lighting set- up, but pulled it off brilliantly.
    (Hardly any chance of this but if someone could just find a surviving reverse drawing being done by the subject, the mystery could be solved.)

    1. Elona, thanks for your thoughtful comment. You may well be right, though I don’t know if there is historical record of whether Villers was left or right handed.

      As for the room, I understand your thinking about the lighting, but the room has never felt “real” to me in this painting, it looks too simplified for the convenience of the composition, as does the placement and even contents of the window. I wouldn’t be quick to assume the appearance of the room in the painting is necessarily indicative of the actual space or lighting conditions in which the painting was made.

      I will say that when I originally thought it was by David, I assumed it was — as you suggest — two artists drawing or painting one another, likely student and master.