Monday, 1 July 2013

known unknowns

Part Seven of Among Tigers and Panthers
by herself
OWNING HER IDENTITY: Young Woman Drawing, oil on canvas, 1801. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
For a long time after this painting was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum by a private collector in 1917, it was considered proficient enough to be the work of a male artist, even of the quintessence of neoclassicism, David, even though the gentle treatment and wistful mood, and the slight flat modelling of the face and slippered foot, are incompatible with the staged severity and anatomical precision of his recognized work. 

Art historians now usually attribute this painting to Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821) and, gratifying our cut-and-dried need for names and labels, believe that it is a self-portrait. The sitter's identification, and whether she is sketching us or herself, does not detract from the imaginative suggestiveness of the picture, or of the picture within the picture, framed by the window pane, or of the unclouded certainty in her gaze. We are not really sure about anything, though we like to think power has been transferred from artist to spectator, and we are compelled to pontificate, blah and blog. But this half-forgotten painting defeats us. Knowledge belongs to the artist/model; she holds the source of reflected light illuminating her own face; through the image she has selected to show us, she is in control of her story....
Villers was one of three sisters who were all artists, the post-Revolution successors of the distinguished Rococo painters of Marie-Antoinette's court, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun, who, along with the wax sculptor, Madame Tussaud, emerged out of the anonymity usually accorded female artists. Young Woman Drawing has also been attributed to the Romantic painter Constance Marie Charpentier, a pupil of David, and the sitter as Mlle Charlotte du Val d'Ognes. 

In this harmoniously balanced composition, first exhibited in the Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1801, the artist, whoever she was, softens neoclassical starkness with diffused light and the allusion to a romantic parallel world of lovers meeting on the bridge outside. The Young Woman seems to be rejecting David's political history painting, his men and women resembling automata in their rhetorical gestures, their feelings subjugated to even the harshest needs of the State.

She is more interested in examining these fugitive feelings, in being the bridge between reason and emotion; she is both detached artist and involved player; something about the juxtaposition of her face, her wide open eyes seeking out truth, with the two figures seen through the window in the distance behind her, suggests she knows them, perhaps is in love with one of them, or, in her memory or fantasy, is one of them. 

She catches your eye when you walk past her in the Met. You think, how serene, how rationally composed, what a tasteful second rate painting - but you don't move on immediately. The steadiness of her look, directed straight towards you, is arresting. The combination of the cool light, quiet mystery, challenging candour and layered consciousness makes Young Woman Drawing an assertion of feminine and artistic power. By not divulging her identity, she keeps ownership of her story. We are merely the lessees.

Women during Neoclassicism and Romanticism
Juliette Récamier
Sarah Siddons
Sarah Martha Siddons
Charlotte of Wales 
Jane Austen