Let’s take a closer look at Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie Denise Villers. I first saw this painting at the European Masters exhibition. It was a popular painting in a room full of great art.
- Who Painted It?
- Light and Shadow (Value)
- Color Theme
- Additional Resources
- Key Takeaways
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
Who Painted It?
There has been uncertainty surrounding who actually painted this work and who the sitter was. Today, it hangs in the Met Museum as Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes and is attributed to Marie Denise Villers. But even this attribution is only probable at best. Here’s a rough timeline regarding the painting’s attribution. If you want more information, art historian Anne Higonnet has an excellent article on the painting that you can read here.
- 1801 – The painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon and then spent several generations in the Val d’Ognes family private collection. During this time, it was thought that it was by French artist, Jacques Louis David.
- 1917 – The Met Museum acquired the painting and adopted the attribution to David.
- 1951 – Art historian, Charles Sterling, questioned the attribution to David, partly because David was absent from the 1801 Salon. He proposed that it might have been Constance Marie Charpentier who painted it. She did exhibit at the 1801 Salon and painted in a similar style to that of the painting. The Met Museum accepted this new attribution.
- Around 1980 – The Met Museum withdrew any attribution from the painting and the sitter and renamed it Young Woman Drawing.
- 1996 – Art historian, Margaret Oppenheimer, proposed that it was painted by Marie Denise Villers. Refer to the article by Higonnet as to why. This was accepted by the Met Museum and stands today.
I usually wouldn’t show this much interest in the attribution timeline of a painting, but in this case, it raises an interesting point about how the perception of the artist affects the perception of their artwork.
Since its creation, the painting has been critically claimed for the most part. This is despite the numerous changes and uncertainty surrounding the artist who painted it. Perhaps the mystery added to its allure. However, the critiques appeared slightly more favorable for the artist who was initially thought to have painted it, David, who was a prominent male artist. Of course, the sex of the artist should have no part in how we perceive an artist or their artwork. But back then it did, unfortunately.
Once the painting changed attribution to Charpentier, some critics began to notice minor flaws. For example, critic and historian, James Laver wrote in 1964, “Although the painting is extremely attractive as a period piece, there are certain weaknesses of which a painter of David’s calibre would not have been guilty.” The artwork didn’t change, but some people’s perceptions of it did.
The takeaway here is that an artwork is rarely considered in isolation. We judge it, whether aware or not, in relation to the artist and the circumstances surrounding it. Sometimes this is favorable to the artist, sometimes it’s not. But whatever the case, we artists have little control over how the world perceives us and our art. Think of the early Impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. They were dismissed then, yet revered today.
The painting appears simple at first glance, but there’s a lot going on.
It depicts a young woman seated in a room with a drawing pad. She looks back at us as if we are the subject of her sketches. She is illuminated with sunlight coming in from a broken window. In the distance, a couple chat intimately on a balcony. Let’s dive a bit deeper.
The room is actually part of the Louvre. At the time, the Louvre was one of the few places where women could freely learn and teach art together. This is why Higonnet believes the painting was done by another woman, not by a man (David) as initially thought.
The sitter is thought to be Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, who was an aspiring artist who had to give up her aspirations when she got married.
The building in the distance: Higonnet identified the building as a domestic residence across the Seine. She further suggests it might have been Charlotte du Val d’Ognes’ home at the time the portrait was painted.
The broken window is an interesting aspect. Perhaps that’s just what Villers saw. Or perhaps it represents the separation between two, at the time conflicting, paths in life: the aspiring artist in the foreground and the domestic married life in the background.
Historian, Bridget Quinn, sums it up well:
“… two young women longing to make art found themselves in a brief period of opportunity, when instruction, exhibition and even fame were possible.” (Source)
Light and Shadow (Value)
Let’s move on to some of the technical features of the painting, starting with light and shadow (value).
Sunlight illuminates the room through the broken window and wraps around the subject and her drapery. The rest of the room is dark and there aren’t any obvious signs of another light source. This creates a strong value contrast.
Below is a grayscale of the painting, revealing all the different values. We can segment the painting into three distinct value groups: the darks that represent the back of the drawing pad, the wall and window frames, parts of the drapery over the chair, and a few other details; the mid-tones that represent the shadows of the subject and parts of the background through the window; and the lights which represent the highlights and parts of the sky.
There’s an interesting reversal pattern between the foreground and background. The foreground is made up of a relatively light subject against dark surroundings. The background (through the window) is made up of relatively dark subjects against light surroundings.
The room’s dark wall plays a simple but important role of being a point of contrast in the painting. It allows the highlights of the subject to appear bright and crisp. Light colors for the wall would reduce the contrast and therefore diminish the impact of the highlights.
A two-value notan of the painting (see below) reveals an interesting value pattern. Notice how it goes from light in the top left corner to dark in the top right corner, then dark, then light, then light, then dark.
Whilst a two-value notan is helpful for seeing the broad arrangement of lights and darks, a three-value notan is perhaps more faithful to the subject (see below). That’s because the painting is made up of three dominant value groupings.
The colors are subtle and beautiful. As French author, André Maurois put it:
“Its colors have the fineness and rarity of Vermeer’s. Perfect painting, unforgettable.” (Source)
There’s a sense of warmth about the painting, with the stronger colors being red and orange tones. Pale and dull blues play more of a complementary role. This plays well into the idea of a warm interior scene.
There are several color links throughout the painting. The back of the drawing pad is similar in color to the back wall. The light skin tones are similar to the light architecture colors. The dark skin tones are similar to the lights on the floor. The pink belt is similar to the pink highlight of the drapery over the chair. These subtle links connect distinct areas together and create a sense of harmony throughout the painting.
This painting is also a great demonstration of what you can achieve with a limited palette. I’m not sure exactly what colors Villers used, but it doesn’t seem extensive. From the looks of it, just a handful of hues varied in terms of saturation and value. Keep in mind that for every color, you can create an infinite range of variations by adding black, white, or gray.
The edges play an important role in reiterating the nature of the different objects. Hard edges reiterate the idea of rigid, geometric architecture. Soft edges reiterate the idea of soft, youthful skin, flowing drapery, and shadows cast on the floor. They also play well off each other; hard edges make the soft edges appear softer, and vice versa.
This painting is also a good example of how an edge’s perceived hardness changes as the color contrast changes. Look at the edge along the subject’s back and head. It appears harder at the bottom of her back where the color contrast is sharper. The edge appears to get softer around her shoulders, even though the change in color is just as immediate. More contrast = edge looks harder; less contrast = edge looks softer.
The painting is of course wonderful, but credit also needs to be given to that frame. It’s a work of art in its own right. But it doesn’t compete with the painting for attention. Rather, it complements and contains your attention on the painting, as a good frame should.
Also, notice how the dimensions of the frame are mimicked within the painting itself by the window frame. See the draw-over below. This may seem like an insignificant point, but consider what the painting would look like if the window had landscape dimensions. Odd I imagine.
Tip: When analyzing master artworks, it’s a helpful exercise to consider what it would look like if you changed certain aspects. This can help you narrow down on seemingly minor but important details that make the painting work.
It’s worth noting that you should not compare your unframed pieces to that of these exhibition pieces. A good frame can take a painting to another level and a masterful frame like this is simply an unfair advantage.
Here are the key takeaways from this post:
- An artwork is rarely considered in isolation. We judge it, whether aware or not, in relation to the artist and the circumstances surrounding it.
- Simple paintings often have complex undertones. It can pay to dive below the surface.
- Keeping your values within two to three groups helps convey a strong and concise image.
- Use notan to unveil subtle value patterns that you might have otherwise missed.
- Edges can reiterate the nature of the subject. Consider using hard edges for solid, rigid objects and soft edges for ethereal, fluid objects.
- A good frame complements the painting but does not compete with it for attention.
- Don’t compare your unframed work to framed work.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
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