This lively and hitherto unknown work appears to be a portrait of an actress caught in mid-performance. The turn of her head, her excited expression, the swing of her hair all suggest a figure observed in action. Indeed, one can almost envision the movement of the rest of her body. Among his contemporaries, only Greuze was capable of creating such an illusion, as he demonstrated over and over again with his depictions of transitory human emotions in his têtes d’expression.
Judging from the tightly rolled curls in the subject’s hair alone, this portrait would appear to date around 1759, perhaps as late as 1765, and can be compared with two portraits shown at the Salon of 1759: those of the Marquise de Besons (1759; Baltimore Museum of Art) and of Mademoiselle de Courteilles (1759; Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum), and on to the portrait of the Marquise de Chauvelin, painted in 1765 (Private collection). A masterful red chalk drawing (location unknown) of the same period depicts a woman with similarly ‘marcelled’ hair. All four of these subjects additionally wear flowers or jewelled ornaments in their coiffures like our presumed actress. Furthermore, the controlled method of painting demonstrated here, evident in the eyes and the reflected highlights under the chin, are characteristic of the young Greuze, recently returned to Paris from Rome. Yet certain passages, such as the pendant curls, have the fluidity of a pastel.
Flamboyant and something of an actor himself, Jean-Baptiste Greuze had an affinity with people in the theatre and frequently painted them throughout his career. One can cite their names as recorded in Charles Masson’s and Jean Martin’s 1906 Catalogue raisonné of Greuze’s oeuvre: Signora Amici, Madame Baptiste aîné, Mademoiselles Arnould, Clairon, Duthé, Dugazon, Olivier, Saint-Val, and the unknown actress depicted in Turkish garb in the famous Portrait of an Actress in Turkish Dress (c.1795; Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
We are grateful to Edgar Munhall for confirming the attribution to Greuze and for the above entry.