In several respects, the present work is exceptional among Degas's portraits. It depicts the head of a woman en face, a rare view-point in Degas's portraiture, and moreover, the scale of the head relative to the sheet size is unusually large. The function of this drawing--specifically, whether it was intended as an independant work, or a study for another piece--has not yet been established, and the identity of the woman also remains unknown. The costume and hairstyle of the sitter are like those in several of Degas's portraits of women from the middle and late 1870s, including the portrait of Mme Jeantaud before a mirror (Lemoisne, vol. II, no. 371; coll. Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which is dated circa 1875.
Chester Dale, the great collector of modern art, is one of the first recorded owners of this pastel. Of the eight Degas works formerly in his collection, six, including the present pastel, were portraits.