Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers (1774 – 1821) French.
This painting was originally thought to have been done by one of several famous male artists of the time. When it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1922 for $200,000 it was erroneously attributed to the great artist Jacques-Louis David. It was not until 1951 that it was revealed to be a painting by Villers, and not until 1977 that the name was changed at the museum to reflect this.
When this painting was attributed to David it was widely praised as a masterpiece. But after it was revealed to have been painted by a woman it received mostly negative and even scathing criticism, much of it coming from the same male critics that had previously praised it.
The subject of this powerful portrait was Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, a woman of privilege and status who had once aspired to be an artist herself. She subsequently gave up this ambition upon getting married.
In the painting, one can see the young woman drawing in a room now known to be in the Louvre in Paris. It was common for women of means to take art courses there at the time. In the background through a cracked window we can see two figures, a man and a woman standing on a parapet in a romantic pose.
My interpretation of this piece is that Marie-Denise Villers was actually painting herself. She came from a family of artists. In fact, her two sisters were also accomplished in their work. To Villers, painting was far superior to giving up ones ambition and passion for the comfort and stability of a conventional marriage like Charlotte du Val d’Ognes did, especially in the age in which she lived where women were often treated as chattel.
Overall this is a superb work of art. And it is supremely sad that it was treated so differently by male critics once it was revealed that it was done by a woman. But it illustrates the strong undercurrent of misogyny in art and culture in Western society, much of which has endured to this day.
Kenn Orphan May 2021
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