Portrait of a Lady
Black and red chalk
Inv. No. 1052
16 × 13 cm
In 1636, the French draughtsman and engraver Claude Mellan returned to Paris after spending twelve years in Rome. In Italy he had, amongst other things, developed his sensitive and masterly style of portrait drawing. Executed in black chalk, his portraits had served him as the basis for engravings. In Paris he was able to build on the success that these works had achieved, and he soon became a portraitist to the upper classes of society, the latter having acquired a taste for owning and distributing personal likenesses in the form of elegantly worked engravings.
As far as we know, however, this Portrait of a Lady was never engraved; as a result it has proved impossible to this day to identify the sitter, whom, judging by the style, Mellan drew soon after his return from Rome. Only the provenance gives a clue. In the eighteenth century the drawing belonged to Pierre Jean Mariette, an art dealer and major collector: it is still in his gold-framed blue mount with the cartouche bearing his name. At the 1775 auction of his collection, at which Johann Friedrich Städel purchased a number of drawings, this one shared a lot number with a male portrait. The latter (now in the Louvre) is marked with the name of Pierre Dupré, and so it seems likely that this lady was Dupré’s wife. However, nothing more is known about either of them.
Here Mellan used red chalk in addition to the usual black, thus lending the portrait particular liveliness. His choice of technique may indicate that the drawing was not intended for reproduction but as a work of art in its own right. This would imply, in turn, that the couple who commissioned the portrait had a remarkable taste for an open, merely suggestive structure, since the drawing concentrates wholly on the young woman’s self-confident features, while her hair and torso are indicated by no more than a few fine strokes of chalk. The black pompom on the lady’s breast has been used to clever effect to provide the portrait with a quality of firmness and stability, while also interacting, as it were, with her alert, attentive gaze.