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Two centuries of wrong attribution

Posted July. 23, 2020 07:49,   

Updated July. 23, 2020 07:49


A young woman is painting in a simple white dress. She has a pencil in her right hand and a black drawing board resting on her laps in her left hand. Her long blond hair is tied back up, and she stares at the audience with a vibrant and strong look in her eyes.

When this painting was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1917, it was thought to be a masterpiece painted by Jacques-Louis David, a famous Neoclassical painter. The painting, dubbed “New York’s David,” quickly became the most popular work of the museum. However, this changed in 1951 when art historian Charles Sterling claimed that this artwork belonged to Constance Charpentier, one of David’s female students. His argument was that the painting was submitted in 1801 to the Salon, which David refused to take part in. It did not take long before his opinion, coming from a famous art historian, was considered to be true.

Scholars, who had praised the painting as David’s masterpiece, suddenly changed their attitude. Instead of seeing Charpentier as a great painter on par with David, they dismissed the painting describing it as “girlish” and said that all the faults it had now made sense. In 1995, art historian Margaret Oppenheimer argued the painting should be attributed to another female painter called Marie-Denise Villers, a rather obscure painter. All we know about her is that she was born into a painter family, specialized in portraits like her two sisters, and married to an architect. Another art historian Anne Higonnet later found out that it was painted by Villers and the background was a gallery in the Louvre, which was used as an atelier of female students. The model was the painter’s colleague, Charlotte du Val d'Ognes, who also went to the same school.

The painting is now attributed to Villers at the museum. It took two centuries to find out who painted this painting. Villers continued to paint after getting married, but only a few are left. Probably there are still more that are hung at galleries under the name of a male painter.