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Frans van Mieris I, Dutch, 1635-1681: Head of a Woman Look­ing Down­ward, c. 1660-70 

This infor­mal but metic­u­lous­ly drawn sheet is a head or char­ac­ter study, a type of draw­ing cre­at­ed by the artist for poten­tial future use, or sim­ply made for prac­tice and later review. With her down­ward-look­ing glance, Van Mieris com­mu­ni­cat­ed a remark­ably intro­spec­tive aspect of this young wom­an’s face, fur­ther col­ored by what appears to be a slight self-con­scious­ness on the sit­ter’s part as she poses for the artist. Van Mieris achieved this pow­er­ful effect with only a small por­tion of her face vis­i­ble in profile.

This pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished draw­ing only recent­ly emerged on the art mar­ket after near­ly a cen­tu­ry in pri­vate hands with­in the same fam­i­ly. Most of Van Mieris’s small oeu­vre of just over thir­ty accept­ed draw­ings are high­ly fin­ished works on vel­lum.1

A small­er por­tion are stud­ies for his paint­ings, which work up spe­cif­ic fig­ures for his com­po­si­tions.2

This sheet, on the other hand, is nei­ther a fin­ished work, nor does it relate to any known paint­ing, yet we know that the artist like­ly pro­duced a large num­ber of sim­i­lar stud­ies that are now lost. The major­i­ty of the draw­ings attrib­uted to him in eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry sale cat­a­logues were described, in fact, as fig­ure stud­ies or heads like this one.3

There is also men­tion of an orig­i­nal sketch­book by Van Mieris that appeared at auc­tion in 1800, the sheets of which were dis­persed some­time in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.4 The fate of many of almost all of these sketch­es and study sheets is unknown.

As Otto Nau­mann has con­firmed, this draw­ing’s facil­i­ty of han­dling and its pow­ers of obser­va­tion make the attri­bu­tion to Van Mieris con­vinc­ing, as does its styl­is­tic cor­re­spon­dences to other draw­ings in his oeu­vre.5

In his dis­tinc­tive way, Van Mieris made deft use of a vari­ety of thick­ness­es of black chalk in var­i­ous pas­sages in this work, as seen in the con­trast between the fine lines of the wom­an’s face and hair with those that swift­ly bring togeth­er her head cov­er­ing on the right.

Young women viewed in pro­file recur fre­quent­ly in the paint­ings of Van Mieris in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent con­texts, such as regard­ing them­selves in a mir­ror, pet­ting a lap­dog, or address­ing a poten­tial suit­or. In this draw­ing, the head cov­er­ing remains loose and untied beneath her chin, a strik­ing and (for Van Mieris) unusu­al motif sug­ges­tive of a morn­ing or evening rit­u­al around the wom­an’s pri­vate toi­lette. It is entire­ly pos­si­ble that Van Mieris knew his model per­son­al­ly. While the sit­ter for this sheet does not resem­ble his wife, Cunera van der Cock, who is clear­ly iden­ti­fi­able in a num­ber of paint­ings, it might well depict anoth­er fam­i­ly or house­hold mem­ber. Not enough of her face is vis­i­ble to make a secure con­nec­tion with other mod­els Van Mieris used, but cer­tain facial fea­tures do resem­ble those found in some of his paint­ings, such as the Young Woman at Her Toi­lette from circa 1663 in the col­lec­tion of the Duke of Suther­land.6

A date in the early 1660s seems appro­pri­ate for this draw­ing as well, though he prob­a­bly made stud­ies like this through­out his career. The reemer­gence of this draw­ing adds an impor­tant new dimen­sion to our under­stand­ing of the artist as a draftsman.

End Notes

  1. For the basic cat­a­logue of Van Mieris’s draw­ings, see Nau­mann 1978, revised and updat­ed in The Hague & Wash­ing­ton 2005 – 06, 239 – 41.

  2. Nau­mann 1978, 9. For Van Mieris’s prepara­to­ry stud­ies for his paint­ings gen­er­al­ly, see Pot­tasch 2005, 65 – 67; and Ilona van Tuinen in Wash­ing­ton & Paris 2016 – 17, 251 – 53, no. 114. For spe­cif­ic study sketch­es, see, among oth­ers, Van Gelder 1975; New York & Paris 1977 – 78, no. 70; The Hague & Wash­ing­ton 2005 – 06, nos. 4, 20, 21, 24, and 36; and Turn­er 2006, no. 156; as well as two recent­ly dis­cov­ered stud­ies pub­lished in Wuest­man 2015; and Wai­boer in Paris, Dublin & Wash­ing­ton 2017, 18 – 19, and fig. 9 (cit­ing an unpub­lished essay by Otto Naumann).

  3. Nau­mann 1978, 22 (note 41).

  4. Idem. List­ed on the last page of the sale at Aldew­erelt, Lei­den, 21 April 1800 (“Een orig­inele studie Boek­je van de hand van F. van Mieris den Oude”). The pre­vi­ous attri­bu­tion to Van Mieris of the present work in the 1930 auc­tion (see under Prove­nance) might have come from knowl­edge of an ear­li­er dis­per­sal of such a sketch­book or port­fo­lio of draw­ings, or a record of such a dis­per­sal pre­served on an older mount.

  5. Email cor­re­spon­dence with Otto Nau­mann, who judged the draw­ing from a high-qual­i­ty dig­i­tal image, 22 Octo­ber 2020.

  6. Nau­mann 1981, vol. 2, 61 – 62, no. 51, pl. 51.