Frans van Mieris I, Dutch, 1635-1681:
Head of a Woman Looking Downward, c. 1660-70
Black chalk on paper.
4 5⁄8 × 4 3⁄4 in. (11.7 × 12.1 cm)
Verso, lower center, in pencil, Mieris (twice), and lower right, 1038.
Vertical, 22 mm.
Sale, C. G. Boerner, Leipzig, 9 – 10 May 1930, lot 235 (as Frans van Mieris the Elder); Philipp Herrmann, 1899 – c. 1968, Karlsruhe (Lugt 1352a, mark in pencil on mount); Berhard Himmelheber, 1898 – 1966, Karlsruhe (Lugt 4035, stamp on recto) and Kathinka Himmelheber, 1898 – 1977, sister of Philipp Herrmann; probably by descent to Georg Himmelheber, b. 1929, Munich (Lugt 5321); sale, Christie’s, London, 9 December 2015, lot 89 (as Dutch School, 17th Century); Sheldon and Leena Peck, Boston (Lugt 3847); gift to the Ackland Art Museum, inv. no. 2017.1.53.
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 This previously unpublished drawing only recently emerged on the art market after nearly a century in private hands within the same family.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.
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.
Email correspondence with Otto Naumann, who judged the drawing from a high-quality digital image, 22 October 2020.