This intensely serious and affecting close-up of a model would have been referred to by Greuze's contemporaries as an expressive head, or tête d'expression. Although it has been associated with the imploring female protagonist in several of his moralizing genre scenes, it seems to be a free-standing work. Paintings and drawings of the kind were the vehicle by which the artist explored a wide range of expression and emotion.
Study Head is among the important works acquired with the founding purchase of 1871.
Throughout the greater part of his career Greuze made what are referred to as either study heads or expressive heads, in French called têtes d’expression. He showed paintings of the kind at every biannual Salon in which he participated, that is, from 1755 through 1765 and in 1769. In addition to the present small picture, the Museum owns two other studies in oil on canvas (32.100.137, 67.187.72) and three red chalk drawings (41.131.1–3) of heads. Some of the expressive heads were used for genre paintings, and others were preparatory to engravings, while still others were independent works of art. They seem to have been titled and described generically; most were first recorded in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century when expressions of this kind of highly wrought emotion were popular with collectors. This one, bought on the Paris art market in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, by Metropolitan Museum trustee William Blodgett, was among several hundred works in the founding purchase of 1871. Henry James saw it shortly after the Museum opened and in his review in the Atlantic Monthly (1872) described it as a "minois," or pretty face, "in tears and dishevelment."
Study Head of a Woman has been associated in the past with particular figures in at least three different paintings, but notably with the anguished sister wringing her hands at the center of The Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son (Musée du Louvre, Paris), which was exhibited in the artist’s studio in 1777 and of which he ordered a reproductive engraving from Robert Gaillard (1719–1790). The correspondence is not exact, but for this reason it usually has been dated to about 1780. The expression of the most intense focus and concern is characteristic of Greuze at his best.
[Katharine Baetjer 2012]
[Léon Gauchez and Alexis Febvre, Paris, until 1870; sold to Blodgett]; William T. Blodgett, Paris and New York (1870–71; sold half share to Johnston); William T. Blodgett and John Taylor Johnston, New York (1871; sold to MMA)
Jules-Ferdinand Jacquemart. Etchings of Pictures in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. London, 1871, pl. .
Henry James. "The Metropolitan Museum's '1871 Purchase'." Atlantic Monthly (June 1872) [reprinted in John L. Sweeney, ed., "The Painter's Eye," London, 1956, p. 58], as a finished sketch for the head of one of the daughters in "Malédiction Paternelle"; describes the model as a "'minois chiffonné' . . . in tears and dishevelment".
Henry Marcel in Camille Mauclair. Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Paris, 1905, p. xx, ill. p. 156, as a study for "La Malediction Paternelle".
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, p. 176, ill., suggests instead that this is a study for the young girl in "The Unhappy Family"; relates it stylistically to "Head of a Girl," in the Louvre, Paris.
James Thompson. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47 (Winter 1989/90), pp. 21, 24, fig. 22 (color), as a character study Greuze may have relied on as an "all-purpose 'walk-on'" in his various pictorial dramas; observes that its "adaptability" may account for prior associations with "The Drunkard's Return," "The Father's Curse," and the engraving for "La Belle-mère".
Scott Bryson. "Virtue Undone." Art in America 78, no. 9 (September 1990), p. 209, as among Greuze's "têtes d'expression," works that depict virtue by means of melodrama.
Katharine Baetjer. "Buying Pictures for New York: The Founding Purchase of 1871." Metropolitan Museum Journal 39 (2004), pp. 172–73, 177, 181–88, 213, 244–45, appendix A no. 120, ill. p. 213 and fig. 20, notes that when this picture was exhibited at the Metropolitan in 1872 it was much admired.
Artist: After Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, Tournus 1725–1805 Paris)Date: after 1777Medium: Pastel on toned (now oxidized) wove paper, mounted on a wood strainerAccession: 83.2.467On view in:Not on view
Artist: Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, Tournus 1725–1805 Paris)Date: n.d.Medium: Brush and gray wash, over graphite. Framing lines in pen and brown ink. Squared in graphite. Verso of mount: figure in brush and gray wash.Accession: 1983.427On view in:Not on view