Acquired in 1922 as a work of Jacques-André-Joseph Aved (1702–66), this portrait of a woman with a parrot was initially claimed to represent the Marquise d’Éon, that is, the cross-dressing French secret agent, Charles d’Éon de Beaumont (1728–1810). Although the somewhat masculine features of the sitter bear a passing resemblance to likenesses of d’Éon, that identification is doubtful. The attribution to Aved was soon rejected by Georges Wildenstein (1923), and in 1948 Harry Wehle and Margaretta Salinger observed a similarity in style to the work of Johann Nikolaus Grooth (opinions noted in curatorial file), to whom the picture has since been attributed.
Grooth was born in Stuttgart in 1721 or 1723 to the Württemberg court painter and composer Johann Christoph Grooth. Like his artist brothers (see MMA 1978.554.2), he trained under his father and was able to study the old masters directly in the electoral gallery in Ludwigsburg, in which collection he was also active as a restorer. After working briefly for the elector of Bavaria in Munich (1757–58), he moved to Switzerland about 1759 and became a successful portrait painter in Basel and Bern. In 1771 he restored paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger in the Basel town hall. Later that decade he returned to Stuttgart, but he is recorded in Basel again in the latter half of the 1780s. By the 1790s, Grooth was active in Memmingen, where he died in 1797.
In the Museum’s picture, the fluid paint handling, warmly honeyed palette, and sympathetic characterization are indeed close to secured portraits by Grooth from his Swiss period, such as the Portrait of a Woman with a Bonbonnière of 1759 and the Self-Portrait of 1760 (both Kunstmuseum Basel). Grooth’s portraits of the Basel couple Markus Weiss and Margaretha Leissler of about 1759–65—the latter also depicted with a parrot—show comparable brushwork in the physiognomies and costumes (location unknown; see W. R. Staehelin, Basler Portraits aller Jahrhunderte, Basel, 1919–21, vol. 2, pl. 41). The sitter’s costume is typical of the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Thus, the present work, which is most probably by Grooth, likely dates about 1760–75.
In the painting’s modern history, the parrot and cage were hidden beneath a layer of overpaint until they were revealed during a cleaning in 1938. Although the parrot, an exotic pet, was probably included primarily as a status symbol, it may have been painted out by a straitlaced former owner who was embarrassed by the traditional sexual connotations of the uncaged bird.
[Joshua P. Waterman 2013]