The sitter, Anne Antoinette Desmoulins, was born to a life of poverty on October 10, 1743, in the parish of Saint-Gervais in Paris, where her father worked as a day laborer. At twenty-two, in 1766, she married her companion of several years, Jean-Baptiste Nicolet (1728–1796), of whose troupe she is said to have been a member since its formation. Nicolet, the son of a puppeteer and dance master, began his career as a tightrope walker, directed a marionette theater, and then became an actor and manager. Having worked at the Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent fairs, he rented a hall in the boulevard du Temple in 1759. He opened the Théâtre de Nicolet in 1763 and in 1772 with increasing success was invited to perform for the court and was authorized to change the name of his theater and that of the company to the Théâtre des grand danseurs du roi. Madame Nicolet performed amorous parts at first and later became a character actress. She and her husband had four children, born in 1763, 1764, 1767, and 1774. She retired in 1780 to manage a troupe that is said to have numbered thirty actors, twenty musicians, and sixty dancers.
Greuze depicts an established modern woman of the middle classes. She wears a black satin dress and a starched gauze cap on her graying hair and gazes out in the most cheerful and direct way at the viewer. Her plump hands rest on an open book (the artist has not bothered to indicate the type) and beside her are volumes appropriate to the time and place, one by the comic playwright Molière (1622–1673) and another by the contemporary Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). The table and chair, which may belong to the artist rather than to the sitter, are stylish and up to date. The solidity of the figure is amplified by the airy space around her.