The sitter displays a certain sober modesty indicative of middle-class taste. Her earrings seem to relate in style to poissardes, although they lack the decorative and ostentatious display associated with the type and with the women—fishwives—from whom they take their name. The black lacquer and gold of which they appear to be made is commonly associated with contemporary mourning jewelry, yet strong examples of the period typically include funereal imagery that is lacking here; it is plausible that the earrings together with the color of the dress indicate mourning. The color of the stickpin reflects the vogue for coral jewelry, but given the sitter’s status it is more likely carnelian, a semi-precious gemstone often used as a less expensive substitute. The woman’s hair is swept up in the simplest nod to current fashion without the careful curls a wealthier woman would have arranged for a formal portrait.
The combination of economy and style, and comparison with pictures such as Jacques Louis David’s Madame Raymond de Verninac, 1798–99 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. RF 1942-16), and Marie-Denise Villers’s Young Woman Drawing, 1801 (MMA 17.120.204), suggest a date between 1798 and 1802. The proposed date of this painting accords with developments in portraiture seen at the Salon of 1796, as in François Gérard’s Le Portrait d’Isabey, peintre (Louvre, inv. 4764), and carried through at the Salon of 1798, with Boilly’s Gathering of Artists in the Atelier of Isabey (Louvre, inv. C.P. P.35); both works communicate an ascendant middle-class elegance also seen here. The use of paper as a primary support for Boilly’s portraits is not altogether exceptional (see, for example, Henri Harrisse, L.-L. Boilly, peintre, dessinateur et lithographe: Sa vie et son œuvre, 1761–1845, Paris, 1898, p. 159, no. 844), and perhaps increase the likelihood that the present work dates to before 1800, when Boilly seems to have resorted exclusively to canvases measuring 8 x 6 inches (22 x 17 cm) for his standard commissions (see Susan L. Siegfried, The Art of Louis-Léopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France, New Haven, 1995, pp. 115–20, 211–12 nn.).
Save for the absence of a signature and the continued anonymity of the sitter, there does not appear to be a basis for qualifying the attribution to Boilly, as was the case on the occasion of the 1987 Patiño sale (see Provenance). Among the touches characteristic of Boilly are the quick yet assured handling of the "drawing" of the hair and décolletage as well as the shadows on the forehead that were laid down prior to the bangs.
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013. Note: information about the sitter’s dress is based on notes in the archive file, Department of European Paintings, which were graciously supplied by Kristen Stewart of the Museum’s Costume Institute.]