A young woman with auburn hair is portrayed bust-length, wearing a black dress with a white collar. She is seated on a sofa or chair, the back of which bisects the canvas at the level of her brow. In her left hand she holds a handkerchief to her mouth. Her gaze meets the viewer’s, and she evidently is ill or has been crying because her eyes are bordered in red and her cheek is flushed.
It was likely in reference to this work that the painter Georges Jeanniot (1848–1934), a friend of Degas’s, described “the contraction of the eyebrows, the stiffness of the neck, the chaste disorder of the hair” as expressing “the disarray of a lost soul” (see References). Yet the precise nature of the sitter’s physical or emotional distress has not been determined. She has been identified as the model Emma Dobigny (Pickvance 1984), who posed for paintings including Sulking
(ca. 1870, The Met 29.100.43
), and indeed the round faces and slightly upturned noses are similar. But with the lower half of the face hidden, the question of whether she was a professional model, someone from the artist’s intimate circle, or an aquaintance also remains a matter for speculation. Technique:
The painting appears to have been executed partially in a medium known as essence
, which is paint from which oil has been leached and that has subsequently been thinned with turpentine. Starting with a white ground, Degas applied much of the paint in thin veils of color that barely coat the tops—and pool in the interstices—of the weave of the canvas. By contrast, he brushed in the handkerchief, highlights on the face and hand, and the red rims of the eyes with more bodied paint. Overall, the technique was one of extraordinary economy and facility, resulting in a tremendous impact from a minimum of means. Degas’s tendency to work in this fashion is consistent with advice he gave to the young painter Ernest Rouart (1874–1942): “You paint a monochrome ground, something absolutely unified: you put a little color on it, a touch here, a touch there, and you will see how little it takes to make it come to life.” The assured swiftness with which Degas painted the present work gives it the appearance of a sketch; as a study, it is akin to a glimpse of the subject rather than an extended visual investigation. Early History:
Degas sold this painting to the Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel on September 20, 1890. Earlier in the year, the artist had moved into a new studio, and probably a new apartment, and he seems to have made an effort to increase his income about this time. Durand-Ruel rarely refused an offer from Degas. He paid him 500 francs and recorded the painting in his stock book as “Tête de femme, étude. v[ers]. 1875” (Head of a Woman – Study – about 1875). It is reasonable to assume that the date reflects information conveyed by Degas.
Mindful of the prevailing taste among bourgeois collectors, Degas typically sold dealers highly finished works that he referred to as articles
. In this respect, the sale of this sketch-like study may be somewhat exceptional for its time. Years later, Mary Cassatt would comment on Paul Durand-Ruel’s unwillingness to buy such works relative to the ambitious dealer Ambroise Vollard, who seemed “able to sell anything.” It is thus noteworthy that in 1895, when Durand-Ruel sold this canvas, in which painterly process is so conspicuous, it was to an artist. Egisto Fabbri (1866–1933) was an Italian painter and collector who would go on to amass an important group of paintings by Cézanne. Fabbri’s background was exceptional: his namesake uncle and legal guardian (1828–1894) had emigrated from Florence to New York in 1850 and made a fortune in shipping and banking as an early partner of J. Pierpont Morgan’s before returning to Florence in 1883. The younger Fabbri would lend this painting to the first exhibition of Impressionist art in Italy, held at the Lyceum Club in Florence in 1910.
Sometime before 1924, the painting passed from Fabbri’s collection to that of Albert Sancholle Henraux (1881–1953), although it is not known if the transfer was direct. The question is intriguing because of a connection that has not previously been explored deeply or at all: Henraux was married to Fabbri’s niece. His family owned marble quarries located about fifty miles northwest of Florence, and he or one of his relatives lent three Degases to the 1910 Lyceum Club exhibition. The Henraux family were highly cultivated and well-connected, and Albert Henraux was an influential figure in the cultural world of France.
Jane R. Becker and Asher Miller, 2019
 Daniel Halévy, Degas parle
, Paris, 1960 (Paris, 1995 ed., pp. 135–36, under August 1893); English translation by Mina Curtiss, My Friend Degas
, Middletown, Connecticut, 1964, p. 67. The quotation has often been cited; see, for example, David Bomford et al., “Degas at Work,” in Art in the Making: Degas
, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2004, p. 22.
 The preceding paragraph is adapted from Charlotte Hale, Technical Report, April 2018, Department of European Paintings files. On essence
, see the discussion by Ernest Rouart’s son, Denis Rouart, in Degas: A la recherche de sa technique
, Paris, 1945, pp. 14–15; English translation by Pia C. DeSantis, Sarah L. Fisher, and Shelley Fletcher, Degas: In Search of His Technique
, New York, 1988, pp. 31–34; and see Bomford et al. 2004, pp. 25–27.
 See Tinterow 1988, pp. 370, 392–94.
 Letter to Louisine Havemeyer, December 4, 1913, quoted in Gary Tinterow with research by Asher Miller, “Vollard and Degas,” in Rebecca A. Rabinow, ed., Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde
, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, pp. 151ff. On Degas’s “articles
” versus his studies and on his relationship with Durand-Ruel, see Tinterow 1988, pp. 370–72.
 See: https://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/the-heroes/the-monuments-men/henraux-a.-s (consulted on February 13, 2019).