In a letter to his mistress, Lehmann described the woman depicted here as one of the "four most beautiful girls that you could have as a model in Rome." The sensual curve of the figure’s back is in line with odalisques by Lehmann’s revered master, J. A. D. Ingres. This ravishing study was made in preparation for a painting of bathers at a river; inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem "Bièvre," it was exhibited at the Salon of 1842 as Femmes près de l’eau. Acquired by the Belgian royal family, the Salon painting was destroyed in a fire in the 1890s.
This ravishing oil study of a bather in a summarily indicated landscape was executed in 1840, in Rome, where Lehmann, together with the painter Théodore Chassériau, had recently joined their teacher, J. A. D. Ingres, then director of the Académie de France à Rome. Lehmann described it as depicting one of the "four most beautiful girls that you could have as a model in Rome" (see Lehmann 1840, p. 306). It was executed in preparation for the seated figure at left in a painting of bathers exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1842 (no. 1197, as Femmes près de l’eau). The Salon painting was acquired for the Belgian royal collection; it burned in a fire at the château de Laeken in the 1890s. Lehmann also made a replica or variant of the composition (collection of Mrs. Wendell Cherry; see Miller 2009, p. 479, fig. 2).
Given its canvas support, one would expect that the present work was preceded by one or more studies on paper, which was Lehmann’s typical practice. The underdrawing, visible by means of infrared reflectography, or IRR (Miller 2009, p. 481, fig.4), does not, however, appear to have been traced, nor is it squared. Indeed, the immediacy of the work in its completed state suggests that it was both drawn and painted from the live model, as evinced by the searching, broken lines of the drawn contours. Their reinforcement is partially responsible for the shading seen in the areas that were subsequently painted, as in the underarm. While the use of canvas demonstrates the artist’s intention to apply paint, his decision to leave the legs and draperies unpainted results in a work that occupies a fine line between drawing and painting. Indeed, the most noteworthy feature of the study is the perfectly linear—decidedly Ingresque—curve of the back, which extends from the juncture of fingertip, ear, and neck all the way to the fold of the knee. Whereas the model pulls her chignon back over the ear with the fingers of her left hand in the study, in the final painting she plays with a string of pearls; as a result her tresses are allowed to fall and the crisp contour of the back is thereby softened.
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed: Rome 1840 / Henri Lehmann / a son ami [?chasseriau]
the artist, Rome (from 1840; possibly offered to Théodore Chassériau); art market, Paris (in 1982); [Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, until 1984; sold on January 24 to Whitney]; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1984)
London. Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox. "French Paintings from 1800 to 1850," March 16–April 19, 1984, no. 27.
London. National Gallery. "Seurat and the Bathers," July 2–September 28, 1997, no. 64 (as "Nude Study for 'The Bathers,'" lent from a private collection, New York).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850," January 22–April 21, 2013, unnumbered cat. (fig. 43).
Henri Lehmann. Letter to Marie d'Agoult. [September] 19,  [published in Marie de Flavigny, comtesse d'Agoult, "Correspondance générale," vol. 3, "novembre 1839–1841," Charles F. Dupêchez, ed., Paris, 2005, p. 306], possibly this work [see also mentions of the Salon picture on pp. 382, 452, 472, 483, 507, 531].
Henri Lehmann. Livre de raison. late August 1840, fo. 12 [archives of the artist's family; excerpt published in Ref. Aubrun 1984, vol. 1, p. 97 under no. 209], undoubtedly refers to this work among the "études" for the "baigneuses d'après Vor Hugo".
Marie-Madeleine Aubrun. Henri Lehmann, 1814–1882: Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre. n.p., 1984, vol. 1, pp. 97–98, no. 211; vol. 2, p. 65, colorpl. 211, as "Étude de femme à demi drapée et lovée", location unknown; notes that it is signed and dated, adding that the dedication is to Chassériau; lists it with preparatory sketches for a composition known through at least two versions, described under no. 209.
French Paintings from 1800 to 1850. Exh. cat., Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox. London, 1984, p. 57, no. 27, ill. (color), notes that it is a study for "Femmes près de l'eau," exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1842.
John Leighton and Richard Thomson. Seurat and the Bathers. Exh. cat., National Gallery. London, 1997, pp. 149–50, 157, no. 64, colorpl. 176.
Asher Ethan Miller. "A Study by Henri Lehmann for His 'Femmes près de l'eau'." Master Drawings 47 (winter 2009), pp. 478–83, figs. 1 (color), 4 (infrared reflectogram).
Asher Ethan Miller. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Winter 2013), pp. 35–36, 46, fig. 43 (color).