Work Head of the Virgin
Department of Prints and Drawings: 14th-15th centuries
Tête de la Vierge
Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo M. Beck-Coppola
Prints and Drawings
This extraordinary study of the head of the Virgin is one of very few surviving drawings that can be attributed with any certainty to the early Flemish masters, and one of an even smaller number of drawings with a generally accepted attribution to Rogier van der Weyden. Its extreme sobriety and intensity of expression are utterly characteristic of van der Weyden's work.
Economy and harmony
The Virgin is shown turning slightly to the right, with her head bent forward. A few brief lines suggest the presence of a veil over her head and the neckline of her robe. A tress of wavy hair escapes from beneath the veil, tucked aside to reveal her right ear, indicated by a single line. The Virgin's prominent, slightly domed forehead contributes to a very youthful air. Her large eyes are lowered beneath thin eyelids; her expression is serious and meditative. The nose is straight and well-defined, the mouth small and precise in outline. Subtle areas of short cross-hatched lines give an impression of soft relief, particularly on the right side of the face, beneath the lower lip and chin, and in the hair. With the exception of a few highlighted planes, the face as a whole has been "brushed" with the artist's stylus, enhancing the modeling by creating an overall flesh tone. Seldom has such expressive intensity been achieved with such economy of means.
The attainment of an ideal
An idealized image of extraordinary delicacy and refinement, the Head of the Virgin may be related to a number of paintings by van der Weyden, notably the "Virgin and Child "formerly in the collection of the Prince of Furstenburg, in Donaueschingen (private collection). The drawing is also similar to the sketch being executed by St. Luke, in "St. Luke Drawing a Portrait of the Virgin" (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The Virgin is of a type created by van der Weyden; an ongoing refinement and emphasis on her youthfulness are traceable throughout his work. Stylistically, the drawing has many similarities to the "Portrait of a Woma"n in the British Museum, London: a fine, firm line, precisely-indicated areas of shadow and light, the use of hatching (both cross-hatching and fine one-directional lines melting together to create an impression of tone), and a sustained economy of means, conveying an impression of great simplicity. The soft modeling and youthfulness of the Virgin have led art historians to suggest a date for the present work late in the artist's career: the drawing may well have been executed during the same period as the Donaueschingen "Virgin and Child", circa 1460.
Preparatory sketch, modello, or copy?
The drawing cannot be related with certainty to a specific painting by van der Weyden. Regarding its origins, there are two opposing hypotheses, both based on its typology and extraordinary quality. Some commentators have identified it as a copy of a detail from a finished painting, a graphic record fixing van der Weyden's ideal of feminine beauty. Given the drawing's purity, depth, and delicacy of expression, however, it seems unlikely that it is the work of a copyist. More probably, the portrait was intended as a typological model for the artist and his studio assistants, hence its careful execution and high degree of finish.
BibliographyComblen-Sonkes Micheline, Les Primitifs flamands. Dessins du XVe siècle: groupe Van der Weyden. Essai de catalogue des originaux du maître, des copies et des dessins anonymes inspirés par son style, Bruxelles, Centre national de recherches "Primitifs flamands", 1969, n A5.
Comblen-Sonkes Micheline, "Les Dessins de Roger Van der Weyden et de son école", in Rogier Van der Weyden, Rogier de Le Pasture : peintre officiel de la Ville de Bruxelles, portraitiste de la Cour de Bourgogne, cat. exp. Bruxelles, Musée Communal, 1979, pp. 68-84.
Vos Dirk (De), Rogier Van der Weyden : l'oeuvre complet, Paris, Hazan,1999, p. 387.
Rogier van der WEYDEN (Tournai, 1398/1400-Brussels, 1464)
Head of the Virgin
Drypoint (silverpoint?) on prepared paper
H. 12.9 cm; W. 11 cm
Saint-Morys collection; confiscated as the property of emigrés, 1793; returned to the Museum, 1796-97
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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