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Work Head of a Young Woman

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Tête de jeune femme

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Boyer Sarah

This rare drawing, which has been attributed unanimously to Palma the Elder since it was first published in 1881, is a charming study of a young woman, made in black chalk highlighted with white on beige paper. The subject is seen almost in profile, her eyes looking upward and her hair carefully styled. One rather surprising aspect of the portrait is the fact that the shoulders are not indicated in any way, either by a line or with clothing.

Life study

The female face in this life study is characteristic of the manner of Palma the Elder. Although he used chalk for his detailed studies, he turned to pen and ink for his group compositions. In addition, the combination of hatching and emphatic outlines indicates that this is indeed the work of Palma, as does the darkened background, designed to make the figure stand out. This last point is very revealing of the artist's approach. The black-chalk lines, which run parallel to one another and are arranged in a carefully studied manner, harmonize with the ample contour of the face, which is delicately yet firmly defined, though somewhat disrupted by a later reworking to the right eye. The finishing touches to Palma's drawing are the addition of white-chalk highlights to intermediate tones, as well as a few touches of black chalk to the hair for emphasis.

Successive uses

The drawing is a preparatory study for a painting. The features and pose of the young woman's face are reminiscent of those of St. Lucy on the altarpiece of the high altar in the church of S. Stefano in Vicenza (The Madonna with St. George and St. Lucy); they are also reminiscent of Eve, in Adam and Eve (in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Brunswick), in which the artist's debt to Albrecht Dürer is apparent), or indeed of the adulterous woman in Christ and the Adulterous Woman (in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). It is this last painted version of the subject that the woman in the drawing resembles most closely, in pose, hair-style, facial features, and the way in which the light falls. These difficulties of identification suggest that Palma made the study from life and kept it in the collection at his studio, so that he could reuse it, with certain modifications, on several subsequent occasions.

At the crossroads of tradition

This particularly light and precise study of a head goes back to the ideal woman seen in Giorgione and the young Titian, while making her more compact than before. Even though the oval of the face is simpler and more geometrical, it nevertheless constitutes a particularly good example of the Venetian ideal woman of the first two decades of the cinquecento. Though he followed in the footsteps of the influential Titian, Palma seems to have been much more cautious and disciplined, never quite attaining the authoritative expansiveness of his contemporary. An adherent of forms defined by modeling and of a noble and idealized form of naturalism, Palma proceeded in an analytical and methodical manner. Thanks to his technique, he was able to obtain a sense of weight and restrained but opulent mass, such that his forms are reminiscent of those of Sebastiano del Piombo. At the same time, he is indebted to the Venetian tradition for his interest in the optical effects of lights, and to the central Italian tradition for his restrained technique and analytical clarity. The confidence evident in the delineation of the features and the directness of the woman's gaze suggest this drawing should be dated to the start of Palma's mature period, circa 1520-22.


P. Rylands, The Genius of Venice 1500-1600, cat. exp. Londres, Royal academy of Arts, 25 novembre 1983-11 mars 1984, pp. 265-266, n 32.
P. Rylands, Palma Vecchio, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 120, 251, n 3.
K. Oberhuber, in Le siècle de Titien : l'âge d'or de la peinture à Venise, Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, cat. exp. 9 mars-14 juin 1993, n 19.
K. Oberhuber, in Tiziano Vecellio : amor sacro e amor profano, cat. exp. Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 22 mars-22 mai 1995, p. 213, 283 , n 53.
W. R. Rearick, Il disegno Veneziano del Cinquecento, Milan, Electa, 2001, pp. 71-82, 215-216.

Technical description

  • Jacopo PALMA the Elder (Serinalta, circa 1480-Venice, 1528)

    Head of a Young Woman

    Circa 1520

  • Black chalk and white highlights on beige paper

    H. 22 cm; W. 16 cm

  • Aimé-Charles-Horace His de La Salle collection; donated to the Louvre in 1878.

    RF 482

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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