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Work Ideal Head of a Woman

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Tête de femme vue de face, les cheveux nattés

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo A. Didierjean

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Goarin Véronique, Scheck Catherine

Michelangelo seldom produced what we might identify as portraits or likenesses, but he was a passionate student of human physiognomy, nonetheless. His so-called Ideal or Divine Heads (Vasari uses the Italian term ''teste divine") are often fascinating for their strange and sophisticated beauty. They can also, as here, communicate the charm of livelier, more natural expressions.

The natural and the ideal

Most of Michelangelo's Ideal Heads are executed in black chalk. The accomplished red chalk drawings in the Louvre and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, are sublime exceptions. The Louvre drawing is especially attractive for its naturalism and characterful, animated expression, suggesting the portrait of a young woman. The simplicity of its execution distinguishes it from the otherwise characteristic sophistication of the Ideal Heads, with their strange, often exotic beauty and elaborate hairstyles. Art historians agree that Michelangelo produced the drawings between 1520 and 1530, when he was principally occupied with work on the Medici basilica of San Lorenzo, in Florence.

Presentation drawings: works of art in their own right

The Ideal Heads were executed as highly finished presentation drawings. Michelangelo conceived them as works of art in their own right, rather than studies, and presented them as gifts in honor of his closest friends, notably the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de' Cavalieri, and Vittoria Colonna, the artist's muse. The genre is related to a Florentine tradition exemplified by Andrea del Verrocchio, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. These rare and magnificent drawings by Michelangelo have become justly famous: the series includes the ''Zenobia'' and ''Fury'' in the Uffizi, and the ''Cleopatra'', also in Florence, at the Casa Buonarotti. They were immediately coveted by the most discerning collectors. The present drawing, owned by the Cologne banker Everhard Jabach, was acquired for Louis XIV's collection in 1671, together with 5,541 other drawings.


Bacou Roseline et Viatte Françoise, Michel-Ange au Louvre, les dessins, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1975, n XXIII.
Tolnay Charles de, Corpus dei disegni di Michelangelo, t. II, Novara, Istituto geografico de Agostini, 1976, n 321.
Joannides Paul (sous la dir. de), Michel-Ange, élèves et copistes, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2003.

Technical description

  • Michelangelo BUONARROTI, known as Michelangelo (Caprese, 1475 - Rome, 1564)

    Ideal Head of a Woman

    Shortly after 1520

  • Red chalk

    H. 31.5 cm; W. 24.1 cm.

  • Everhard Jabach Collection, acquired by Louis XIV in 1671

    INV 12299

  • Prints and Drawings

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

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