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Work Portrait of a smiling woman

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Portrait de femme souriante, coiffée d'un bonnet

Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo L. Chastel

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Boyer Sarah

The Louvre's only drawing known with certainty to be by Grünewald, this sheet is full-face portrait bust of a woman whose distinctive physiognomy seems surprising. Her shoulders are bare; she has a double chin, and the lower part of her face is slightly asymmetrical. Her thin lips, deep dimples, prominent brows, and a high forehead covered by a veil that encircles her head are also characterizing elements that Grünewald takes in.

The "German Correggio"

A mere thirty or so drawings by Grünewald survive, most of them preparatory studies for paintings. They can be divided into two groups: studies for group compositions and details drawn from live models. The almost systematic use of black chalk, occasionally with white highlights, has earned him the nickname the "German Correggio." As in this drawing, Grünewald, unlike Dürer, is indifferent to firm delineation of his figures' contours. His skill as a draftsman reveals itself in an apparently capricious hatching and the varying intensity of the lines. For example, the nervous, repeated lines on the woman's head-covering on the left is countered by the subtlety of the medium's use in enveloping the left eye with concentric circles and helping to define volumes.

A pioneer in the art of depicting human faces and expressions

The artist focuses his attention on the character's face, making the most of her unusual features. The bare shoulders and neck are less finished. The woman's small eyes are half-closed, and she is glancing down to the right. The expression of this woman, who is smiling slightly, becomes still more enigmatic because the sole source of light, above the model and to her left, underlines the slight asymmetry to the lower part of her face. Her unusual, even odd, features are reminiscent of two other studies of women with folded hands, one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the other in the Oskar Reinhart collection in Winterthur, which are both preparatory drawings for the Issenheim Altarpiece, the artist's major work, dated between 1512 and 1515. The same model must have posed for all the drawings. It is also worth noting that while Dürer sought to capture the truth of the sitter by indicating his social status, particularly in the portraits dating from his time in the Netherlands (1520-21), Grünewald was more interested in depicting the inner life of his models.

From realism to forms of expressionism

The evident similarity with the drawings in Oxford and Winterthur and equally obvious stylistic affinities with two studies for a St. Sebastian (Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden, and Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin), that are linked beyond doubt to the Issenheim Altarpiece, would seem to indicate that this drawing dates from between 1512 and 1515. While Grünewald, following in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci, was a pioneer in the study of human physiognomy, his desire to render human expressions as faithfully as possible led him sometimes perilously close to ugliness and distortion. For example, two studies of heads of a crying child (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin) in preparation for the St. Alban retable in Mainz cathedral (no longer extant) depict anguished, painful expressions. They illustrate a fundamental tendency in German art in the first half of the 16th century, a turn towards violence apparent as well in two studies of rogues by Lucas Cranach, also in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin.


Ruhmer Eberhard, Grünewald Drawings, Phaidon, 1970, pl. 21, p. 88, n XVII.
Starcky Emmanuel, Dessins de Dürer et de la Renaissance germanique, cat. exp. musée du Louvre, 1991-1992, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, pp. 132-133, n 124.
Berg Karen van den, Die Passion zu malen. Zur Bildauffasung bei Matthias Grünewald, Duisburg, pict. im, 1997, pp. 92-98.
Kroll R., Dürer, Holbein, Grünewald : Meisterzeichnungen der Deutschen Renaissance aus Berlin und Basel, cat. exp. Bâle, Kunstmuseum, Berlin, Staatlichen Museen, 1997-1998, pp. 176-194, n 11.1-11.7.
Kroll R., From Schongauer to Holbein. Master Drawings from Basel and Berlin, cat. exp. Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1999-2000, pp. 212-234, n 92-99.
H. Zimmermann (assisté d'E. Beissel), Matthias Grünewald, 2001.

Technical description

  • Mathis Gothart Nithart, known as Mathias Grünewald (Wurzburg, c. 1470/1480-Halle an der Saale, 1528)

    Portrait of a smiling woman

    c. 1512-15?

  • Black chalk

    H. 20.4 cm; L. 15 cm

  • Everhard Jabach collection; purchased for the Royal Cabinet of Curiosities, 1671

    INV 18588

  • Prints and Drawings

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

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Additional information about the work

Top left, in pen and brown ink, apocryphal monogram of Albrecht Dürer