Portrait of a young girl, bust-length, in a white dress and pearl necklace

Attributed to Étienne Dumonstier
(c.1540 – 1603)

Portrait of a young girl, bust-length, in a white dress and pearl necklace

Painted circa 1590

Oil on panel: 14 3/16 x 10 5/8 inches, 35.5 x 26.6 cm

Provenance

Private collection, France.

This sensitive portrait of a young unidentified girl was painted by a provincial French artist in a style directly influenced by the art that was being produced in and around the court of Fontainebleau, King Henry IV’s favoured Royal residence at the end of the sixteenth century.

 

In contrast to the Netherlands, where the tradition in children’s portraiture was dominated by richly dressed full-length portraits, the predominant fashion at that time in France was for bust-length portraits often drawn in crayon on paper. Our simple portrait reflects this idea; it is closely cropped with a dark, neutral background and is rendered with a distinctly graphic feel. The artist skillfully captures the child’s wispy blonde hair, so characteristic of very young children.[1] It flows loosely over her shoulders, framing her small pale face, with its distinctive rose-bud lips. She wears a single string of pearls and white silk dress that seem to express her innocence whilst also conveying family wealth. The simplicity of the composition suggests that it was probably painted for a patron from the growing merchant class and the intimate scale suggests that it could have been a cabinet picture. This term originally referred to the cabinets, or small rooms that wealthy 16th-century connoisseurs throughout Europe would cram with paintings and other art objects, and essentially refers to pictures that were intended to be viewed intimately, or from a short distance.[2]

 

The present portrait is attributed to an elder member of the famed family of French court painters, Étienne Dumonstier. Not much is known of his career other than he accompanied his brother Pierre to Vienna in 1569 after being jointly employed by Catherine de Medici. It seems likely that Dumonstier studied under François Clouet and other members of his family who were also patronised by Catherine de Medici, the Valois dynasty and lastly Henri IV. Another Clouet follower François Quesnel shared a professional path with Étienne; he practiced a comparable technique and utilised similarly limited colour palettes. Portraits attributed to Quesnel are also on display at The Weiss Gallery.

 

Works attributed to Étienne Dumonstier are very rare, however a comparable portrait resides at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire (Accession no. 3539), depicting a young girl of a similar age to that in the present painting. Another comparable child portrait produced around that time can be seen at the Musée du Château de Blois, whose curator, Guillaume Kazerouni dates their portrait to circa 1600-1610 on the basis of style and dress.[3]

 

Fig. 1

Etienne Dumonstier, A Lady in White, painted circa 1605. Oil on panel: 36 x 27.3 cm.

Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Accession number 3539.

 

[1] Her hair seems to be an indication of her age rather than a statement of fashion.

[2] These pictures are of the type first developed in Antwerp and Prague at the end of the 16th and early 17th century for a Kunstkammer (an art collection formed by a connoisseur), and became popular throughout Northern Europe.

[3] H. Lebédel-Carb, Catalogue des Peintures du Musée du Château de Blois: XVI-XVIII Siècles, 2000, no. 27, p.87.

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