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Prof. Anne Higonnet reveals new twist in storied Metropolitan Museum of Art painting

On a December afternoon in midtown, Professor of Art History Anne Higonnet transformed a law office conference room into a classroom for Barnard graduates. More than 40 alumnae turned out to hear the professor speak about her research concerning one of the most beloved paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hosted by Helene Finkelstein Kaplan ’53 and held at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, Higonnet’s lecture was part of the College’s new Barnard at Work series, which recreates the Barnard experience for alumnae, offering lunchtime lectures by distinguished faculty members in convenient Midtown locations.

“This series is intended to give alumnae a taste of the excitement that students experience every day in the classroom,” said Vice President for College Relations Dorothy Denburg '70.

With the lights dimmed, Higonnet cast a familiar image onto a projection screen, a picture of “Young Woman Drawing,” an oil painting that has been on permanent display in the Met since 1917. Its subject, a beautiful young woman dressed in white, clutches a drawing board and stares out of the painting with an expression that has been referred to as, “an eighteenth-century Mona Lisa.” Over her shoulder is a broken windowpane, and a man and woman stand in the distance. “The painting is a masterpiece emblematic of its time,” Higonnet said. “And it tells a complicated and fascinating story of authorship.”

The painting, Higonnet explained, was once thought to be the work of Jacques-Louis David, one of France’s most influential neoclassical painters. But in the 1950s, it was reattributed to Constance Charpentier, a little-known female painter who, along with a group of women artists influenced by David, existed on the fringes of the male-dominated eighteenth-century art world. In the 1970s, the painting became a “poster child” for the feminist art movement. Then in the early 1990s, the painting’s authorship was again called into question, and eventually re-reattributed to an even lesser known woman painter, Marie-Denise Villers.

The repeated demotion of the painting’s authorship, though, never deterred the crowds of museum-goers who have marveled at its captivating presence since its arrival at the Met. For Higonnet, who teaches courses on nineteenth-century arts and the history of art history, its continued appeal is one of the most intriguing aspects of the painting. Why are people so drawn to this painting, she wondered, even though it’s no longer attributed to a celebrated artist? “If the author factor is eliminated, how do we understand its energy?” she asked.

Seeking answers to these questions, Higonnet embarked on a detective-style investigation of the painting over the past several years. With the support of a Barnard Presidential Research Award, she combed the Met’s archives and walked the banks of the Seine in Paris. From historic fashion plates and neoclassical hairstyles to period-specific furniture and art supplies, Higonnet examined the painting’s most minute details for clues about the subject, the artist’s motive and the work’s significance in its own era as well as the present.

To learn more about “Young Woman Drawing” and what Higonnet’s findings reveal about the artist, the woman in the painting, and the role of women artists during the late 1700s, keep an eye out for future events featuring Higonnet. Visit the Alumnae Affairs website for information about upcoming Barnard at Work events.