This small preparatory oil sketch was painted as Puvis de Chavannes worked on a larger picture, The Toilette of 1883 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). There are many differences between the two versions, not least that the finished work shows a more idealised scene. The topic of a young, partially clothed woman attending to her hair has a long history as it allowed painters to conjure up a scene of beauty and intimacy. This is what Puvis does here: the women do not speak to each other but are lost in reverie, while the close cropping of the two figures puts the viewer into the room with them. The artist is prompting the viewer to ask: what is this beautiful young woman thinking?
This oil sketch of a maid combing a young woman’s hair is one of several representations of the subject by Puvis de Chavannes that relate to a larger painting, The Toilette of 1883 (Musée d‘Orsay, Paris). The topic of a woman at her toilette has a long history in art, for example Giovanni Bellini’s celebrated Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror, painted in 1515 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The subject relates to no specific incident or literary text but rather gave artists the opportunity to paint a beautiful woman in a moment of private repose and reverie. This genre became very popular in England in the late nineteenth century, when such pictures were called ’Dreams of fair women‘, and appeared frequently in the work of painters such as Frederic, Lord Leighton and Albert Moore.
Although Puvis was not a member of any particular artistic grouping he was often associated with the Symbolists, artists who conjured up mysterious dream worlds which could have erotic overtones. His finished painting edges further in this direction than this sketch. Where the sketch crops in close to the figures of the maid and the young woman and has a subdued tonality, the finished work shows more of the figures, while the dominant russet background has been changed to blue and the young woman’s hair to blonde.
The sketch has an immediacy that suggests Puvis worked from the live model, but he smoothed out the particularities for the finished work, presenting a more idealised woman. The artist made something of a speciality of pictures of young women in vaguely classical gowns, and versions of the girl in this painting can be found elsewhere in his work: in Mary Magdalene of 1897 (Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest), in Young Girls at the Seaside of 1879 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), and The Fisherman’s Family of 1887 (this was destroyed in the Second World War, but an oil sketch for it exists, now in the Art Institute of Chicago).
Puvis’s aim with this picture is both aesthetic and suggestive. He presents an image of gentle beauty but is also prompting the viewer to wonder what the young woman is thinking: about love, perhaps, or what her future might hold. Although A Maid combing a Woman’s Hair is just a preparatory sketch – the paint is thin and quickly applied with long brushstrokes, the hands and the face of the maid lack detail and the background is blocked in – Puvis clearly thought the picture had enough impact to sign it, which was the usual practice with a finished work.
The motif of a young woman having her hair combed had a particular appeal to Degas, Puvis’s slightly younger contemporary, and he too preferred to paint a red-headed woman, as in Combing the Hair (’La Coiffure') of about 1896.
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