This grand, boldly drawn sheet was made at about the date Greuze was experimenting with expressive heads, six of which he had engraved by his friend Pierre-Charles Ingouf in 1766 as Têtes de différents caractères, dèdiés à Mr. J.-G. Wille, Graveur ordinaire du Roy, Par son amy J.B. Greuze. Although the present sheet was not engraved as part of the sequence, it clearly belongs to the same moment of interest in capturing strong emotion in a single, expressive head. Executed in sanguine chalk on laid paper, the present sheet shares the same early twentieth-century provenance with at least one of Greuze’s expressive heads that was engraved by Ingouf.
Unusually the present sheet cannot be related directly to one of Greuze’s paintings; although the general idea of a young agitated woman, hands clasped together and held up to her face appears in a number of his compositions, for example the figure of the imploring sister, seen in profile in The Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son of 1777.
Greuze was appreciated by his contemporaries for the rigour and virtuosity of his drawings. Diderot wrote: ‘he is constantly busy drawing studies; he spares neither effort, not expense to get the sitters that suit him. If he comes across a striking head, he is prepared to kneel before the bearer of the head so as to entice him to come to his studio. He observes incessantly, whether he is in the street, in church, at a market place or a public meeting. When he’s thinking about a subject, he is obsessed with it, constantly preoccupied. Even his character is marked with it; he assumes that of his picture: he is brusque, sweet, insinuating, caustic, flirtatious, sad, gay, warm, serious, or mad, according to whatever he is working on.’ This grand sheet is preserved in outstanding condition, the red chalk surface is undisturbed and the strength of colour is remarkable. Greuze’s exquisite precision in delineating the head of his youthful subject reveals his instinctive sense of anatomy, and the execution demonstrates his control of the sharpened chalk in handling the varieties of hatching. Throughout, Greuze played off the general indication of shadows achieved by rubbing his chalk against the grain of the paper and then spinning the delicate web of hatchings over it – the processes of grainant and hachant, as described by Jombert.
Charles Le Brun’s theories of expression experienced a revival at the French Academy in the eighteenth century. Greuze explored its tradition and range far more than any other artist. The present sheet is a grand example of Greuze’s têtes d’expression showing the female figure tensely resting on the interlocked figures of her clasped hands. Relatively few of Greuze’s heads include hands, but here they are used to give drama to the emotive head. Greuze’s powerful head studies such as this were hugely popular in his own lifetime and a counterproof of the present drawing was sold at Christie’s 20th March, 1973, lot.99.