The Melancholy of Misattribution: Constance Charpentier

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Most of the artists featured in "Feel Art Again" to this point have been men, with only four exceptions: Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, Lady Laura Alma-Tadema, and Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was it more difficult in the past for women to attend art schools and exhibit, but female artists were often quickly forgotten or their works were attributed to their male teachers and colleagues.

Constance Charpentier suffered such a fate, with many of her works forgotten or attributed to her teacher, Jacques-Louis David. "Melancholy" is one of the few paintings attributed to Charpentier with certainty. The following facts are basically all that is known about Constance Charpentier.

1. During her time, Constance Charpentier was well-recognized for her talent. In 1788, when she was only 21, she received a Prix d'Encouragement. She exhibited at the Salon for 24 years, from 1795 to 1819; in 1819, she received a gold medal.

2. Charpentier exhibited "Melancholy" at the 1801 Salon. At the time, there was a renewed interest in "terror and melancholy," and two other artists, François André Vincent and Jean-Antoine Gros, exhibited paintings with similar subject matter.

3. A 1904 art history text counts "Ulysses Finding Young Astyanax at Hector's Grave" and "Alexander Weeping at the Death of the Wife of Darius" as Charpentier's best-known works. Both were considered "extraordinary as the work of a woman," as they were large canvases with life-sized figures.

4. In 1951, the Metropolitan Museum of Art discovered that one of their most popular portraits by Jacques-Louis David, that of Mlle. Charlotte du Val d'Ognes, was not actually painted by him. Using a catalogue from the Salon of 1801, Charles Sterling, Louvre curator and foreign adviser to the Met, attributed the painting to Constance Charpentier. As a result, Charpentier gained more recognition, but the critical respect for the painting declined, as did the market value of the painting. Since then, the painting has been re-attributed, this time to another female painter, Marie-Denise Villers, and is now known as "Young Woman Drawing" at the Met.

5. Born in 1767, Constance Charpentier lived a long life, dying in 1849 at the age of 82.

A larger version of "Melancholy" is available here. A portrait of Constance Charpentier is available from the Art Renewal Center.

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