Object in Focus

Fashion drawing by Jean-Baptiste le Prince

Jean Baptiste Le Prince, Russian woman, circa 1765, V&A: Dyce.599

Jean Baptiste Le Prince, Russian woman, circa 1765, V&A: Dyce.599, Bequeathed by Rev. Alexander Dyce

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About

Fantasy and propaganda in a fashion drawing by Jean-Baptiste le Prince, about 1770.

Prepared by: Barbara Lasic, Victoria and Albert Museum

Read the full paper here.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Word and Image Department holds an estimated 750,000 prints, drawings, paintings and photographs (Note 1). These include an outstanding collection of fashion plates embracing diverse media, and spanning many countries and five centuries. They provide an evocative visual overview of European fashion styles from the sixteenth century to the present day.

Among the fashion illustrations is a signed drawing of a young girl by the French artist Jean-Baptiste le Prince (1734-1781) executed around 1770. Born in Metz in 1734 in a family of sculptors and gilders, Le Prince was arguably one of the most prolific French artists of his age. He joined the studio of François Boucher as an apprentice at the age of sixteen, and Boucher, who probably taught him etching, remains to this day his only known master. Like many of Boucher’s followers, Le Prince eschewed the formal and often austere drama of historical painting, choosing instead to devote himself to genre pictures and gallant scenes.

The sheet in the V&A collection was part of the bequest that Reverend Alexander Dyce made to the museum in 1869. It has so far remained largely unstudied, apart from an entry in the 1874 catalogue of the Dyce collection that succinctly described it as a ‘young maiden dressed in semi-oriental costume, standing, holding a fan in her right hand’ (Note 2). Lightly drawn in black chalk, Le Prince’s girl is indeed wearing what can best be described as an orientalising dress consisting of a looped-up overskirt and fitted bodice with a long-sleeved chemise. Intriguingly, the gown is complemented by large flowing trousers gathered above the ankles of the type worn by middle-eastern men and women. Bare-footed, the maiden is holding a large cockade fan, and sporting a square head-dress with a short veil attached at the back (Note 3). Possibly a courtesan, she is seductively revealing her delicate ankles and small feet. Her posture could be the gesture for a dance, while her assured yet melancholic gaze is both an invitation, and perhaps an inward meditation upon her own status and condition. Le Prince’s graceful maiden strongly recalls Boucher’s charming idealised country women, Boucher’s influence being particuarly manifest in the light treatment of the figure and the vaporous folds of the fabric.

But the story is more complex and it would be misleading to understand the present drawing as a standardized Orientalist fantasy. Le Prince’s young woman was probably not Middle-Eastern but Russian.

While Le Prince’s output has been widely circulated in printed form, tantalisingly, it has not yet been possible to associate the V&A drawing with any of his published works.

Note 1: Douglas Dodds and Ella Ravilious, ‘The Factory Project: digitisation at the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Art Libraries Journal, 34, 2 (2009), pp.10-16.
Note 2: Reverend Alexander Dyce (1798-1869) bequeathed 3347 works of art, including paintings, miniatures, watercolours and prints, as well as his library of 14,000 volumes to the South Kensington Museum.
Note 3: A cockade fan was made of a folding leaf that opened into a full circle.

Related material (visual, textual sources)

1) Louis Marin Bonnet, “Paysanne de Moravie venant du marché“, print made after Jean Baptiste Le Prince, 1757-1793, British Museum (1875,0710.2929).
2) Drawing ‘Portrait of a girl in Russian Dress’, see: Christie’s, London, 5 July 2005, lot 159.

 

Bibliography

Jean-Baptiste Le Prince : Le Voyage en Russie, Collections de la Ville de Rouen (Rouen : Musée des Beaux Arts de Rouen, 2005).
M.C. Levitt, ‘An antidote to nervous juice: Catherine the Great’s debate with Chappe D’Auteroche over Russian culture’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 32, 1 (1998).
A. Ribeiro, Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715-1789 (London: Batsford, 1984).
K. Rorschach, Drawings by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince for the Voyage en Sibérie (Philadelphia : Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1986).
N. Rothstein (ed.), Four Hundred Years of Fashion (London: V&A Publications, 1992).

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Your Contributions

 

  1. Patrik Steorn — January 9, 2012 at 14:24:311

    “Femme noble en habit moscovite” by Swedish artist Augustin Dahlsteen (1720-after 1767). From his series “Russische Trachten und Ausrufer in St. Petersburg”, published in Cassel, Germany in 1750.
    Nationalmuseum, Stockholm:
    http://emp-web-22.zetcom.ch/eMuseumPlus?service=ExternalInterface&module=collection&objectId=99365&viewType=detailView

  2. VIRGINIA HILL — December 5, 2012 at 15:07:131

    This is just one of many prints from the late 18th century and 19th century. This one is around 1840 and represents a woman in regional dress from Naples (Italy) area.
    The headdress worn by your young lady is closer to italian regional dress of the 18th and 19th century than russian…In some regions of russia they also used large pieces of linen or other cloth folded up in a rectangular fashion and placed squarely on the head, but in your image the “style” is very well defined and different from russian style. It reminds me of the typical “copricapo a tovaglia” (litteraly tablecloth headdress)of many regions of italy. One possible interpretation is that your young lady is a southern italian (Naples area) street food vendour (she is using her simple fan to keep the fire alive) Italian women’s regional costume was often short to mid calf. It was more practical and not really concerned with fashion. Costume prints often show women in the costume dancing and pulling up their skirts in a picturesque manner. They most probably wore longish pantaloons underneath to protect their modesty while dancing and working. Your young lady is wearing a very simple form of pantaloons that may be underwear rather than exotic “turkish style” trousers. her short kacket with flared basque is also typical italian regional dress. Finally it would be useful to know if the artist traveled to italy at any point.
    Its just an idea :)
    Virginia Hill, dress historian and lecturer, Milan Italy

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