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.
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