Nicolas-André Monsiau

(Paris 1754 – 1837)

Portrait of a Woman Reading

73 x 60 cm. (29 x 23 1/2 in.)
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated 'Monsiau 1816' (lower left)


Dessins et Tableaux anciens, meubles et objects d’art, céramique-haute époque, tapis, tapisseries, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 17 June 1994, lot 51.
Tableaux Anciens, Haute Epoque, Art d’Orient, Sculptures et Objets d’Art, Boisgirard-Antonini, Paris, 6 December 2017, lot 13, where acquired by the present owner.


Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne. Supplément, LXXIV. Paris: Michaud, 1843.

Freund, Amy. “The “Citoyenne” Tallien: Women, Politics, and Portraiture during the French Revolution.” In The Art Bullettin, XCIII, (September 2011), 325-344.

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2007.

Catalogue Entry

Nicolas-André Monsiau was a pupil of Jean François Pierre Peyron (1744-1814), with whom he studied at the Académie Royale de peinture in Paris. Monsiau completed his training in Rome, where he lived from 1776 to 1780. In the city, he met French painters Valenciennes and Jacques-Louis David, whose neoclassical style had a great impact on that of the young artist. Monsiau was admitted into the Paris Academie as a history painter in 1787 with Alexander taming Bucephalus. Two years later, he was accepted into the Academie as a full member with The Death of Agis. The artist’s best known painting, Zeuxis choosing among the most beautiful girls of Crotona, was exhibited at the Salon of 1791. During the 1790s, due to the decrease in commissions following the Revolution of 1789, Monsiau turned to book illustration for editions of Ovid, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Laurence Sterne, Jacques Delille and Salomon Gessner. With the restoration, he returned to neoclassical subject matter producing a few portraits and genre scenes. He exhibited his work for the last time in public at the Salon of 1833, four years before his death.1

The present work is a rare example of Monsiau’s engagement as a portraitist during the last two decades of his career. The painting depicts a more than a half-length figure of a woman in three-quarter pose sitting on a gray chair with blue lining. She wears a vivid green dress with a white shirt underneath, adorned with a white lace collar enriched with a beige, silky ribbon. Two necklaces with a golden pearl motif emerge from below the collar and lower down on the woman’s bosom. A brown shawl encircles her right shoulder, slipping away from her left one. Some grey curls encircle the sitter’s face, finding their way out from a white cotton bonnet. The sitter crosses her arms and is immersed in reading the book she holds in her left hand. On the left, next to the woman, is a wooden table topped with a colored marble slab. On its lower section, the artist’ssignature and date, i.e. Monsiau 1816, appear.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Madame Nakharovna née Hitrova, 1799, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, The Michael L. Rosenberg Collection.

Fig. 1. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Madame Nakharovna née Hitrova, 1799, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, The Michael L. Rosenberg Collection.

Although it has been suggested that the Portrait’s sitter might portray one of Monsiau’s relatives or his wife,2 her identity remains unknown today. Considering that Monsiau never pursued a career as a portrait painter, the present work was almost certainly commissioned privately. The woman’s simple, yet proper outfit, the elegant chair, and her book suggest that she likely belonged to the French bourgeoisie. After the Revolution, the term started to be used to define people from the middle or upper stratum of the so called middle-class, owning good culture and financial capital. The affirmation of the bourgeoisie had a great impact on the art of the time and played a significant role in redefining portraiture in France. Once reserved exclusively to the French nobility, during the 1790s, it started to touch all socioeconomic levels, becoming affordable and in demand in the newly constituted French people.3 Among female portraits, most of them showed women in their role of wives and mothers, while few depicted them as intellectually active individuals.4 In the present work, Monsiau portrayed a woman while reading a book. Such an iconography had usually been reserved to noblewomen, but started to be extended to upper middle class women at the very end of the eighteenth century. This is attested, for example, by French female painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun’s Portrait of Natalia Zakharovna Kolycheva (Fig. 1, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas) dating to 1799. In this work, the sitter is portrayed in a similar way to the Portrait’s woman, both sitters wearing comparable outfits, characterised by a distinctively fashionable cashmere shawl and fine jewellery. The presence of a book underlines the sitters’culture and presents them as educated women.

Nicolas André-Monsiau, Portrait of a Magistrat, oil on canvas, 81 x 66 cm., Private Collection.

Fig. 2. Nicolas André-Monsiau, Portrait of a Magistrat, oil on canvas, 81 x 66 cm., Private Collection.

Monsiau never pursued a career as a portrait painter. However, in the present work, he made proof of a great talent as both a portraitist and a draftsman. The Portrait’s sitter was probably depicted from nature, as demonstrated by her natural pose and non-idealised features. A similar interest in carefully renderingindividuals’ traits can be observed in another portrait by Monsiau, the Portrait of a Magistrat (Fig.2, Private Collection). With the present work, the painting shares a similar interest in physiognomic accuracy and a distinctively realistic depiction of hands. In both works, the artist paid great attention to rendering different fabrics and materials. In the Portrait of a Woman reading, the texture of silk, lace, cashmere, marble, lining, paper and human skin is masterfully rendered with fine brushstrokes. Particularly, Monsiau has here accentuated the translucent fabric of the silk ribbon and the necklaces’ gold pearls as they catch the light.

1 For biographical information on Nicolas-André Monsiau, see Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne. Supplément, LXXIV, (Paris: Michaud, 1843), 215-217.

2 Boisgirard-Antonini, Nicolas André Monsiau, Portrait de femme lisant. Last accessed July 28, 2018.

3 Amy Freund, “The "Citoyenne" Tallien: Women, Politics, and Portraiture during the French Revolution,” in The Art Bullettin, XCIII, (September 2011), 325.

4 Ibid., 325-326.


The work is in good condition, despite a wide craquelure spread across the surface of the canvas. The painting is original in size, and no major damages or repairs are visible.

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