A Young Woman Powdering Herself is a neo-impressionist (sometimes referred to as post-impressionist) painting of a woman at her toilette powdering her face by Georges Seurat.
It is believed that it was inspired by Manet’s 1877 ‘Nana’ in the Kunsthalle Hamburg Art Museum in Germany.
The subject is Madeleine Knobloch, Seurat’s mistress at the time, however, when the painting was first exhibited in 1890 this fact was kept a secret and the woman in the painting was simply referred to as his model.
The painting is formally recognized as having been completed in the winter months of 1889-1890 however others believe that was in fact completed 12 months early in the winter months of 1888-1889 as Madeleine Knobloch was pregnant in 1890.
A Young Woman Powdering Herself is in the Pointillism style and the canvas holds a heavy juxtaposition between the size and proportions of the ample Madeleine Knobloch, against the overly-small little dressing table.
The window box behind her was originally a portrait, likely of Seurat himself however was painted over after the advice of his contemporaries.
It is a large painting, almost a meter high by 80 cm long. A smaller oil study can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.
Young Woman Powdering Herself is a prime example of Pointillism, a technique developed by Seurat himself, and a painting whose invisible mirror yielded a pleasing discovery in 2014.
The entire composition is based on minuscule dots of paint left by the tip of the artist’s brush. They are so arranged as to be all in chromatic opposition to the dots immediately beside them for a vivifying effect upon the human eye, which, especially at some distance, perceives shapes and dominant colors faultlessly.
The subject of the painting, as the title implies, is a woman seated in a boudoir intent on applying powder to herself before a small table mirror. She is in fact Madeleine Knobloch (or Knoblock), Seurat’s model and secret mistress.
The very fact of the secrecy of their relationship is what caused Seurat to realize that, in a painting intended for public display, he could not retain the mirror in its top-left corner and which showed a reflection of himself, presumably with the idea that he is observing the woman while painting her. According to one story, it was a friend of Seurat’s who put him inadvertently at his guard by commenting upon this reflection within the scene.
Aware that his pictorial appearance in the woman’s boudoir could arouse questions and eventually scandal when shown to the public in 1890, Seurat painted over the square mirror in the top-left corner. He transformed it into a picture frame made of bamboo and painted within it a generic picture (within the picture) showing a vase with flowers on the edge of a piece of furniture.
The existence of the mirror with Seurat’s self-portrait was not truly discovered until 2014, when X-ray analysis revealed it. This covered-up square in the top-left corner of Young Woman Powdering Herself is Seurat’s only known self-portrait.
By the time of the painting’s exhibition, Seurat and Knobloch had been living together for a year and they had had a child. In a tragically brief existence, Seurat died from illness a year after the exhibition, in 1891, when he was only 31.
Georges Seurat’s A Young Woman Powdering Herself can be found in the Courtauld Gallery in London after being gifted by Samuel Courtauld in 1932.