The French illustrator and copper engraver Claude Mellan returned to Paris in 1636 after a twelve-year sojourn in Rome. In Italy he had, among other things, honed his sensitive and virtuoso style as a creator of portrait drawings. His likenesses, executed in black chalk, served him there as templates for copper engravings. He built on this success in Paris and soon became the portraitist of the upper classes, who had begun to value the possession of personal portraits in elegantly worked engravings which they could also give away.
As far as we know, however, the 'Portrait of a Lady' was never actually engraved. For this reason, the subject has not been identified to this day. Judging by the style, Mellan drew her shortly after his return from Rome. The only clue to her identity is in the provenance. During the eighteenth century the drawing belonged to the art dealer and important collector Pierre Jean Mariette, whose blue passepartout with gold frame and name cartouche still enclose it. At the auction of the Mariette Collection in 1775, from which Johann Friedrich Städel acquired a large number of drawings, a sheet with a portrait of a man was offered under the same lot number. The man's portrait (today in the collection at the Louvre) bears the name Pierre Dupré, so it is possible that this lady is his wife. However, no further information is available about either of them.
In addition to his usual black chalk, Mellan also used a red chalk here, which makes the portrait seem especially lively. The technique suggests that this sheet was not intended for reproduction but as an artwork in its own right. This would mean that the clients displayed a remarkable taste for an open, suggestive structure, because the drawing concentrates entirely on the confident facial features of the young woman and uses only a few fine chalk lines to indicate the hair and bosom. The clever accent set by the black pompom on her breast adds a point of stability to the likeness and creates at the same time a lively link to her alert, attentive gaze.
In March 1815, the Frankfurt businessman and banker Johann Friedrich Städel bequeathed his entire fortune and art collection to a foundation which was to be named after him: the 'Städelsches Kunstinstitut'. However, he also dedicated the foundation to the citizens of Frankfurt immaterially, wishing it to be an "adornment and of practical use" to Frankfurt's citizenry. He was thus the first ordinary citizen in the German-speaking region to found a public art museum: the present-day Städel Museum. When he died, his collection comprised 476 paintings, some 4,600 drawings, almost 10,000 printed graphics and valuable books.