Joséphine Gaujelin (or Gozelin) was a dancer at the Opéra in Paris and later an actor at the Théâtre du Gymnase. Degas used her as a model on several occasions, for example as a ballerina in his Classe de danse (Metropolitan Museum of Art). In this portrait, she appears in street clothes, sitting in her dressing room. Wrapped entirely in black, she sits rigidly, with arms clenched to her sides. The dour expression and reserved demeanor belie her reputation as a charismatic beauty. The portrait is almost deliberately unglamorous, although the intensity of the sitter’s gaze is compelling, if not disconcerting to some viewers. Gaujelin, who had commissioned the portrait, rejected it. However, Degas exhibited it in the Paris Salon of 1869 (titled Portrait de Mme G…). Mrs. Gardner heard that Gaujelin was angry that it was coming to America.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was not a collector of Impressionism, but Degas was an exception, undoubtedly because of his serious attention to historical painting. She may have seen his paintings at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. In addition to this portrait, Mrs. Gardner also owned a drawing of a ballet dancer and four other drawings.
Source: Richard Lingner, "Portrait of Joséphine Gaujelin," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 195.