Today I am featuring the French painter, draughtsman and art collector, Nicolas Lancret, who was born in Paris in 1690. To begin with, Lancret trained as an engraver but soon afterwards became an apprentice to the history and religious painter Pierre Dulin. Dulin was later to become a professor of art at Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris. Throughout his early artistic training Lancret was influenced by and greatly admired the works of the Jean-Antoine Watteau the late Baroque painter and one of the leading artists in the new Rococo style of artwork. In 1708, at the age of eighteen, Lancret enrolled at the Académie royale de peinture and in 1711 he competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome prize. His stay at the Académie ended when he was expelled for quarrelling. It was Lancret’s love of Watteau’s work that made him part from his tutor Dulin and serve under Claude Gillot, the French genre and decorative painter, who had Watteau as his assistant in 1703. Once Lancret began to work in the studio of Gillot his artwork changed from the history painting he had learnt whilst with Dulin to the Rococo style with all its scenes of graceful figures at leisure in elegant garden settings similar to the works of Watteau whom Lancret met around 1712.
In 1719 he was the first painter to be accepted into the Académie Royale as a painter of fête galantes, a category that had been created by the Academy in 1717. Fête galante, which means “courtship party”, is a French term used to describe a type of painting which first came very popular in the early eighteenth century France. Watteau had submitted his reception piece, ‘The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera (See My Daily Art Display, February 22nd 2011) to the Académie Royale in 1717 and the critics of the time described it as characterising une fête galante. These fêtes galantes paintings were usually small in size and recorded the lives of stylishly dressed men and women engaged in amorous but well-mannered play in a garden or parkland surroundings.
Lancret’s art work became very popular and he received numerous commissions from wealthy patrons especially after the death of Watteau in 1721. Frederick the Great owned more than twenty-six of his paintings but his main patron was the ruler of France, Louis XV, who, from the 1725, continued to buy Lancret’s work until the artist died almost twenty years later. He was one of the most prolific and imaginative genre painters of the first half of the eighteenth century in France and he had the ability to insert lively genre images into an allegorical framework. His portraiture work was different to many of the time as he liked to treat his portraits as genre scenes. Lancret exhibited works regularly at the Paris Salon.
Lancret remained single for much of his life and did not marry until 1741 when he was fifty-one years of age. He married the 18 year old grandchild of Edmé Boursault, the French dramatist and writer. Although one may be dismayed by the age difference of the couple it is believed that Lancret decided to marry the young girl after finding her and her dying mother living in poverty in an attic room and on hearing that the daughter was soon to be compelled to enter a convent. The marriage was a short-lived as Lancret died of pneumonia in Paris in 1743, aged fifty three.
My Daily Art Display featured painting today is not a fête galante work but a genre piece which I saw recently at the Wallace Collection in London. The painting is entitled A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) which Lancret completed in the 1720’s. It is very reminiscent of the Dutch genre paintings of the previous century. We see before us a young woman seated in a kitchen. The first question which comes to mind as we look at her is what is she doing? The subtitle of the painting La chercheuse de puce, reveals all, as translated it means “the seeker out of fleas”. Unbelievable as it may seem the girl is inspecting herself for fleas !!! The reason for this activity was that during the eighteenth century, amongst the poorer classes, infestation in the household with fleas was quite common. However the depiction of the girl touching her exposed breasts during her inspection was probably Lancret’s way of titillating the observer. The girl sits before us with her corset unlaced, inspecting her body. Kitchen scenes in poor and peasant households were popular with the Dutch art collectors but the addition of the bare-breasted girl with its erotic connotations adds a typical French flavour to the depiction.
In some ways this painting is a kind of plagiarism as it is thought that although Lancret painted the girl and the still-life on the table next to her, the interior was painted by a Dutch artist much earlier. The erotic element of the painting is not the only “Frenchness” about the work of art. She sits there in her French silk skirt, semi-laced corset and delicate pointed slippers and she has been added by Lancret to this Dutch seventeenth-century interior. It is not known which Dutch artist had painted the interior. There were many art collectors in France who paid good money for these Dutch genre scenes. However Lancret, the master of fêtes galantes paintings, wanted to add some colourful and picturesque feminine interest into those more dark and somber Dutch paintings and, as was the case in today’s work, he is known to have embellished works by the Dutch landscape and peasant scene painter, Herman Saftleven and the Dutch Golden Age and sill-life painter, Willem Kalf.
I will leave you to ponder over whether the original Dutch interior needed the little bit of colour and bare flesh that Nicolas Lancret has given us.