The first 18th-century painting housed in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian which I want to talk about is a still-life, entitled Peacock and Hunting Trophies, by Jan Weenix. Jan Weenix or Joannis Weenix was thought to have been born in Amsterdam sometime between 1640 and 1649. The exact date is unknown but at the time of his marriage, in 1679, to Pieternella Backers, he gave his age as “around thirty”. The couple went on to have thirteen children. He received his education in art from his father, Jan Baptist Weenix and his cousin, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The Weenix family lived in a castle outside Utrecht, but his father died young following a series of personal financial disasters that rendered him bankrupt. Jan Weenix was a member of the Utrecht guild of painters in 1664 and 1668. The subjects for his paintings were varied but we remember him best of all for his paintings of dead game and of hunting scenes. In this large oil on canvas painting (200 x 195 cms) we see various hunting trophies and a peacock framed by a landscape in the background. The main depiction in this work is the lifeless arrangement of the swan which imitated the widely used representation for such paintings. Behind the dead swan, we have a large urn decorated with bas-reliefs. Bas-relief being a French term from the Italian basso-relievo (“low relief”), which is a sculpture technique in which figures and/or other design elements are just barely more prominent than the overall flat background. The 3-D trompe l’oeil effect of the dead game “hanging over” steps was often used in this kind of depiction and adds to the beautifully crafted work. The painting dates back to the period 1702 to 1712 when Weenix had been commissioned to paint twelve works featuring hunting motifs for the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm for his castle of Benberg. They were to illustrate the favourite pastime of the elites. It was all about social power for the hunting of certain species was a special privilege granted solely to the nobility.
The French term, fête galante, is used to describe a type of painting that first came to the fore with Antoine Watteau. They are representations in art of elegantly dressed groups of people at play in a rural or parklike setting. This painting genre began with Watteau’s famous painting, The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera which he submitted to the Academy as his reception piece in 1717. However, when Watteau applied to join the French academy there was no suitable category for this type of work and so, rather than reject his application which was described as characterising une fête galante, the academy simply created one!
In the Founder’s Collection at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, there was a painting by Nicolas Lancret, entitled Fête Galante which he completed around 1730. Like most Fête Galante works it is small, measuring just 65 x 70 cms. The painting was once part of the Collection of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, an admirer of Watteau and Lancret and who had built up a collection of twenty-six of the latter’s works. The painting was acquired by Gulbenkian in 1930. Lancret had a habit of sketching individual figures and later incorporating them into his final work.
An example of this is the preliminary sketch of the reclining man, dressed in brown, we see at the bottom left of the Fête Galante painting. This sketch can be found at the Ackland Art Museum, which is part of the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.
The 18th century works in the Founder’s Collection feature many portraits. One of my favourites was one by Nicolas de Largillièrre entitled Portrait of Tomas Germain and His Wife which he completed in 1736. Largillière was a French-born and Antwerp-trained artist who spent time in London between 1665 and 1667, and again from 1675 until 1679 when he worked for the English artist Sir Peter Lely. However, in England, at the time, there was widespread anti-Roman Catholic sentiment and he, being a Catholic, decided to return to France and find work in Paris. He did return to England for a 12-month stay in 1688 having received a commission to paint portraits of King James II and his wife, Queen Mary of Modena. The two figures depicted in the painting above are King Louis XV of France’s famous goldsmith Thomas Germain inside his workshop at the Louvre along with Anne-Denise Gauchelet, his wife.
Thomas Germain became known as The Prince of Rocaille. Rocaille was a French style of decoration, with a profusion of curves, counter-curves, undulations, and elements which were modeled on nature, and which played a part in furniture and interior decoration during the early reign of Louis XV of France and was prevalent between 1710 and 1750. It was the start of the French Baroque movement in furniture and design, and also signaled the beginning of the Rococo movement. Germain was appointed sculpteur-orfèvre du Roi (sculptor-goldsmith to the king). Look carefully at the shelf in the right background. On it are several models, which were used as patterns for tableware pieces created by Germain, and later his son, François-Thomas Germain. Such tableware adorned many tables in the European and Russian royal courts. Germain is seen in the painting pointing proudly to the shelf and a very ornate silver candlestick with satyrs on its shaft. This model of a candelabrum would result in a series of identical pieces delivered in Lisbon in 1757 for the court of King Joseph I of Portugal, which was sent by his son François-Thomas Germain.
In my next blog I will look at some of the 19th century paintings which adorn the walls of the Founders Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.