Jean-Baptiste Oudry – animals and hunting scenes artist and so much more.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau.

My last nine blogs focused on female artists and in many cases their fight for equality and so, for this blog, I thought I better give the men a chance. I have gone back to the end of the seventeenth century to look at the work of a distinguished French artist whose painting genre was looked upon by the Academies of Europe as the lowest genre in the hierarchies of figurative art.
The hierarchy in figurative art was established in the wake of the Italian Renaissance for works in 16th century Italy by the prodigious Italian Academies in Rome and Florence and they were later ratified by all the major European Academies, such as the French Académie de peinture et de sculpture, which was one of the leading Art establishments of the time. The hierarchical list, the top genre being the most important in the eyes of the Academicians, was:

 History painting, including historically important, religious, mythological, or allegorical subjects
Portrait painting
Genre painting or scenes of everyday life.                                                               Landscape and cityscape art
Animal painting
Still life

This hierarchical listing was based on a division between art that made a cerebral effort to render visible the universal essence of things and that which merely consisted of mechanical copying of particular appearances. Basically, the list meant that Idealism was honoured and more favoured than Realism.

Let me introduce you to the Master of animal and still life painting, the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Oudry was born in Paris on March 17th, 1686, the youngest of three brothers. His father was Jacques Oudry, a painter, art dealer, and from 1706, the director of the Académie de St-Luc art school, which was the only serious competition to the more prestigious and influential Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. He was to give all his sons their initial art tuition. Jean-Baptiste’s mother was Nicole Oudry (née Papillon).

Self-portrait of Nicolas de Largillierre.(1707)

Jean-Baptiste Oudry began his artistic studies at the age of eighteen. In 1704, he first studied with the Marseilles-based Catalan-born French painter Michel Serre, a cousin of the portraitist Hyacinthe Rigaud. The following year Oudry began a five-year apprenticeship with the portrait painter, Nicolas de Largillierre whilst also enrolling in drawing classes at the Académie de St-Luc and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. Largilliere set Oudry the task to copy the works of the Flemish and Dutch schools of the seventeenth century. Through the teachings of Largillierre Oudry began to perfect his sense of colour and enhance his skills as a painter of still life and portraiture, both genres in which his master had rightly built up his reputation. In 1708 Oudry submitted a now-lost bust-length painting of Saint Jerome as his reception piece and this gained him the status of Master in the Académie de St-Luc.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry began giving art tuition to some students, one of whom was Marie-Marguerite Froissé, the daughter of a miroitier (a mirror-maker) and in 17o8 master and student married. The couple went on to have thirteen children, one of who, Jacques Charles Oudry, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a painter.

A still life of a swan by Jacques Charles Oudry (Oudry’s son)

After completing his apprenticeship, Oudry set up his own business and concentrated on portraiture commissions and still-life painting to earn money but times were hard so he tried to paint whatever was popular with the public. He wanted to create his own style of portraiture and not be seen as just copying the style of his former tutor, Nicolas de Largillierre, who was at the peak of his fame. Oudry’s clients were mostly of the modest bourgeoisie and the lesser nobility.

Abundance with her Attributes by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1719)

His financial predicament changed for the better in 1719 when thirty-three-year old Oudry was elected to membership of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (French Royal Academy) as a history painter with his reception work, Abundance with her Attributes. Although classed as a historical painting, look at the superbly painted surrounding array of fruits, vegetables, and animals. It was this talent for painting animals and still life objects that would make him famous. His main rival in this field of painting was Alexandre François Desportes, who at the start of the 18th century had been the principal painter of these genres in France.

Dead Wolf by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1721)

In 1721 Oudry completed pendant paintings Dead Wolf and Dead Roe which can be seen at the Wallace Collection in London. These masterpieces were followed by several large hunt pictures, the most notable of which was his large 1723 painting (almost five metres wide) entitled Stag Hunt which was his breakthrough work. It can now be seen at the Stockholm Royal Palace.

Fire of the Petit Pont by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1717)

It was around this time that Oudry reduced the number of portraiture commissions he accepted and concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes which were beginning to become ever more popular. He even experimented with other genres such as landscapes and cityscapes as can be seen in his 1717 painting, Fire of the Petit Pont.

Le cheval fondu tapestry designed by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1730)

During the 1720s, Oudry’s paintings of animal and hunting scenes were looked upon as the best in France and through them he even managed to impress the French king, Louis XV. Royal patronage soon followed and from 1724 onwards, Oudry spent all his time creating royal commissions. Through his honoured royal patronage Oudry became the most visible artist at the Paris Salon of 1725 and the following March he was granted his own solo exhibition at the palace of Versailles. His exhibition was a great success and this along with his paintings at the Salon led to him being offered a position at the royal tapestry works at Beauvais in July 1726 where he became the painter of tapestry cartoons. In 1734 Oudry became director of the factory and shortly afterwards he employed François Boucher as factory painter and the collaboration between Oudry and Boucher was one of the reasons for the success of the Beauvais tapestry works in the eighteenth century. During this period Oudry’s painting output declined and it was this way until 1737.

Stag Hunt by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1723)

However, his work was in such great demand that he opened his own workshop which produced copies of his works for sale to the public. Between 1722 and 1725, Jean-Baptiste Oudry concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes and would exhibit his works at the annual open-air Exposition de la Jeunesse which was held on Corpus Christie in the Place Dauphine and on the adjoining Pont Neuf in Paris which was the only public venue available to him.

Royal Hunts of Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

The Salon in Paris was the official exhibition of art sponsored by the French government. It originated in 1667 when Louis XIV sponsored an exhibit of the works of the members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The exhibitions, to begin with, were not annual events, in fact they were quite sporadic with only one exhibition being held between 1704 and 1737 but from 1737 they became annual events. The Salon’s original focus was the display of the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts and exhibiting one’s work at the Salon de Paris was vital for any artist to achieve success in France. Having one’s work in the Salon was tantamount to achieving royal favour and in the early days, before the inception of art dealers, it was the only way an artist had to sell their works. The return to annual exhibitions could be one of the reasons why in 1737 Oudry returned to painting and every year after, he would exhibit his works at the Salon.

Through his friend, Jean-Baptiste Massé, a portrait-painter and miniaturist, Oudry was introduced to Henri-Camille Marquis de Beringhen, Premier Ecuyer du Roi (Master of the King’s Private Stables), and organiser of the royal hunt, and he played a part in launching Oudry’s artistic career at court. He arranged for Oudry to have a studio and lodgings for himself and his family in the Tuileries Palace, so that he could work on royal commissions.

Misse and Turlu,Two Greyhounds Belonging to Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1725)

Oudry’s hunting scenes were very much admired by Louis XV, and Oudry portrayed the king’s favourite royal hounds, Misse and Turlu, and painted scenes of the king riding to the hunt, which was the monarch’s sporting passion.

Henri Camille, Chevalier de Beringhen (1722)

Occasionally, Oudry painted portraits, one of which was of the twenty-nine-year old, Marquis de Beringhen. Once again, this painting is part portraiture and part still-life with dead game, a living animal, and a landscape. It typifies Oudry’s method of painting: the stylish elegance of the rococo style is combined with a perceptive sense of observation. We see the marquis sitting upon a knoll at the base of a tree. He is splendidly dressed in his linen shirt, a pale grey hunting coat lined with teal-blue velvet and trimmed with silver braid and buttons, breeches, and thigh-length boots. We see strands of his powdered hair swept back and tied with a black silk ribbon. He holds aloft a red-legged partridge in his left hand and with his right hand he strokes his faithful pointer. To the left, behind the dog we see lying on the ground a powder horn, fowling piece, game, and a game bag. To the right of the marquis, in the distance, we can just make out two women talking on the terrace of a country house, which may be pure idealization and just included as a befitting noble setting that Oudry had devised for the Marquis de Beringhen. Oudry once again highlights his artistic techniques in the way he depicts the lace of Beringhen’s shirt and the silver embroidery on his coat, and in the feathers of the partridge and the fur of the hound.

Grand Buffet, Still Life with Monkey, Fruit and Flowers by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1725)

Oudry soon broke Desportes’ royal monopoly and his work output grew. In 1725, the Paris Salon held an exhibition, the first since 1704, and Oudry submitted twelve pictures, including one entitled Grand Buffet but also known as Still Life with Monkey, Fruit and Flowers, which can be seen in the bottom right corner of the November 25th, 1725 edition of the French gazette and literary magazine Le Mecure de France.

Salon de 1725 as advertised in Le Mecure de France

In 1726 Oudry provided twenty-six paintings for an exhibition at Versailles. His other important acquaintance, Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, arranged for Oudry to become the painter to the royal tapestry works at Beauvais. This was to be the start of a new direction for Oudry who over the next decade designed a number of tapestry sets, including four pieces depicting Comedies of Molière, eight pieces based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and four panels depicting Fables of La Fontaine.

The Fables of La Fontaine – The Two Pigeons by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

Between 1729 and 1734, Jean-Baptiste Oudry produced a total of 276 beautiful and highly finished drawings, including a frontispiece, which illustrated tales from the famous 17th century work by Jean de La Fontaine, Les Fables choisies mises en vers (Selected Fables Rendered in Verse). Each of the scenes was drawn with the brush with black ink and grey wash, heightened with white gouache, on sheets of blue paper, with each image surrounded with a wide border brushed on the same sheet in a darker shade of blue, acting as a fictive mount. These drawings, all made during this five-year period have long been recognised as Oudry’s most famous works as a draughtsman.

Louis XV Stag Hunting in the Forest at Saint Germain-en-Laye by Jean Baptiste Oudry (1730)

In 1728 Oudry began on a royal commission Louis XV Stag Hunting in the Forest at Saint Germain-en-Laye. It was a massive painting, measuring 210 x 390cms. Louis XV was a keen and knowledgeable hunter who knew the name of every one of the dogs in the pack. This work was painted for the hunting pavilion in Marly, and again it is a combination of animal painting and landscape genres. Oudry depiction set in a clearing in the forest of Saint Germain, is the moment of the halloo, the cry or shout used to attract attention or to give encouragement to dogs in hunting.

A Wild Sow and her Young Attacked by Dogs by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1748)

Louis XV liked this work so much that, in 1733, he commissioned Oudry to produce three tapestry cartoons illustrating the hunts. The tapestries, woven under Oudry’s supervision at the Gobelins factory, were intended to decorate the king’s bedchamber and antechamber and the Council Chamber at the Château de Compiègne. In 1738, it was decided that the series should comprise nine cartoons; the last was completed by Oudry in 1746 and delivered to Gobelins. They made two sets of the tapestries. One set for the chateau at Compiègne and the other was sold to Philip, Duke of Parma, the King’s son-in-law.

Clara the Rhinoceros in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1749)

In the 1720s and 1730s, Jean-Baptiste Oudry established himself as the preeminent painter in France of hunts, animals, still lifes, and landscapes. His Painted Menagerie focused on a set of eleven life-size portraits of exotic animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles, painted by Oudry between 1739 and 1752. The paintings ultimately went into the ducal collection in Schwerin, Germany. The most famous of these is the splendid portrait of Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who had become a celebrity in mid-eighteenth-century Europe.  The Indian rhinoceros, who was born in Assam and had been named Clara, caused a sensation in Europe. A Dutch captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, brought the three-year-old rhino in 1741. It was an animal that had never been seen before in Europe and he presented her at the Saint-Germain Fair in Paris, where she inspired many artists to undertake drawings and studies of her. Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s depiction of her is life size. The grand painting was shown at the Paris Salon in 1749 and acquired in 1750 by Duke Christian Ludwig II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin together with Oudry’s series of menagerie paintings. In all, there were approximately 57 drawings by him which ended up in the possession of the court in Schwerin.

Farmhouse by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1750)

Although Oudry is remembered for his animal and hunting scenes his idealized landscape work was of the highest quality. In 1750 the Dauphin, Louis, the elder son on Louis XV, commissioned Oudry to paint a picture of rural life which would highlight the bountiful and beauty of Ile-de-France and to promote the state’s progressive agricultural policy. Later the painting became known as The Farmhouse.

Jacques-Charles Oudry – Nature morte avec chien et le canard

Oudry was not a very wealthy man but lived comfortably. Oudry lost some of his responsibilities when Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, was replaced by Daniel-Charles Trudaine. Oudry suffered two strokes in quick succession in 1755. The second left him paralysed and he died shortly thereafter in Beauvais on April 30th, 1755, aged 69. He was buried in the Church of Saint-Thomas in Beauvais. His son, Jacques-Charles Oudry, trained by his father, was also an accomplished painter.

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Alexandre-François Desportes. The Animal and Still Life painter.

Alexandre-François Desportes
Alexandre-François Desportes

When I looked at works by Gabriel Metsu in a recent blog I featured a couple of scenes which depicted hunters.  Scenes with hunters were very popular at the time especially with the upper classes and nobility as hunting was a pastime of the rich and so any painting which depicted the hunter alluded to wealth.  Hunting in the eyes of the nobility was one of the last symbols of class distinction.   It was not just the portrayal of the hunter and the hunt which was popular with the wealthy classes but also the portrayal of the hunted – the prey and the hunting dogs.    Today I am featuring the works of the French painter and decorative designer who specialised in animal paintings. Alexandre-François Desportes.

Dog and Wild Duck by Alexandre-François Desportes   (c. 1720)
Dog and Wild Duck by Alexandre-François Desportes (c. 1720)

Alexandre-François Desportes was born in Champigneulle, a small town fifty kilometres south of Reims, on February 24, 1661.   His father was a farm labourer.  When François was twelve years of age his father sent him to Paris to live with his uncle.  Shortly after his arrival at his uncle’s home he took ill and was confined to bed.  To while away his time his uncle gave him an engraving and told his nephew to try and copy it.  François’ effort was so good that his uncle arranged for him to study art under the Flemish painter Nicasius Bernaerts.  Bernaerts was an accomplished artist who had studied with Frans Snyders, the Flemish painter, famous for his depiction of animals and hunting scenes.  Bernaerts carried on the painting tradition of Snyders and had worked at Gobelins, the Parisian tapestry manufacturers, where his cartoons of animals were often used as designs in their tapestries.  He was to greatly influence the future work of François Desportes.  Whilst studying under Bernaerts, Desportes was put to work copying Flemish paintings, particularly those depicting animals and hunting scenes.  He was also encouraged to sketch flowers direct from nature and paint floral still-lifes.  Desportes never found this period of his life very fulfilling as Bernaerts, who although only in his mid-fifties, was often ill and his health was further impaired by his alcoholism and very rarely offered practical advice or assistance to his students.   Bernaerts died in 1678, aged 58.  After the death of Bernaerts, Desportes continued his artistic training at the Académie Royale where he was able to learn about traditional classical drawing but was also able to continue with his favoured painting method – en plein air.  Desportes had to fund his schooling, as well as buy food and pay for his lodgings, and to do this he earned money by designing stage scenery, gained portrait commissions and commissions to paint decorations in Paris hotels

During the 1680’s he assisted the French painter Claude Auran III in supplying paintings for Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme’s Chateau d’Anet.  Artists survive on commissions and without commissions they struggle to make ends meet.  France at the end of the seventeenth century struggled financially as it had been a century of costly wars.  France and Spain clashed during the Franco – Spanish war (1635 – 1639) and again between 1683 and 1684 during the War of Reunions.  The French and the Dutch clashed between 1672 and 1678 and France went into battle with most of its neighbours in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697).  Wars cost money – lots of money and in consequence, the French government had no money left for grand artistic endeavours, which meant that lesser known painters, who had yet to establish their reputation, struggled to make a living.  Desportes did struggle but despite his financial hardship, Alexandre-François Desportes married Eléonore-Angélique Baudet.  His wife was a linen and lace maker and through her occupation she was able to support her husband and allow him to search out commissions and carry on with his studies.

Self-Portrait as a Huntsman by Alexandre-François Desportes (1699)
Self-Portrait as a Huntsman by Alexandre-François Desportes (1699)

Desportes luck changed when in 1695 he received an invitation from the French ambassador to Poland to come to the court of the Polish king John III Sobieski who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania.  Desportes was commissioned to paint portraits of the king, his wife Maria Kasimiera and some of the palace courtiers.  His stay at the royal court lasted less than a year as the Polish king died in June 1696.  Desportes was summoned to return to France by Louis XIV.  Desportes had spent a number of years painting portraits of wealthy people and he intended to carry on doing this when he returned to his homeland.  However he soon found that the art establishment was awash with highly skilful portraitists and realised that it would be difficult to obtain portraiture commissions and so he decided to revert back to the training he received from Nicasius Bernaerts – the depiction of animals and still life painting and as a twist to this he would incorporate the two in his artistry.  In August 1699 Desportes was received into the Académie Royale as an animal painter and his reception piece was Self Portrait as a Hunter.  The painting, in which we see the thirty-eight year old artist seated in a landscape with his two hunting dogs and a large array of dead game, was a move away from the normal self-portrait as he has used the setting and what has been included in the work was a tribute to his own skill as a specialist animal painter as well as being a talented landscape artist.  He was advertising his abilities!

Backyard of the royal menagerie of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV by Pierre Alexandre Aveline
Backyard of the Royal Menagerie of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV by Pierre Alexandre Aveline

Louis XIV had started to have his palace at Versailles built in 1664 and he decided to incorporate a menagerie within the palace’s park.  The design of his menagerie was in line with other Baroque menageries of the time with its circular layout, in the centre of which was a magnificent pavilion. People were able to walk along the paths which surrounded this central building, and alongside them were the cages which housed the wild animals.  The king had been very impressed with the animal paintings of Desportes and commissioned him to complete five works of art which depicted animals and hunting scenes for the menagerie pavilion.  Desportes, like a present day method actor who immerses himself into his character, often went on hunting trips with Louis XIV so that he could realise the thrill of the hunt.  During the hunt he would carry with him a small notebook in which he would make on-site sketches of the hunt “trophies” – the dead animals, which could then be used later for still-life depictions of the game that resulted from the day’s hunt,  Louis XIV would then choose the best sketches and Desportes would go off and complete an oil on canvas painting of the king’s chosen subject.   Four such paintings, Deer Kill, Boar Hunt, Wolf Hunt and Hounds Guarding a Dead Deer,  still survive and are housed in the private Paris museum, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature).

Bonne, Nonne and Ponne by Desportes
Bonne, Nonne and Ponne by Desportes

Louis XIV was so pleased with these paintings that in 1702, he commissioned Desportes to paint six works, portraying the portraits of the hunting dogs which were his personal favourites.  In one such work entitled Bonne, Nonne and Ponne we see the king’s three favourite hunting dogs chasing and flushing out pheasants and partridges from the long grass.  The king was so pleased with the work Desportes produced for him that he awarded him a pension and two years later he made Desportes a councillor of the Académie Royale.

Dogs, Dead Game and Fruit by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)
Dogs, Dead Game and Fruit by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)

Desportes reputation as an artist spread outside of France and soon he was in high demand.  In 1712 he visited London and stayed for six months working on commissions.  When Louis XIV died in 1715, Desportes carried on working for the Regent of France, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, who was ruling for the infant Louis XV, the grandson of Louis XIV and over time provided many paintings for the royal residences at Versailles, Marly, Meudon, Compiègne and Choisy.  It was not just hunting scenes that Desportes had mastered for he also spent time painting still-life works featuring the dead “trophies” brought back from the hunt cleverly arranged alongside floral displays or displays of vegetables lying on a table or even in landscape settings.  Two such paintings, Dog, Dead Game and Fruit and Dog with Flowers and Dead Game completed in 1715, can be seen in the Wallace Collection in London.

Dog with Flowers and Dead Game by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)
Dog with Flowers and Dead Game by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)

These pendant pictures were commented on by the Revue Universelle des Arts in 1857 as being:

“…incontestably the finest which came from the brush of Desportes…”

The two works were bought by Captain Richard Seymour-Conway,  the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1857 for his country house, Château de Bagatelle,  in France and at the time he commented on his acquisitions saying:

“… a little rubbish for the country…. beautiful of the sort and perfect for my shooting place…”

There is an interesting connection between the buyer of these paintings and where they are housed today for the purchaser of the paintings, Lord Hertford, also owned a house in London known as Manchester House, situated in Manchester Square.    He was an avid art collector and built up a sizeable collection of European art.  On his death in 1870, his illegitimate son, who had acted as his secretary, Sir Richard Wallace, inherited his father’s unentailed estates, and large collection of art in 1871. Wallace added to the collection himself, and in 1897, after his death, the works of art were donated to the nation by his widow. They are now housed in what was his London home, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, and are part of the Wallace Collection.

Still Life with Silver  by Alexandre-François Desportes (c.1720)
Still Life with Silver
by Alexandre-François Desportes (c.1720)

Several of his still-life paintings which combined game with fruit or flower displays also featured some beautiful pieces of silverware which came from Louis XIV’s collection.  One such painting is entitled Still Life with Silver and was completed around 1720.  Before us is a buffet laid out with an array of objects in silver, porcelain, and semi-precious stone as an array of fruit.  The gold and silver vessels are displayed on a tiered console table which is weighed down with fruit and flowers. The composition is monumental in scale, measuring  262cms x 187cms (almost 8ft x 6ft).  This is what one might have seen as a centrepiece on the table if we had attended a royal banquet.  At the centre we can see the dragon-handled tureen and vermeil salvers both of which are in the Régence style of 1715-23.

Still-Life with Ewer by Alexandre-François Desportes (1734)
Still-Life with Ewer by Alexandre-François Desportes (1734)

Alexandre-François Desportes died in April 1743, aged 82.  He left a legacy of paintings and sketches as well as his cartoons which were used as designs for tapestries made up at the famous Parisian tapestry company, Gobelins.  Many of his designs were also used at the Savonnerie company, the Parisian carpet factory at Chaillot, which manufactured the most prestigious European manufacturer of knotted-pile carpets.