A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret

A Girl in a Kitchen by Nicolas Lancret (c.1720-30)

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.

Leaving for the Island of Cythera by Antoine Watteau

Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera by Antoine Watteau (1717) Louvre

 After yesterdays disturbing painting I thought I would choose a more romantic offering for My Daily Art Display today.   Antoine Watteau, born in Valenciennes in 1684, was the greatest French painter of his era. He was the second son of a well-to-do roof tiler and unlike the early life of so many artists I have studied, his parents encouraged his love of painting but at the age of 18, his family stopped paying for his artistic apprenticeship in his home town and he was allowed to move to Paris to further his artistic schooling and earn a living.  He soon found work with local art dealers copying famous paintings.

Whilst in Paris he met the stage-set and costume designer Claude Gillot who based his art work  on themes from the Italian Commedia dell’arte,  a form of theatre that began in Italy in the mid-16th century characterized by masked “types”, the advent of the actress and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.  This type of theatre had been banned in France at the end of the seventeenth century when they had ridiculed King Louis XIV’s wife in a parody.  On the king’s death in 1715, this kind of theatre came back into fashion.

At the age of twenty five he won second place in the Royal Academy competition for the Prix de Rome.  Around this time Watteau concentrated a lot of his art depicting military subjects and landscapes.  In 1712, with his presentation piece, Les Jaloux (The Jealous), he became an associate member of the Academy.  Watteau formed a friendship with the wealthy banker and art collector Pierre Crozat whom he stayed with, in his country estate in Montmorency.  It was here that Watteau saw the banker’s magnificent collection of art works from some of the great Masters such as Titian and Veronese and the fêtes galantes themes of some of the paintings were to be an inspiration to the young Watteau.   Fêtes galantes is a French term referring to some of the celebrated pursuits of the idle, rich aristocrats in the 18th century—from 1715 until the 1770s. After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the aristocrats of the French court abandoned the grandeur of Versailles for the more intimate townhouses of Paris where, elegantly attired, they could play and flirt and put on scenes from the Italian commedia dell’arte. The term translates from French literally as “gallant party”.  Watteau painted Musical Party which could well have been a depiction of his banker friend Crozat and his entourage enjoying themselves in the park at Montmorency.  In 1717 at the age of thirty-three Watteau became a full member of the Academy with his diploma piece Pilgrimage leaving for the Island of Cythera, which is My Daily Art Display offering for today.  The board of the Academy found it difficult to categorise the style of his painting and officially termed it as a fête galante and Watteau as a painter of fête galantes, which was to become an important new painting genre.  This painting, an allegory of courtship and falling in love, now hangs in the Louvre. 

The Charlottenburg version of Watteau's painting (1721)

A later variant of it ican be found n Friedrich II’s collection at Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin.  In this latter painting, Watteau has added the masts of the boat and a statue of the goddess of Venus in the right foreground.

Cythera, now known as Kithira, is a mountainous island off the Peloponnesus and was said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, who was also known as Cytherea (Lady of Cythera)  and is the location of her cult and shrine.  People who made a pilgrimage to the “island of love” did so filled with eager anticipation.   Watteau’s island is an island of love and his brightly coloured landscape add to the enchantment of the scene.  Cupids can be seen flying over the boat.

In the painting the scene is set in which lovers are shown on a luscious and densely vegetated island.  It is a dreamy vision.  Couples are dressed in their silken finery, which we can almost hear rustling as they move about.

The three couples

One couple is seated and seems to be unaware of their friend’s departure, completely engrossed in what was probably a flirtatious conversation. If we look at the couple in the middle we can see that the gentleman is helping the lady to stand whilst the man from the couple on the left has his arm around his lover’s waist urging her forward as she looks back at her friends, maybe encouraging them to hasten.  

There is some debate amongst art historians as to whether the title of the painting has the word “for” in it.  In other words are the people we see in the pictures “leaving for Cythera” or “leaving Cythera”.  The majority favour their leaving of the island of love.  The answer must lie in the people depicted in the painting and their expressions.  Are they full of joyful anticipation at heading for the island or somewhat despondent at leaving this paradise of love and happiness?   

The question still remains, so I will leave you to look and see what you think.

Auguste Rodin said of the painting in the Louvre:

“…What you first notice at the front of the picture is a group composed of a young maiden and her admirer. The man is wearing a cape embroidered with a pierced heart, a gracious symbol of the voyage that he wishes to embark upon. Her indifference to his entreaties is perhaps feigned. The pilgrim’s staff and the breviary of love are still lying on the ground.  To the left of this group is another couple. The maiden is accepting the hand of her lover, who is helping her to stand.  A little further is the third scene. The lover puts his arm around his beloved’s waist to encourage her to accompany him.   Now the lovers are going down to the shore, laughing as they head towards the ship; the men no longer need to beseech the maidens, who cling to their arms. Finally the pilgrims help their beloved on board the little ship, which is decked with blossom and fluttering pennons of red silk as it gently rocks like a golden dream upon the waves. The oarsmen are leaning on their oars, ready to row away. And already, little cupids, borne by zephyrs, fly overhead to guide the travellers towards the azure isle which lies on the horizon…”