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Comédiens Italiens dans un Jardin / Italian Comedians in a Garden



Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
Comédiens Italiens dans un Jardin / Italian Comedians in a Garden
oil on canvas
AGLC 341 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

During the early years of Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s career – up to his admission to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1719 – his core production was of portraits, often of modest scale and price and of unassuming subjects, especially when compared to those of his master, Nicolas de Largillierre (1656-1746), one of the most successful and sought-after portraitists of his day. Oudry also tried his hand at an amazing range of genres, from popular prints, small still lifes, and views, both urban and rustic, to enormous religious subjects for Parisian churches. His earliest works to come down to us, few in number, date from the time of his fiveyear apprenticeship with Largillierre, which ended some time between 1710 and 1712. Although it is not securely dated, Comédiens Italiens dans un Jardin likely belongs to this very early group.   

The Comédie-Italienne of the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris had been shut down by Louis XIV in 1697 and was re-established only in 1716 by Philippe d’Orléans, yet the commedia dell’arte itself lived on during the interim in the theatres of the street fairs of Paris, where it enjoyed a great popularity, celebrated in depictions by Claude Gillot (1673-1722), the young Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and, less commonly, by other artists, among them Oudry. The A. G. Leventis Collection painting is Oudry’s only easel painting on the commedia theme. Nonetheless, he clearly regarded it as a significant work, keeping it in his studio for many years, advertised for sale at the fancy price of 600 livres. An engraving and numerous painted versions of the composition attest to the favour in which it was held. First recognized in 1930 by Jean Vergnet-Ruiz, the Leventis Collection painting has been considered an autograph Oudry ever since, including by ourselves.    

However, the senior author was troubled by its state of conservation when he studied the picture at the Galerie Cailleux in Paris in 1968, and hesitated to request its loan for the Grand Palais exhibition of 1982-1983 – a decision further complicated by the inaccessibility of the picture following the death of the collector, Anastasios G. Leventis, in 1978. Instead, another version was borrowed from the collection of Douglas Dillon in New York. This version, which first surfaced in 1973, has since been donated to the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Bordeaux. The Dillon/Bordeaux version, in fine condition, was presented at the Grand Palais not only as autograph, but also as probably earlier in date than the Leventis Collection version. However, the remarkable cleaning and restoration of the Leventis picture, undertaken recently, have led us to reconsider the question of priority. Based on a direct confrontation in Nicosia between the Leventis picture and an excellent transparency of the Bordeaux version, the junior author has confirmed that the Leventis version is more refined in execution and more completely realized. For example, the dog shows a delicate touch and a personal style absent from the Bordeaux picture; the lining of the seated woman’s pink garment has bluish reflections not found in the other; the brushwork is more visible and the paint applied more richly in the men’s faces and in the ruff worn by Pierrot. These and other qualities revealed by the restoration all but prove that of the two, the Leventis version is the prime original. Perhaps some day a side-by-side comparison will remove any lingering doubt.    

Let us note, in passing, the fly in the lower centre below the seated woman, present only in the Leventis version among all the many others. This insect is painted in true scale, as if resting on the surface of the canvas rather than within the illusionary pictorial space. One might be permitted to take this small joke as the mark of a clever young painter pleased with himself, in which case it might provide subjective support for the Leventis version as primary and for a very early dating.    

The absolute date of the composition is difficult to establish. As has often been noted, the closest affinities are with two lost paintings by Watteau known through engravings by Charles-Nicolas Cochin père (1688-1754), Pour Garder l’Honneur d’une Belle and Belle, N’écoutez Rien. Dating for the Watteau paintings is somewhat speculative, with proposals ranging from around 1707 when Watteau was working with Gillot, whose influence they show, to as late as around 1713 – in other words, the same likely span as for Oudry’s composition. No further precision appears to be possible without hard evidence.    

As in the Watteau compositions just mentioned, Oudry’s characters interact on a shallow stage against what is certainly intended to represent a painted backdrop. The viewer is meant to experience the picture not as a garden-party fantasy with figures masquerading as comedians, but as if in an actual theatre watching real actors performing in a real play. Pierrot, his right leg properly turned out, offers his right arm in a gesture proposing more, perhaps, than a simple promenade in the park. He has caught the eye of the seated woman, who shades her face with her fan and appraises Pierrot alertly. Beneath her skirt, the toe of her left shoe peeks out. The dog stirs – a common emblem of awakened receptivity. Harlequin deploys his usual antics in his seduction attempt. His lady has seen it all before, no doubt, but even so she is not immune. Her right hand unclenches, her fingers spread, despite herself. Oudry goes to the heart of the Italian comedy as Parisians understood it: socially subversive, weighing the risks and rewards of defying restrictive, class-based behavioural codes and yielding to one’s natural instincts. In this early work Oudry aligns himself with the Moderns, a position he would maintain resolutely, culminating in his triumphs at the Salons du Louvre in years to come.

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About the artist

The son of a painter and art dealer, Jacques Oudry, he trained under Nicolas de Largillierre and was admittedto the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1719; he taught there from 1743. His early works areportraits, but he went on to paint and engrave a large range of subjects, most notably becoming the leadingEuropean animal painter of his day. From 1726 he began to design tapestries and had great influence onFrench Rococo decorative arts in his roles as director of the Beauvais tapestry manufactory and of the Gobelinsmanufactory. His son, Jacques-Charles Oudry, was also a painter.

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