This very pretty drawing from a private Parisian collection is typical of Oudry's first period during which he produced a very large number of portraits, clearly still under the influence of his master Nicolas de Largillière (1656 - 1746).
1. Jean-Baptiste Oudry
Jean-Baptiste Oudry was born on March 17th 1686 in Paris, rue de la Ferronnerie. On February 4th of the same year his father Jacques Oudry was received at the Academy of Saint-Luc as a master painter. Throughout his life he worked on the fringes of official circles, combining his activity as a painter with that of an art merchant. Around 1705-1707, the young Jean-Baptiste began his apprenticeship with Nicolas de Largillière, with whom he stayed for five years.
In 1713 Oudry started his "book of reason" in which, up until 1718, he reproduced all his works in wash drawings. During this first period which lasted about seven years, Oudry produced works of great diversity, both in the genres the artist dealt with as well as by the influences that were affecting him. It has been estimated that he painted about 150 paintings during this period: mainly portraits, but also still lifes and some religious paintings and landscapes.
Of the hundred or so portraits Oudry made during this period, only about fifteen are identified today. A certain number of those lost portraits are probably still confused with works by Largillière.
First admitted to the Academy of Saint-Luc in 1708, he was then allowed to join the Royal Academy in 1717, and subsequently admitted as a historical painter in 1719. His reception piece l'Abondance offers a synthesis of all his talents deployed during this first period, since Oudry painted fruits, flowers, vegetables, landscapes and animals with equal ease.
That year was a turning point for Oudry who started asserting himself as an animal painter. In 1723 he met Louis Fagon, Intendant of Finances and the Marquis de Beringhen, the King's first squire, who became friends and patrons of the artist, enabling him to benefit from royal commissions and to be appointed as painter to the Royal Tapestry Manufactory of Beauvais in 1726.
The creation of tapestry cartoons became the heart of his work from 1728 onwards, even if at the same time Oudry developed an activity as an illustrator in parallel: first for Scarron's Roman Comique and then for La Fontaine's Fables.
A prolific artist, Oudry delivered numerous commissions in addition to his regular contributions to the Salons, in which he regularly took part until 1753. Victim of a stroke in 1754, he died the following year.
2. Description of the drawing
In the typical style of large ceremonial portraits of the first half of the eighteenth century, the model is depicted half-length, from waist-up, from the front and leaning against a pedestal. He is holding a letter in his left hand. A rich coat of silky cloth is placed on his shoulder, reinforcing the splendour of his figure, which stands out against a classical colonnade.
It is difficult to establish with certainty whether this drawing is preparatory to a painted portrait or, on the contrary, a reminder, a ricordo of a piece of work executed earlier. Its style differs quite remarkedly from the other portraits reproduced in the "livre de raison": the execution of the wash is much finer and the fabric that drapes the figure is enhanced by the use of pastels. To be noted as an interesting detail : the coquetry of the wig, asymmetrical and decorated on its right side with a strange knot.
It is very interesting to compare this drawing with a large portrait (149 x 114 cm) exhibited in 1983 during the monographic exhibition devoted to the painter at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (United States of America) , borrowed from a private collection. This portrait has since been sold in Paris at Ader-Tajan, on April 10, 1992.
This portrait is signed and dated 1720, which coincides with the very end of Oudry's activity as a portraitist. While it takes up the overall composition of our model (open attire on a puffy lace scarfsash, right hand pressed down and left hand turned outward, a vast coat that drapes around the sitter), this painting also introduces many variations: the colonnade in the background has been replaced by the evocation of a lush landscape, the pedestal with its heavy Louis XIV forms has been replaced by a Louis XV console, the letter has disappeared, etc.
The face of the model in this painting appears a little inserted into the wig that surrounds it and could suggest the reuse of an older model and its adaptation to current tastes (especially visible in the furniture), suggesting by the same token a precedence of our drawing.
A common theme transcends the differences between the two pieces of work: the quality of the depiction of the hands. As Hal Opperman wrote about this painting in the 1983 exhibition catalogue: "Oudry's hands are always like these: slender fingers, the exaggerated articulation of the open hand, the smooth, enamel-like surface of the skin".
Main bibliographical sources :
J.-B. Oudry catalogue of the exhibition of the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris 1 October 1982 - 3 January 1983 by Hal Opperman - Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux 1982
J.-B. Oudry 1686-1755 by Hal Opperman - Kimbell Art Museum 1983
French Drawing in the 18th Century Louis-Antoine Prat Musée du Louvre/ Somogy Art Editions March 2017
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