Rediscovered in a private collection in eastern France just a few months before the publication of Jean-Pierre Cuzin’s important monograph on Vincent, this magnificent, beautifully preserved canvas is one of the most important recent additions to the artist’s oeuvre and constitutes a crucial stage in the genesis and realization of one of Vincent’s masterpieces, l’Agriculture (fig. 1; formerly called La Leçon d’agriculture, Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. E 340, M. 6002).
L’Agriculture was originally part of an ambitious decorative cycle commissioned by François-Bernard Boyer-Fonfrède (1767-1845), a businessman from a wealthy Bordeaux family who settled in Languedoc in early 1790. After returning from a sojourn in England where he learned the most modern techniques for spinning cotton, Boyer-Fonfrède decided to establish a factory in Toulouse capable of rivaling the most successful companies in the industry, and became one of the most important cotton producers in the region in the first decade of the 19th century.
Around 1794, Boyer-Fonfrède decided to build and furnish a private home in the Benedictine convent in Toulouse, which had formerly served as a thread-spinning factory. Although this building no longer exists, and the plans for its design and expansion are lost, we know that two of the greatest artists of the day were called upon to furnish the painted decoration: Charles Meynier (1768-1832), who was responsible for a series of painted decorations for the so called Salon des Muses; and his master François-André Vincent, who undertook a suite of works on the theme of Education, including subjects relating to the Arts, Science, and Commerce. L’Agriculture was ultimately the only painting in this series completed by Vincent.
The subject of this ambitious composition ostensibly reflects several of the intellectual preoccupations of the Age of Enlightenment, and most notably addresses the role of a complete and diversified education in the formation of a young adult. The scene is described and interpreted in the handbook of the 1798 Salon, where the larger work was exhibited: ‘Pénétré de cette vérité, que l’Agriculture est la base de la prospérité des Etats, le peintre a représenté un père de famille qui, accompagné de sa femme et de sa jeune fille, vient visiter un laboureur au milieu de ses travaux. Il lui rend hommage en assistant à la leçon qu’il l’a prié de donner à son fils, dont il regarderait l’éducation comme imparfaite sans cette connaissance’ ("Impressed by the truth that agriculture is the basis of prosperity of States, the painter has represented the father of a family who, accompanied by his wife and young daughter, comes to visit a farmer in the middle of his work. He pays tribute to the farmer by attending the lesson he had asked to be given to his son, without the knowledge of which he would consider an education incomplete”).
The chronology in the development of the Bordeaux picture is not precisely understood. As the beginnings of this project were initiated by Boyer-Fonfrède, they almost certainly date to as early as 1794, but Vincent did not complete the Bordeaux canvas until 1797 or 1798 (it is dedicated to the year ‘VI’ of the French Revolutionary Calendar and was exhibited in the 1798 Salon). Rarely did Vincent have so much time to prepare a finished composition, and he was anxious as ever to perfect his work and to completely satisfy his client. During this process, the artist completed multiple studies on different supports, beginning with preparatory drawings quite different from the final composition (see J.-P. Cuzin, op. cit., no. 545 D), and culminating in highly refined painted studies like the present work. Some of the intermediary designs, such as that in the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe (fig. 2; Cuzin, op. cit., no. 547P), reveal the extraordinary attention Vincent gave to the finished work and give scholars important insight into his method of working.
Considered by Cuzin to have been made almost immediately after the study in Karlsruhe, likely in 1796, the present work is distinguished by its highly finished appearance, which gives the impression that it was conceived as an independent work in its own right. It relates to the left half of the finished composition, focusing on the principal scene of the experienced farmer who directs the young man with firmness and confidence, pointing to the group of cattle with a gesture that recalls that of God the Father giving life to Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The rest of the family – the mother, father, and the boy’s younger sister, who perhaps allude to the family of Boyer-Fonfrède – sympathetically observe the activities.
In the present arrangement, Vincent is satisfied with the positions of the two groups of figures and does not alter them further in the process of finalizing the Bordeaux picture. The artist’s highly accomplished technique is beautifully preserved, and can be appreciated in the splendid impasto and dense colors similar to those of the final work. The precision applied to rendering the plow and the laborer, as well as to the various costumes of the protagonists, testifies to the picture’s high level of completion, and supports the theory that, though it served as a modello for the Bordeaux picture, the present work should itself be considered a finished painting.